Computer says "no"

Every November, the Royal Society and the French Académie des sciences give out a prize to a scientist who has discovered how to do something innovative with computers. Naturally, it has to be a useful innovation. The 45 employees at the Department for Work and Pensions who have been disciplined after using their computers for shopping, pornography and "unauthorised downloading" need not apply.

It's not just government employees who abuse their computers. In May 2008, the head of the Max Planck Institute for Mathematics warned that
City traders were doing it, too. He argued that their lazy acceptance of whatever the computers said would lead to financial disaster.

No one understands "garbage in = garbage out" better than the scientists who have learned that their reputation can be ruined by placing unquestioning trust in the printout. To take a slightly ridiculous example, researchers at the UK's National Physical Laboratory have just fixed a 20-year-old problem in the official computer model of the shape of the outer ear. It was created to define a quality standard for the performance of headphones and mobile phones (you are forgiven for not realising how useful scientists can be). The input scan for the computer model was done at too low a resolution, however, and manufacturers have since been filling in the gaps in ways that reflect best on their brand. It ain't necessarily so, just because the computer says it is.

Innovation in scientific computing has done some wonderful things. It has allowed us to model the heart, giving us insight into how drugs affect cardiac rhythms and how heart attacks develop. It enables us to analyse medical images more accurately, providing earlier diagnosis of cancers. Thanks to computer models, we can see why misfolded protein gives rise to cystic fibrosis and predict the path of dangerous epidemics.

But in every case, the computer's predictions or declarations have to be checked against what scientists can observe happening.

In science, the only credible guide is real-world experiment. Across at the Channel, the French use a slightly different word for "experiment" - expérience. That is no coincidence: it emphasises that scientists learn from trial and realisation. Think, for example, of what the British economist John Maynard Keynes called the "folly and injustice" of the UK government's 1931 plan to beat the recession. The measures, which in effect shut down economic activity, didn't work, and led to the abandonment of the gold standard.

The gold-standard scientific approach - experiment or experience - suggests there is no reason to believe that the same approach to beating recession will work now, either - whatever the printout from the Treasury's computer might say.

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.

This article first appeared in the 08 November 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Israel divided

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“A cursed project”: a short history of the Facebook “like” button

Mark Zuckerberg didn't like it, it used to be called the “awesome button”, and FriendFeed got there first. 

The "like" button is perhaps the simplest of the website's features, but it's also come to define it. Companies vie for your thumbs up. Articles online contain little blue portals which send your likes back to Facebook. The action of "liking" something is seen to have such power that in 2010, a class action lawsuit was filed against Facebook claiming teenagers should not be able to "like" ads without parental consent. 

And today, Facebook begins trials of six new emoji reaction buttons which join the like button at the bottom of posts, multiplying its potential meanings by seven: 

All this makes it a little surprising that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg spent a good portion of the noughties giving the like button a thumbs down. According to Andrew Bosworth, Vice President of Advertising and Pages at Facebook (and known simply as "Boz") it took nearly two years to get the concept of an approval button for posts off the ground.

In a fascinating Quora thread, Boz explains that the idea of a star, plus sign or thumbs up for posts first came up in July 2007, three years after "TheFacebook" launched in 2004. Throughout these initial discussions, the proposed bursts of positivity was referred to as an "awesome button". A few months later someone floated the word "like" as a replacement, but, according to Boz, it received a "lukewarm" reception. 

The team who ran the site's News Feed feature were keen, as it would help rank posts based on popularity. The ad team, meanwhile, thought "likes" could improve clickthrough rates on advertisements. But in November 2007, the engineering team presented the new feature to Mark Zuckerberg, and, according to Boz, the final review "[didn't] go well". The CEO was concerned about overshadowing the Facebook "share" and comment features - perhaps people would just "awesome" something, rather than re-posting the content or writing a message. He also wanted more clarification on whether others would see your feedback or not. After this meeting, Boz writes, "Feature development as originally envisioned basically stops". 

The teams who wanted the button forged ahead with slightly different features. If you were an early user, you might remember that News Feed items and ads collected positive or negative feedback from you, but this wasn't then displayed to other users. This feature was "ineffective", Boz writes, and was eventually shut down. 

So when Jonathan Piles, Jaren Morgenstern and designer Soleio took on the like button again in December 2008, many were skeptical: this was a "cursed project", and would never make it past a sceptical Zuckerberg. Their secret weapon, however was data scientist Itamar Rosenn, who provided data to show that a like button wouldn't reduce the number of comments on a post. - that, in fact, it increased the number of comments, as likes would boost a popular post up through the News Feed. Zuckerberg's fears that a lower-impact feedback style would discourage higher value interactions like reposting or commenting were shown to be unfounded. 

A bigger problem was that FriendFeed, a social aggregator site which shut down in April 2015, launched a "like" feature in October 2007, a fact which yielded some uncomfortable media coverage when Facebook's "like" finally launched. Yet Boz claims that no one at Facebook clocked onto FriendFeed's new feature: "As far as I can tell from my email archives, nobody at FB noticed. =/". 

Finally, on 9 February 2009, "like" launched with a blogpost, "I like this", from project manager Leah Pearlman who was there for the first "awesome button" discussions back in 2007. Her description of the button's purpose is a little curious, because it frames the feature as a kind of review: 

This is similar to how you might rate a restaurant on a reviews site. If you go to the restaurant and have a great time, you may want to rate it 5 stars. But if you had a particularly delicious dish there and want to rave about it, you can write a review detailing what you liked about the restaurant. We think of the new "Like" feature to be the stars, and the comments to be the review.

Yet as we all know, there's no room for negative reviews on Facebook - there is no dislike button, and there likely never will be. Even in the preliminary announcements about the new emoji reactions feature, Zuckerberg has repeatedly made clear that "dislike" is not a Facebook-worthy emotion: "We didn’t want to just build a Dislike button because we don’t want to turn Facebook into a forum where people are voting up or down on people’s posts. That doesn’t seem like the kind of community we want to create."

Thanks to the new buttons, you can be angry, excited, or in love with other people's content, but the one thing you can't do is disapprove of its existence. Championing positivity is all well and good, but Zuckerberg's love of the "like" has more to do with his users' psychology than it does a desire to make the world a happier place. Negative feedback drives users away, and thumbs-down discourages posting. A "dislike" button could slow the never-ending stream of News Feed content down to a trickle - and that, after all, is Facebook's worst nightmare. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.