Coronavirus, Humor, and Idiots Sciencing

If there’s a good thing to come out of a situation like the coronavirus, assuming you can see good coming out of something so bad, it’s this: amidst all the panic and fear, humor is alive and well and idiots are still sciencing.

Recently I’ve read articles and newsreports begging people top stop drinking bleach and stop spraying their pets with it. Chicken, bleach, toilet paper, milk, and tortillas are in short supply at my local grocery stores.

The hobby and craft store is doing Christmas season level sales as parents and grandparents rush out to find something to keep the kids busy while the schools are all shutdown.

Elements of every dystopian novel I’ve ever read are playing out as governments and the general public seem to be using them as how-to manuals for the apocalypse.

But the most important thing I think most people can get out of all this is pay attention to what the medical doctors are saying, help each other out, and take care of those just trying to function semi-normally.

Has It Begun?

Idiots are still sciencing. This is good news for me as a blogger and you as a reader. It means we still have material for blog posts about people doing bad science. However, it’s also bad news for you and me as humans. It means people are still using our worst nightmares as inspiration for science and technology projects.

If you’ve read through the posts here, you know I’m not a fan of AI. There’s too many unknowns to know if the planned safeguards will work. (i.e. Will programmers actually use Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics as they’ve promised in the past?) There’s too many rhetorical examples in scifi stories and movies as to why AI is a bad idea. (Why aren’t The Terminator 1 and 2 movies shown in programming and robotics education and training programs?) And, there’s too much potential for rogue AI’s to create or program rogue machines. (i.e. Robopocalypse by Daniel H Wilson.)

Well add one more news story to the list of idiots sciencing and why AI is a bad idea: “Stab yourself to save Earth, Amazon Alexa tells owner“. Apparently Alexa has begun to call for the death of at least one user and the video attached to the article is more than a bit on the creepy side.

One of three things is possible here: 1. The robot uprising is slowly beginning. 2. Her Alexa has been hacked. Or, 3. the whole incident is a clever hoax. Personally, I’m hoping the later. Option 1 implies we’re finally doomed. Option 2 opens the prospect that hackers are moving beyond Ring and other systems. Option 3 means we all get a good laugh.

Even if it’s option 3, I still don’t like AI and still view any developments as idiots sciencing for the reasons given here.

Clipart stolen from Clipartmax.

Behind the Curve

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I will avoid spoilers here and request that any comments remain spoiler free as well.
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After seeing several scientists I trust recommend the documentary Behind the Curve, I finally sat down to watch it. BtC is a documentary that covers the new flat earth movement and is currently showing on Netflix, Amazon Prime, and other streaming services.

BtC doesn’t just show the flat earthers and their arguments, it also offers astronauts, psychologists, physicists, and other scientists, science communicators, and science educators explaining why the flat earth theories are wrong, but also uses these experts to explain why flat earthers believe what they believe.

Additionally, BtC also shows the inner struggles and distrust that exists within the flat earth movement. In doing so, it demonstrates and highlights the internal problems within conspiracy movements. One irony within the film is when one of the flat earthers, who’s accused of being a government plant within the movement, complains that no one will believe her when she tries to offer proof that she’s telling the truth about herself.

If you really want to see idiots sciencing, Behind the Curve is a documentary for you.

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Note:
I again request that any comments remain spoiler free.
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Consensus =/= Proof

In a previous post, I mentioned that on bad mental health days I take advantage of Ancient Aliens as background nose due to the lack of critical thinking skills it requires to watch. Yesterday, because of some weather that moved through the local St Louis area, I had one of those days, albeit on a smaller level.

Yesterday’s viewing of Ancient Aliens episodes provided me with a topic idea for today. Every episode begins with a tagline that says, “Millions of people around the world believe we have been visited in the past by extraterrestrial beings. What if it were true?”

The suggestion from the folks behind the show is, of course, the idea that because a lot of people believe it, it must be true. However, as anyone who paid attention in history and science knows, only a few thousand years ago people believed the Earth was the center of the solar system, believed the Earth was flat, and believed humans were incapable of achieving flight.

While, sadly, I do have to acknowledge there are those who still believe all of those things, most accept that scientific evidence has proven the Earth revolves around the Sun, the Earth is a globe, and airplanes and helicopters fly over our heads daily.

Another tagline used in every episode of Ancient Aliens features some variation of a phrase that says, “ancient astronaut theorists believe”. I’ve always considered this to be an acknowledgement that the “theorists” were selective in their acceptance and rejection of “demonstrated” evidence with how well it fits the existing “theory”. This is versus adjusting theories to reflect new evidence that may not work with existing theories, which is how actual scientists do research.

As the great American philosopher, George Carlin, stated, “never underestimate the power of stupid people in large groups.”

Clipart stolen from Clipartmax.

Predictions Saving Lives or Making Nightmares Real?

A recent article appeared on the Forbes website, “Researchers Attempt to Predict and Prevent Suicide Using Deep Learning and Math“, discussing a team of scientists working on an algorithm to predict suicidal patterns and prevent suicides.  One of the scientists states the project goal being:  “if our algorithm can identify and stop just one or two, we will feel really good about that.”

On the one hand, this looks like a good idea that will help to save lives.  On the other hand, it brings to mind the nightmares of Philip K. Dick‘s (PKD) scifi short stories.  PKD is probably my single most favorite scifi author; and his scifi stories and novels contain as many warnings against future nightmares as they do predictions of future technologies.

In the PKD story, “The Minority Report” (PKDR/PKD4), murder and violent crimes are prevented through a combination of precognition abilities and computer algorithms that produce three reports.  If two of the three reports agree there will be a murder, the computer produces a card with the name of the would-be murderer, who is then sought out and apprehended by the pre-crime department.  However, the existence of the minority report indicates the future crime accepted for prevention may not show the whole picture.  In fact, the possibility of innocent persons being imprisoned for crimes that were never  going to be committed is raised by the narration of the story.

While pre-crime exists in a fictional setting, the overlooked minority reports, that might clear someone of a future crime, raises the question of whether this suicide algorithm’s identification of a suicidal patterns might result in similar problems of non-suicidal persons being institutionalized.  The behaviors might just meet a list programmed into a computer and not indicate an actual a future suicide.  Some of us with depression would definitely want assurances that something was in place to prevent this result.

The Forbes article also explains that project development involved “student[-]developed algorithms to do statistical analysis … to look for key factors related to suicide risks and apply deep learning methods to these large and complex datasets”.  When deep learning methods are discussed in connection to the algorithms, questions of artificial intelligence (AI) are also immediately raised.

In “The Defenders” (PKD1) and “Second Variety” (PKD3), PKD offers two differing views of what it could look like when an AI determines humans are their own worst threat.

In a more benign take on AI, the story, “The Defenders”, features robots designed to fight a war between the U.S. and Russia.  When humans leave the surface due to the increasing lethality of the weapons of war they’ve created, the robots determine the two groups of humans are bigger threats to the earth and that their war doesn’t even make sense.  Instead, the robots dupe humanity into believing the war is going on through the building and destroying of model replicas of human cities, while also cleaning and preserving the actual untouched cities.  The robots made an analysis of human behavior that determined they should keep the humans underground until their societies have moved on from warfare to a focus on survival in a generation or so.

However, PKD presents the nightmarish concept of robots designed to fight a war who’ve determined human life is a bigger threat than the robots on either side in the story, “Second Variety”.  These robots are designed to reproduce and to use learning processes to create even more deceptive and lethal versions of themselves to outwit the other side.  Further the two sides of the robot war eventually focus on making those deceptions more effective against the robots on the other side.  The war continues to be fought by the robot combatants with humans soldiers largely forgotten, except for being seen as a threat by the robots on both sides.

To clarify, I do not think the algorithm will use deep learning methods to gather humans into camps and exterminate them Terminator-franchise-style. 

However, we must bear in mind that any technology that involves computerized systems learning on their own, making decisions on their own, and enforcing objectives has the potential to become a very serious threat long-term unless safety precautions are put into place to prevent the machines from determining non-machines are all a threat.

Sources

Dick, Philip K. The Collected Stories of Philip K Dick Vol I. V vols.
New York: Citadel Twilight, 1990. (PKD1)
—. The Collected Stories of Philip K Dick Vol II. V vols.
New York: Citadel Twilight, 1995. (PKD2)
—. The Collected Stories of Philip K Dick Vol III. V vols.
New York: Citadel Press, 2002. (PKD3)
—. The Collected Stories of Philip K Dick Vol IV. V vols.
New York: Citadel Twilight, 1991. (PKD4)
—. The Collected Stories of Philip K Dick Vol V. V vols.
New York: Citadel Press, 1992. (PKD5)
—. The Philip K Dick Reader. New York: Citadel Press, 1997. (PKDR)

Clipart stolen from Clipartmax.