The Evolution of Evil Scientists. Part 2: The Public Posts.

This series began with my admiration of the Professor from Gilligan’s Island as an iconic scientist. My wonderment has long since evaporated into frustration because members of a profession I believe have noble motivations are frequently called into question. The two major factors I think are involved: the source of funding for scientific research (previous blog post), and the pressure to communicate scientific findings.

Either voluntarily or by gentle coercion, scientists can no longer hide in their pungent smelling labs, mucking about with gooey entrails, or lurk in general obscurity. Speaking in words as long as a subway train or providing complex explanations full of ifs, ands, and buts, is no longer acceptable. Several factors have culminated in an urgent need for every scientist to have as high a profile as a rock star, be as charismatic as a politician, and as outgoing as a toddler fired by birthday cake.

I ascribe these changes in previously mild-mannered scientists to several factors:

  • Social Media. It’s happened to us all. Used to be, the only people who communicated with the masses were state leaders and award-winning journalists. Social media has evolved all of us into film makers, photographers, opinion-staters, authors, friends, followers and leaders. Why should scientists be any different?
  • Increasing pressure on scientists to explain what they’ve been doing with tax-payers money. Fair enough. The government invests heavily in research programs. It doesn’t seem too much to ask of the scientists to explain what they’ve done with the funds.
  • Universities, where many researchers are employed, face increasingly stiff competition. Like any organization, for-profit or otherwise, when competition heats up, tactics get aggressive. In Canada, I’ve seen a considerable amount of vying to attract the attention of new entrants. The wares that universities hock are the faculty – those that deliver the educational programs. Thus, scientists and other academics are put in the limelight more and more.
  • Research funding. As mentioned in the previous post, the majority of funding for research in the US now comes from industry sources. Universities and other educational institutes are constantly primping and preening to attract the attention of deep-pocketed suitors that will support their research programs. Again, this results in promotion – public acclamation of the exploits and prowess of the researchers.

These four factors are the why scientists communicate about their work more nowadays. None evil in its own rite. The source of evil, I believe, is marketing spin. Scientists are by nature cautious in communicating their findings and thus often fall prey to some form of media training. Done right, media training is an exercise directed to strengthening the muscles required to make positive sounding, definitive statements, rather than the limpid, subjective pronouncements scientists are inclined to produce. Poorly applied media training can lead to stretched, herniated stories about scientific dramas that may not exist.

To appreciate the difference between the scientific and the spun, consider:

  • ‘a new dietary cause for heart disease discovered’ [certain, conclusive and spun]

compared to

  • ‘strong associative link between phosphate rich food and stimulation and production of the FGF23 hormone, which has a negative effect on the cardiovascular system.’ 1 [comes directly from the scientific publication, has jargon and is convoluted]

Thing is, the truth is probably in between. This is not a definitive finding that we need to avoid phosphate rich food, but a suggestion that it has an impact on metabolism which may point us towards things to avoid once we have more information.

Another example is the octopus DNA2. A year ago, there was a publication about the sequencing of the octopus genome, and a popular science story headlined ‘Octopus DNA is not from this world’. My assessment of the situation was that while sequencing the octopus genome was really exciting if you are a geneticist, it was hard to get your head around if you weren’t engaged in DNA micro-specifications. But still, a brave writer tried and came up with the provocative headline. Octopus DNA is unusual, chemically, and functionally, when compared to other species, but that’s as far as the science goes.

Problem is, science advances in very small steps. This is a good, if frustrating, thing. It’s good because there are many checks and balances that go into advancing our understanding of the nature and technology. It’s annoying to anyone trying to communicate excitement about scientific discoveries.

An additional challenge that’s presented by the same phenomena is how easily, with a few twisted words, scientific studies can be made to sound lame.

Consider two different ways of looking at a government grant:

  1. The federal government allocates $30,000 to studying turtle sperm.
  2.  Someone with a MSc, a wife and two kids, is working to earn a doctorate in reptile biology which may find ways to conserve giant tortoises. She’s delighted to be paid $30,000 a year through a government grant to support her sperm collection research, so she doesn’t have to hold a part time job in addition to full time studies.

Between the many sources of encouragement to communicate and pressure to make it all sound as exciting as a date with a Disney Princess, what’s a scientist to do? Again, I retreat to my belief that scientists are generally trying to do the right thing, but may feel pressured to get a little carried away in the limelight.

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1 This is such an awesome example, because I made up the ‘new cause for heart disease’ and then googled it and found the perfect example. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/05/140505104229.htm

2Here’s my blog post.

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The Evolution of the Evil Scientist. Part 1: The Money

When I was a little girl, the professor from Gillian’s Island was my hero. He was smart, unassuming, and solved a lot of problems. I deduced that scientists were incredible. As clever as physicians, with the power to save lives, but much cooler, as they shunned the limelight. Later in TV history came McGuyer, who fixed an awful lot of problems with duct tape and scientific knowledge.

Nowadays, scientists1 often seem to be on the evil side of the human equation. ‘They’ have conflicts of interest, because their primary activity – research – could be supported by a commercial interest, either a large corporation or their own startup company. Everything is questioned for the agenda. This post considers the impact of a scientists’ source of funding, and a second one will examine public disclosures that scientists now are almost required to make.

A major shift over the past 60 years has occurred in the way scientific research is supported. This page shows the switch in dominance of research paid for by the government versus private industry in the US. Until the late 1970’s, most research was supported by the government. In 2012, only 30% was government funded while more than 60% is industry sponsored. The pressure on academic researchers to commercialize the findings of their research has made for more industry ties – either by licensing to an existing business or encouraging researchers to create their own startup.

While this may cause some to throw up their arms in alarm and shout invectives about the corruption of research and polarized agendas and corporations paying for the results they want, for most of history, private individuals were benefactors of scientists. In other words, someone rich, on whose favour the scientist depended, doled out the money to feed and house the scientist, while they grew hundreds of bean plans, or gazed through a telescope at the stars and then disappeared into a dank library to do endless pages of mathematics. We’ve built our understanding of countless things, like the structure of the galaxy, human anatomy, and the theory of evolution, on the basis of privately funded research. Did any of the individuals who supported the scientists try to influence the conclusions of their research? Probably, but the passage of time, and the work of other scientists differentiate between influence and true findings.

I think part of what keeps science unbiased is that there are people, scientists, that live to investigate, to answer unanswerable questions. They don’t care who makes money out of it. They want to toil in obscurity, reasoning and experimenting things out. Problem is, we all have to eat. So what’s a scientist to do? Most are not in it for the money.

I’ve lived through several rounds of precipitously declining government funding for research, where university administrators warn the faculty (where a good percentage of scientists reside) of declining grants and encourage them to make friends with business people, as a means to survive in the research style to which they have become accustomed. Heck, I’ve even put on events myself to encourage industry sponsors and researchers to chat and form alliances.

To make this discussion more complicated, there is basic scientific research, of the type that asks and answers abstract questions, say about gravitation waves or behaviour of silicon in solid state, and may one day allow better satellite tracking or microelectronics. Then there is applied science, such as new drug testing. Although basic research, or what’s call curious-based research2, is generally of less interest to industry representatives3, a significant portion of development in the pharmaceutical industry has to be done in collaboration with medical researchers. Physicians who do research as well as care for patients, are the ones with the training and opportunity to work with the relevant patients.

As a recent example of how pervasive this sort of support of medical research is, this paper discusses the number of US physicians who report some kind of payment from an industry sources, including research support, consulting fees, or just sandwiches at a conference. The study found that almost half of physicians studied received some kind of payment, with the overall average being a bit over $5000 in a year.

It’s a tricky relationship, between physician researcher and pharmaceutical company. Doctors are the best ones to know which patients need new solutions for their medical conditions. Pharmaceutical companies understand how their new drugs work. They need each other, the doctors and the drug makers, and we need them to need each other, so we can benefit from the new drugs. I can’t imagine a physician that would knowingly harm a patient, particularly to get research money, as the point to research is to discover useful new ways to make people better. It would be like a chef accepting sponsorship to make foul-tasting food. On the other side of the equation, there’s so much potential for conflict of interest, both perceived and real, and some history of abuse of the system.

For both basic and medical scientists, often the choice is to get involved with a big business and accept their backing, or stop doing research. Research on zero dollars a day doesn’t work.

Why has this reality lead many to decide scientists are evil? The scientists I know are noble people who prefer to devote themselves to finding the truth, often the truth of discovering better medicines, over capitalistic gains. Am I naive?

I’m a scientist, and I am defending my colleagues, my tribe. But I have no agenda. Except the agenda I’m suggesting is the one of most scientists: Truth.

——-

1Using a very broad, inclusive definition of scientist here which includes the natural, social and applied scientists.

2This seems like a bit of a cruel joke, because ‘curiosity-based’ research, is far from a frivolous, random or carried out by people skipping through meadows, chasing shiny butterflies, activity.

3A couple of upcoming technologies, artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things, contradict this statement, since we appear to have ideas for implementation of the technology as fast as we can understand it.

 

 

 

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Abandoning Science Fiction. Embracing Science Fiction.

Traditionally, science fiction imagined the impacts of emerging technology decades and centuries into the future, suggesting fanciful, outrageous possibilities. These were generally ignored as figments of, well, science fiction.

No more. Lots of people are paying attention to science fiction. We can’t dismiss the potential of technology as surreal anymore. It’s real, as real as your online medical history, or app-controlled crockpot.

Science fiction has snuck into, and taken a starring role in, mainstream entertainment: Starwars, Game of Thrones, Dr. Who, and countless other movies and TV shows. Best books of 2016 include science fiction and fantasy titles. While some might debate the purity of this popular scifi, a heightened awareness of technology permeates popular culture, perhaps as a collective intuition of the urgency to understand what’s coming.

In classic titles like 1984 (information technology), Brave New World (human engineering), and Blade Runner (artificial intelligence), science fiction explored the frontiers of advancing technology. The time has past for the implications of emerging technologies be left to the philosophers in their ivory towers or visionaries in their chrome think tanks. Jaw-dropping new technology barrels towards us like a runaway locomotive, and threatens to overwhelm us like deer in the headlights.

My mission is to make science and technology accessible. In 2004, I took up writing scifi to help people understand science, both how it worked and its potential outcomes. By mid 2015, it seemed to me the field of scifi had undergone a tectonic shift. Currently popular stories seems less to hypothesize the impacts and ethics of emerging technologies than to explore human nature. All good, but not my fundamental driving force.

I took another path, focused on another passion – using business strategy to turn scientific developments into useful products for people1. Ironically, this is now a better place to achieve my goal to bring science to people. We are poised on the edge of many technological advances with the potential to change life as we know it, probably sometime next week, or year. Definitely now-ish.

At one of my recent business meetings, the light, closing banter considered whether bitcoin would become a solid currency. Bitcoin, or entirely digital currency, is an attractive concept, as a global, non-political, apparently secure2 and completely portable form of money. Many commentators expect it to disrupt banking as we know it. Not science fiction. Business.

I credit the book (from the business section of the bookstore) ‘Industries of the Future’ by Alec Ross3 with coalescing my thoughts about science fiction. In this book, the list of emerging technologies was no surprise and included self driving cars, the Internet of Things, big data and the associated privacy or lack thereof, genetic profiles, and cyberwarfare. Ross’ genius is coupling the astonishing capability of the technology with current uses and impacts.

Technology is becoming mainstream faster than it can become science fiction.

Today you can place your order as you walk towards your favourite coffee shop, pay for it before you open the door and whizz by the barista as you grab the cuppa with your name on it. Tomorrow, someone could hack your fridge to steal your identity or you might never find another job once your genetic profile has been uploaded into Monster.

No more is 19844 fiction. Fifty years ago, although horrified by the notion of being monitored constantly, we stood back and debated whether it would ever really happen. No more debate – the capacity exists. Now. Most of us are fortunate that such intel is not used against us. It’s only used to sell us things.

Issac Asimov wrote about robots5. While countless manufacturing jobs have been lost to automation, the real question is: how far it will go? Will robots replace teachers, lawyers, doctors, or spouses? This is about more than lost jobs, it’s about what it is to be human.

GATTACA6 (1997) was a movie about a young man who wanted to be an astronaut, but it wasn’t in his DNA, literally. The movie’s premise is that people’s occupations are determined by genetic profiling. In GATTACA, our hero fakes his genetic makeup to live his dream. Genetic profiling is close enough to reality that the Canadian government is working on genetic privacy legislation, while businesses that provide health insurance want to use genetic information to determine policy premiums.

Cory Doctorow, in Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom7, wrote about a system called Whuffie. The basic concept was that a score like karma, based on how many good things you did and how many people liked you, followed you around and determined your fate. How different is this from celebrity influencers on social media, who might have a more pervasive impact on medical products that knowledgeable medical professionals?

Countless scifi stories show people being identified by their fingerprints or retinal scan. How close is this to reality? Ask Bionym, a Canadian company that authenticates identity by heartbeat8.

Artificial intelligence is coming. In the classic scifi tale, 2001 Space Odyssey,9 an evil computer took over a spaceship because a human tried to shut it down. Watson, IBM’s super computer, knows more about medical advances10 than any of our physicians possibly could, and it won on Jeopardy!11 Meanwhile, Google can predict pancreatic cancer more efficiently than medical tests12, and Twitter can divine which movies will be hits before the box office opens to sell the first ticket to a showing13.

Business brings us new technology, whether we are ready or not. Realizing the potential consequences can’t be left to science fiction. We need to understand all the ethical, secondary and broader environment effects in real time, when the technology is in its infancy or sooner. Simultaneously, science fiction has moved on to deal with some of the most challenging social issues this world currently faces.

To understand technology, I abandon science fiction for business, but I embrace science fiction for wisdom to understand people.

——–

1I consider this the fundamental interconnectedness of all things, and of course credit Douglas Adams with bestowing on me an understanding of the universe.

2The experts claim that digital currencies are unhackable, but that just sounds to me like a giant invitational to hackers.

4The book by George Orwell, written in 1949.

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Competitive Advantage or Competitive Advantage? Biology and Business.

As a scientist who specializes in business strategy, competitive advantage means two things to me: how to succeed in business and how biological species evolve. I’m enjoying the irony that the goal of capitalist pursuits might be mistaken for a fundamental, back-to-nature, biological process.

We value nature with an instinctive appreciation that it sustains us. But that isn’t quite right. All of earth’s creatures are part of a massively interwoven dynamic equilibrium. Birds eat fruit and poop out the seeds at a distant location, broadening the plant’s horizons. Carpenter ants chew up decaying wood, hastening it’s transition into compost allowing new vegetation can grow. Humans exhale carbon dioxide, feeding the growth of flowers, from which bees collect pollen and make honey – food for bears. I could go on about who eats who, excretes what, or creates habitats where. Nature isn’t there to support us, we are part of it.

Like capitalism, nature isn’t pretty all the time, as any feast by seagulls, crows or other carrion fowl devouring road kill demonstrates. Less attractive still are the squished rabbits, skunks and squirrels decomposing by the action of insects and bacteria. All natural, with the smell to prove it.

Natural selection, the survival of those within a species with a competitive advantage, is even less attractive. It leaves behind those less capable of dealing with changes in the environment. Just like business. If a business comes along with a better way of providing music to people (eg. iTunes), other forms of music delivery (tapes, records or CDs) die.

Competitive advantage in a business only works because it’s fulfilling needs. Sounds humanitarian, doesn’t it? Cars displaced horses and buggies was because they got people where they want to go, faster, and more comfortably. Lives were saved because the sick got faster medical care. A hundred years ago, Ford had a competitive advantage because they invented a way to make affordable, convenient transportation. Today, business models like Uber and Zipcar have a competitive advantage because they provide what people want (getting from here to there) faster and cheaper. Uber provides spontaneous, on-demand transportation. Zipcar replaces the need for car ownership, without taking away access to the car.

Successful businesses thrive because they sell something people want. Individuals in a species survive because they are better able to adapt to changes in the environment. A central premise in strategic management is that a business’s ability to sustain competitive advantage depends on how it adapts to changes in its environment. Similarly, the members of a species that survive, and repopulate the species, are those best able to adapt to the environment.

It’s harder to see examples of biological selection because they happen on a longer time frame than it takes Netflix to make Blockbuster’s video rental irrelevant.

In biology, we can observe a trait becoming more prevalent. For example, some humans, but not all1, are able to digest milk after toddlerhood, which relates to the cultivation of cows and production of milk, cheese and recently, ice cream2. It’s easy to imagine that thousands of years ago, people who were able to metabolize milk products would have a survival advantage in harsh times, as would their children. If we continue dairy farming, in a few millennia maybe all people will be able to digest milk as adults.

My favourite example of visible evolution and survival of the fittest is the moths3 whose dominant colour evolved from white-ish to grey-ish as the trees they rested on became soot-covered from the industrial revolution. Before industrialization, the dominant moth colour was light and there were few dark ones. Birds had a harder time spotting the light-coloured ones, so they were less likely to be eaten when they rested on trees with light-coloured trucks. As the trunks darkened, grey moths had the camouflage advantage, survived, and now represent the majority of the population.

The difference between evolving businesses and evolving species is active decision making. The phrase ‘survival of the fittest’ conjures up visions of death matches in Thunderdome4 where opponents rely on their smarts and resources to outwit their competition. This is kinda true in business. But not even slightly what happens in biology.

Strategic management dictates providing a superior product compared to competitors, whether it’s cheaper, has more features, safer, or more durable. Although it sounds contradictory, in biology, survival of the fittest tends to be an accidental thing. Businesses plan to outdo the competition, which Walmart appears to be doing in grocery retailing5. On the other hand, bacteria that are resistant to common antibiotics are becoming more prevalent. This isn’t because the bacteria have formed a consortium to determine defence tactics against humans. Those that aren’t resistant are killed off. It’s a simple accident of genetics. Those that have genes that confer drug resistance survive. They are the fittest in the environment that bacteria now inhabit.

Businesses can manoeuvre, change their strategy, hire new people, create different distribution and supply partnerships. Species, faced with a new force in their environment, must do the best with the genetics they have. Perhaps some day we will engineer ourselves in real time, becoming more business-like in our approach to natural selection. Would that be a bad thing, if we were fulfilling our needs?

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1http://evolution.berkeley.edu/evolibrary/news/070401_lactose

2Ice cream also required the invention of the refridgeration, which caused the demise of the ice industry.

3for details, see Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peppered_moth_evolution

4in case my cultural references are a bit dated, Thunderdome was glorified in MadMax 3, where combatants did anything and everything to win against their opponents https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mad_Max_Beyond_Thunderdome

5http://www.cbc.ca/news/business/walmart-grocery-store-1.3717480

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Do I Know What’s Good for my Cat?

Recent moves by various governments have declared dolphins, dogs, cats, chimpanzees, and even animals in general, sentient beings1.

What does this mean – the definition of sentience is consciousness of sensory perceptions, but how does it specify the way animals should be treated? A declaration that animals are sentient, like humans, provokes visions of trying to get dolphins to vote or providing chickens with flying lessons if they want. We’d never force them, of course.

Most of us want to do the right thing by animals. Many scientists study sentience, consciousness, sapience, and/or intelligence in humans and various animals. If a crow recognizes a man who feeds him, is the bird self aware or intelligent or has it learned to associate the smell of the man’s cologne with tasty treats (sentient) or does it contemplate if it is taking advantage of the man as it peaks fruit from his hand (sapience)? I need to read a stack of books and papers at least three feet tall to understand how these terms differ from one another when applied to animal behaviour. I respect the experts, but would like to understand this at a non-expert level.

I did some research on the emerging laws related to animal rights and the answers surprised me. Generally, the idea is to give animals more rights than inanimate objects, and to stop them from being used solely for human entertainment. These new laws and declarations are one part getting the laws out of the dark ages and one part enlightenment.

Why was I surprised? There’s some hype attached to the announcements about the new laws. Somehow2 the concept that animals can sense and are aware of their surroundings, which is a definition of sentience, transmuted into animals having emotions. Certainly animals can feel things. However, it isn’t necessarily the same as a cat feeling sad because it’s raining and there’s no birds to watch or a horse being anxious that its rider has had a few martinis, again, and might need counselling for addiction. If we accept the definition of emotion as an instinctive or intuitive, rather than reasoned, interpretation of a situation, I’d point to the keen instincts animals have. And that the sad cat knows hunting (food) is less effective in the rain and the horse instinctively fears a reckless rider for its own safety.

Do animals love and hate? A dog gets excited when it sees its human, either because of love or the expectation of treats, and a dog growls when a stranger skulks around the yard, but does it hate the intruder or is it defending its territory.

The new laws are to stop animals from being handled in ways that injury them. Previously, animals could be treated in the same way as all types of human possessions (this is the dark ages stuff). No one cares if you hit your table. A lot of people care if you hit your dog. The change in laws make it easier for officials to intervene if someone is doing something harmful to their sentient possessions (animals). Changing the laws so we cause no physical pain to animals seems like the right thing to do.

More interesting are the decisions to stop using animals for our entertainment3 – which I call the enlightened part. In the absence of direct pain and suffering, how do we tell if the animals are being treated well? We associate a cat purring with contentment, but they also purr when they are in pain. So if the cat purrs when stuffed into a silly outfit, is it thrilled or distressed? Is there something wrong with training an elephant to sit on a tiny stool while wearing a flowery hat? Or a walrus to clap it’s flippers and bark for fish? Taking a slightly riskier stance, why shouldn’t we drug tigers into passivity and make them jump through hoops, if the fringe benefits that come with that is a rich diet, medical care, and comfy accommodations? None of these actions are natural but putting on a suit and going to a job interview where we try to say all the right things, regardless of what we really think, is unnatural too.

Wearing a suit is voluntary. The confinement of animals in the circus and other entertainment domains is not. How do we get informed consent from a killer whale? Many people might claim they are trapped in jobs, unable to escape the drudgery or demeaning tasks because they need to make a living.

How do we tell when we’ve gone too far with animals? With sea animals, there are scientists who study the social structures the animals live in and compare it to what we provide. And yes, there is a difference between sea worlds and the wild. One point of evidence that the animals are being treated unfairly is a decreased life expectancy. This seems like a reasonable metric, but when I look at my domestic cats, who are kept indoors because this is verified to increase their life expectancy, I wonder if it’s right. My cat is convinced he should be outside, yet I imprison him in the house, based on the assumption that it’s better for him. I have some guilt, because I reap advantages, with lower vet bills. No worms, fleas, or stitches to repair battle wounds from the neighbouring tom, raccoons, dogs or cars. Domestic cats live longer inside, but are they living a fulfilling life? They don’t breed or do other natural things like hunt nor are they allowed the full range of a territory or their natural habitat.

Questions plague me:

  • How to know what animals really want?
  • What’s best for animals, which may not be what they want?
  • How human-like are they, anyway?

We should only impose our values on the animals when we know they want the same things we do. We could defend all we do as sapience, or wisdom, a quality that presumably sets us apart from other species (hence the name: Homo sapiens). We understand the consequences of our actions, and therefore agree to get vaccinated, even if it is transiently unpleasant.

Humans don’t do whatever we want, we often do what’s good for us, like go to the dentist, eat vegetables and learn mathematical formulas. My cat hates going to the vet and howls like a wild animal when I put him in the car. I don’t think this qualifies as mistreatment, even thought he clearly thinks it does. On the contrary, many decisions to give animals more rights insist on good veterinary care, although the animals dont’ seem to like it.

I haven’t got a witty conclusion to this post. The new laws to treat animals as sentient are to prevent cruelty. We’re striving for enlightenment in our interactions with animals, but I think we have a long way to go to figure out what that means. I’m looking forward to the day when I can communicate with my cat (maybe through artificial intelligence), and let him make the decision to get in the carrier and endure the vet’s prodding, as a alternative to dying prematurely of a preventable disease.

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1Here’s a few examples:

This blog post http://barkpost.com/good/oregon-court-finds-dogs-are-sentient-beings/ discusses a recent decision by an Oregon court to treat dogs as sentient. It’s a great post for making sense of the law.

A similar story comes from New Zealand http://www.animalequality.net/node/703 , where the law was amended in 2013 and this is interpreted to recognize all animals as sentient, like humans, which provides officials greater power to protect animals in situations of abuse.

And then there was a declaration of by a group of scientists in 2012 http://www.earthintransition.org/2012/07/scientists-declare-nonhuman-animals-are-conscious/ that non-human animals display consciousness.

2 Not too difficult to imagine how if you consider how easily knowledge is perturbed from the truth and circulated as un-facts on the internets.

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The Case of the Mysterious Octopus DNA

Sometimes, exciting scientific things sound lame, so an editor puts a fancy headline on the story to avoid having the average person say ‘MEH’ to a breakthrough. Such could be the case with octopus DNA, and a story titled: ‘Scientific Breakthrough: Octopus DNA is not from this world.’1 Were you skeptical of this headline? Was it because it sounded impossible, preposterous, almost as crazy as someone suggesting the earth is flat or red wine protects against heart disease?

I’m working on a process, a series of five questions, to get an un-hyped understanding of popular media stories on scientific topics. So, let me apply my questions to the octopus situation. By seeing the logic with the octopus DNA story, it may make my method easier to apply to less obvious situations, or situations where your intuition is saying ‘that’s wrong’ but you can’t put your finger on why.

Question 1. What do the numbers really mean?

More numbers might have helped this story. The premise is octopuses are alien and their DNA sequence supports it. How different is their DNA? That wasn’t discussed. But elements in the octopus DNA were found, such as genes, coding sequences, and transposable elements, commonly found in humans and other native earth species. Therefore, octopus DNA can’t be entirely alien.

The story states that Octopuses have 33,000 protein coding genes, far more than humans. Makes them sound more complex, more intelligent, doesn’t it? Until you see this chart2, that ranks number of genes per species and finds grapes ahead of humans. The story could have said that octopuses have more genes than grapes, but that doesn’t sound very special, does it?

2. Is the science in the story from a reliable source and quoted in context?

The original basis of the story was published in the journal Nature, a very reputable source, in Aug. 2015. It does not contain the word ‘alien’. The alien DNA story came along later, quoting a news release titled ‘Landmark sequencing of octopus genome shows basis for intelligence, camouflage’. Neither of these traits are uniquely alien – you can make your own bad pun about how alien intelligence seems in human society sometimes. Camouflage is pretty common in the animal kingdom, ask the spotted leopard lounging in the dappled shade.

How did the story get to be about aliens? A scientist is quoted, who quotes another scientist. The first scientist points out how unusual a the octopus body is. You don’t need a DNA sequence to discover that. All you have to do is observe the octopus and it’s ability to change skin colour with situation, escape predators in a cloud of ink, or unscrew a jar if it’s worth their while. The misrepresented comment is: “The late British zoologist Martin Wells said the octopus is an alien.”1 There have been others who call the octopus alien3, but I believe it’s metaphorical, rather than scientific, even if the quoted individuals were learned professors.

From an evolutionary perspective, octopuses ON EARTH split from the lineage that lead to humans about 500 million years ago. Whatever your definition of alien is, if a creature been somewhere for that long, I think it deserves to be called native.

3. Is the evidence proven or inferred?

The story bounces around through various biological terms, which are connected incorrectly. It states the octopus has ‘incredibly advanced biotechnology’. Biotechnology is not naturally occurring. Biotechnology is technology engineered to make industrial products in a lab based on biologics. No one, to the best of my knowledge, has seen octopuses directing lab operations. There’s mention of transposons, which the story says scientist don’t understand, a spring board to the conclusion that there is something really alien going on in the octopus nerve cells. Why the leap to nerve cells, when DNA specifies what goes on in all cells? Or the conclusion that because scientists don’t understand something, it’s alien. Scientists don’t understand lots of things, like Alzheimer’s disease, selfies, and reality TV, but that doesn’t make them alien.

4. Who has a stake in this?

The folks who posted this story have a long-standing, popular website that deals with spiritual and scientific matters. Perhaps their mission was to demonstrate how science could be taken out of context. Or what the word alien means to different people.

5. Why hasn’t someone done something about this?

Should octopuses be treated differently, now that we know their DNA sequence? I don’t see a reason that the eight-tentacled, water-dwelling creatures are different now that we know more about their biological blueprint.

It’d be easier to declare octopus DNA alien if we had some alien DNA to compare to. It’s not evidence of alienicity that all octopuses have a certain trait, like the ability to change the colour of their tentacles, when no other species on earth can. That means only octopuses can do it, not they are alien. With the same logic, we might conclude that humans are aliens, because we are the only earth species that buys lottery tickets, or wears sunscreen so we can withstand the blistering hot, burning sun, rather than lie in the shade like other sun-sensitive species.

A similar story, with an equally provocative title and equally modest explanation of what’s so exciting is ‘Orangutan DNA is full of surprises’4. Having read the report, I agree, but unless you are a geneticist, I’m not sure the findings will hold the same fascination. Sure, the study told us things we didn’t know before. Orangutans evolve more slowly than humans or chimpanzees (these three are closest evolutionary relatives to each other). This slow rate of change in orangutans could be related to how many transposable DNA elements they have. In the case of orangutans, their DNA contains fewer transposons, and they have evolved slower than humans or chimps. The octopus, on the other hand, has more transposable elements and is more adaptable to changes in its environment.

By the logic of the octopus story, orangutans are less alien that humans. I’ve never seen an orangutan buy a lottery ticket, or apply sunscreen, have you?

3 Such as ‘ “Meeting an octopus,” writes Godfrey-Smith, “is like meeting an intelligent alien.” ‘ from https://orionmagazine.org/article/deep-intellect/

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Artificial Intelligence Part 3. Randomness: A Human Advantage.

Arnold Trehub states ‘Machines cannot think because they have no point of view’¹. Trehub cleverly links opinion and point of view. I now intuitively see how point of view, or a unique perspective, is necessary for opinion.

I’ve thrashed around on my keyboard for weeks, trying to articulate how human opinion differs from information provided by AI. I have no justification how I know they’re different, but I do. Because I’m human. Humans have a natural tendency to draw conclusions, have a point of view, based on whatever amount of information we have. AIs do not.

Does having an opinion make us human? No, it’s the other way around. Because we are human, we have opinions, derived from the way we process information and draw conclusions from what we’ve collected. For the most part, human’s work by adding each new bit of information on top of whatever they’ve already picked up, while AI has the capacity to catalogue each fragment of data until the entire story emerges. Thus, for people, how we incorporate each new experience depends on our previous experiences.

We’ve evolved the capacity to learn on the background of animal survival instincts. Are big dogs to be feared or petted? – depends on your past experience. Was your childhood best friend an Irish Setter, or was the first horror movie you watched Cujo, a story of a rabid St. Bernard terrorizing a family? Each of us has decades of history – song lyrics, movies, people, places, things, weather, but our memories work in mysterious ways, smashing things together, processing them through the filters of human optimism, then reprocessing until we’re convinced things were wonderful back then, and subject to random recall.

No AI would proudly claim it recalls some things and not others, glorifies the past, or has random memories pop into its processor to distract it.

Makes it sound like fun to be a human doesn’t it?

I’ll took a stab at calculating how different each person’s life experience is from the next person’s and got to infinite before I could write any thing down².

Clearly we have our own unique set of experiences. One AI would be expected to come to the same conclusion as another if they were given the same set of experiences, even if it was in a different order. Consider how the opinions of two 35 year old coworkers might be to the first snow of the year if one lived in a tropical climate for the first 34 years of their life and the other has shovelled lengthy driveways from the age of 7.

In addition to the historical context, humans interpret each event by how it will effect us. If the temperature goes down – does that mean you’ll budget more for heating, blanket the garden, or start a promotion on skis in your store? Do changes in GDP of a neighbouring country make you plan a vacation, watch the stock market, or pull up cat videos?

We form our conclusions on the basis of what evidence we have. If it’s hot today, was hot yesterday and when you were waiting in line to buy gas a few days ago, it’s been a hot summer. An AI would collect data, from the past month, or months, calculate means, variances and then compare to the past year, decade or century before deciding if it’s been a hot summer.

Humans process information as though they’re building a pyramid. Each new experience is interpreted on the background of all the previous ones (or the ones we remember). AI’s process information like Tetris. A new piece of information is allocated to a column of relevance and a conclusion is only drawn if the column is full (i.e. sufficient data to make statistically valid conclusion).

Why do we constantly form opinions, when we know we don’t know everything about the topic? Because we have to. We don’t have the luxury of waiting until we’re certain what the weather or traffic is going to be like before we go to work. We put on a summer dress and take the highway because its June and the city streets tend to be under construction in the summer. We have to give a presentation to important clients.

We don’t seek out all possible information before we decide. We get on with our life, form an opinion, and change our mind later if need be. This sounds like jumping to conclusions or being a bigot but I’m talking about the human propensity to form a working hypothesis. If we eat a turnip and then projectile vomit, we avoid turnips. Sure, we’ve only have one observation that said food disagrees with us, but won’t risk it will happen again. We don’t need statistical significance to decide the possible outcome is unpleasant and avoid turnips. And we can live without turnips, because our grandfather, who never ate them, lived to be 95.

Can the same can be said for an AI? It experiences a sequence of events and learns from each, like us. I expect AI to be objective, less invested in changing its mind with the addition of new data. It would refrain from drawing conclusions with insufficient information. It would seeks information on turnips and other factors that correlate with projectile vomiting and longevity before deciding what to eat.

The AI may be more objective, but human’s have opinions, quicker. Does that make us smarter, cooler, or more adaptable? Humans will have no problem answering that question. AIs might.

QED³.


¹ ‘What to Think about Machines that Think’ (2015) Brockman, J. (ed) Harper Perennial NY pg 71.
‘What to Think about Machines that Think’ is gobsmackingly good. Making me think and ask questions and learn things I thought I knew about what it is to be one of my kind. And I’m not even a sentient machine. Who knew the place to find out about being a human was from a book about artificial intelligence? Although many contributors, such as George Church and Sean Carroll, describe humans as thinking machines.

² I geeked out on semi-math. Here’s what I’m thinking: Every human is in a different place – the living room, Antartica, or primary school where the lighting may be bright or dim, the weather rainy, foggy or gale force winds may blow, we may be alone, with our Mum or at a football stadium full of Argos fans, we could be a teenager, senior, or babe-in-arms, observing a coronation, action-thriller movie, domestic dispute or bird building a nest. And so on. Then, the next second, something could change, someone walks in the room, the car stalls, the cat meows, you throw up because you are pregnant, or there’s an earthquake.

We’ve done two seconds of the calculation. By the time we’re 35, we’ve lived a little over 1.1 billion seconds, so our experiences are different from the next persons by (however many parameters you would like to include but even if you just have two I can make my point) to the power of 1.1 billion. For fun, I input this into my calculator. The answer is ‘Infinity’. Even if we say that it takes an hour for a person to have a different experience, a 15 year old has lived over 130,000 hours, which is still an ‘Infinity’ of potential combinations different from her BFF who wears the same style clothes, has the same hairdo, piercings and speaks in the same idioms.

³ This is the mathematical equivalent of ‘I told you so’. In high school, there was a rumour that it stood for ‘quite easily done’, although it’s latin for ‘Quod Erat Demonstrandum’ which could be a good name for a metal band.

 

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Ruminations on Artificial Intelligence. Part 2: Are We in Danger?

What many people seem to fear from AIs, over and above a general fear of mysterious new things, is that they will subjugate us. They’ll run amok, denying humans our life-sustaining internet connectivity or fossil fuels or sporting events. Or worse, they’ll shut us down altogether, through the food supply, atmosphere, or access to cat videos.

Why would intelligence imply a domination agenda? This is also a question Martin Rees asks¹. Sure, that seems to be the way humans have behaved on this earth, forever, with various species/businesses/soccer teams outcompeting each other for habitat/market/world domination. Could something smarter, like artificial intelligence, conceive of a more inclusive world that didn’t require destroying other forms of life?

This reminds me of when I adopted an eight week old kitten and welcomed her into my home with mature cats. One was an exemplary specimen, a seventeen pound male, all muscle and fighting prowess. In their first encounter, the kitten puffed up her tiny self and hissed at the tom. He stood passively, looking down at her with what I swear was comfortable indulgence, certain that she could do neither him or herself any harm. Then he went on about his cat business. Similarly, I expect super-rational artificial intelligence to recognize when humans are acting out of fear and displaying unnecessarily aggressive tactics and calmly allow us to determine for ourselves no real threat exists.

Max Tegmart² points out that scaremongering sells³ news stories better than romanticized tales of cooperation, agreement and lack of conflict. He’s critical about how journalists have approached AI. I’m guilty of this myself – the alarmism. We’ve been presented with suggestions that AI’s will be damaging, dangerous or deadly to humans. In the science fiction movie 2001 A Space Odyssey, released in 1968, the intelligent computer, Hal, tries to murder people by shutting down their oxygen supply. The far-reaching control that AIs could exert over our environment frightens us. By nature, humans fear the unknown, probably for good reason. Cautiously considering whether the big, golden-furred beast, with paws as big as your head, is likely to eat you is a good survival skill.

A slightly more tangible fear with AIs is that they will control too much and shut off systems vital for our life. I can sympathize with this. I was on a bus recently that stopped working in the middle of nowhere. It was a modern bus, with electronic display boards and a synthetic voice that announced upcoming destinations and thanked patrons for prepurchasing their fare (well-meaning but a bit patronizing). As the driver attempted to restart the bus, the screens displayed the sort of nonsense I associate with a dysfunctional computer. Stack dumps, strings of port numbers and error messages. From the driver’s curses, clearly he was frustrated because he had no control over the function of this mechanical device. It’s computer system declared it dysfunctional, and it was going nowhere.

Uncooperative buses are a glimpse of what we fear from AIs. No room for humans to push to get the job done, doing the best they can to hold things together to get their passengers to the destination. No place for human ingenuity and know-how. No Macgyvering so everyone gets to work on time.

A kind bus driver will make exceptions for passengers in need and stop at unregistered stops. Would an AI driving the bus do that?

Can we program AIs to be resourceful and ingenious? To understand rules are things we made and therefore we want to break them. Human priories shift like clouds on a stormy day. We want the bus to run under the ultra-safe conditions we specified until it isn’t convenient. Then we know there are ways we can compensate to make it just as safe that aren’t written into the code.

We don’t need to fear artificial intelligence taking control over our lives. Being human is to adapt, to survive, regardless of what the unpredictable, improbable and Murphy’s-lawable throws at us. We got this.

——

¹ Martin Rees pg. 9- 11 in ‘What to Think about Machines that Think’ (2015) Brockman, J. (ed) Harper Perennial NY

² Max Tegmark pg. 43-46 ibid

³ or the modern equivalent, gets more clicks, page hits or eyeball time.

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Ruminations about Artificial Intelligence. Part 1: Humans are Smarter because We’re More Primitive

I liked the book ‘What to Think about Machines that Think’ immediately. Along with the jaunty title, it has a snappy structure – approximately 185 mini essays, brain bytes, by sage people about AIs (artificial intelligences). Each contribution is 3 or 4 pages long which is apparently how a thought is when written down.

The essayists responded to ‘What do you think about machines that think?” I’m making my way through and have read mostly entries from engineers and physicists. This book is the most fertile source of thought stimulation I’ve encountered in a long time. Each contribution is wonderful and I’m riffing off of most of them.

‘Contemplation of artificial intelligence makes us ask who we humans are’¹ Murray Shanahan writes. One of the book’s themes is ‘who are we’, although it’s a desire to set ourselves apart from AI’s that’s triggered the existential question in this case.

How are we different from thinking machines? Steven Pinker suggests the way that AI’s think is nothing special², its a series of logical conclusions. A simple example is the hierarchy of suggestions you get when start to enter a URL into your search engine. It may seem like the interface ‘knows you’ and can anticipate your interests, but really, the suggested sites are based on simple statistics about your previous behaviour. Similarly, your wise grandmother might have seemed to know things about you when you were a child that you didn’t know yourself. And she’s smarter than a rudimentary AI. She watched your reactions in a number of situations and recognized the trends like the search engine, but unlike the software, she understands human nature, and what was motivates you. When it comes to human nature, we’re often very predictable. Shakespeare provides good evidence to support this. Although he wrote centuries ago, his portrayals of young lovers (Romeo and Juliet), corrupt, yet ambitious leaders (Macbeth), and crafty business people (Merchant of Venice), ring as true today as they did when the plays debuted.

Emotion could be our defining feature. An interesting observation by Steven Pinker, ‘Being smart is not the same as wanting something’² could suggest our primal ancestry will set us apart. Was this the author’s intent? The idea of motivation, of driving force, ambition, compulsion, fills my heart with pride for humankind. Machines don’t strive to excel, or make heroic efforts to do things. They do what they’re programmed to. They achieve goals. If the goal is to maintain a temperature of 22 degrees in a room, they induce the heating elements and cooling vents of the HVAC system to warm or chill the air when a deviance from the desire temperature occurs. Machines don’t care that the three year old twins have a fever and are malnourished because their father is unemployed. AI still keeps the temperature at 22 degrees. A human superintendent knows the fragility of toddlers and the added stresses of poverty and secretly tweaks the heating system to divert more heat to protect the young, even if their mother can’t afford it.

Humans have survival instincts, very strong ones, which may set them apart from AIs. Does an AI even care if it’ll be turned off tomorrow? I suspect that depends on what it believes it needs to do the next day but I’m sure it wouldn’t fight to the death to protect itself, unlike most people who would sacrifice everything to be sure they get out of bed tomorrow, even if it’s to face the same old dripping tap, sour milk, and demonically possessed boss.

Is it instincts that set us apart from AI’s? We still have a primitive area in our brain responsible for instinctive or involuntary actions. My own option, based on observing people is that this primitive brain controls more of our behaviour than we are aware of. If that’s the case, it could distinguish from AIs.

We honour and hold in high esteem leaders who are intuitive – those that make logical leaps most of us are afraid to pursue. Are these intuitive leaps instances of higher thought – processing so fast that only the outcome is important? That would be AI-ish.

I consider instincts and intuition closely related, although many would not³. Instincts are subconscious – leading us to perform acts without deciding to do so. We act instinctive to pull our hand out of a flame or to veer the car clear of an oncoming truck on the highway. When the adrenaline wears off, we’re proud of our quick thinking. Intuition is generally considered more conscious, related to thought. However, an intuitive action or decision is one that ‘comes from the gut’ or ‘feels right’. Whether it’s to take a different route home or hire the kid with no experience, when we realize the benefits of the choice, we learn to ‘trust our intuition’. So, is intuition higher thinking than instinct? Some explain intuition as a subconscious compilation of knowledge gathered in the brain. Could it be that intuition is the instinct of thought?

This is my premise: Human’s are different from AIs because we evolved from a less evolved species and we do things that don’t reduce to a series of logic equations. AIs are cool. We made them, so they have the potential to be ok. Or at least as ok as run-away trucks, fires, demonically possessed bosses and new hires from hell. But don’t worry. We know how to disconnect their power supply, at least on the AIs.

—-

¹ Murray Shanahan in Brockman, J. (ed) (2015) What to Think about Machines that Think Harper Perennial NY pg. 1-4

² Steven Pinker in Brockman, J. (ed) (2015) What to Think about Machines that Think Harper Perennial NY pg. 5-8

³I have to giggle. One site I found that explained the difference between instinct and intuition used human mate choice as an example of something decided intuitively because it was the culmination of too many thought processes to be reduced to explanation. If ever there was a decision that biologists could explain at an instinctive level, it’s mate selection. Ha-ha. Geek moment.

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A Fishy Saga about Science and Knowing what to Eat (Part 2).

Triggered by guilt-induced schisms that I was getting something too good to be true, I dug deeper into the case of a delicious new fish available in grocery stores near you for an astonishingly low, low price.

Part 1 covered the controversy of whether basa was a good thing to consume or not. To find the answer, I needed credible sources of information about fish farming but I had no idea how to identify them so I turned to friends for help, friends who are experts in the area of fish biology.

My inside information lead me to Seachoice.org. They’re on the page two of the google search on basa 1? Who is Seachoice? Their ‘about me’ page suggests an independent organization but I’m not sure of their agenda because the write up is quite generic. The overview about basa, or Pangasius, concludes with a ‘some concerns’ rating. Further down is an avoid rating. So I don’t know who Seachoice is or which rating is the rating. I’m tempted not to spend any more time on their site, but someone I respect told me Seachoice is an authority, so I download Seachoice’s 70 page pdf2 about basa and read.

The first page gets a thumbs up as it reveals an independent person with relevant credentials wrote the report. And I learn more about what Seachoice is all about. The organization’s goal is to empower consumers to make choices about what they purchase. They focus on sustainable practices in fishing, with a sustainable goal of long term fish production not jeopardizing the ecosystem. Their recommendations are based on as much objective evidence as available.

As a food source, basa can be farmed efficiently. The environmental concern is the sludge waste from the ponds which has been found disposed of illegally. The other major concern comes from antibiotics and pesticides found in the fish. A small minority of basa shipments to Europe have been refused due to such contamination.

Basa gets an avoid rating (farmed in ways that harm other marine life or the environment, i.e sludge dumping), EXCEPT if the fish has an ASC, GAA or Naturland certification (whatever that is) and then basa is a good alternative (some concerns about how it is produced). These rating are obtained by an estimated 23% of the basa produced at the time of the report.

Well, at least that’s a goal. I can feast on basa if it has these certifications. I should look into these certifications. But I’m tired. Going to the grocery store shouldn’t be this hard. I’m tempted to do a few things:

  • go with my instincts that tell me if the basa tastes good, my body knows what’s right (but then, we humans do like to eat things that aren’t good for us, like donuts and chips).
  • make my life easy and chose talapia instead (but is talapia ok? – it’s another farmed, recent introduction to the NA market)
  • starve to death while doing research
  • eat fries.

But I devolve. This experience has highlighted to me the challenges of making sense of scientific information even when you try to. It’s hard to identify a credible source, and when you do find it, sometimes it doesn’t answer the question.

As I travelled the path to a truth about basa fish, I wondered what my objective was. I stepped onto the path because my instincts told me that getting something at an extremely good price has its price. It goes deeper than that. What do I value in my food? I know there are animals that die to produce the meat I enjoy. It’s almost impossible that our existence on this planet is without a footprint. There are 7 billion of us, we impact the environment. Sustainability means leaving the environment so future generations can survive; I have no idea what that means. If I look back, my foreparents built cities that I marvel at. They didn’t destroy, they enhanced. But they also changed the earth. We’re facing global climate change and can’t expect the expected.

We can’t solve all problems at once. At least I can’t. I have a much better idea of whether to buy basa at my local grocery store now. If I can find it with certification, I will buy it. But I might still buy it anyway. I could be supporting a local entrepreneur in Vietnam, who will adopt more sustainable farming practice when his or her business prospers.

Meanwhile, I need to get busy developing truth-finding tools for everyone to use when faced with a wall of discord about something that should be based on scientific evidence. Stay tuned.

1Who goes to the second page of a Google search? I’ve heard marketing folks say withering things about having your website turn up as the 11th+ hit on a google search. Are those of us on pages other than page 1 are clearly interested in something other than fiddling with the rules of search engines to get ourselves to the front of the line? Perhaps content, not promotion of content? Marketing is a good thing, most of the time. But I still look at pages two to four, at least, of a google search, because I know there’s gems buried in the glitter.

2http://www.seachoice.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/MBA_SeafoodWatch_Catfish_Vietnam_Report.pdf

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