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The Harvard paper was not peer-reviewed before publication.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.

MAHMOUD RASLAN
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“I was frozen to the spot”: the psychological dangers of autoplay video

Videos that play automatically are now ubiquitous across social media, but the format leaves many viewers vulnerable to harm and distress.

Have you ever seen a dog being skinned alive? Witnessed a child, whimpering for his mother, getting beheaded? Have you watched a man, pinned down by two police offers, being shot multiple times in the chest and back?

A few years ago, if you answered “yes” to these questions, you might have been considered deranged. Possibly, you would have been on a list somewhere, being monitored for seeking out disturbing and illicit videos online. Now, you’re more than likely just a victim of social media’s ubiquitous autoplay function.

No one likes autoplay. Back in the Nineties, homepages often came with their own jaunty background tune that would automatically play, but it didn’t take long for this annoying and invasive practice to die out. Nowadays, when you click on a website plastered with noisy adverts and clips, you immediately click off it. But although users frequently bemoan them, autoplay videos remain a huge business model for social media sites such as Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr.

That’s fine, of course, when the autoplaying video in question is a bird’s-eye view tutorial on how to make nacho-chicken-pizza-fries (though even then, the videos might be gobbling up your data allowance without your consent). The problem arises when disturbing content is posted by users, and even media outlets, without any warnings or disclaimers.

“There are many incidents where the autoplay feature has affected me negatively,” says Sarah Turi, a 19-year-old college student from Boston, USA. Turi suffers from anxiety, and says that anything related to horror or gore can keep her awake for multiple nights on end. She has previously experienced anxiety attacks after viewing autoplaying horror movie trailers.

“Recently though, many of the videos that begin playing have to do with police brutality or terrorism or riots,” she says. “There was one incident where someone had shared a video of an execution. The video started playing, and before I could scroll away, I watched a man get beheaded by a terrorist organisation. It left me pretty shaken to say the least. I wasn't crying, but I was frozen to the spot. Even just thinking about it now leaves me feeling somewhat ill.”

Dr Dawn Branley, a health and social psychologist specialising in the risks and benefits of internet and technology use, tells me that autoplay videos on social media raise a variety of ethical concerns.

“Social media is more personal in nature compared to news channels and it is also often idly browsed with little conscious effort or concentration, and, as such, users may not be mentally prepared for the sudden appearance of a distressing video,” she says. “Suddenly witnessing a beheading, rape or graphic animal cruelty whilst scrolling through photos of your friends and family, holiday snaps, baby videos and wedding announcements may provide a real shock to the viewer.”

Branley says that, in her line of work, she has spoken to users who have experienced distress at photos of abuse and violence on social media, and speculates that autoplay video could only exacerbate this problem. She also notes that they can trigger vulnerable users, for example, people who suffer from eating disorders or PTSD.

Even those without pre-existing conditions can be negatively affected, however, as anyone who has seen disturbing footage before knows how it can pop into your head intrusively at any time and refuse to budge, remaining plastered to the edges of your skull. Even trolls are aware of this, as some tweet distressing footage at people, aware that it will autoplay.

In January 2015, Facebook responded to these issues by adding warnings to videos users flagged as graphic, meaning the footage wouldn’t autoplay and was preceded by a warning message. Viewers under 18 would be shielded from seeing violent content on their feeds. Yet just over seven months later, in August, autoplay meant thousands inadvertently watched footage of the shooting of TV journalists Alison Parker and Adam Ward.

Remember when I said no one likes autoplay? That’s not strictly true. You have three seconds to scroll away from an autoplaying video before Facebook counts it as a view. In a world where Facebook, and the users of it, are desperate to tally up as many views as possible, autoplay is considered a smart business model.

“Autoplay video originated as a way to capture viewers’ attention and prevent them from ignoring or scrolling past website content,” says Branley. “The autoplaying nature of a video is likely to capture the viewers’ attention and may potentially be harder to resist watching – compared to a static image and text.”

For those profiting, it seems not to matter that some people who can’t look away are viewers like Turi, frozen on the spot by distress.

Because of how profitable autoplay is, then, many news outlets continue to upload sensitive footage that might better be suited on their website – a consensual click away. They might add their own pre-roll warnings, but Branley notes that these are easy to miss if the video is autoplaying. If you were online yesterday, you might have seen this in action, as footage of a boy – or rather the boy – in an ambulance, distressed and bloodied, autoplayed repeatedly across social media.

News outlets have been called out for this before, and have admitted their mistakes. In August 2015, New York Times social media editor Cynthia Collins told The Media Briefing that she wishes she’d added a warning to a video of men being shot and killed at sea. After backlash from their audience, she said:

“If we could do it all again . . . there would have been a discussion about whether or not we should upload the video at all. But if we decided to upload the video I absolutely would have added a warning.”

The video ended up on the website, and viewers had to click through a handful of warnings before watching it. News footage has always had the potential to alarm and distress, but at least in the past viewers had a choice about whether they watched it. Although many news outlets have guidelines on graphic content (such as, for example, the famous breakfast test), these haven’t always been updated for social media.

It’s important that users are made aware of potential solutions to this problem,” says Branley, noting that Facebook and Twitter include options in their settings to turn off autoplay, and your browser or phone may also allow you to disable all autoplay. “However, that does not detract from the moral obligation that internet platforms should consider when introducing autoplay.

“I would suggest that an ‘opt-in’ approach (where users are required to switch on the autoplay setting if they wish to enable this function) would be much more appropriate than the current ‘opt-out’ approach, which requires users to find the settings to switch off autoplay if they do not wish to use it.”  

This seems like the simplest and fairest answer. It’s hard to argue that distressing videos shouldn’t be posted on Facebook – last month, the footage of Philando Castile’s shooting dramatically shed light on police brutality – but it seems only natural that viewers should have a choice about what they watch.

“It is possible that autoplay videos could be used to raise awareness of sensitive topics and/or to grab users' attention for positive reasons like charity campaigns,” says Branley. “However, it is a fine line between raising awareness and distressing the viewer and what one viewer finds acceptable, another may find highly distressing. Therefore, care and consideration is required.”

Right now, both care and consideration are lacking. In its current iteration, autoplay is like Anthony Burgess’ Ludovico technique – pinning our eyes open and forcing us to watch violence and horror without our consent. There are things I know I never want to watch – the curb stomp in American History X, an Armenian weightlifter dislocating their elbow during the Olympics – that could be sprung upon me at any time. Why? Because someone, somewhere, profits.

“I don't think autoplay is necessary in Facebook,” says Turi. “I think that people should decide for themselves whether or not they want to watch something. And yes, I think that it should be banned.”

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