We need to stop worrying and trust our robot researchers

The work of Francis Crick and James Watson gives us a vision of what's to come.

It’s now 60 years since the publication of the structure of DNA. As we celebrate the past, the work of Francis Crick and James Watson also gives us a vision of what’s to come. Their paper was not subjected to peer review, today’s gold standard for the validation of scientific research. Instead, it was discussed briefly over a lunch at the Athenaeum Club. In an editorial celebrating the anniversary, the journal Nature, which originally published the research, points out that this is “unthinkable now”.

However, peer review has always been somewhat patchy and it is becoming ever more difficult. This is the age of “big data”, in which scientists make their claims based on analysis of enormous amounts of information, often carried out by custom-written software. The peer review process, done on an unpaid, voluntary basis in researchers’ spare time, doesn’t have the capacity to go through all the data-analysis techniques. Reviewers have to rely on their intuition.

There are many instances of this leading science up the garden path but recently we were treated to a spectacular example in economics. In 2010, Harvard professors published what quickly became one of the most cited papers of the year. Simply put, it said that if your gross public debt is more than 90 per cent of your national income, you are going to struggle to achieve any economic growth.

Dozens of newspapers quoted the research, the Republican Party built its budget proposal on it and no small number of national leaders used it to justify their preferred policies. Which makes it all the more depressing that it has been unmasked as completely wrong.

The problem lay in poor data-handling. The researchers left out certain data points, gave questionable weight to parts of the data set and – most shocking of all – made a mistake in the programming of their Excel spreadsheet.

The Harvard paper was not peer-reviewed before publication. It was only when the researchers shared software and raw data with peers sceptical of the research that the errors came to light.

The era of big data in science will stand or fall on such openness and collaboration. It used to be that collaboration arose from the need to create data. Crick and Watson collaborated with Maurice Wilkins to gather the data they needed – from Rosalind Franklin’s desk drawer, without her knowledge or permission. That was what gave them their pivotal insight. However, as Mark R Abbott of Oregon State University puts it, “We are no longer data-limited but insight-limited.”

Gaining insights from the data flood will require a different kind of science from Crick’s and Watson’s and it may turn out to be one to which computers and laboratorybased robots are better suited than human beings. In another 60 years, we may well be looking back at an era when silicon scientists made the most significant discoveries.

A robot working in a lab at Aberystwyth University made the first useful computergenerated scientific contribution in 2009, in the field of yeast genomics. It came up with a hypothesis, performed experiments and reached a conclusion, then had its work published in the journal Science. Since then, computers have made further inroads. So far, most (not all) have been checked by human beings but that won’t be possible for long. Eventually, we’ll be taking their insights on trust and intuition stretched almost to breaking point – just as we did with Crick and Watson.

President Obama inspects a robot built in Virginia. Photograph: Getty Images.

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

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“Stinking Googles should be killed”: why 4chan is using a search engine as a racist slur

Users of the anonymous forum are targeting Google after the company introduced a programme for censoring abusive language.

Contains examples of racist language and memes.

“You were born a Google, and you are going to die a Google.”

Despite the lack of obscenity and profanity in this sentence, you have probably realised it was intended to be offensive. It is just one of hundreds of similar messages posted by the users of 4chan’s Pol board – an anonymous forum where people go to be politically incorrect. But they haven’t suddenly seen the error of their ways about using the n-word to demean their fellow human beings – instead they are trying to make the word “Google” itself become a racist slur.

In an undertaking known as “Operation Google”, some 4chan users are resisting Google’s latest artificial intelligence program, Conversation AI, by swapping smears for the names of Google products. Conversation AI aims to spot and flag offensive language online, with the eventual possibility that it could automatically delete abusive comments. The famously outspoken forum 4chan, and the similar website 8chan, didn’t like this, and began their campaign which sees them refer to “Jews” as “Skypes”, Muslims as “Skittles”, and black people as “Googles”.

If it weren’t for the utterly abhorrent racism – which includes users conflating Google’s chat tool “Hangouts” with pictures of lynched African-Americans – it would be a genius idea. The group aims to force Google to censor its own name, making its AI redundant. Yet some have acknowledged this might not ultimately work – as the AI will be able to use contextual clues to filter out when “Google” is used positively or pejoratively – and their ultimate aim is now simply to make “Google” a racist slur as revenge.


Posters from 4chan

“If you're posting anything on social media, just casually replace n****rs/blacks with googles. Act as if it's already a thing,” wrote one anonymous user. “Ignore the company, just focus on the word. Casually is the important word here – don't force it. In a month or two, Google will find themselves running a company which is effectively called ‘n****r’. And their entire brand is built on that name, so they can't just change it.”

There is no doubt that Conversation AI is questionable to anyone who values free speech. Although most people desire a nicer internet, it is hard to agree that this should be achieved by blocking out large swathes of people, and putting the power to do so in the hands of one company. Additionally, algorithms can’t yet accurately detect sarcasm and humour, so false-positives are highly likely when a bot tries to identify whether something is offensive. Indeed, Wired journalist Andy Greenberg tested Conversation AI out and discovered it gave “I shit you not” 98 out of 100 on its personal attack scale.

Yet these 4chan users have made it impossible to agree with their fight against Google by combining it with their racism. Google scores the word “moron” 99 out of 100 on its offensiveness scale. Had protestors decided to replace this – or possibly even more offensive words like “bitch” or “motherfucker” – with “Google”, pretty much everyone would be on board.

Some 4chan users are aware of this – and indeed it is important not to consider the site a unanimous entity. “You're just making yourselves look like idiots and ruining any legitimate effort to actually do this properly,” wrote one user, while some discussed their concerns that “normies” – ie. normal people – would never join in. Other 4chan users are against Operation Google as they see it as self-censorship, or simply just stupid.


Memes from 4chan

But anyone who disregards these efforts as the work of morons (or should that be Bings?) clearly does not understand the power of 4chan. The site brought down Microsoft’s AI Tay in a single day, brought the Unicode swastika (卐) to the top of Google’s trends list in 2008, hacked Sarah Palin’s email account, and leaked a large number of celebrity nudes in 2014. If the Ten Commandments were rewritten for the modern age and Moses took to Mount Sinai to wave two 16GB Tablets in the air, then the number one rule would be short and sweet: Thou shalt not mess with 4chan.

It is unclear yet how Google will respond to the attack, and whether this will ultimately affect the AI. Yet despite what ten years of Disney conditioning taught us as children, the world isn’t split into goodies and baddies. While 4chan’s methods are deplorable, their aim of questioning whether one company should have the power to censor the internet is not.

Google also hit headlines this week for its new “YouTube Heroes” program, a system that sees YouTube users rewarded with points when they flag offensive videos. It’s not hard to see how this kind of crowdsourced censorship is undesirable, particularly again as the chance for things to be incorrectly flagged is huge. A few weeks ago, popular YouTubers also hit back at censorship that saw them lose their advertising money from the site, leading #YouTubeIsOverParty to trend on Twitter. Perhaps ultimately, 4chan didn't need to go on a campaign to damage Google's name. It might already have been doing a good enough job of that itself.

Google has been contacted for comment.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.