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.…

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

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.…

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.…

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.…

The Ultimate Filter Bubble

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“.…

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.…