In firing human editors, Facebook has lost the fight against fake news

In firing human editors, Facebook has lost the fight against fake news
It took only two days for an algorithm to highlight a fake story about Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly. Facebook’s influence on news dissemination makes such mistakes arguably irresponsible
By Olivia Solon in San Francisco
Aug 29 2016

Two days after Facebook announced it was replacing the humans that write the Trending Topics descriptions with robots, a fake article about Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly appeared in its list of trending stories.

On Friday, Facebook announced that in a bid to reduce bias it would make the Trending feature more automated and laid off up to 26 contractors hired to write and edit the short descriptions that accompanied each trend. On Sunday a story headlined “Breaking: Fox News Exposes Traitor Megyn Kelly, Kicks Her Out for Backing Hillary” found its way into the list of trending stories – despite the fact that it’s not true.

Facebook hasn’t completely replaced humans with robots. There are still people involved in the process to “confirm that a topic is tied to a current news event in the real world”, says the social network. As the Megyn Kelly episode shows, there are clearly flaws in that process.

The case illustrates how Facebook has lost its battle with fake news. 

In January 2015, the social network updated the news feed to “reduce the distribution of posts that people have reported as hoaxes”. The problem is that people are easily fooled by fake news too, and a plethora of tricky-to-distinguish fake news sites have emerged. Facebook’s hoax detection system relies on user-submitted notifications that a link is fishy; if users don’t spot a story is a dud, neither does Facebook. 

This problem becomes more pernicious as it leaks out into the real world. In the past month, there have been two cases of mass panic at airports – at JFK on 14 Augustand at LAX on 28 August – where false reports of gunmen were whipped up by social media in the absence of official information or instructions. 

Compounding the issue is the news that Facebook will soon allow users to trigger the Safety Check setting during emergencies. The feature was launched in October 2014to allow users to flag to their loved ones that they were safe during major natural disasters. It has since expanded to cover terrorist attacks as well.

“The next thing we need to do is make it so that communities can trigger it themselves when there is some disaster,” said Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, speaking at at town hall meeting in Rome on Monday.

Moving from a top-down disaster alert model to a bottom-up one should, in theory, help Facebook counter some of the criticism it received for being biased towards western nations. 

When the company activated the Safety Check tool after the terror attacks in Paris in November, critics argued that it should have activated the tool in places like Lebanon, where terrorists killed twice as many people on the same day.

While it makes sense to try to bring more balance to the Safety Check system, allowing anyone to trigger it themselves could add legitimacy to the kind of chaotic herd behaviour seen at JFK and LAX.


The Anthropocene epoch could inaugurate even more marvellous eras of evolution

The Anthropocene epoch could inaugurate even more marvellous eras of evolution
The darkest prognosis is that bio, cyber or environmental catastrophes could foreclose humanity’s potential. But there is an optimistic option
By Martin Rees
Aug 29 2016

On Christmas Eve 1968, the Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders took a photograph of the view outside the window as his spaceship orbited the moon. The now iconic Earthrise image shows our half-moon blue planet under a decoration of clouds rising from the blackness of space over the lunar surface.

The picture encapsulated Earth’s precariousness in the cosmos and, for many, contained a message of humility and stewardship for our home.

We’ve had Earthrise and images like it from the Apollo missions for half a century now. But suppose some aliens had been viewing our planet for its entire 4.5bn-year history. What would they have seen?

Over nearly all that immense time, changes would have been very gradual: continents drifted; the ice cover waxed and waned; successive species emerged, evolved and became extinct during a succession of geological eras.

But visible change has accelerated rapidly in the past few thousand years – a tiny sliver of the Earth’s history. Now geologists have decided those changes have been so profound, so global and so permanent that our catalogue of the Earth’s history needs to change accordingly. Since the last ice age, around 11,000 years ago, human civilisation has flourished in the climatically benign Holocene. Now they believe that epoch has come to an end and we have entered a new human-influenced age, the Anthropocene.

The changes that our aliens could observe from space are not hard to spot. In just the last few thousand years, the patterns of vegetation altered much faster than before. These human-induced changes signalled the start of agriculture. 

And human activity manifested itself in other ways that will leave traces in the geological record. Constructs of concrete and metal sprawled across the continents; domesticated vertebrates numerically overwhelmed wild ones; the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere rose anomalously fast; traces appeared of plutonium and other “un-natural” substances.

The imaginary aliens watching our world would have noticed something else unprecedented in geological history. Rockets launched from the planet’s surface escaped the biosphere completely. Some were propelled into orbits around the Earth; some journeyed to the moon and planets.

What do these trends portend? Should we be optimistic or anxious? It’s surprising how little we can confidently predict – indeed, we can’t predict as far ahead as our forebears could. Our medieval ancestors thought the Earth was only a few thousand years old, and might only last another thousand. But they didn’t expect their children’s lives to be very different from theirs. They built cathedrals that wouldn’t be finished in their lifetime.

Our time horizons, both past and future, now stretch billions of years, not just thousands. The sun will keep shining for about another 6bn years. But ironically we can’t forecast terrestrial trends with as much confidence as our ancestors could. Their lives and environment changed slowly from generation to generation. For us, technological change is so fast that scenarios quickly enter the realm of wild conjecture and science fiction.

But some things we can predict, at least a few decades ahead. By mid-century, the world will be more crowded, and our collective footprint will be heavier. World population is now 7.2 billion and is forecast to rise to around 9 billion by 2050. Experts predict continuing urbanisation – and huge growth of megacities such as Lagos, São Paulo and Delhi. Population trends later this century depend largely on what happens in Africa, where some UN predictions foresee a further doubling between 2050 and 2100.


The Same Microbe That Led to Black Death Also Caused a Huge Plague Centuries Before

The Same Microbe That Led to Black Death Also Caused a Huge Plague Centuries Before
By Jennifer Ouellette
Aug 30 2016

Centuries before the Black Death decimated the population of Western Europe, an earlier plague epidemic took out over 50 million people (about 15 percent of the population) in the Byzantine empire. A team of German scientists has confirmed that the two plagues were caused by the same bacterium, albeit genetically different strains.

The so-called Justinian plague—named after the Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian I, who actually survived his bout with the disease—first broke out around 541, spreading rapidly across Asia, North Africa, the Middle East, and Europe. At its peak, historical records show that the disease claimed 10,000 lives each day in Constantinople, although modern scholars think it might be half that number. Bodies were stacked in the streets, making the entire city reek of decay. Waves of the Justinian plague variety continued to break out for the next three centuries, gradually becoming less virulent.

Historians have speculated that infected rats (and their fleas) aboard ships importing grain brought the disease to Constantinople via Egypt. The plague is caused by a bacillus called Yersinia pestis (Y. pestis for short). It’s so virulent that injecting mice with a mere three bacilli was sufficient to kill them in experiments — and a single flea bite can transmit 24,000 of the deadly microbe. 

According to a new paper in Molecular Biology and Evolution, genetic analysis of the remains of plague victims found in an ancient German burial site confirmed that this particular strain of the bacillus came from China.

Specifically, they analyzed tiny variations within the Y. persis genome, recovered from the skeletons. Such variations are the result of mutations called single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) that make them unique. SNPs are a bit like the typographical errors that occur over repeated copying, except in this case it is not a manuscript being copied but DNA. Cells replicate by dividing in two, and each new cell carries the same full set of instructions contained within the DNA. But with each replication, small variations creep into the sequence at particular locations on the genome.

Earlier work by a team led by Dave Wagner, a microbial geneticist at Northern Arizona University, among others, first pinpointed Y. pestis as the culprit behind both the Justinian Plague and the Black Death. This was based on an analysis of gleaned from the teeth of two German victims killed by the plague around 1500 years ago. However, the Black Death plague wasn’t a direct descendent of the Justinian version, according to co-author Michal Feldman of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena. Rather, it’s more of a distant cousin rather than direct offspring.


Appeals Court Tosses Data Speed Case Brought Against AT&T

[Note:  This item comes from reader Randall Head.  DLH]

Appeals Court Tosses Data Speed Case Brought Against AT&T
By Dow Jones Business News
Aug 29 2016

A federal appeals court threw out a government lawsuit against AT&T Inc. that alleged the company misled wireless subscribers by selling them unlimited data plans and then quietly slowing down service if they consumed high amounts of data.

Monday’s ruling, from the San Francisco-based Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, is a blow to the Federal Trade Commission, which filed the suit in 2014 seeking potential refunds for consumers.

Although the FTC has broad authority to police unfair and deceptive commercial practices, it doesn’t have authority over “common carrier” phone services such as the landline services traditionally offered by AT&T. The commission had said it could pursue the company, however, because it involved data services, but the appeals court rejected that argument.

Over a three-year period, AT&T throttled data speeds that affected 3.5 million customers, the FTC alleged. AT&T during the litigation said it had implemented reasonable network management practices that slowed speeds only to the very heaviest users whose data consumption harmed the company’s network.

The ruling means government enforcement actions targeting an alleged lack of company transparency over internet data speeds would have to be brought by a different agency, the Federal Communications Commission.

The FCC brought a similar case against AT&T, announcing plans last year to fine the company $100 million on the grounds that the company didn’t adequately inform consumers about its program for slowing data speeds in certain circumstances. The company is contesting the case in proceedings before the FCC.

AT&T said it was pleased with Monday’s decision, while the FTC said it was disappointed and considering its options.

The ruling further solidifies the FTC’s diminishing authority in the telecommunications space. The consumer protection agency already was facing reduced enforcement powers thanks to open-Internet rules the FCC put in place last year. Those rules imposed common-carrier obligations on broadband services, including wireless.


Re: ‘Strong signal’ stirs interest in hunt for alien life

[Note:  This comment comes from reader Randall Head.  DLH]

Subject: Re: [Dewayne-Net] ‘Strong signal’ stirs interest in hunt for alien life
Date: August 30, 2016 at 7:52:48 PM EDT


‘Strong signal’ stirs interest in hunt for alien life


Aug 29 2016





Gonorrhea Is Becoming Untreatable, U.N. Health Officials Warn

Gonorrhea Is Becoming Untreatable, U.N. Health Officials Warn
Aug 30 2016

We are running out of ways to treat gonorrhea, the World Health Organization announced today.

The U.N. health agency released new guidelines warning doctors that it no longer recommends an entire class of antibiotics, quinolones, because quinolone-resistant strains of the disease have emerged all over the world.

Instead, the health agency recommends using cephalosporins, another class of antibiotic. The new protocol replaces guidelines that had not been changed since 2003.

According to the WHO, 78 million people are infected with gonorrhea every year.

Worldwide, health officials are concerned that overuse of antibiotics for other infections, such as urinary tract infections, will lead to widespread, untreatable strains of gonorrhea. In 2011, a super-resistant strain showed up in Japan.

As NPR’s Rob Stein has reported:

“Gonorrhea has been plaguing humanity for centuries. But ever since penicillin came along a dose of antibiotics would usually take care of the disease.

“‘Gonorrhea used to be susceptible to penicillin, ampicillin, tetracycline and doxycycline — very commonly used drugs,’ said Jonathan Zenilman, who studies infectious diseases at Johns Hopkins.

“But one by one, each of those antibiotics — and almost every new one that has come along since — eventually stopped working. One reason is that the bacterium that causes gonorrhea can mutate quickly to defend itself, Zenilman said.

“‘If this was a person, this person would be incredibly creative,’ he said. ‘The bug has an incredible ability to adapt and just develop new mechanisms of resisting the impact of these drugs.'”

The WHO shift to the new class of antibiotics will not fix that overall problem of bacterial creativity. In some countries, strains of gonorrhea are already resistant to the newly recommended class of drugs.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned back in 2012 that one of two drugs in the class of antibiotics the WHO now recommends, cephalosporins, was in danger of becoming useless to treat gonorrhea, at least in the U.S, and recommended that doctors stop prescribing it.

Since then, the CDC’s recommended treatment for gonorrhea has been a dual therapy, with the two antibiotics ceftriaxone and azithromycin, but an analysis in July warned that the bacteria could even become resistant to that combination.


The rise of robots: forget evil AI – the real risk is far more insidious

The rise of robots: forget evil AI – the real risk is far more insidious
It’s far more likely that robots would inadvertently harm or frustrate humans while carrying out our orders than they would rise up against us
By Olivia Solon in San Francisco
Aug 30 2016

When we look at the rise of artificial intelligence, it’s easy to get carried away with dystopian visions of sentient machines that rebel against their human creators. Fictional baddies such as the Terminator’s Skynet or Hal from 2001: A Space Odyssey have a lot to answer for.

However, the real risk posed by AI – at least in the near term – is much more insidious. It’s far more likely that robots would inadvertently harm or frustrate humans while carrying out our orders than they would become conscious and rise up against us. In recognition of this, the University of California, Berkeley has this week launched a center to focus on building people-pleasing AIs.

The Center for Human-Compatible Artificial Intelligence, launched this week with $5.5m in funding from the Open Philanthropy Project, is lead by computer science professor and artificial intelligence pioneer Stuart Russell. He’s quick to dispel any “unreasonable and melodramatic” comparisons to the threats posed in science fiction.

“The risk doesn’t come from machines suddenly developing spontaneous malevolent consciousness,” he said. “It’s important that we’re not trying to prevent that from happening because there’s absolutely no understanding of consciousness whatsoever.”

Russell is well known in the artificial intelligence community and in 2015 penned an open letter calling for researchers to look beyond the goal of simply making AI more capable and powerful to think about maximizing its social benefit. The letter has been signed by more than 8,000 scientists and entrepreneurs including physicist Stephen Hawking, entrepreneur Elon Musk and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak.

“The potential benefits [of AI research] are huge, since everything that civilization has to offer is a product of human intelligence; we cannot predict what we might achieve when this intelligence is magnified by the tools AI may provide, but the eradication of disease and poverty are not unfathomable,” the letter reads.

“Because of the great potential of AI, it is important to research how to reap its benefits while avoiding potential pitfalls.”

It’s precisely this thinking that underpins the new center.

Up until now, AI has primarily been applied to very limited contexts such as playing Chess or Go or recognizing objects in images, where there isn’t much scope for the system to do much damage. As they start to make decisions on our behalf within the real world, the stakes are much higher.

“As soon as you put things in the real world, with self-driving cars, digital assistants … as soon as they buy things on your behalf, turn down appointments, then they have to align with human values,” Russell said. 

He uses autonomous vehicles to illustrate the type of problem the center will try to solve. Someone building a self-driving car might instruct it never to go through a red light, but the machine might then hack into the traffic light control system so that all of the lights are changed to green. In this case the car would be obeying orders but in a way that humans didn’t expect or intend. Similarly, an artificially intelligent hedge fund designed to maximize the value of its portfolio could be incentivized to short consumer stocks, buy long on defence stocks and then start a war – as suggested by Elon Musk in Werner Herzog’s latest documentary.