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Dunning-Kruger and The Donald: torn between two topics

Like many other things in my life, I was made aware of the Dunning-Kruger Effect from listening to NPR. This time, it was my longest running favorite show, This American Life, that clued me in.

Briefly, the Dunning-Kruger Effect is is a cognitive bias in which relatively unskilled persons suffer illusory superiority, mistakenly assessing their ability to be much higher than it really is. The effect gets its name from the authors of the 199 paper, “Unskilled and unaware of it: How difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments” by Kruger, Justin; Dunning, David. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 77(6), Dec 1999, 1121-1134

One of the things that Dunning (who was interviewed for the show) said was that the effect had become a ‘meme’ that was often mentioned on twitter. To test this, the show’s producer immediately went online, entered the name of the two authors, and came up with a tweet calling Donald Trump a perfect example of the effect.

Ha! this is gunna be huge!! I can see myself gliding off the rails…

It’s hard to not see Trump as an example of any number of  psychological conditions. In fact, I think that it might be this more than anything that has all of us (even the ones who don’t admit it) fascinated by the Trump spectacle.

And the pool answered,
‘But I loved Narcissus because,
as he lay on my banks and looked down at me,
in the mirror of his eyes I saw ever my own beauty mirrored.’

Of course, merely by saying this, we are all sharing the tongue-in-cheek agreement that we know, for a fact, that The Donald is not at all intelligent. The assumption is not just that he is no better than average, but that he is significantly below average. Which might be going a bit too far. A total moron would have lost all the money he ever got from dad, wouldn’t he? I suspect that we’re all just over compensating for Trump’s own excesses in regard to self-opinion.We react to the narcissist by knocking them down – all the way down.

Again, I’m losing control

The problem is not whether the man is smart or dumb, ignorant or wise. The problem is that we are about to hand the reigns of what is arguably the world’s most powerful country over to an amateur out of frustration that things aren’t going better than they are. Imagine using that same logic in hiring a plumber or electrician for your home. “I’m so sick of all the electrical problems this place is having, I think I’ll hire Brittany Spears to wire my house! She’s rich; she must know what she’s doing.”

While Brittany probably is willing to admit that she doesn’t know anything about electrical work (I’m assuming this is true, but I don’t know), the narcissist finds nothing outside of his ken. See this great article in Vanity Fair where physcologists participate in some armchair sport and analyze Trump’s mind.

Grammar_Dunning_Kruger

From the 1999 paper

Getting back to the Dunning-Kruger effect, I think it’s worth noting that all groups in the data shown here believe that they’ve performed similarly. Dunning seemed to think that this was because the highest quarter was either modest or over estimating of others’ abilities, while the lowest two quarters were simply suffering from the using the same poor analytical skills in assessing themselves as they did in solving text questions.  How much is this just hand-waving to explain why we feel like the children of lake woebegone, all of us: above average?

twain.jpeg

The Figure 3 data above shows the Effect following examination of grammar ability. Nearly identical data resulted from similar examinations of logic and … humor? Apparently jokes were rated by commedians (in order to establish factual data on humor?) and then the participants were examined as with the other subjects.

Really though. How can you say that someone is incorrect on their ability to recognize funny. The problem I see with that data is that everyone – absolutely everyone, should have said that they scored 100% on that test.

 

 
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Posted by on April 28, 2016 in Uncategorized

 

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Three rediculously good short films by Uma Thurman

In 2014 Jameson Irish Whiskey made three short films with Uma Thurman. Each Better than the last.

The Mundane Goddess…

 
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Posted by on April 20, 2016 in Uncategorized

 

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Hypotheses and Theories

It’s a worn out discussion. It’s been explained time and again. The words theory and hypothesis are like open wounds and every time they get blatantly misused popularly, it’s as if a healthy coat of salt is copiously sprinkled atop them.

It’s a worn out discussion, but until we, collectively, decide that these words should be abandoned by scientists or that their proper definitions be taught from a young age, it’s got to be made again and again.

I was baited into rehashing this because I came across a Scientific American article about seven words that are repeatedly misused. Take a guess what number 1 and 2 were.

Exactly. I didn’t read far, but I did come to the part when the article asked, “What is the definition of ‘Hypothesis’?” Take a stab.

a1-main-091814schoolskrg0417.jpgThere’s a good chance that you will answer, “An educated guess.” If you didn’t answer that way, you may immediately think, “Oh yeah. That’s what I learned in Mr. So-and-So’s class.” I can very specifically remember the class in which I learned this definition. -although I can’t think of the teacher’s name presently. It was sixth grade (kind of old to be learning this, come to think of it) and I was in my Science classroom at Warner Elementary School in Wilmington, Delaware.

Hypothesis – An Educated Guess

OK. I can understand why someone might have thought this was a reasonable definition. Oxford Dictionaries uses the following: “A supposition or proposed explanation made on the basis of limited evidence as a starting point for further investigation.” They explain the etymology as coming originally from the Greek  hupothesis meaning ‘foundation.’

Immediately, the distinction is obvious.An educated guess might be anything. But it very certainly does not have a necessary connection with using it as a foundation for further investigation. Instead, it probably boils down in most people’s minds to: ‘Guess.’Or even, BS.

in boiling down hypothesis to some BS guesswork, there’s plenty of room left for ‘Theory’ to slide down to the position hypothesis is supposed to fill. Such as, “Well, I have a theory about that…” (actually, I think we just slid down to BS again.)

The University of California, Berkley definition of ‘Theory’ is “a broad, natural explanation for a wide range of phenomena. Theories are concise, coherent, systematic, predictive, and broadly applicable, often integrating and generalizing many hypotheses.” (I had to go to Berkley because my friends at Oxford were letting me down on this one.)

I thought I’d leave with a few examples of theories that form our understanding of the world today…

  1. The theory of gravity – basically, masses are attracted to one another
  2. The ever maligned theory of evolution – that we are here because our ancestors survived to have children
  3. The oxygen theory of combustion – that oxygen is what combines with materials during combustion
  4. The theory of plate tectonics – that the Earth’s surface is covered with plates that move relative to one another due to the planet’s internal furnace
  5. Heliocentricm – that the planets orbit the sun (basically a restatement of the theory of gravity under the specific conditions of our solar system.
  6. Atomic theory – that matter is made up of atoms.go-on-gravity-its-just-a-theory.jpg
 
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Posted by on April 18, 2016 in Uncategorized

 

The State of Science Education

Spotting-Bad-Science-v2.pngI’m not sure how I came to be reading this article, especially strange because the byline states that it was published over a year ago in The American Spectator. I expect it was mindlessly following some click-bait on Yahoo that brought me there, but what I found was the tragic remnants of a mind denied a proper education in scientific method, logic, and mathematics.

Emily Zanotti wrote up her impressions of a scientific study she had uncovered in an article titled, “Study Finds John Kerry Worst Secretary of State in the History of Ever. John Hayward wrote a similar piece for Breitbart the same day, as did the Washington Post, under the slightly less scathing headline, “Scholars votes put Kerry last in terms of effectiveness.” So, why focus on this minor publication’s reporting over more mainstream outlets? I don’t have much reason other than the fact that I found the article there first and the visceral nature of the title held my attention best (remember, I found it by following click-bait while trying to find a reasonable source of right wing news).

I really don’t care (at least for the purposes of this discussion) one bit about the actual question, but would rather focus on how these data were interpreted for the popular press (using Ms. Zanotti’s article as my example).

First, the data:

The articles I found pointed to Foreign Policy Magazine as the source, the actual data in the rawest form I could find can be found here.

Who was polled? (because this is an opinion survey):The poll was sent to International Relations (IR) faculty from colleges and universities around the country. Responses were received from 1,615 IR scholars drawn from 1,375 U.S. institutions.

The question about Secretaries of State was one of many, and was phrased as, “Who was the most effective U.S. Secretary of State in the past 50 years? ” We’re told that the number of responses to this particular question was 655. I think it’s rather strange that only half of the respondents answered this question, especially given that one of the most popular answers was ‘I don’t know’ receiving 18.32% of the vote, or 120 ballots.

The Results were reported as:

Screen Shot 2016-04-17 at 4.19.07 PM.pngIf you count them up, there were 13 distinct answers given –

only 12 are people if we drop out the ‘I don’t know’..
This is interesting because the headline read that Kerry was the worst

I agree that he is last on this list, but depending on how you want to count, the number of people who sat in that office for the past 50 years was either 15 actual Secretaries of State or 28 Secretaries + acting Secretaries.

Either way you slice it, we’re missing some people from this list. A quick look at trusty Wikipedia show us who we’re missing (See below). Where is Will Rogers in the poll? Edmund Muskie? Apparently these poor souls got zero votes, so they don’t show up in a percentage-based calculation.

Screen Shot 2016-04-17 at 4.20.46 PM.png

At 0.31%, poor John Kerry received only 2 votes as the most effective Secretary of State (SoS) in the past 50 years. But Rogers and Muskie apparently got zero. It’s hard to see that this puts Kerry in last place.

But that’s not all. The question asks, “who was the most effective SoS?” which isn’t the same as asking respondents to “rank the SoSs according to effectiveness.” What would the percentages look like if two Secretaries (say, Bob and Hank) were the clear front-runners and everyone agreed on that point? Moreover, imagine that everyone also agreed that a third Secretary(Sally) clearly came in right behind the two front runners, but couldn’t compare to the undeniable efficacy of the first two. My guess would be that Bob and Hank would split the 655 votes, and no one else would get any. Not even Sally. Everyone else ties for last place.

Ms. Zanotti’s piece continues, “John Kerry is the worst Secretary of State in history according to a survey of professors at the top 25 foreign policy schools conducted by Foreign Policy Magazine, losing out, even, to ‘Don’t Know.'”

bad_science1.jpgBut no one was asked to name the worst SoS. What is true of this survey is that very few people think Kerry is the best. As for ‘Don’t know’, I imagine that these are the people who simply can’t decide between Bob and Hank, from the example above. Those two are just too close to call. Further, since ‘Don’t know’ came in second, it’s hard to say that Kerry was beaten by this answer in any meaningful way.

She continues, “Of the scholars who responded, Kerry earned exactly two votes, and came in after Lawrence Engleberger who was Secretary of State for a whole six weeks at the end of George H. W. Bush’s second term, and spent most of that time keeping the chair warm for the Clinton appointee.Which had me wondering if perhaps one of the best ways to be an effective SoS is to not have much happen, as is the case when someone is in office for only a very short time.

One last statement on the data before going to her conclusion… In reporting the results of the poll, she mentions that, “James Baker — who was actually the most effective secretary in the last 50 years” came in third at 17.7%. Wait – what? Where is this “who was actually the most effective secretary” come from? Was there another measure that we haven’t been provided with? My guess is there was not, but that this is the author’s admission that she has already determined the right answer and that no data applies to this opinion.

Ms. Zanotti then ends her essay with this strange statement, “At any rate, it’s nice to know our collective impression of Kerry’s effectiveness is objectively verified. ”

I guess she knows her audience, so the “our collective impression” probably makes sense saying, but what about the idea that Kerry’s effectiveness has now been objectively verified?

What about an opinion poll could ever result in an objective verification? I suppose she might mean that it is now verified that many people hold some opinion, but it’s hardly objective. To arrive at this conclusion, we have to accept that the sum of many (at least 655) subjective opinions is equal to an objective conclusion.

This is equivalent to saying that a poll of 400 Yahoos objectively verifies that the sum of 2 and 2 is 8. All we have is a group of opinions. They might be the opinions of very smart people who are speaking within their field, but there’s no logical necessity that they are correct.

So, to return to my title. I can only assume that this hot mess of an essay comes from a completely science deprived education. Who is the author, Emily Zanotti? I had never heard of her and had her pegged for a one-off writer who wasn’t really involved in the world, but I stand corrected. She’s apparently well known amongst the Right as an outspoken libertarian. Her twitter bio reads, “Writer, blogger, comedian, nerd. Cosplayer. Catholic. Political reporter. Resident geek . Libertarian. Opinions my own but should be yours.” Her R Street bio calls her, “a columnist for the The American Spectator  and an associate fellow of the R Street Institute. She is a ten-year veteran of political communications and online journalism based out of Chicago, where she runs her own digital media firm. Her work has appeared at her former blog, NakedDC, and across the web. She has a law degree from Ave Maria School of Law with a focus in intellectual property and technology law” (Sic).

I’d never heard of the Ave Maria School of law, so I had to look that up too. The Miami New Times  had this to say about the school:

Meanwhile, Ave Maria — founded by Domino’s Pizza magnate Tom Monaghan and relocated in 2009 from Ann Arbor, Michigan — continues to plummet, finishing dead last with a horrific 47.8 percent of students passing the [Florida Bar Exam].

However, this poor performance is apparently relatively new, with  former Ave Maria law professor, Charles Rice, stating in the same article that the school’s performance was good prior to the move. Together, these statements make it difficult to use the school as any proxy assessment of the person’s education. Regardless, her R Street bio suggests that she’s not a fool. Therefore, I’m left wondering… how did this article happen?

 

 
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Posted by on April 17, 2016 in Uncategorized

 

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Congratulations to SpaceX for sticking the landing

As someone who has been listening with some interest to the trials of SpaceX in perfecting its re-usable rocket system, I was very happy to see news that they had successfully stuck their landing on this, their fifth overall attempt.

Easy peasy, right? Try it youself:

https://scratch.mit.edu/projects/76866912/

I’m not sure it’s even possible in the game. Frankly, I would never have thought that it was possible in real life long enough to even put engineers on the project- even if I was using $100 bills as toilet paper because I just had to get rid of the stuff somehow.

The two-stage Falcon 9 rocket blasted off from Cape Canaveral on April 8 carrying the robotic Dragon cargo spacecraft into orbit for resupplying the International Space Station (ISS). Following the deployment of the cargo craft, the Falcon 9’s stage 1 rocket returned to earth to stick a perfect vertical landing atop on a floating sea platform.

The long-term purpose of this feat is to re-use the first rocket stage in subsequent launches, thereby lowering the cost of these space taxi flights, and increasing the frequency of their missions. Hans Koenigsmann, VP of flight reliability at SpaceX said, “… we hope …  to be able to launch basically every other week by the end of the year.”

The strategy employed in managing these rockets is outlined below, where the first stage executes a flip orienting its exhaust forward to allow for firings to slow the craft down and orient it towards the landing platform:

https://i0.wp.com/www.spacex.com/sites/spacex/files/16892430560_f87dff78c0_o_1.jpg

It is important to keep in mind that the landing is a great challenge, but it is not the only hurdle SpaceX has had to overcome. Delivering something into space may not seem terribly difficult. ‘How high does this need to go?’ is a reasonable first question. The ISS orbits at an altitude of 249 miles. Farther than you would want to commute on a day to day basis, but nothing like the distance to the moon or Mars (230,000 miles and 35.8 million miles away at their closest, respectively).

But another consideration is just how fast the rocket needs to travel in order to put something into orbit. Orbit isn’t just height, but requires a horizontal speed tangent to the planet such that as the craft falls to Earth, it’s horizontal movement has pushed it far enough that the Earth is dropping away below it just as quickly as it falls. The ISS travels at a speed of 4.76 miles / second, which translates to a 17,136 miles per hour. So, if it shot straight up and reached the height of the ISS orbital, there would still be this 17,000 mph speed difference to deal with, a problem that may sound familiar to viewers of the recent films, Gravity and The Martian.

To bring  cargo destined for the ISS into orbit, Falcon needs to list off, gain an altitude of almost 450 miles, and accelerate to a speed that would carry a traveler from Washington D.C. to New York City in 43 seconds.

The first stage, or main rocket engine, is designed with an array of nine ‘Merlin’ engines producing 6,806 kiloNewtons (at sea level) of force for 162 seconds of thrust. The first stage actually only fires for 180 seconds during liftoff, leaving 82 seconds of thrust for three separate return trip burns.

Following separation of the first stage, a second stage is equipped to navigate into one or more orbits for payload delivery with 8 minutes of burn. This is an unusual capability because  reigniting these large engines several times, just isn’t done in most rockets.

Ok, I’m gushing like a fanboy, but with NASA doing less and less in the way of manned spaceflight (believe me, I’m plenty impressed with their unmanned flights), SpaceX gives big kids like me something to watch and dream of a second – wait, third- career as an astronaut.

 
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Posted by on April 13, 2016 in Uncategorized

 

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Why is torture so bad anyway?

Apparently Donald Trump does speak for most Americans, or at least the folks at Unfiltered Patriot would have you think so. The Donald has been taking some heat for expressing his opinions on Torture. “We have to play the game the way they’re playing the game. You’re not going to win if we’re soft and they’re, they have no rules.” He has repeatedly stated that waterboarding is the least of the measures that he would use to extract information from terrorists / enemy combatants. Here Trump is following advice often attributed to Sun Tzu: “To know your Enemy, you must become your Enemy.” However, this quote is a misattribution, appearing nowhere in The Art of War. Probably because it’s a bad idea. Michael Prescott explains why this is so very clearly in his short essay, Becoming your Enemy, where he explains that, “fighting the enemy is what the enemy wants.”

Vladmir Lenin knew this. He is quoted as saying that, “the purpose of terrorism is to terrorize.”The blogger, Gowdey, succinctly describes this purpose, and how it realizes the flaw of the ‘Become your Enemy’ quote, in this 2007 Common Sense essay as…

Although terrorism employs violent means, and often uses military weaponry to execute attacks and massacres – the objective of a terrorist act isn’t military victory. In fact, military forces are almost never the target of terrorist attacks. The objective of a terrorist attack is political reaction. The strategy behind such attacks is for them to be the catalyst, direct or indirect, for political change that weakens the enemy.

In classic political/strategic theory, the purpose of terrorism is to create a political psychology of fear and anger that persuades a government to undertake repressive and violent activities against its own populace, gradually losing their support, and eventually causing its own demise.

In the aftermath of the terrible events of terrorism committed on September 11th 2001, President Bush addressed America in a joint session of congress nine days later to voice a response to the attacks. In this response, the President outlined what we knew about Al Qaeda at the time. We knew it was led by Osama bin Laden and that it had been responsible for previous attacks on western targets including, the truck bombing of the World Trade Center, a suicide attack on the USS Cole, and a number of Embassy bombings. They hate our freedoms: our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.

Then, as if to assure us that the U.S. would not stumble blindly into becoming our enemy, he explained the motive of the terrorists. “They hate our freedoms: our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.” He also attempted to quell any potential anti-Islam reactionary response by clarifying that these terrorists, “practice a fringe form of Islamic extremism that has been rejected by Muslim scholars and the vast majority of Muslim clerics; a fringe movement that perverts the peaceful teachings of Islam.”

However, three days later, on 14 September 2001, Congress passed the Authorization to Use Military Force, stating:Screen Shot 2016-04-04 at 10.56.40 PM.png

Section 2 – Authorization For Use of United States Armed Forces

(a) IN GENERAL- That the President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.

(b) War Powers Resolution Requirements-

(1) SPECIFIC STATUTORY AUTHORIZATION- Consistent with section 8(a)(1) of the War Powers Resolution, the Congress declares that this section is intended to constitute specific statutory authorization within the meaning of section 5(b) of the War Powers Resolution.

(2) APPLICABILITY OF OTHER REQUIREMENTS- Nothing in this resolution supersedes any requirement of the War Powers Resolution.

This gave the President what one might arguably call unrestricted right to do anything he (or she) pleases. Furthermore, the only time restriction mentioned is ‘future,’ so, for as long as there exists time, the President maintains these powers.

On 26 October 2001, the President signed the USA Patriot Act, which made a number of changes to U.S. law. Changes were made to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978  (FISA), the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 (ECPA), the Money Laundering Control Act of 1986, the Bank Secrecy Act, and the Immigration and Nationality Act, all for the purpose of loosening restrictions on government agencies that had prevented them from spying on, well, everyone. America had changed. With one (rather large) Act, we ensured that the freedoms that Al Qaeda hated us for were much fewer in number.

Soon came the realization that by fighting a non-governmental, terrorist group, we were in untested waters, and we changed again. This time, we abandoned our position of moral superiority by opening the prison in Guantanamo Bay to house ‘enemy combatants.’

The 1949 Geneva Conventions defined ‘enemy combatants‘ as

Any person in an armed conflict who could be properly detained under the laws and customs of war.” In the case of a civil war or an insurrection the term “enemy state” may be replaced by the more general term “Party to the conflict.”

Of course, it’s hard to say what goes on in Gitmo. However, it was learned that one strategy involved the use of what came to be known as ‘enhanced interrogation techniques.’ The BBC provides an excellent look into how the US government distinguishes between torture (which it says it does not engage in) and enhanced interrogation (which is just fine).

The exemplar of enhanced interrogation is waterboarding (also see the BBC article above). Arguments about whether waterboarding represents torture or not have gone on for several years now.

On Saturday, 5 March 2016, Presidential Candidate, Donald Trump revisited the discussion saying repeatedly that, as President, he would seek to “broaden” U.S. laws to allow torture, including but not limited to waterboarding. In justification, Trump vowed to “strengthen the laws so that we can better compete” with ISIS‘ brutal tactics. “Did somebody tell ISIS, ‘Look, we’re going to treat your guys well. Will you please do us a favor and treat our guys well?’ They don’t do that. We’re not playing by — we are playing by rules, but they have no rules. It’s very hard to win when that’s the case,” Trump said, adding that the United States’ ban on waterboarding is a sign of weakness.

Providing some clarity, Trump returned to his win/lose view of world politics:

Did somebody tell ISIS, ‘Look, we’re going to treat your guys well. Will you please do us a favor and treat our guys well?’ They don’t do that. We’re not playing by — we are playing by rules, but they have no rules. It’s very hard to win when that’s the case,”

“I think we’ve become very weak and ineffective. I think that’s why we’re not beating ISIS. It’s that mentality… [ISIS] must think we are a little bit on the weak side.”
This brings me back to the Unfiltered Patriot. In reporting the results of a Reuters survey, they find that Americans are actually quite comfortable with the use of torture.
[T]he poll asked respondents if they could justify torture “against suspected terrorists to obtain information about terrorism.” 25% said that such torture was “often” acceptable and another 38% said it was “sometimes” justified. Only 15% of respondents said it was never okay.
More scientific polling on the question by Gallup has found that Americans are not as eager to support torture when they are asked at times other than immediately following an attack.
Screen Shot 2016-04-04 at 11.22.22 PM.png
For a more comprehensive look into how Americans feel about specific acts of torture (relevant to Islamic enemy combatants):
Screen Shot 2016-04-04 at 11.26.17 PM.png
Further, a majority of Americans believe that the U.S. government should abide by the Geneva Conventions – although, at 57%, I find this to be a much smaller majority than I would have hoped for.
Going beyond just the terrorists, Trump has also suggested, “I would be very, very firm with families … Frankly, that will make people think, because they may not care much about their lives, but they do care, believe it or not, about their families’ lives.”
One last thought (again, from Gallup 2011):
Of 2,482 Americans asked whether violence resulting in the death of civilians is never justified…
Results were broken down by religious affiliations including Muslims, Catholics, Protestants, and atheists.
Screen Shot 2016-04-04 at 11.40.40 PM.png
 
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Posted by on April 4, 2016 in Uncategorized

 

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Science Magazine Undershoots April Fools Joke

Science Magazine posted this article last week for April Fools Day. Unfortunately, I think they missed on this one by not going far enough. Reading it, I was convinced it was just a funny way of writing about a complex computer with a glitch. By the time I got the joke, I was just sort of disappointed that it wasn’t true.

Artificial Intelligence Steals Money from Banking Customers

A breakthrough year for artificial intelligence (AI) research has suddenly turned into a breakdown, as a new automated banking system that runs on AI has been caught embezzling money from customers. The surprising turn of events may set back by years efforts to incorporate AI into everyday technology.

<Read More on the ScienceMag site>

 
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Posted by on April 3, 2016 in Uncategorized

 

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