Addressing the nation on Monday following a weekend of mass shootings — one in El Paso, Texas, and a second in Dayton, Ohio — United States President Donald Trump blamed the attacks, in part, on the “dark recesses of the Internet.”
Referring to the web as “a dangerous avenue to radicalize disturbed minds and perform demented acts,” Trump called on social media companies, in partnership with law enforcement agencies, “to develop tools that can detect mass shooters before they strike.” While the president didn’t elaborate on the form such tools would take, many interpreted the remark as a request for some type of predictive system, likely assisted by artificial intelligence (AI), to flag individuals at risk of carrying out violence based on the content they post, seek out, or otherwise engage with on social media platforms.
Many platforms — including Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter — already deploy a mix of human and software moderation to flag, delete, and respond to violent or extremist content. But these systems are far from perfect — and have drawn criticism for both infringing on free speech and allowing hate speech to proliferate.
Predictive AI has a tendency to raise ethical red flags, as biases can creep into each stage of the technology’s construction and deployment, from which variables the algorithms include, to the data on which they are trained, to how much weight their calculations are given in the final decision. But as experts told Vox, even state-of-the art systems slip up when it comes to understanding context and inferring meaning. In situations as high-stakes as identifying a potential shooter, even a tiny error rate could wrongfully land a huge number of people on a watch-list, in a database, or even in police custody.
Desmond Patton, a professor of social work at Columbia University who uses computational science to study the relationship between social media and gang violence told Vox he worries predictive AI would disproportionately flag youth of color based on his studies of the data such algorithms often interpret as violent or threatening.
Critics have also pointed out the hypocrisy in Trump’s call to social media companies, as the president has frequently used such platforms to post racist and violent messages, and encourage those of others. Trump has previously criticized social media platforms for unfairly censoring conservative voices and hosted a “social media summit” earlier this year, with a guestlist including far-right conspiracy theorists, but devoid of representatives from social media companies.
Also this week:
• As the U.S. moves towards 5G — a higher frequency mobile network that will offer faster internet speeds and support more devices — forecasters worry it could interfere with their ability to make accurate weather predictions. NASA, the nation’s space agency, along with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, say 5G antennas will move into a frequency extremely close to the one used by satellites to gather water vapor data used to model storms and other weather systems. The agencies have said industry signal strengths need to be limited to around -42 decibel watts. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), meanwhile, has proposed allowing signals 100 times as strong. Even if the agencies are able to come to an agreement, meteorologists say, other frequencies the FCC plans to auction off could pose issues for other forecasting data. (Science)
• “There was a sense that if the science agreed with the politics, then the policymakers would consider it to be ‘good science,’ and if it didn’t agree with the politics, then it was something that was flawed and needed to be done again.” So said one of the nation’s leading climate scientists, Lewis Ziska, in a wide-ranging interview with Politico this week after he announced that he’d had enough and was quitting the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) after more than 20 years. Ziska, a plant physiologist, echoed an increasingly common complaint across several scientific agencies under the Trump administration: that political pressure — often subtle, sometimes less so — is being applied to downplay, suppress, or avoid research related to climate change. His department, Ziska suggested, has been operating under a pall of fear that its work will run afoul of the president’s open skepticism of accepted climate science, resulting in a hobbling of USDA researchers’ ability to “provide farmers and policymakers with important information about complex threats to the global food supply,” Politico noted. Such information included Ziska’s own research last year suggesting that rising levels of carbon dioxide are causing rice to lose nutrient loads. USDA political appointees, Ziska complained, openly questioned his findings, and worked to minimize media coverage of their publication in scientific journals. “You get the sense that things have changed,” Ziska said, “[and] that this is not a place for you to be exploring things that don’t agree with someone’s political views.” (Politico)
• From Amazon’s Alexa to Apple’s Siri, virtual assistants have become commonplace in many homes, allowing users to check the weather, play music, and shop online using only the sound of their voice. But following reports that human reviewers have access to some voice recordings, regulators in Germany are now investigating whether the tech giants, Google included, are violating European privacy regulations. Amazon’s program, which now allows users to opt out, has thousands of reviewers across the globe listening and transcribing audio clips with the goal of improving the software’s understanding and response to commands. Google and Apple have suspended similar programs during the investigation. Amid concerns that the companies’ smart devices may also be recording users unprompted, Congressman Seth Moulton of Massachusetts introduced a bill last month that would give the Federal Trade Commission the ability to issue fines of up to $40,000 per incident. (Bloomberg)
• Peto’s Paradox, named for British epidemiologist Richard Peto, describes the observation that the number of cells in an organism does not appear to be correlated with its cancer risk. And nowhere is the paradox more evident, perhaps, than among cetaceans — the group of mammals that includes whales, dolphins, and porpoises. Compared to humans, after all, whales and elephants have hundreds of times the number of cells — and have similarly long natural lifespans. And yet, those cells are far less likely to become cancerous and kill them. This quality has long given scientists reason to speculate that somewhere in the DNA of these large beasts, a potential new cancer treatment for humans may be lurking — and research published this spring seemed to confirm that cetaceans have evolved with an array of tumor-suppressing genes. That may seem like promising news, but the window for understanding precisely how that tumor-suppression mechanism works may be closing quickly. That’s because whales are among the many species currently threatened by dwindling population numbers — a direct result of over-hunting, pollution, and other human-driven stressors. Of course, researchers are quick to point out that there are plenty of reasons for protecting the world’s megafauna from extinction. But the potential loss to science — and to the battle against human cancer — is also real, they say. “If we lost the opportunity to study these animals in the wild, and if we don’t protect them,” one cancer researcher told Undark this week, “we could be losing cures for many different diseases to come.” (Undark)
• Mexican scientists are reeling from a one-two punch of budget cuts imposed by first-year President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, reports Nature. In May — after having already dealt a 12 percent cut to the budget of the National Council of Science and Technology — López Obrador sharply curtailed the agency’s spending on fuel, temporary workers, and travel to international conferences, which he belittled as “tourism.” The latest cuts were part of a broader austerity package intended to free up money for poverty programs. But now scientists say they’re feeling the pinch: One immunologist has resorted to a crowdfunding campaign to raise money for research supplies. Other scientists have canceled research trips, potentially putting international collaborations at risk. And at the country’s Institute of Ecology, electricity is reportedly being rationed to save money. An open letter by dozens of scientists asking the government to reverse the funding cuts has now been signed by more than 18,000 people. The López Obrador administration continues to defend the cuts, arguing that its total investments in science exceed that of the previous administration. (Nature)
• And finally: The latest addition to the increasingly absurd cannon of viral Twitter moments: User William McNabb’s tweet asking how he could “kill the 30-50 feral hogs” running through his yard in response to musician Jason Isbell’s post on the necessity of gun ownership. All memes aside, feral hogs are a real and growing ecological issue in many parts of the southern United States. An invasive species brought over by Spanish conquistadors, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported in 2014 some 5 million swine in at least 39 states, causing approximately $1.5 billion in damages each year. The hogs, notorious for evading traps and capture, gobble up crops, eat local wildlife, and trample archeological sites. In Texas, “aerial hog hunting,” in which individuals shoot the swine from low-flying helicopters is both legal and popular. (The Washington Post)