Mind Matters Natural and Artificial Intelligence News and Analysis

Jonathan Bartlett

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Welcoming the Post-Zoom Era

The Zoom era is quickly coming to an end. How should companies re-adjust?

Prior to the pandemic, few outside of technology jobs even knew what Zoom was. Now, everyone is comfortable with video conferencing. However, while the technology works better than ever, I’m starting to sense that people are done with continual video conferencing.  Many people who use Zoom do so on a compulsory basis. They have jobs that require that they Zoom for meetings or they are in classes that require online attendance. Therefore, it is hard to decipher people’s attitudes towards Zoom in those circumstances. They use it because someone told them they must. However, I regularly teach at a homeschooling co-op class. Homeschoolers, especially in Oklahoma, aren’t compelled to do anything that they don’t feel comfortable with. Don’t want to…

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NoSQL Databases are the Problem, Not the Solution

NoSQL means that you will be continually rewriting your code

It’s amazing how much we forget about our own history. Many people think that NoSQL databases are the “next big thing” in technology, and that we should write all of our core applications using them. However, NoSQL databases actually predate relational databases, and common relational databases were established to solve the problems that NoSQL brings. What are the advantages of NoSQL databases? There are essentially two — they are fast, fast, fast, and they can scale, scale, scale. This much is true. However, if you aren’t building the next Facebook, you probably don’t need that much speed and scale. The fact is, this much speed and scale comes at a cost, and, even in the 1970s, with the limited computers…

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Mental Models for What Government Does With Our Money

Models used by pedantic experts, even if more accurate, confuse instead of clarify the key difference between taxation and government debt

We live by mental models. Although we rarely take the time to think about it, any time we reason about something we are using a mental model. Sometimes those models are close to reality, and sometimes they are not. When you turn your steering wheel, it does in fact turn your tires — but power steering adds quite a bit of assistance. So the mental model is close to correct but not exactly true. Similarly, in chemistry, multiple models of the atom are usually taught. In the widely used Rutherford model (also called the “planetary model”), electrons “orbit” the nucleus at different distances. However, this model was not found to be precisely true. A more precise view of the atom…

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Will the Sokal Hoaxes Worsen the Academic Echo Chamber?

When only mainstream thinking is allowed, insularity and echo chambers are the result

The latest spate of academic hoaxes, which includes not only the latest Sokal hoax, but also fake papers being published in journals such as the Arabian Journal of Geosciences, is a major cause for concern. While the hoaxes themselves are problematic, what is likely to be worse is the ongoing fallout for researchers and new ideas. Academics has long had a problem of being insular. Many papers are published on the basis of your status in academics, not the quality of the paper itself. This is not to say that the papers didn’t legitimately pass peer review (though that is questionable in some cases), but rather that the editor decides which papers are “worthy” of peer review based on the editor’s knowledge…

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Be On the Lookout for More Sokal Hoaxes

If you spot a Sokal hoax, let us know by tagging @cnaintelligence on Twitter

In a previous article, we noted that a group of researchers have been testing the rigor of social science journals by submitting fake articles and data in order to demonstrate problems in these branches of academics. These hoaxes, known as Sokal hoaxes (named after the original hoaxer, Alan Sokal), have now begun their third round, with the first detected paper in the journal Higher Education Quarterly. The paper, “Donor money and the academy: Perceptions of undue donor pressure in political science, economics, and philosophy,” has now been retracted, but it looks like this is not quite the end of the matter. The Chronicle of Higher Education managed to get in contact with the Sokal hoaxers. While their identities are anonymous, they responded to emails sent to the…

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Are Sokal Hoaxes Really Helping Reform Science?

The evidence is mixed. The current prank on Higher Education Quarterly prompts some questions
It happened. Again. In 1996, physicist Alan Sokal submitted a mostly-nonsense paper to the journal Social Text. The purpose? To show that the social sciences, especially the critical theorists, were not intellectually rigorous. His paper, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” was written so that anyone who was familiar with quantum gravity would know that it was a joke. Therefore, when it was accepted, it was obvious that no rigorous review process was in place. The journal apparently just accepted anything that sounded “intellectual-ish” and conformed to the editors’ idea of what scholarship looked like. It became known as the Sokal hoax. In 2017, a group of researchers began a similar hoax, later tagged as Sokal Squared. The goal, again, was to show that what the authors call “grievance studies” are undermining real scholarship by allowing nonsense to pass as scholarship. They managed to get several of their fake papers published, for example, Human reactions to rape culture and queer performativity at urban dog parks in Portland, Oregon (May 22, 2018). In fact, for some of the papers that hadn’t been published by the time the experiment ended, the reviewers requested more outlandishness. That brings us to the present day. The education journal Higher Education Quarterly,” which is run by Wiley (a major academic publisher), published a new paper titled “Donor money and the academy: Perceptions of undue donor pressure in political science, economics, and philosophy.” If you take the alleged names of its authors, who cannot be traced to any institution of higher education, “Sage Owens” and “Kal Avers-Lynde III,” the initials spell out: S.O.K.A.L. III It is unclear at this writing what this third iteration of the Sokal Hoaxes is trying to prove. At Power Line, Steven Hayward suggests that the overall goal is to show that any paper can be published if it stokes the biases of leftist editors. If so, the hoaxers have pushed the right buttons: the Koch Brothers, the Federalist Society, right-wing interference… The problem? As search has demonstrated, the funders they study don’t actually fund the research they are studying and some of the organizations have been defunct through the entire period of study. One of them appears entirely fictitious. While we still don’t know who wrote “SOKAL III” or why, I think it is good to take a moment and reflect on academic hoaxes in general, and what they indicate. The goal of the hoaxers is to demonstrate that critical theory and “grievance studies” journals are only pseudo-academic. They want to show that obviously wrong papers get through as long as they conform to the style and expectations of the journal. So did these hoaxers succeed in their aim? To begin with, I should say that it is not the job of an editor or reviewer to catch falsified data. Journals assume that data associated with an article is legitimate and was legitimately obtained. Now, there are times when data is obviously wrong, and a worthwhile editor or reviewer should catch that. However, it is not the job of the reviewers to verify or repeat the experiment. They trust the reporting and merely make sure that the reasoning about the data is correct. Therefore, a proper hoax must illustrate more than just acceptance of falsified data. It has to illustrate acceptance of wrong reasoning about that data. Or, at minimum, the data must be so obviously wrong that any worthwhile reviewer would be able to spot it. However, there are other requirements of a proper experiment that the “Sokal squared” hoaxers seem to have left out. In order to show that the social science journals they targeted are more problematic than science journals, they would have needed a control group. Note that none of the Sokal hoaxers tried submitting nonsense to a science journal. Even other Darwinists often complain about “just-so” stories in evolutionary biology, and especially in evolutionary psychology. So why did the hoaxers not dream up an equivalently outrageous just-so biology story to see if it would pass peer review? Were they afraid to know the results? History says that, as long as you are proposing an evolutionary “just so” story, there is almost no idea that is too absurd to be published in even the topmost journals. The original Sokal hoax, too, had problems. The journal it was submitted to, Social Text, was not a peer-reviewed journal. In other words, the journal was not even claiming to have the same scholarship standards as science journals. In fact, they were relying on Sokal himself to provide the expertise on physics, which was the primary reason for including him. So, while I am in basic agreement with the hoaxers about the general quality of critical theory and “grievance studies” journals, I find it odd that the hoaxers, so certain of their proposition, seem to be unscientific in their approach to finding out the answers. In fact, we don’t even need to go into hoaxes to see that the same sort of implicit bias can infect ordinary science journals. As noted by Michael Crichton and followed up on here at Mind Matters News, science journals have been ready to publish whatever the latest trendy topic is for decades, no matter how bad the science content. Then, for topics that are less trendy, they will sometimes retract legitimate papers which have been properly reviewed simply because the topic is out of favor. If an idea is in favor, then, as we’ve seen, the requirements for rigor are relaxed significantly. So, while I appreciate the attempts of the Sokal hoaxers to demonstrate biases and poor scholarship in the social sciences, I fear that those in the harder sciences will use this as an excuse to ignore their own problems with bias and poor scholarship. Note: “SOKAL III” has now been retracted. You may also wish to read: Twenty years on, aliens still “cause global warming” Over the years, the Jurassic Park creator observed, science has drifted from its foundation as… Read More ›
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Culture Watch: “This is Us” Recognizes Limits of Machines

Let's hope that this becomes a trend of popular culture dealing with the realities of technology and its limitations

Most people do not recognize the inherent limitations of machines and algorithms. This is true even more in popular culture, which seems to be fixated on a narrative of machines becoming sentient and taking over. However, in a recent episode of the popular TV show “This is Us,” the limitations of computer algorithms came to the forefront, with the show not only recognizing the outlines, but getting the details correct. You might wonder why a TV drama is getting involved in the technical details of a discussion on the limits of computation. “This is Us” is a TV show which emphasizes the connections between generations — how the altruism and selfishness as well as the accomplishments and failures of each…

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Book Review: “Ghost Work” Flops in Economic Understanding

"Ghost workers" are those unseen workers behind artificial intelligence

Here at Mind Matters, we have often covered the way that humans are used to supplement Artificial Intelligence. Artificial intelligence has generally been misunderstood as replacing human effort in society, while, in reality, it is usually leveraging it, instead. Whether using humans to find good training data, mining content for intentionality, or even using humans directly within machine learning algorithms, today’s most prominent “AI” systems are actually strange hybrids of humans and computers. As a matter of fact, the market for human supplementation of AI is so large that Amazon has an entire service built around it. While much of this work is done either for free (oftentimes through games on the Internet) or through traditional paid office work, a growing amount is being done through “microtasks,” through systems…


Boston Dynamics’ Famous Robot Dog Being Put to Work

Long stalled in the area of research and development, "Spot" is now being prepared for its first job

Boston Dynamics is a robotics innovation company that has been best known for “converting capital into viral YouTube videos.” Their first sensation was over a decade ago, when they released the legendary breakthrough “Big Dog” robot video. What was unique about the robot dog was its ability to traverse a diverse array of terrain. Additionally, as can be seen in the video, it even handled sudden impacts well. Boston Dynamics continued to develop these multi-terrain walkers, coming up with a more humanoid design with “Pet Man.” While Boston Dynamics’ robots have long been an area of research and development, they have recently been put to work. The current incarnation, known as “Spot,” is currently being outfitted for doing what it…

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Coming to the Defense of Classical Logic

Classical logic belongs to everyone and can be equally wielded by anyone

It seems odd that classical logic would need defending, but, in modern times, this seems to indeed be the case. Many modern scholars see the need for demoting the place of classical logic and viewing it as an aspect of western cultural imperialism. In reality, classical logic is a gift to civilization. It was created in the classical west, but its benefit is that it belongs to everyone and can be equally wielded by anyone who chooses to do so. Many critics of classical logic, like critics of mathematics, have both problematic and justifiable complaints. It is true that many people use classical logic incorrectly, and then use the authority of classical logic as the justification for problematic statements. In…

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The Search for the Universal Algorithm Continues

Why does machine learning always seem to be rounding a corner, only to eventually hit a wall?

DeepMind, a part of Alphabet (i.e., Google), has made many headlines in the past. The biggest was its development of AlphaGo, which used reinforcement learning to beat the number one Go player at the time (2017). DeepMind generalized this into AlphaZero, which is supposedly able to solve any two-player game of perfect information. DeepMind has come back into headlines recently with the attempt to build an AI which can generate any algorithm. While they are starting with map data, the goal is to generalize this and generate any desired algorithm. The search for such a “universal algorithm” has been essentially equivalent to the search for a perpetual motion machine in physics. The allure of both is obvious. In physics, if you…

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Code Debt is not Real Debt

Equating code debt with monetary debt can lead to strategic technology mistakes

The term “code debt” in computer programming refers to the idea that certain decisions in writing computer code will lead to future consequences which have to be dealt with. By saving time now, the programmer is setting himself up for the need to take more time later. In other words, he is “borrowing” from the future. While this metaphor is helpful to use in many situations, there are some significant differences between code debt and real debt, and those differences need to be included more often in software development discussions. First, for those who are not familiar with the concept of code debt, let me give a simplified example. Let’s say that I need to deliver a project next week,…

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Nissan Develops Autonomous Taxi Service in Japan

Nissan recently chose to advance their pursuit of an autonomous vehicle by developing a taxi service to work in limited locations

One of the quieter players in the development of autonomous technology over the last decade has been Nissan. They originally announced the development of their autonomous technology in 2013, claiming that it would be fully ready to bring to market by 2020.  While Nissan had a more realistic timeline than other companies touting autonomous development, it fell prey to the same failure to realize the actual complications that are inherent in truly autonomous scenarios. A graphic developed by Nissan in 2017 (shown below) shows the naïveté that was rampant during that time period. Nissan imagined that there were four stages to the development of autonomous vehicles— (1) single-lane highway, (2) multi-lane highway, (3) city driving, and then (4) full autonomy. The problem, as we have noted…

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The Entrepreneur’s Worst Mistake In New Technology Ventures

As a new entrepreneur, you won't make it to 100,000 users unless the product works well for your customers

I’ve worked with many tech startups over the years. By and large there has always been one overriding factor that has caused tech startups to falter — trying to build their application to handle too much traffic upfront. The goal of every tech entrepreneur is for everyone in the country to use their next product. Everyone is going to make the next star application, like Facebook. In order to accomplish this, tech entrepreneurs give a command to their tech team that is probably their worst mistake: “Make the application able to scale to millions of users.” That might sound like a reasonable request, but I can assure you that it is absolutely the worst possible plan of attack. Programming legend…

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The Two Most Common Problems with Outsourced Code

And how to mitigate against them

I have had many opportunities to work with developers outside the United States in a variety of capacities. To begin with, let me assure readers that there are great developers all over the world. The sun never sets on the current team I work with. The great thing about software development is that you can find great talent wherever the Internet is. There are great individual developers in every country, but I have found that, in many countries, the culture of software development has not evolved to where it is in America. When hiring individual developers, this rarely matters. The proper developers tend to gravitate to whatever level you are hiring at (or, alternatively, you can have a headhunter screen…

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Know When to Hold ’em, Know When to Fold ’em

Taking control of the rewrite reflex

Computer programmers are a pretty predictable bunch. Every time they approach legacy code, the gut reaction is “let’s rewrite this from scratch.” The reaction is understandable for many reasons.  First of all, code written by someone else (or even yourself a long time ago) is hard to understand. Even good documentation can’t cover every detail you need to know, and there is nothing that helps you understand the problem better than writing the code yourself. Second, as time goes on, and you think about a problem, you always come up with better (or at least different) approaches. You might realize that some aspect of your code could be factored out. You might think that rearranging the code would make it…

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Nobody is Taking Tesla AI Seriously Anymore

Tesla's "AI Day" presented reasonable discussion until the "robot" showed up

Recently, Tesla held its “AI Day.” Tesla often creates an event which highlights some aspect of their business that they want to promote to investors, customers, or to potential employees. Tesla has had “battery day” and “autonomy day” to promote Tesla efforts on those fronts. It is an attempt to keep excitement and exposure to a maximum during seasons when there are no big product reveals. While Elon Musk is typically guilty of leading people on with extravagant (and unwarranted) claims about Tesla technology, these events have recently shown a more reserved side to Tesla’s front man. In “battery day,” he was expected to launch a million-mile battery, but instead talked mostly about getting access to the minerals needed for…

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Blockchains Have NFTs Unnecessarily Tied Down

New ideas propose severing the accidental relationship between NFTs and blockchains

Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs), for those who haven’t been paying attention, are digital collectibles that have been gaining popularity. Essentially, they allow someone to “mark” their “ownership” of a piece of cyberspace.  Since their original inception in 2012, NFTs have invariably been tied to blockchain technology. However, a recent review of the technology by Bernard Fickser has shown that there is nothing inherently tying NFTs to blockchain. In fact, blockchains may be holding NFTs back considerably. (For those needing a refresher, a short guide to how the blockchain works can be found here.) In his article, Fickser notes several interesting discrepancies between NFTs and cryptocurrencies. First of all, there is a lot of technology built into cryptocurrencies to keep them anonymous, while the entire point of…

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No, the Surveillance State isn’t Better in the Hands of the Public

Matt Walsh's suggestion that cameras be installed in every classroom is understandable, but it won't teach children to live in a free society

In the modern era, cameras are everywhere. Nearly every person — man, woman, or child — carries a high-end video camera with them everywhere they go on their cell phone. This proliferation of cheap surveillance equipment has caused society to largely re-think the ethics of surveillance. In previous generations, sound and video recording devices were expensive. While recording equipment in general was not out of the reach of ordinary people, miniaturized equipment was, and having enough of it to actually “surveil” someone or something was quite expensive. Today, I can have nondescript cameras set up in each room in my house for just a few hundred dollars. This ability for ordinary people to engage in constant surveillance of their own…

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A Look at How New NFC Chips Prevent Counterfeiting

The same technology used in your "tap to pay" credit card is making life for counterfeiters much tougher

In the modern world of mass production, many products get their value from being one-of-a-kind. Special, limited edition shoes sell for unbelievable prices. Custom paintings and limited edition Blu-ray Discs all sell for a premium, precisely because there are so few of them in existence. However, these high-markup items quickly bring counterfeiters. As profit margins increasingly depend on limited editions, the importance of anti-counterfeiting technology becomes more important. In the last few years, NXP released a new chip that makes life much tougher for counterfeiters. NXP’s new NTAG 424 DNA chip provides an easy way for specialty manufacturers to prove the authenticity of products. This chip is made possible by many modern advancements in NFC technology. Let’s dive a little…