Monthly Archives: November 2013

Social Bots Threat to Online Interactions

If you use Facebook, you might have noticed in the last few weeks a number of bizarre posts from an app called What Would I Say. It was implemented by a team of grad-students in a hackathon in Princeton less than three weeks ago, and it’s the latest internet trend to spread like wildfire. What Would I Say is yet another addition to the frugality, non-seriousness, of online social networks. But worse yet, it highlights a technology which might finally undermine the possibility of any genuine online interaction at all: social bots.

What Would I Say is a bot that screens your Facebook posts, builds a probabilistic model for sequences of words, and outputs the most likely sequence. The idea is not new, since there’s an equivalent for Twitter, called That Can Be My Next Tweet. So far these apps have been mainly a source of entertainment — producing ironic sentences such as “we can’t do it,” from Barack Obama’s posts — but there are already attempts to use the technology seriously: according to a BBC article published last week, Google just patented a bot to mimic a person’s behavior in online social networks.

That’s disappointing. While the technology behind social bots do have high scientific value — mainly in the context of Natural Language Processing — attempts to seriously turn these ideas into products are repugnant, not because models to generate text are still in rudimentary stage — which they are — but because it makes the internet a lot less humane than it already is.

In fact, the low audience of attempts to seriously discuss relevant issues with friends online, and the hostility of conversations with strangers in web forums, make it very stressful the effort of getting anything meaningful from online interactions. Knowing that what remains of those interactions might be realized by a computer algorithm will only further erode online conversations, to the point none will be left.

Twenty years ago Peter Steiner published a cartoon on The New Yorker in which a dog says to another: “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” It’s unbelievable that some people are taking the statement seriously. Aren’t the automatic birthday messages from local business already annoying enough? How good would you feel to discover that the nice birthday message sent by your crush on Facebook was actually written by a bot?

The faking of one’s feelings towards others is already implemented online by those who display such behavior in the real world. We don’t need bots to create more false expectations on people. Bots are great to find things, and organize data. Having them to mimic our social behavior online will only cause the social aspect of the internet to vanish.

(A version of this article appeared in

Diseases That Affect Modern Scientists

In 1898, Spanish scientist Santiago Ramon y Cajal published an essay titled Diseases of The Will, in which he described some virtual illness that hit 19th century scientists, turning them into “contemplators,” “bibliophiles,” “theorists,” and other caricatures. A little over a decade into the 21st century, a new group of diseases has emerged as threats to the progress of science. Three of them stand out: Productivity Addiction, Tenure Leisure, and Financial Anxiety.

Productivity Addiction affects early career scientists. Its main cause is the wide gap between the number of job offers in academia (few) and the number of PhDs that are thrown in the market every year (thousands). As a result of competition, young researchers find themselves hostages to academic publications, and research interests are determined less by the appeal of a topic than by what a journal with high impact factor wants. The main symptom of this disease is a Curriculum Vitae with five or more publications per year, either on a similar topic with largely overlapping content, or in widely different topics but solving a range of disparate problems without any clear line of research.

While Productivity Addiction can be chronic, some individuals are successfully treated by a procedure called Tenure. Tenure provides the researcher with job stability, so that he can be free to work on problems that are inherently interesting, regardless of funding or other factors. Unfortunately, the procedure can cause a severe side effect, known as Tenure Leisure. This disease manifests itself as a profound lack of interest for research: after years of too much hard work, the patient loses the drive required to pursue science. As in the previous disease, this one can also be diagnosed by close examination of the individual’s CV. One or less yearly publications after a decade of high productivity is a strong indicator of Tenure Leisure. Sadly, there is no cure.

The last important disease is more unpredictable in terms of onset: it can hit scientists from the early years of PhD until later on their careers, and in some cases even past retirement. It is manifested by the realization that life is too short, and that the universe’s puzzles are endless anyway. The so-called Financial Anxiety is triggered by the observation that there are other jobs which, intriguingly, do not require as much mental effort but pay much better. Upon infection, the illness is fatal to one’s contribution to science. Sadly, like Productivity Addiction, Financial Anxiety is very contagious.

Such diseases are not necessarily the scientists fault. Rather, they are a consequence of the times we live in. Young researchers who want to pursue a career in science, for instance, have little chance of escaping from Productivity Addiction.

(A version of this article appeared in Washington Square News.)

On Electric Cars

Last week, for the third time in less than two months, an exemplar of the Model S from electric carmaker Tesla Motors caught fire after being involved in an accident. Shares of the company fell at least 7% for two consecutive days. The business run by celebrity CEO Elon Musk had already reported a net loss of $38m for the trimester ending in September.

The fires on Model S vehicles originated in their lithium-ion batteries, which are of the same kind whose problems caused the grounding of the entire fleet of Boeing Dreamliners in January. Battery fires are not, however, the main issue Tesla has to deal with in order build a good image and compete with other car manufacturers. The real issues are cost and infrastructure.

In a talk at NYU’s Courant Institute last Friday, Carnegie Mellon professor Manuela Veloso argued that it is not fair to ask complete autonomy from robots while an entire structure is built to help humans. She mentioned in particular the case of roads: instead of making cars that can approach every terrain, a gigantic net of smooth roads, with signs and other amenities, has been adopted.

But while many carmakers already have models of hybrid to all-electric vehicles in the market, amenities specific for electricity-powered cars are practically non-existent. Consider their range of operation, for instance. Despite the fact that an average urban driver needs a car with fuel autonomy of about 20 miles per day, most people buy cars also for vacations and other long-range trips. However, just to mention the U.S., conveniences such as battery-swap stations for Tesla owners are planed in the near future only for corridors connecting Los Angeles to San Francisco and D.C. to Boston.

Regarding financial costs, a report by the Harvard Kennedy School found that at 2010 purchase and operating costs, savings on gasoline over the lifetime of an electric car would not offset the higher cost of purchase. The same report predicted a change in this picture assuming that in the following 10 to 20 years gasoline prices would increase and battery costs decrease. Still, the estimated proportion of electric cars in operation by 2020 is very small, according to another report, by J.D. Power and Associates: just 7.3 percent of them should be hybrid or all-electric.

The 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimated that 13% of global greenhouse gas emissions in 2004 were from energy used in transportation, and that 95% of that energy came from petroleum-based fuels. Electric cars can play a central role in reducing transportation-related emissions. But that will only be achieved with public and private investments that allow them to be more than a luxury to be shown off around one’s neighborhood.

(A version of this article appeared in Washington Square News.)

The Sociocultural Singularity

There is a theoretical concept in Computer Science called technological singularity. It refers the hypothetical point in time when Artificial Intelligence passes the cognitive capabilities of the human brain, implying radical changes in human nature and society as a whole.

Astro-physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson provides an interesting view for what can possibly happen, in a speech where he discuss the existence of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. He argues that the difference in intelligence between chimpanzees and human beings is in just about 1% of DNA. “Imagine another life form that’s one percent different from us in the direction that we are different from the chimp,” he wonders. “Quantum mechanics would be intuitive to their toddlers.” That is, we would probably not even be able to grasp such intelligence.

The prospect of this fascinating — although scary — scenario has received considerable attention by theorists and science fiction authors, notwithstanding the fact that it lies in the future. But there is another type of singularity, much less discussed — at least in the sphere of popular science —, which has already happened, and that is causing rapid changes in human nature and society: the sociocultural singularity.

I use the term “sociocultural” in reference to the research area of sociocultural evolution, which is concerned with how cultures and societies change over time. Although this evolution can relate to Darwinian, genetic evolution, it differs mainly in the fact that it happens in a much faster pace.

Indeed, anatomically modern humans evolved from archaic Homo sapiens about 200,000 years ago, in the Middle Paleolithic, and that species evolved at least 250,000 years ago. Cultural evolutions, on the other hand, happen at a speed that is levels of magnitude faster: the way of life — including alimentation, social structure, values, and means of communication — can change drastically within generation. That is, sociocultural evolution outpace natural evolution.

This fact makes it very remarkable how stable to change our physical and mental systems are. The ability to rapidly adapt to the environment is, after all, what made us the dominant species in this planet. But as cultural revolutions happen at consistently shorter periods of time, one can’t help wondering for how long such stability will persist.

The sociocultural evolution triggered by internet technology is an example of drastic change in the way we interact with each other, and how they can be very harmful. A recent report by researchers at Oxford University, for instance, revealed a number of threats related to internet use, including bullying, self-harm, and how internet forums can increase the risk of suicide.

The human brain and psychology evolved in an environment that hardly matches the modern life, specially in large urban centers. Competition with one or two tribe members is now with hundreds, at global scale. The obvious threat of a rival group, or wild animals, is now the subtle threat of economic instability, of a media that consistently makes us aware of the worst that is happening, and of a culture that forces us to be happy anyway no matter the circumstances. Thus, it’s no surprise that anxiety and depression became such a mainstream problem. In fact, by 2008, for instance, the third most common prescription drug taken in the U.S. was a type of antidepressant.

We should be aware and vigilant with respect to the these changes. That is not to say that we shouldn’t embrace cultural evolution. In fact, modern societies tend to be more inclusive, and ethic. But unfortunately progress is being payed in part with increased burden to the human psychology. There should be more scientific studies, and public discussion about this problem, rather than taboos. Natural evolution assures the survival of the fittest, but since it is too slow in comparison with cultural evolution, we should be careful not to produce a psychologically stressful environment in which none of our decedents will be able to fit.

(A version of this article appeared in Washington Square News.)