Mind Matters Natural and Artificial Intelligence News and Analysis

Gary Smith

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Vaccine or flu shot in injection needle. Doctor working with patient's arm. Physician or nurse giving vaccination and immunity to virus, influenza or HPV with syringe. Appointment with medical expert.

COVID-19, Bayes’ Rule, and Simpson’s paradox

Israeli data, when studied carefully, confirm the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines

Israel has a very high COVID-19 vaccination rate and yet, on August 15, 2021, 58% of those Israelis hospitalized for COVID-19 were fully vaccinated — suggesting that vaccinations are ineffective or even harmful. This is a great example of two common statistical traps. The first is confusion about inverse probabilities. One hundred doctors were once asked this hypothetical question: In a routine examination, you find a lump in a female patient’s breast. In your experience, only 1 out of 100 such lumps turn out to be malignant, but, to be safe, you order a mammogram X-ray. If the lump is malignant, there is a 0.80 probability that the mammogram will identify it as malignant; if the lump is benign, there is a 0.90 probability that…

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Cold fresh lemonade with slices of ripe lemons.

Insurance Company Gives Sour AI Promises

Data collection and discriminatory algorithms are turning Lemonade sour

An insurance company with the quirky name Lemonade was founded in 2015 and went public in 2020. In addition to raising hundreds of millions of dollars from eager investors, Lemonade quickly attracted more than a million customers with the premise that artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms can estimate risks accurately and that buying insurance and filing claims can be fun: Lemonade is built on a digital substrata — we use bots and machine learning to make insurance instant, seamless, and delightful. Adding to the delight are the friendly names of their bots, like AI Maya, AI Jim, and AI Cooper. The company doesn’t explain how its AI works, but there is this head-scratching boast: A typical homeowners policy form has 20-40…

Stethoscope on computer with test results in Doctor consulting room background and report chart for medical costs in modern hospital on Laptop desk. Healthcare costs business and fees concept.

An Epic Failure: Overstated AI Claims in Medicine

Independent investigations are finding that AI algorithms used in hospitals are not all they claim to be

Epic Systems, America’s largest electronic health records company, maintains medical information for 180 million U.S. patients (56% of the population). Using the slogan, “with the patient at the heart,” it has a portfolio of 20 proprietary artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms designed to identify different illnesses and predict the length of hospital stays. As with many proprietary algorithms in medicine and elsewhere, users have no way of knowing whether Epic’s programs are reliable or just another marketing ploy. The details inside the black boxes are secret and independent tests are scarce. One of the most important Epic algorithms is for predicting sepsis, the leading cause of death in hospitals. Sepsis occurs when the human body overreacts to an infection and sends chemicals into the…

Panoramic image, Man hand holding piggy bank on wood table. Save money and financial investment

The Word “AI” Has Become a Marketing Ploy

Think twice before investing in a business that uses the word "AI" without further explanation

Justin Wang received a bachelor’s degree from Murdoch University in 2012 with a grade of 83.7% and a master’s degree in Information Technology Management from the University of Sydney in 2016 with a grade of 82.5%. In January 2017, he founded a Singapore-based company with the mysteriously cool name Scry in order to “manage information technology to achieve business goals, as well as – and perhaps more importantly – how it can be wielded to disrupt existing value networks.” What’s behind the mystery and jargon? It turns out that Scry is a “social forecasting platform.” Users join for free and can enter their personal estimates of the probabilities that certain events will happen, with Scry calculating the average probability. For example, one question is,…

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man hand bitcoin

Using Benford’s Law to Detect Bitcoin Manipulation

Market prices are not invariably equal to intrinsic values

For a while, there was a popular belief among finance professors that the stock market is “efficient” in the sense that stock prices are always correct — the prices that an all-knowing God would set. Thus, investors can buy any stock, even a randomly selected stock, and be confident that they are paying a fair price. This belief was based on seemingly overwhelming evidence that changes in stock prices are difficult to predict. Efficient market enthusiasts argued that if stock prices are always correct, taking into account all currently available information, then any changes in stock prices must be due to new information which, by definition, is impossible to predict. Therefore, the evidence that changes in stock prices are hard to…

Robot prints on a typewriter

The Great American Novel Will Not be Written by a Computer

It takes more than statistical genius to understand words and create works of art

I’ve written before about how computer algorithms are like Nigel Richards, the New Zealander who has won multiple French-language Scrabble tournaments even though he does not understand the words he is spelling. Computers can similarly manipulate words in many useful ways — e.g., spellchecking, searching, alphabetizing — without any understanding of the words they are manipulating. To know what words mean, they would have to understand the world we live in. They don’t. One example is their struggles with the Winograd schema challenge — recognizing what it refers to in a sentence. Another example is the inability to answer simple questions like, “Is it safe to walk downstairs backwards if I close my eyes?” A third type of example is the brittleness of language translation programs. Yet another…

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Stack of papers isolated on white background

A Vulnerable System: Fake Papers and Imaginary Scientists

Publication counts and citation indexes are too noisy and too easily manipulated to be reliable

In the last two posts, we examined how scientific publication has ceased to be a good measure of scientific accomplishment, and how the peer review system is being gamed by unscrupulous publishers and researchers alike. Now, we will continue the discussion on the undermining of scientific publication using two examples: SCIgen and citation counts. SCIgen In 2005 three MIT graduate computer science students created a prank program they called SCIgen for using randomly selected words to generate bogus computer-science papers complete with realistic graphs of random numbers. Their goal was “maximum amusement rather than coherence,” and also to demonstrate that some academic conferences will accept almost anything. They submitted a hoax paper titled, “Rooter: A Methodology for the Typical Unification of Access Points and Redundancy,”…

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Lying businessman holding fingers crossed behind his back

Gaming the System: The Flaws in Peer Review

Peer review is well-intentioned, but flawed in many ways

Last time, we examined how scientific publication has ceased to be a good measure of scientific accomplishment because it has now become a target, following Goodhart’s Law. In today’s post, we will continue that examination by turning to the peer review system, and how that system is being gamed by unscrupulous publishers and researchers alike. In theory, the peer review process is intended to ensure that research papers do not get published unless impartial experts in the field deem them worthy of publication. Peer review is well-intentioned, but flawed in many ways. First, the best researchers are incredibly busy and naturally more inclined to do their own research than to review someone else’s work. Thus, peer review is often cursory or…

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Custom library

Publish or Perish — Another Example of Goodhart’s Law

In becoming a target, publication has ceased to be a good measure

The linchpin of scientific advances is that scientists publish their findings so that others can learn from them and expand on their insights. This is why some books are rightly considered among the most influential mathematical and scientific books of all time:  Elements, Euclid, c. 300 B.C.Physics, Aristotle, c. 330 B.C.On the Revolutions of Heavenly Spheres, Nicolaus Copernicus, 1543Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, Galileo Galilei, 1632Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, Isaac Newton, 1687The Origin of Species, Charles Darwin, 1859 As Newton said, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.” It seems logical to gauge the importance of modern-day researchers by how much they have published and how often their research has been cited…

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Restaurant automation service concept. Robot waiter serving a tray with a bottles and wine glass. Two wheels robotic character on yellow wall, gray floor background. copy space

A World Without Work? Don’t Hold Your Breath

Predictions of mass unemployment caused by robots continue to be wildly inaccurate

Will we soon be sitting on couches watching reality TV shows while robots work 24/7 doing all of the work humans used to do? The idea that robots will replace most human labor has been around for almost 100 years and has become more popular with each new advance, from sensors and microprocessors to enterprise software, data analytics, and AI. The latest wave of robot hysteria was tweaked by The Singularity is Near in 2005, emboldened by Race Against the Machine in 2012, and sent over the top by The Second Machine Age and The Rise of Robots in 2016, and A World Without Work in 2020, all best sellers. A World Without Work was shortlisted for the Financial Times & McKinsey 2020 Business Book of the Year, in addition…

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Group Senior people  legs walking exercise at public park . selective focus - Image

Exercise is Medicine: The Power of Regular Physical Activity

Recent research reveals that exercise is one of our most powerful defenses against illness and disease

The United States spent $3.8 trillion on health care in 2019, before COVID-19. That’s 17.7 percent of U.S. Gross Domestic Product and nearly $13,000 per person. That’s more than double the average spending in dozens of comparable countries, yet U.S. health care outcomes are near the bottom of any list. We have the highest obesity rates in all age groups and the second highest death rate from heart disease. For life expectancy at birth, the U.S. ranks 34th, behind Chile and Lebanon. We have arguably the best doctors, medicines, and hospitals. Why are so many of us in poor health and why do so many of us die young? We can blame the system or we can blame ourselves. Enter…

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Sisters playing with wagon cart on the road outdoors

Artificial Unintelligence

The failure of computer programs to recognize a rudimentary drawing of a wagon reveals the vast differences between artificial and human intelligence

In 1979, when he was just 34 years old, Douglas Hofstadter won a National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize for his book, Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, which explored how our brains work and how computers might someday mimic human thought. He has spent his life trying to solve this incredibly difficult puzzle. How do humans learn from experience? How do we understand the world we live in? Where do emotions come from? How do we make decisions? Can we write inflexible computer code that will mimic the mysteriously flexible human mind?  Hofstadter has concluded that analogy is “the fuel and fire of thinking.” When humans see, hear, or read something, we can focus on the most salient features, its “skeletal essence.”…

Close-up Of A Robot's Hand Holding Stethoscope
Close-up Of A Robot's Hand Holding Stethoscope On Colorful Background`

Doctors Won’t Be Obsolete Anytime Soon

Despite fanfare and positive portrayals in pop culture, artificial intelligence “doctors” are failing to live up to the hype.

A careful analysis of British hospital records found that an annual average of 1,600 adults over the age of 30 had used outpatient child and adolescent psychiatry services and that a comparable number of youths aged 0-19 years old had used outpatient geriatric services. Tongue-firmly-in-cheek, the authors speculated that, “We are not clear why so many adults seem to be availing themselves of pediatric services, but it might be part of an innovative exchange program with pediatric patients attending geriatric services.” They also found that thousands of men used outpatient obstetrics, gynecology, and midwifery services each year, though there were fewer women availing themselves of vasectomies. These were clearly clerical errors made by fallible humans recording patient data. Could computers do…

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man hand bulb in nature

Why We Need to Stop Relying On Patents to Measure Innovation

The key to a nation's long-run economic growth is the effect of innovation on productivity, and has little to do with patent activity

Patent databases may be a smoke screen that hides the true issues, problems, and dynamics of innovation behind the illusion that innovation is booming—and that patent activity measures the boom.  We are said to live in a time of remarkable innovation, with the computer/information revolution often compared to the Industrial Revolution in allowing people to produce more while working less. Economists, consultants, and other business gurus are striving mightily to quantify this revolution and to understand its sources and implications. One popular metric is the number of new patents issued each year. For example, the pace of innovation might be gauged by the fact that there were 669,434 US patent applications and 390,499 new patents awarded in 2019, each triple the…

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the toss

Spot and Choose: Fair Play is Uniquely Human

How snake drafts, cake cuts, and queues exemplify human uniqueness

In the National Basketball Association All-Star exhibition game that was played yesterday, Team LeBron defeated Team Durant by a score of 170-150. The captains (LeBron James and Kevin Durant, both pictured) had taken turns choosing players for their teams. LeBron got the first pick (Giannis Antetokounmpo), Durant the second (Steph Curry), LeBron the third (Luka Doncic), and so on. The talent is so uniform among the top two dozen NBA players that there is no real advantage to choosing first or second: any given player is arguably as good or better than the player chosen before him. In addition, the game is just an exhibition intended to entertain the fans with spectacular offensive plays, while the defense mainly tries to…

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All seeing eye

The Illuminati and How Science Now Fuels Anti-Science

Like Frankenstein's monster, technology aided by science has become a monster fueling anti-scientific theories

The advice column in the April 1969 issue of Playboy included the usual questions about broads, beers, and baldness, followed by an unusually long (300-word) letter that began: I recently heard an old man of right-wing views—a friend of my grandparents—assert that the current wave of assassinations in America is the work of a secret society called the Illuminati. He said that the Illuminati have existed throughout history, own the international banking cartels, have all been 32nd-degree Masons and were known to Ian Fleming, who portrayed them as SPECTRE in his James Bond books—for which the Illuminati did away with Mr. Fleming. The letter ended with two questions: Do they really own all the banks and TV stations? And who have they killed lately? Playboy gave…

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Closeup of witcher cauldron with magical mixture for Halloween

Bubble, Bubble, Toil and Trouble: Here We Go Again

Trouble brews when inexperienced traders try their hand at the stock market

The extraordinary investor and statesman Bernard Baruch once warned that, When beggars and shoeshine boys, barbers and beauticians can tell you how to get rich, it is time to remind yourself that there is no more dangerous illusion than the belief that one can get something for nothing. Over and over and over again, the unwary fall for money-for-nothing illusions — Dutch tulip bulbs, South Sea stocks, Japanese real estate, dot-com stocks, and bitcoin, not to mention baseball cards, beanie babies, and other so-called collectibles. Now we have a torrent of Reddit chatter inspiring the gullible to gobble up shares of GameStop, AMC, and whatever catches the crowd’s collective attention. Many Reddit-pumped buyers claim that they are part of a noble battle to punish…

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Convergence Background, Converge Toward Objective

Will Mediocrity Triumph? The Fallacy That Will Not Die

Economist claims: It is a fundamental economic truth that businesses converge to mediocrity. Is he right?

Nearly 100 years ago, a famous economist named Horace Secrist wrote a book with the provocative title, The Triumph of Mediocrity in Business. He had spent ten years collecting and analyzing data on the success of dozens of companies in dozens of industries during the years 1920 to 1930. For each measure of success, he used the 1920 data to divide the companies in each industry into quartiles: the top 25%, second 25%, third 25%, and bottom 25%. He then calculated the average value of the success metric for the 1920 top-quartile companies every year from 1920 to 1930. He did the same for the other three quartiles. In every case, the companies in both the top two quartiles and the bottom two…

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Basketball scoring basket at a sports arena

Steph Curry Got Red Hot and Torched the “Hot Hand Fallacy”

Many statisticians dismiss remarkable streaks like his as the Hot Hand Fallacy. Are they right?
Is “Hot Hands” really a fallacy, as some claim? Steph Curry is arguably the greatest shooter in National Basketball Association (NBA) history. In 2020, during practice the day after Christmas, Curry demolished that record by making 105 consecutive 3-point shots. Read More ›
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Junk Science concept

The British Medical Journal’s Top Picks in Offbeat Medical Science

In its legendary Christmas edition, the Journal highlights interesting findings that are often junk science

The British Medical Journal (BMJ) is one of the world’s oldest and most prestigious medical journals. Each Christmas, they take time off from the usual dry academic papers and publish studies that are noteworthy for their originality: “We don’t want to publish anything that resembles anything we’ve published before.” Although the papers are unusual, BMJ’s editors state that: While the subject matter may be more light-hearted, research papers in the Christmas issue adhere to the same high standards of novelty, methodological rigour, reporting transparency, and readability as apply in the regular issue. Christmas papers are subject to the same competitive selection and peer review process as regular papers. The articles are often goofy, and four have won the dreaded satiric…