Weekly Roundup

Employees are happier after a workday containing smartphone “microbreaks,” which likely offer an equivalent benefit to coffee breaks, short walks, or water-cooler chatter with coworkers.

A new study in PLOS ONE reveals the scientific 1%: the 150,608 scientists who published a paper every year between 1996 and 2011 (a group described as having an “uninterrupted, continuous presence” in the literature) are immensely prolific, listed as authors in 41.7% of journal articles and in 87.1% of papers with more than 1000 citations during the period. [via Urban Demographics]

Your happiness and mental well-being may depend on your genetic proximity to Denmark. Hamlet, Ophelia et al. might disagree.

A newly-discovered pontarachnid mite has been named after Jennifer LopezLitarachna lopezae was so named by the international team of researchers because they enjoyed Lopez’s music while preparing their manuscript, recently published in ZooKeys.

In honour of the 45th anniversary of NASA’s Apollo 11 lunar landing, here’s space historian Amy Shira Teitel explaining the contingency plan if the moonwalking astronauts had been stranded on the lunar surface. Teitel is also “live”-tweeting the Apollo 11 mission’s timeline over the next few days. Scientific American discussed whether the Apollo landing sites ought to be protected for their historical importance. And this week NASA made a bold announcement at a panel on the search for extraterrestrial life, claiming to be “very, very close in terms of technology and science to actually finding the other Earth and our chance to find signs of life on another world.”

i09 offers some of the most peculiar historical quotations about science from the U.S. Supreme Court.

Do not click this link unless you’re prepared to be exposed to a thought experiment the very consideration of which may bring about a malevolent and grudge-holding AI singularity.

A lecturer at Kalasin Rajabhat University in Thailand was caught on tape offering higher grades for coupon-stamps from 7-11, and has been suspended pending an investigation. However, the students involved have recanted and, contrary to evidence on video, claim the exchange was their idea and that the stamps were handed in for charity.

It’s not your imagination; the other checkout lines ARE moving faster than yours. To explain why, you need some queueing theory.

Circadian rhythms are a trending topic: a study titled “The Morality of Larks and Owls” found that both early risers and night owls are most prone to immoral behaviour when fighting their internal clocks, and researchers have found that insulin may have a regulatory effect on the body’s internal clock, meaning that the future might hold a food-based cure for jet lag.

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Weekly Roundup

“I don’t want to get into the debate about climate change, but I will simply point out that I think in academia we all agree that the temperature on Mars is exactly as it is here. Nobody will dispute that. Yet there are no coal mines on Mars. There are no factories on Mars that I’m aware of.”

If you can’t replicate an experiment, you’re probably just doing it wrong, and you’re pointlessly impugning other scientists, claims Harvard social neuroscientist Jason Mitchell. Philosopher of science Eric Winsberg offers an excellent rebuttal, explaining that Mitchell is restating what Collins and Pinch call the “Golden Hands” argument without appreciating the value of replication in scientific experimentation.

He shoots… we tweet! Now that the World Cup is over, check out the amazing patterns in Twitter data during World Cup penalty shootouts.

A longform article in the New Yorker explores teachers’ involvement in an Atlanta public middle school’s cheating ring responsible for inflating standardized test scores under No Child Left Behind.

A religious anti-abortion group invited to teach an abstinence-only sex ed lesson promoting sexual purity in an Edmonton public school won’t be back next year after a student and her mother filed a human rights complaint.

Well, that’s one way to get published: Investigations into a “peer review and citation ring” have prompted SAGE Publications to retract 60 papers from the Journal of Vibration and Control where at least one professor was fabricating reviewer identities in the journal’s online submission system.

They say to write what you know, so when historian of science Laura Braitman adopted a dog who turned out to be anxious and prone to self-harm, she wrote a book exploring animal mental illness.

They can’t be that nice if they keep shocking people… New research from the Journal of Personality describes how people with more “agreeable” personalities were more likely than “contrarians” to progress further in a Milgram-like experiment.

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Weekly Roundup – It’s Too Hot Edition

The Weekly Roundup at the Bubble Chamber is assembled with care in Toronto, where the temperature has been hitting the 30s (that’s 86 F) for the last week. So in honour of our missing air conditioner, which would have been delivered today but for the ineptitude of UPS, here’s a summer-themed roundup for your reading pleasure. Don’t forget to stay hydrated and reapply your sunscreen every two hours.

MSNBC.com offers a general summer science primer, from druids to shark attacks.

The Ottawa Citizen’s Tom Spears has a “Science of Summer” column; so far he’s covered loons and fireflies.

Summer jobs are good for teens, according to a new study from UBC.

Lifehacker teaches you how to build a mosquito trap to harness the bug-attracting power of yeast fermentation. Or you could always go hunting.

In honour of recent national holidays, here’s the chemistry of fireworks and the physics of sparklers.

The Fancy Food Show in NYC promoted beat-the-heat innovations like alcoholic ice cream, nutritious ice chips, and gelato within the original fruit’s peel. If food for the BBQ is more your thing, you can enhance your bacon cheeseburger with some recursive bacon-cheeseburger-flavoured cheese.

In other summer food news, Gawker has a history of popsicle-related crime, in case you were unaware of this summer phenomenon. And a Kickstarter campaign to fund potato salad has collected %317,100 (and counting) of its original $10 goal.

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Weekly Roundup

It’s nothing but bad news for Facebook this week: One-upmanship on the social network ruined Scott’s life in the viral short film “What’s On Your Mind?,” while real-life Facebook use decreases life satisfaction and makes users feel worse, according to the first study of the social network which tracked emotions over time. Even worse, researchers from Facebook, UCSF, and Cornell may have violated research ethics standards, PNAS journal policy, and even federal law in conducting a study in which modifying Facebook’s algorithm manipulated uninformed users’ emotional experiences.

Just in time for McD’s Dollar Drink Days, New York state’s Court of Appeals has rejected the reinstation of New York City’s ban on sugary drinks for containers greater than 16 ounces.

Neutrinos are a really hot topic. Even sterile ones.

If you don’t vaccinate your children, either for religious reasons or for Wakefield-McCarthy reasons, they may be barred from attending public school in New York and Ohio during disease outbreaks because of the danger to themselves and others. And that’s too bad, because if your parents don’t believe you should benefit from the world’s most effective public health measure against infectious diseases, you need all the education you can get.

If your doctor thinks your stroke was simply stress, video evidence might do the trick.

It turns out most of us don’t know how to study. Here are the most important tips for student learning and retention from Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, a new book summarizing memory research from psychologists from Washington University in St. Louis.

No need for Paleo Diet gurus; just check Neanderthal poop.

A new video PSA from Verizon and the PBS/AOL initiative Makers makes the link between the messages girls receive growing up and the STEM gender disparity.

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Can Machines Think Yet? A Brief History of the Turing Test

Allan Olley

Last week headlines announced that a computer, known as Eugene Goostman, had passed the Turing Test at a competition at the Royal Society of London by University of Reading researchers. It was heralded as a milestone in artificial intelligence (by one of the competition organizers) and implied that a computer program had shown some significant amount of intelligence and fooled people into believing it was human after a robust interrogation. Turing originally predicted that in the year 2000 a computer might be able to hold up in a conversational test as well as a human for five minutes in 30 percent of trials. Which added a sense of officialness to the claim that Eugene passed. Quickly critics appeared to call into question whether Eugene would really have fooled anyone in a normal conversation.

Eugene managed to fool the judges in the competition about a third of the time. However this was achieved by Eugene presenting the persona of a Ukranian 13 year old with imperfect English, the competition was a speed test with only five minutes to evaluate multiple potential humans or machines at once via computer relayed chat (you can see examples here). Critics pointed out this means the program shows no real intellectual achievement and rather relies on convincing the judges that the agent is confused and that a longer time to take the test would be more informative.

A statue of Alan Turing in Manchester UK.

A statue of Alan Turing in Manchester UK.

In the 1950 paper “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” Alan Turing asked the question “Can machines think?” He then declares the definition of the terms of the question (machine and think) too vague to admit of a good answer and changed it to ask whether some digital computer could successfully play the imitation game. The imitation game imagined was one where two participants hid from the view of the third and conversed by passed notes or some other intermediary device, one of the two hidden participants would imitated a woman, the other would in fact be a woman and the third participant would have to guess which was which after conversing with them for some time. Turing imagined the computer in place of the man. It is ambiguous how exactly the game would be modified with the change and some have argued that it makes a difference which way we take the game to be played. Since Turing does not precisely define his tests all subsequent uses are in a sense their own version of a Turing Test. Modern versions of the Turing Test tend to assume that judges will converse with multiple participants some of whom are computers and others are humans and they will have to guess which is which. In any case the point of the redefinition of the question was as Turing put it to “drawing a fairly sharp line between the physical and the intellectual capacities of a man”. Turing imagined the discussions ranging from physical appearance through, mathematics, chess, and poetry writing, every imaginable skill or piece of knowledge might be called upon by the participants. Although put in terms of “thought” the original question seems to have been meant in the spirit of “can machines possess intelligence” or “can machines engage in intelligent behaviour”. It seems as though Turing was trying to demonstrate to his incredulous audience what he thought an intelligent machine would look like by example more than trying to define thought or intelligence as such.

In some ways Turing anticipated that a machine might succeed at the imitation without showing any intelligence. He notes “the best strategy for the machine may possibly be something other than imitation of the behaviour of a man”, but he thought it unlikely, outside the scope of the essay, and stipulated that for the purposes of the essay we should assume that the best strategy was really that of imitating a man’s behaviour. This illustrates that Turing was more concerned with illustrating how future machines might earn the appellation of thinking or intelligent rather than devising a strict test for success.

Despite these ambiguities Turing’s paper is widely cited and created an interest among both academic AI researchers and a wider public in the idea of a computer convincing humans that it was human as a test of its intellectual ability. A google search finds a first instance of “Turing’s Test” in 1959, and in 1962 it is noted that “Turing’s Test” has become standard nomenclature in the computer field and I find an instance of shortening the name to “Turing Test” in 1964. Over the years, in the popular imagination some have transformed the Turing Test with the idea that a computer that can pass the test is an autonomous intellect on par with a human person. Competitions like the one that crowned Eugene have been going on for some time, such as the Loebner Prize an annual competition since 1991.

The diversity of things covered by the name Turing Test is best illustrated by the most ubiquitous example of a Turing Test. CAPTCHA stands for Completely Automated Public Turing Test To Tell Computers and Humans Apart and the term was invented in 2000 by Luis von Ahn, Manuel Blum, Nicholas Hopper and John Langford of Carnegie Mellon University. Here the idea is to find a simple one question test administered by a computer that distinguishes humans from currently available computers by taking advantage of a specific skill (such as recognizing distorted text) that humans are good at but current computers find impossible. A computer passing this test would not require the variety of abilities Turing imagined, but it serves to deter computer programs that might otherwise spread unwanted advertising in internet forums or do other dubious or nefarious work.

The question of whether machines can think actually has an older pedigree than Turing or the modern computer. An example of this is a 1939 essay in Astounding Science Fiction “Tools for Brains” which begins with the line: “CAN machines think? The question keeps coming up every time a new kind of calculating machine is invented…” However Turing’s imitation game has left an indelible mark on the question.

Eugene is not the first machine that some have claimed passed the Turing Test. In terms of other claimants to having passed the Turing test, in 2011 Cleverbot made similar headlines to Eugene managed to achieve a rating of humaness close to that of humans from the large number of volunteer judges at tech festival in India. You can chat to a low powered version of Cleverbot on-line. Perhaps the first machine that some claimed passed the Turing Test was unveiled in an academic paper in 1966. ELIZA was a program that intended to use a limited variety of stock phrases and pattern recognition to imitate a therapy session to explore natural language interfaces. If a user mentioned hating their mother ELIZA would ask to you hated any other relatives and so on. Despite the very limited capabilities of the machine some users claimed an emotional connection with ELIZA and felt that it had human quality. ELIZA’s creator Joseph Weizenbaum was dismayed by the credulity of users taken in by ELIZA. Programming versions of ELIZA for academic and home computers became an activity of some through the 70s and 80s.

In my experience of on-line discussion if someone brought up the Turing Test as a measure of machine intelligence, some wag would counter by saying that people’s responses to ELIZA showed that the concept was bankrupt. This is a very large leap, but the success of programs like ELIZA have given many people pause. With more rigour some academics have made influential criticism of the Turing Test for focusing on behaviour and some have argued it is in principle impossible for a digital computer to think. The most prominent such argument is probably John R. Searle’s “Chinese Room argument” (explicated in his paper “Minds, Brains, and Programs”). Searle took up the question “Could a machine think?” and gives an intricate argument that electronic digital computers lack the causal powers to instantiate mental state or a mind, whatever their behaviour. There is a vast literature in philosophy and cognitive science discussing and disputing Searle’s argument.

In 1950 Turing anticipated many objections to his example of an intelligent machine. A pertinent qualification arose around the objection: “May not machines carry out something which ought to be described as thinking but which is very different from what a man does?” He said that this was a strong objection, but that if the machine succeeds in the imitation game that should obviate the objection. This implies that Turing accepted that an intelligent machine might not have a human mind or thought processes. In fact he turned to the imitation game as a way to avoid the prejudices of a conventional definition, where it just may be by definition “thinking” is a human activity carried out in an idiosyncratic human way and one might even be able to say that a computer does not “really” do such things as arithmetic or play chess. Note also Turing justified his focus on a behavioural criterion for approaching the question because he thought we necessarily evaluate intelligence and understanding in others behaviourally (citing an example of someone being quized about a sonnet they wrote asked about their use of metaphor, meter etc. to show they understood the poem). In a way Turing seemed to think that we are all constantly being subjected to the Turing Test in our daily lives as people try to judge our character as intellectual beings.

The Turing Test is part of Turing’s legacy and one that, at least in its emphasis on the imitation game aspect of it, might have surprised Turing. Turing saw the way forward for machine intelligence as on the one hand attempting to program specific intellectual tasks such as chess playing into computers, and on the other hand attempting to create learning machines capable of developing capacities and knowledge like a human child. The past 64 years has seen dramatic successes in programming machines to solve some specific tasks such as playing a winning chess game. The success in creating learning machines of the type Turing imagined is far less dramatic and more limited. Also, success in tasks such as chess has not translated into success producing machines with generally applicable skills in the way Turing might have anticipated.

There will almost certainly be many more headlines announcing another contender as first computer to pass the Turing Test. When or if it will be definitively passed by a computer is a very difficult question. Also, just what it will mean remains obscure.

A good entry level discussion and survey of the questions around the Turing Test is found in the first part of the CBC radio ideas episode Mind and Machine by my friend Dan Falk (the second part is concerned with the implications of artificial intelligence for our present and future).

The Royal Society where the competition was performed is about 39 miles east of Reading (taking University of Reading as the zero point) or 15 megabytes east of Reading in terms of the length of 5-bit tape required to store that much data.

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Weekly Roundup

Here’s how cities say “stay out” with anti-homeless design, part of the wider phenomenon of hostile architecture.

If it walks like eugenics and quacks like eugenics… Dozens of female inmates were sterilized without consent in California, and a Virginia man’s plea bargain included a promise to get a vasectomy.

Up to 75 CDC researchers may have been exposed to live anthrax.

The first description of fellatio in male bears has been published. The study attributes the behaviour (observed in captive bears) to an absence of maternal suckling, but its claim that mammals rarely engage in non-copulative sexual behaviours suggests that their lit review was incomplete.

Scientists weigh in on the commonly misused terms that drive them crazy. Bonus: the pseudoscientific claims that drive us crazy. And speaking of pseudoscience, Dr. Oz admitted before a senate committee that the weight-loss ingredients he endorses aren’t miraculous, but he defended his right to employ “flowery language.”

Some of Wyoming’s math & science professors, as well as some of its churches, support reformed educational standards that include climate change and evolution, while others criticize them for requiring “a materialistic explanation for any phenomenon addressed by science” or for leading to negative economic consequences for the energy-exporting state if global warming is taught in schools. [via i09]

“Suicidal thoughts” warnings on antidepressants may have indirectly led to increased suicide attempts.

Whooping cough, a vaccine-preventable bacterial infection that can be fatal in infants, is now an epidemic in California. At least one sufferer of last year’s outbreak thinks she knows who to blame.

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Weekly Roundup

Never judge someone before you walk a mile in their pyjamas: thanks to “enclothed cognition” it turns out that clothes affect our perception [podcast].

The FIFA World Cup has begun. Here’s Scientific American’s rundown of soccer science, old and new. Open wide!

Be careful what you say around the cooler; Gwyneth Paltrow reminds us that water has feelings too.

Rare diseases often lack clinical attention, public awareness, and fundraising campaigns; many are undocumented, unnamed, or have no known cause or treatment. FORGE (Finding of Rare Disease Genes in Canada), a massive coordinated study, has identified the genetic mutations associated with 146 rare childhood diseases, thanks to high-speed sequencing technologies. 67 of the genes hadn’t been linked to a disease before.

It turns out economics is for chimps.

Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea virus (PEDv), a livestock epidemic of uncertain origin affecting pigs in the US, has spread to over 30 states, wiped out nearly 10% of the American pig population, and increased the price of bacon.

Headlines far and wide proclaimed that a computer program has “passed the Turing test.” What they really mean is that by pretending to be Eugene Goostman, a teenager from the Ukraine with a poor grasp of English, the program won a University of Reading contest by convincing 1 in 3 judges that it was a human being, satisfying Turing’s predictions for the capabilities of artificial intelligence for the year 2000. So perhaps the resulting skepticism is warranted.

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The Ultimate Filter Bubble

Mike Thicke

As if we needed reasons to be more worried about Google taking over the world, a new study suggests that it could have an enormous impact on elections merely by manipulating search results. Researchers Robert Epstein and Ronald Robertson of the American Institute of Behavioral Research and Technology found that they could “sway the voting preferences of undecided voters by 15% or more” merely by biasing search results presented to research subjects. This is interesting—and scary—in its own respect, but it also has connections to some of my earlier posts about Internet filter bubbles and what I’ve called the “Internet Observer Effect“.

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Weekly Roundup

LEGO has announced that it has approved one of the finalists in its Ideas product competition: a trio of female scientists based on Ellen Kooijman (aka Alatriel Elensar)’s Female Minifigure Set. It will be marketed as the LEGO Research Institute, and will be eventually available in stores.

Here are anonymous comments made by “muzzled” Canadian government scientists about the state of science under the Harper Government. Yikes! On a related note, Stephen Harper urged Canadians to “listen to the scientific evidence” when it comes to vaccinating children.

How many polar bears are there? It turns out that’s a tricky question.

Solar roadways have made a big splash with a successful Indiegogo campaign and flashy video. The husband-and-wife team of Scott and Julie Brusaw want to replace asphalt roads, sidewalks, and parking lots with durable, LED-programmable, and replaceable hexagonal panels that would generate electricity, with additional benefits including warning drivers of obstacles or animal crossings, responding to parking lot conditions, and providing infrastructure for buried power, phone, and internet lines. Unfortunately, critics figure that the project’s estimated $56 trillion price tag will be an impediment to scalability, as will problems such as keeping the glass layers clean and preventing traffic hacking.

The Chemical Blog describes the chemical composition of tattoo ink, which is surprisingly unregulated.

There is more fructose in many soft drinks and sweetened juices than their labels disclose, according to a new study in Nutrition. This is a problem for the Corn Refiners Association, who claim that High-Fructose Corn Syrup (or “corn sugar,” as we learn in this helpful video) is practically equivalent to sucrose (table sugar; glucose-fructose in a 1:1 ratio).

The FDA’s cost-benefit analysis for new e-cigarette regulations includes a “lost pleasure” factor which accounts for the expected decrease in lifetime pleasure for those who quit.

Sometimes all you need is a good headline: Researchers Develop Robot That Lets Them Feel Softness of Virtual Breasts.

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These are not the voters you’re looking for

Mike Thicke

People across the political spectrum have long recognized that our democratic system disenfranchises the unborn. Those on the left tend to worry that those alive today are pillaging natural resources from future generations. Those on the right tend to worry that excessive public spending will force our children or grandchildren into economic slavery. Either way, people in the future will be forced to live with the consequences of our present decisions, but they have no say in those decisions (though Greg Lusk has problematized this reasoning).

How to solve this problem? Philosopher Thomas Wells proposes a direct solution: give voting powers to “trustee” organizations “such as charitable foundations, environmentalist advocacy groups or non-partisan think tanks.” These organizations would have a block of votes equivalent to something like 10% of the overall electorate. If there are 10 million eligible voters in an election, we would assign 1 million votes to these organizations. Wells’s idea is that these organizations would vote with the best interests of the future in mind. Not only could they affect the results of elections, but Wells predicts they would shape the political conversation as politicians tailor their policies to appeal to this powerful voting block.

Alex Tabarrok over at Marginal Revolution finds Wells’s proposal “laughable”. He sees Wells’s proposal for a select group of trustees as merely replicating Wells’s own view of how the future ought to look. Instead, Taborrok proposes the economist’s universal solution: the market. Specifically, prediction markets. While I share some of Taborrok’s skepticism of Wells’s proposal, I find Taborrok’s proposal even less realistic. I shall focus my critique on two problems: an epistemic problem and a relevance problem.

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