Tag Archives: Writing and AI or is a robot writing this blog?

Getting to be more literate than humans

Lucinda McKnight, lecturer at Deakin University, Australia, has a February 9, 2021 essay about literacy in the coming age of artificial intelligence (AI) for The Conversation (Note 1: You can also find this essay as a February 10, 2021 news item on phys.org; Note 2: Links have been removed),

Students across Australia have started the new school year using pencils, pens and keyboards to learn to write.

In workplaces, machines are also learning to write, so effectively that within a few years they may write better than humans.

Sometimes they already do, as apps like Grammarly demonstrate. Certainly, much everyday writing humans now do may soon be done by machines with artificial intelligence (AI).

The predictive text commonly used by phone and email software is a form of AI writing that countless humans use every day.

According to an industry research organisation Gartner, AI and related technology will automate production of 30% of all content found on the internet by 2022.

Some prose, poetry, reports, newsletters, opinion articles, reviews, slogans and scripts are already being written by artificial intelligence.

Literacy increasingly means and includes interacting with and critically evaluating AI.

This means our children should no longer be taught just formulaic writing. [emphasis mine] Instead, writing education should encompass skills that go beyond the capacities of artificial intelligence.

McKnight’s focus is on how Australian education should approach the coming AI writer ‘supremacy’, from her February 9, 2021 essay (Note: Links have been removed),

In 2019, the New Yorker magazine did an experiment to see if IT company OpenAI’s natural language generator GPT-2 could write an entire article in the magazine’s distinctive style. This attempt had limited success, with the generator making many errors.

But by 2020, GPT-3, the new version of the machine, trained on even more data, wrote an article for The Guardian newspaper with the headline “A robot wrote this entire article. Are you scared yet, human?”

This latest much improved generator has implications for the future of journalism, as the Elon Musk-funded OpenAI invests ever more in research and development.

AI writing is said to have voice but no soul. Human writers, as the New Yorker’s John Seabrook says, give “color, personality and emotion to writing by bending the rules”. Students, therefore, need to learn the rules and be encouraged to break them.

Creativity and co-creativity (with machines) should be fostered. Machines are trained on a finite amount of data, to predict and replicate, not to innovate in meaningful and deliberate ways.

AI cannot yet plan and does not have a purpose. Students need to hone skills in purposeful writing that achieves their communication goals.

AI is not yet as complex as the human brain. Humans detect humor and satire. They know words can have multiple and subtle meanings. Humans are capable of perception and insight; they can make advanced evaluative judgements about good and bad writing.

There are calls for humans to become expert in sophisticated forms of writing and in editing writing created by robots as vital future skills.

… OpenAI’s managers originally refused to release GPT-3, ostensibly because they were concerned about the generator being used to create fake material, such as reviews of products or election-related commentary.

AI writing bots have no conscience and may need to be eliminated by humans, as with Microsoft’s racist Twitter prototype, Tay.

Critical, compassionate and nuanced assessment of what AI produces, management and monitoring of content, and decision-making and empathy with readers are all part of the “writing” roles of a democratic future.

It’s an interesting line of thought and McKnight’s ideas about writing education could be applicable beyond Australia., assuming you accept her basic premise.

I have a few other postings here about AI and writing:

Writing and AI or is a robot writing this blog? a July 16, 2014 posting

AI (artificial intelligence) text generator, too dangerous to release? a February 18, 2019 posting

Automated science writing? a September 16, 2019 posting

It seems I have a lot of question about the automation of any kind of writing.

Science communication: perspectives from 39 countries

Bravo to the team behind “Communicating Science: A Global Perspective” published in September 2020 by the Australian National University Press!

Two of the editors, Toss Gascoigne (Visiting fellow, Centre for the Public Awareness of Science, Australian National University) and Joan Leach (Professor, Australian National University) have written November 8, 2020 essay featuring their book for The Conversation,

It’s a challenging time to be a science communicator. The current pandemic, climate crisis, and concerns over new technologies from artificial intelligence to genetic modification by CRISPR demand public accountability, clear discussion and the ability to disagree in public.

Since the Second World War, there have been many efforts to negotiate a social contract between science and civil society. In the West, part of that negotiation has emphasised the distribution of scientific knowledge. But how is the relationship between science and society formulated around the globe?

We collected stories from 39 countries together into a book. …

The term “science communication” is not universal. For 50 years, what is called “science communication” in Australia has had different names in other countries: “science popularisation”, “public understanding”, “vulgarisation”, “public understanding of science”, and the cultivation of a “scientific temper”.

Colombia uses the term “the social appropriation of science and technology”. This definition underscores that scientific knowledge is transformed through social interaction.

Each definition delivers insights into how science and society are positioned. Is science imagined as part of society? Is science held in high esteem? Does association with social issues lessen or strengthen the perception of science?

Governments play a variety of roles in the stories we collected. The 1970s German government stood back, perhaps recalling the unsavoury relationship between Nazi propaganda and science. Private foundations filled the gap by funding ambitious programs to train science journalists. In the United States, the absence of a strong central agency encouraged diversity in a field described variously as “vibrant”, “jostling” or “cacophonous”.

Russia saw a state-driven focus on science through the communist years, to modernise and industrialise. In 1990 the Knowledge Society’s weekly science newspaper Argumenty i Fakty had the highest weekly circulation of any newspaper in the world: 33.5 million copies. But the collapse of the Soviet Union showed how fragile these scientific views were, as people turned to mysticism.

Eighteen countries contributing to the book have a recent colonial history, and many are from the Global South. They saw the end of colonial rule as an opportunity to embrace science. …

Science in these countries focused mainly on health, the environment and agriculture. Nigeria’s polio vaccine campaign was almost derailed in 2003 when two influential groups, the Supreme Council for Shari’ah in Nigeria and the Kaduna State Council of Imams and Ulamas, declared the vaccine contained anti-fertility substances and was part of a Western conspiracy to sterilise children. Only after five Muslim leaders witnessed a successful vaccine program in Egypt was it recognised as being compatible with the Qur’an.

If you have time, I recommend reading the entire essay, which can be found here in November 8, 2020 essay on The Conversation or in a Nov. 9, 2020 news item on phys.org.

I found more information about the book on the Australian National University Press’s Communicating Science: A Global Perspective webpage,

This collection charts the emergence of modern science communication across the world. This is the first volume to map investment around the globe in science centres, university courses and research, publications and conferences as well as tell the national stories of science communication.

Communicating Science describes the pathways followed by 39 different countries. All continents and many cultures are represented. For some countries, this is the first time that their science communication story has been told. [emphasis mine]

Here’s a link to and a citation for the book,

Communicating Science; A Global Perspective. Edited by Toss Gascoigne, Bernard Schiele, Joan Leach, Michelle Riedlinger, Bruce V. Lewenstein, Luisa Massarani, Peter Broks. DOI: http://doi.org/10.22459/CS.2020 ISBN (print): 9781760463656 ISBN (online): 9781760463663 Imprint [Publisher]: ANU Press Publication date: Sep 2020

The paper copy is $150 and I assume those are Australian dollars. There are free online and e-versions but they do ask you to: Please read Conditions of use before downloading the formats.

A commentary on the Canadian chapter, mostly

Before launching into the commentary, Here’s a bit about words.

Terminology

Terminology, whether it’s within one language or across two or more languages, is almost always an issue and science communication is no exception as is noted in the Introduction (Subsection 4, page 11),

In the course of compiling the chapters, we found that the term ‘science communication’ has many definitions and not all researchers or practitioners agree on its goals and boundaries. It has been variously described as an objective, goals, a process, a result and an outcome. This confusion over a definition is reflected in the terminology used internationally for the field. From the second half of the 20th century, what we have chosen to call ‘science communication’ for this book has flown under different headings: ‘science popularisation, ‘public understanding’, ‘vulgarisation’, ‘social appropriation of science and technology’, ‘public understanding of science’ and ‘scientific temper’ for example. In all, the chapters mention 24 separate terms for the expression ‘science communication’ that we chose. We have taken note of that variety.

Very few of the chapters which are organized by country name attempt to establish a definition. The chapter on Canada written by Michelle Riedlinger, Alexandre Schiele and Germana Barata is one of the many not offering any definitions for ‘science communication’. Although, it does offer a few other terms used as synonyms or closely allied concepts (also without definitions). They include ‘science or scientific culture’, which (according to a Nov.13.20 email from Toss Gascoigne in response to my question about science culture being a term unique to Canada) has French roots and is used in France and Canada.

Scope

The scope for both the book and the chapter on Canada is substantive and everyone involved is to be lauded for their efforts. Here’s how the book is described on the publisher’s ‘Communicating Science; A Global Perspective’ webpage (Note: more about the emphases in the ‘I love you; we need to talk’ subsection below),

This collection charts the emergence of modern science communication across the world. This is the first volume to map investment around the globe in science centres, university courses and research, publications and conferences as well as tell the national stories of science communication. [emphases mine]

The authors of the Canada chapter managed to squeeze a lot of Canadian science communication history into 21 pp. of text.

Quite an accomplishment. I am particularly admiring as earlier this year I decided to produce a 10 year overview (2010 – 19) of science culture in Canada and got carried away proceeded to write a 25,000 word, multi-part series.

Given the November 8, 2020 essay and its storytelling style, I wasn’t expecting the largely historical review I found in both the Canada and France chapters. I advise reading the Introduction to the book first as that will set expectations more accurately.

I love you; we need to talk

I learned a lot about the history of science communication in Canada. It’s the first time I’ve seen a document that pulls together so much material ranging from 19th century efforts to relatively contemporaneous efforts, i.e., 2018 or thereabouts.

There’s something quite exciting about recognizing the deep roots that science communication has in Canada.

I just wish the authors hadn’t taken ‘the two cultures’ (French and English) route. By doing so, they managed to write a history that ignores a lot of other influences including that of Canada’s Indigenous peoples and their impact on Canadian science, science culture, and, increasingly, science communication. (Confession, I too missed the impact from Indigenous peoples in my series.)

Plus, ‘two cultures’ seems a dated (1970s?) view of Canadian society and, by extension, its science culture and communication.

This was not the only element that seemed out of date. The authors mentioned Canada’s National Science and Technology Week without noting that the effort was rebranded in 2016 as ‘Science Odyssey’ (plus, its dates moved from Oct. to May of each year).

No surprise, the professional and institutional nature of science communication was heavily emphasized. So, it was delightful to find a section (2.10 on page 11) titled, “Citizen involvement in science communication.” Perhaps, they were constrained for space as they didn’t include the astronomy community, which I believe is amongst our oldest citizen science groups with roots that can be traced back to the 19th century (1868).

There are some other omissions (unless noted otherwise, I managed to include something on the topic in my series):

  • the Canadian Arctic and/or The North (I tried but did not succeed)
  • art/science (also known as sciart) communities
  • the maker and do-it-yourself (DIY) communities
  • open science, specifically, the open science initiative at McGill University’s Neuro (Montreal Neurological Institute-Hospital) (can’t remember but I probably missed this too)
  • the immigrant communities and their impact (especially obvious in light of the January 2020 downed PS752 Flight from Iran to the Ukraine; many of the passengers were Canadians and/or students coming to study and a stunning percentage of those people were in science and/or technology) (I didn’t do as good as job as I should have)
  • women or gender issues (I missed it too)
  • BIPOC representation (yes, I missed it)
  • LGBTQ+ representation (yes, me too)
  • social sciences (yes, me too)
  • etc.

The bits I emphasized in the publisher’s description of the book “science centres, university courses and research, publications and conferences as well as tell the national stories of science communication” set up tension between a ‘national story of science communication’ and a ‘national story of institutionalized and/or academic science communication’.

Clearly, the authors had an almost impossible task and by including citizen science and social media and some independent actors they made an attempt to recognize the totality. Still, I wish they had managed even a sentence or two mentioning some of these other communities of interest and/or noting the omissions.

Here’s more about the difficulties I think the authors encountered.

It’s all about central Canada

As noted with other problems, this one happened to me too (in my 2010 – 19 Canadian science culture overview). It’s as if the provinces of Ontario and Québec exert a centrifugal force throughout every aspect of our nationhood including our science and science communication. Almost everything tracks back to those provinces.

The authors have mentioned most of the provinces, although none of the three Northern territories, in their chapter, evidence they made an attempt. What confounds me is the 7 pp. of 21 pp. of text dedicated to Québec alone, in addition to the Québec mentions in the other 14 pp. If there was a problem with word count, couldn’t they have shaved off a paragraph or two to include some or all of the omissions I noted earlier? Or added a paragraph or two to the chapter?

Framing and authors

By framing the discussion about Canada within the ‘two culture’ paradigm, the authors made things difficult for themselves. Take a look at the title and first sentence for the chapter,

CANADA
One country, two cultures: Two routes to science communication

This chapter provides an account of modern science communication in Canada, including historical factors influencing its development, and the development of the distinct Province of Quebec. …

The title and discussion frame the article so tightly that anything outside the frame is an outlier, i.e., they ‘baked’ in the bias. It’s very similar to the problem in scientific research where you have to be careful about your research question because asking the wrong question or framing it poorly will result in problematic research.

Authors

It’s not unusual for family members to work in the same field and even work together (Marie and Pierre Curie spring to mind). I believe the failure to acknowledge (I checked the introduction, the acknowledgements, and the Canada chapter) the relationship between one of the authors (Alexandre Schiele, son) of the Canada chapter to one of the book’s editors (Bernard Schiele, father) was an oversight. (Both also have some sort of affiliation with the Université du Québec à Montréal [UQAM]).

Anyway, I hope subsequent editions of the book will include an acknowledgement. These days, transparency is important, eh?

Having gotten that out of the way, I was curious about the ‘Canada’ authors and found this on p. 204,

Contributors

Dr Michelle Riedlinger is an associate professor at the University of the Fraser Valley, British Columbia, Canada, and secretary of the PCST Network [Public Communication of Science and Technology Network] and her career spans the practical and theoretical sides of science communication.

Dr Alexandre Schiele holds a PhD in communication science (Sorbonne) and another in political science (University of Quebec). He is working on a project ‘Mapping the New Science Communication Landscape in Canada’.

Dr Germana Barata is a science communication researcher at the Laboratory of Advanced Studies in Journalism (Labjor) at the State University of Campinas, Brazil, and a member of the Scientific Committee of the PCST Network.

Outsiders often provide perceptive and thoughtful commentary. I did not find any discernible trace of that perspective n the chapter despite all three authors having extensive experience in other countries.

Riedlinger is more strongly associated with Australia than Canada (source: Riedlinger’s biography on the Public Communication of Science and Technology Network). As of July 2020, she is a senior lecturer at Australia’s Queensland University of Technology (QUT).

Interestingly, she is also a Board member of the Science Writers and Communicators of Canada (SWCC) (source: her QUT biography). I’ll get back to this membership later.

Barata is (or was?) a research associate at Simon Fraser University’s Canada Scholar Communications Lab (ScholCommLab) (source: Barata’s SFU biography) in addition to her work in Brazil.

Those two would seem to cover the southern hemisphere. The third gives us the northern hemisphere.

A. Schiele (source: his CV on ResearchGate) is (or was?) a researcher at the UQAM (Université du Québec à Montréa) East Asia Observatory and is (or was?) at (source: profile on Academia.edu) The Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Louis Frieberg Center for East Asian Studies.

After looking at their biographies and CV, the Canada book chapter is even more disappointing. Yes, the authors were constrained by the book’s raison d’être and the way they framed their chapter but , perhaps, there’s something more to the story?

The future of science communication and the ‘elephant in the room’

At the conclusion of the Canada chapter (pp. 194-6), there’s this,

4. The future for modern science communication in Canada

Recent surveys of Canadian science communicators identified though Twitter and Instagram show that, compared to traditional science communication professionals, social media communicators are younger, paid less (or not at all) for their science communication activities, and have been communicating for fewer years than other kinds of science communicators (Riedlinger, Barata and Schiele [A], 2019). They are more likely to have a science background (rather than communication, journalism or education background) and are less likely to be members of professional associations. These communicators tend to be based in Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia, and communicate with each other through their own informal networks. Canadian social media science communicators are primarily located in the provinces identified by Schiele [B] and Landry (2012) as the most prolific regions for science communication in Canada, where Canada’s most prestigious and traditional universities are located, and where the bulk of Canada’s population is concentrated. While some science journalists and communicators in Canada mourn the perceived loss of control over science communication as a loss of quality and accuracy, others welcome digital technology for the public engagement potential it offers. For example, Canadian science Instagram communicator Samantha Yammine [emphasis mine] was recently criticised in a Sciencemagazine op-ed piece for trivialising scientific endeavours on social media (Wright, 2018). However, supporters of Yammine argued that she was successfully responding to the Instagram medium in her communication (see, for example, Lougheed, 2018 [emphasis mine]; Marks, 2018). Science has subsequently published an article by Yammine and other social media communicators on the benefits of social media for science communication (Yammine, Liu, Jarreau and Coe, 2018). Social media platforms are allowing space for sociopolitically motivated communicators in Canada to work productively. The impact of these social media science communication efforts is difficult to assess; yet open science for consensus building and support for science in society efforts are needed in Canada now more than ever.

Canada has seen increased investments in science as described by the Naylor Report and the Global Young Academy, but science communication and outreach efforts are still needed to support science culture nationally (Boon, 2017a) [emphasis mine]. Funding for activities happens at the federal level through agency funding; however, Canadian scientists, science communicators and science policymakers have criticised some recent initiatives for being primarily aimed at youth rather than adults, supporting mainly traditional and established organisations rather than innovative science communication initiatives, and having limited connection with the current and broader community of science communicators in Canada. While some science communicators are actively advocating for greater institutional support for a wider range of science communication initiatives (see Boon, 2017b) [emphasis mine], governments and scientific communities have been slow to respond.

Austerity continues to dominate public policy in Quebec, and science culture has ceased to be a priority. The Society for the Promotion of Science and Technology dissolved in 2010 and State-sponsored PCST in Quebec has come to an end. PCST actors and networks in Quebec persevere although they face difficulties in achieving an online presence in a global, yet overwhelmingly Anglophone, social media environment. However, the European Union program Horizon 2020 may very well encourage a new period of renewed government interest in science communication.

As a preface to the next subsection, I want to note that the relationships and networks I’m describing are not problematic or evil or sinister in and of themselves. We all work with friends and acquaintances and, even, family when we can. If not, we find other ways to establish affiliations such as professional and informal networks.

The advantages include confidence in the work quality, knowing deadlines will be met and that you’ll be treated fairly and acknowledged, getting a fast start, etc. There are many advantages and one of the biggest disadvantages (in my opinion) is ‘group think’, i.e., the tendency for a group to unconsciously reinforce each other’s biases.

Weirdly, outsiders such as myself have a similar problem. While people within networks tend to get reinforcing feedback, ‘group think’, outsiders don’t get much, if any. Without feedback you’re at the mercy of your search techniques and you tend to reinforce your own biases and shortsightedness (you’re inside your own echo chamber). In the end research needs to take those shortcomings, biases, and beliefs into account.

Networks and research can be a trap

All three authors are in one fashion or another closely associated with the PCST Network. Two (Riedlinger and Barata) are board or executive members of the PCST Network and one (A. Schiele) has familial relationship with a book editor (B. Schiele) who is himself an executive member of the PCST Network. (Keep tuned, there’s one more network of relationships coming up.)

Barata, Riedlinger, and A. Schiele were the research team for the ‘Mapping the New Science Communication Landscape in Canada’ project as you can see here. (Note: Oops! There’s a typo in the project title on the webpage, which, unexpectedly, is hosted by Brazil’s Laboratory of Advanced Studies in Journalism [Labjor] where Barata is a researcher.)

My points about ‘Mapping …’ and the Canada book chapter,

  1. The Canada book chapter’s ‘The impact of new and emerging technology …’ has roots that can be traced back to the ‘Mapping’ project, which focused on social media (specifically, Instagram and Twitter).
  2. The ‘Mapping’ project is heavily dependent on one network (not PCST).
  3. The Canada chapter is listed as one of the ‘Mapping’ project’s publications. (Source: Project’s Publications page).
  4. The ‘Impact’ subsection sets the tone for a big chunk of the final subsection, ‘The future …’ both heavily dependent on the ‘Mapping’ project.
  5. The ‘Mapping’ project has a few problems, which I describe in the following.

In the end, two sections of the Canada chapter are heavily dependent on one research project that the authors themselves conducted.

Rather than using an authoritative style, perhaps the authors could have included a sentence indicating that more research is needed before making definitive statements about Canadian science communication and its use of new and emerging technologies and about its future.

The second network and other issues

Counterintuitively, I’m starting with the acknowledgements in the materials produced by the three authors for their ‘Mapping’ project and then examining the Canada chapter’s ‘Impact of new emerging and technologies …’ subsection before getting back to the Canada chapter’s final subsection ‘The future …’.

The authors’ 2019 paper is interesting. You can access the title, “The landscape of science communication in contemporary Canada: A focus on anglophone actors and networks” here on Academia.edu and you can access the author’s 2018 paper “Using social media metrics to identify science communicators in Canada” for the 2018 Science & You conference in Beijing, China here on ResearchGate. Both appear to be open access. That is wonderful and much appreciated.

The 2019 and 2018 papers’ Acknowledgements have something interesting (excerpt from 2019 paper),

This study was supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada through Grant (892-2017-2019) to Juan Pablo Alperin [there’s a bit more info. about the grant on Alperin’s CV in the Grants subsection] and Michelle Riedlinger. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript. We would like to thank the Science Writers and Communicators of Canada (SWCC) for their partnership in this project. [emphasis mine] In particular, we are grateful for the continued support and assistance of Shelley McIvor, Janice Benthin and Tim Lougheed [emphasis mine] from SWCC, and Stéphanie Thibault from l’Association des communicateurs scientifiques du Québec (ACS).

It seems the partnership with SWCC very heavily influenced the text found in the Canada chapter’s subsection ‘The impact of new and emerging technologies on science communication (p. 187),

2.12. The impact of new and emerging technologies on science communication

Coupled with government ambivalence towards science communication over the last decade, Canada has experienced the impact of new and emerging technologies and changing economic conditions. These changes have reshaped the mainstream media landscape in many parts of the world, including Canada, and the effects have been exacerbated by neoliberal agendas. The changes and their impacts on Canadian journalism were captured in the Canadian survey report The Shattered Mirror (2017). The survey found that Canadians prefer to be informed through the media but on their own timelines and with little or no cost to themselves.

Canada’s science media have responded to new media in many ways. For example, in 2005, CBC’s Quirks and Quarks became the first major CBC radio show to be made available as a free podcast. Canada’s very active blogging community has been developing from the early 2000s, and recent digital initiatives are helping redefine what independent science communication looks like. These initiatives include Science Borealis, launched in 2013 [emphasis mine] (Science Borealis, 2018), Hakai Magazine [emphasis mine] launched in 2015 (Hakai Magazine, n.d.), and The Conversation Canada launched in 2017 (The Conversation Canada, 2018). Twitter, Instagram and YouTube are also supporting a growing number of science communicators engaging a diverse range of publics in digital spaces. …

[assume my emphasis for this paragraph; I didn’t have the heart to make any readers struggle through that much bolding] In 2016, the Canadian Science Writers Association changed its name to the Science Writers and Communicators of Canada Association (SWCC) to reflect the new diversity of its membership as well as the declining number of full-time journalists in mass media organisations. SWCC now describes itself as a national alliance of professional science communicators in all media, to reflect the blurring boundaries between journalism, science communication and public relations activities (SWCC, 2017). In 2017, SWCC launched the People’s Choice Awards for Canada’s favourite science site and Canada’s favourite blog to reflect the inclusion of new media.

Given that so much of the relatively brief text in this three paragraph subsection is devoted to SWCC and the examples of new media science practitioners (Science Borealis, Hakai Magazine, and Samantha Yammine) are either associated with or members of SWCC, it might have been good idea to make the relationship between the organization and the three authors a little more transparent.

We’re all in this together: PCST, SWCC, Science Borealis, Hakai Magazine, etc.

Here’s a brief recapitulation of the relationships so far: Riedlinger and Barata, both co-authors of the Canada chapter, are executive/board/committee members of the Public Communication of Science and Technology (PCST) network. As well, Bernard Schiele one of the co-editors of the book is also a committee member of PCST (source: PCST webpage) and, as noted earlier, he’s related to the third co-author of the Canada chapter, Alexandre Schiele.

Plus, Riedlinger is one of the book’s editors.

Interestingly, four of the seven editors for the book are members of the PCST network.

More connections:

  • Remember Riedlinger is also a board member of the Science Writers and Communicators of Canada (SWCC)?
  • One of the founding members* of Science Borealis (a Canadian science blog aggregator), Sarah Boon is the managing editor for Science Borealis (source: Boon’s LinkedIn profile) and also a member of the SWCC (source: About me webpage on Watershed Notes). *Full disclosure: I too am a co-founding member of Science Borealis.*
    • Boon’s works and works from other SWCC members (e.g., Tim Lougheed) are cited in the conclusion for the Canada chapter.
  • Hakai Magazine and Science Borealis both cited as “… recent digital initiatives … helping redefine what independent science communication looks like.”
    • Hakai’s founding and current editor-in-chief is Jude Isabella, a past board member of the *SWCC’s predecessor organization Canadian Science Writers Association (source: Dec. 11, 2020 communication from Ms. Isabella)*

In short, there are many interlaced relationships.

The looking glass and a lack of self-criticism

Reviewing this work put some shortcomings of and biases in my own work into high relief. It’s one of the eternal problems, blindness, whether it’s a consequence of ‘group think’ or a failure to get out of your own personal bubble. Canadian science communication/culture is a big topic and it’s easy to get trapped in your own bubble or your group’s bubble.

As far as I can tell from reading the conference paper (2018) and the paper published in Cultures of Science (2019), there is no indication in the text that the researchers critiqued their own methodology.

Specifically,. most of the respondents to their survey were from one of two professional science communication organizations (SWCC and ACS [Association des communicateurs scientifiques du Québec]). As for the folks the authors found on Twitter and Instagram, those people had to self-identify as science communicators or use scicomm, commsci, vulgarisation and sciart as hashtags. If you didn’t use one of those hashtags, you weren’t seen. Also, ‘sciart’ can be called ‘artsci’ so, why wasn’t that hashtag also used?

In short, the research seems to have a rather narrow dataset, which is not a problem in and of itself, as long as it’s noted in your paper. Unfortunately, the authors didn’t and that problem/weakness followed the researchers into the book.

Remember the subsection: ‘2.12. The impact of new and emerging technologies on science communication’? As noted, it was heavily influenced by the co-authors own research and in this book, those words attain great authority as they are writing about Canada’s science communication and the ‘The future for modern science communication in Canada‘.

Getting back briefly to connections or, in this case, a lack of. There seems to have been one ‘outside’ editor/reviewer (source: Acknowledgements] for the book, Ranjan Chaudhuri, Associate Professor at National Institute of Industrial Engineering Mumbai (source: Chaudhuri’s LinkedIn profile). He’s the only person amongst the authors and the editors for whom I could find no connection to PCST.

(Book editors who weren’t previously mentioned: Joan Leach and Bruce V. Lewenstein were both invited speakers at the 2016 PCST Talk in Istanbul, Turkey and Peter Broks presented in 2004 at the PCST conference in Barcelona, Spain and his work was presented at a 2018 PCST conference in Dunedin, New Zealand.)

Chaudhuri doesn’t seem to have any connection and the other three seem to have, at best, a weak connection to PCST. That leaves four ‘outsiders’ to critically review and edit chapters from 39 countries. It’s an impossible job.

So, what is the future of science communication in Canada?

In the end, I have love for and two big problems with the Canada chapter.

What were they thinking?

Maybe someone could help me understand why the final paragraph of the Canada chapter is about Québec, the PCST, and the European Union’s Horizon 2020 science funding initiative.

Ending the chapter with the focus, largely, on one province, **an international organization (PCST) incorporated in Australia**, and a European science funding initiative that sunsets in 2020 to be replaced by Horizon Europe 2021-27 confounds me.

Please, someone out there, please help me. How do these impact or set the future for science communication in Canada?

Aside: the authors never mention Québec’s Agence Science-Presse. It’s an independent media outlet founded in 1978 and devoted, as you can see from the name, entirely to science. It seems like an odd omission.

Now, I have another question.

What about other realities, artificial intelligence, and more?

Why didn’t the authors mention virtual reality (VR)/augmented reality (AR)/mixed reality (MR)/cross reality (XR) and others? What about artificial intelligence (AI) and automated writing, i.e., will we need writers and communicators? (For anyone not familiar with the move to automate more of the writing process, see my July 16, 2014 posting “Writing and AI or is a robot writing this blog?” when Associated Press (AP) had made a deal with Automated Insights and my Sept. 16, 2019 posting “Automated science writing?” about some work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology [MIT].)

It’s not exactly new but what impact are games of the virtual and real life types having?

All of these technologies and others on the horizon are certain to have an effect on the future of science communication in Canada.

Confession: I too missed these new and emerging technologies when pointing to the future in my own series. (sigh) Blindness affects all of us.

The future

I wish the authors had applied a little more imagination to the ‘future’ because I think it has major possibilities grounded in both new and emerging technologies and in hopes for greater inclusiveness (Indigenous communities, citizen scientists, elders, artists, and more) in the Canadian science communication effort. As for the possible impact these groups and technologies will have on institutionalized and noninstitutionalized science communication, I would dearly like to have seen mention of the possibility if not outright speculation.

The end

There is a lot to admire in the Canada chapter. Given the amount of history they were covering, the authors were admirably succinct and disciplined. There’s a lot to be learned in this chapter.

As for the flaws, as noted many times, I am subject to many of the same ones. I have often longed for a critical reader who can see what I can’t. In some ways, it’s the same problem academics face.

Thank you to the authors and the editors for an unexpected treat. Examining their work made it possible for me to cast a jaundiced eye on some of my own, becoming my own critical reader. Again, thank you to the authors and editors of this book. I just hope this critique proves useful to someone else too.

Links

For anyone who is curious, here’s a link to the authors’ interactive map of the new landscape (Twitter and Instagram) of science communication in Canada. BTW, I was charmed by and it looks like they’re still adding to the map.

My multipart series,

Part 1 covers science communication, science media (mainstream and others such as blogging) and arts as exemplified by music and dance: The decade that was (2010-19) and the decade to come (2020-29): Science culture in Canada (1 of 5).

Part 2 covers art/science (or art/sci or sciart) efforts, science festivals both national and local, international art and technology conferences held in Canada, and various bar/pub/café events: The decade that was (2010-19) and the decade to come (2020-29): Science culture in Canada (2 of 5).

Part 3 covers comedy, do-it-yourself (DIY) biology, chief science advisor, science policy, mathematicians, and more: The decade that was (2010-19) and the decade to come (2020-29): Science culture in Canada (3 of 5).

Part 4 covers citizen science, birds, climate change, indigenous knowledge (science), and the IISD Experimental Lakes Area: The decade that was (2010-19) and the decade to come (2020-29): Science culture in Canada (4 of 5).

Part 5: includes science podcasting, eco art, a Saskatchewan lab with an artist-in-residence, the Order of Canada and children’s science literature, animation and mathematics, publishing science, *French language science media,* and more: The decade that was (2010-19) and the decade to come (2020-29): Science culture in Canada (5 of 5).

Plus,

An addendum: where I make some corrections and include a reference to some ‘biopoetry’: The decade that was (2010-19) and the decade to come (2020-29): Science culture in Canada (an addendum).

There you have it, science communication in Canada, more or less, as a book chapter and as a multipart series warts and all.

*Original: “a past board member of the SWCC’ (source: homepage of Isabella’s eponymous website)” changed on Dec. 11, 2020 to”past board member of SWCC’s predecessor organization Canadian Science Writers Association (source: Dec. 11, 2020 communication from Ms. Isabella)”

**Original:”an Australian organization (PCST)” changed on Dec. 11, 2020 to “an international organization (PCST) incorporated in Australia”

Automated science writing?

It seems that automated science writing is not ready—yet. Still, an April 18, 2019 news item on ScienceDaily suggests that progress is being made,

The work of a science writer, including this one, includes reading journal papers filled with specialized technical terminology, and figuring out how to explain their contents in language that readers without a scientific background can understand.

Now, a team of scientists at MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] and elsewhere has developed a neural network, a form of artificial intelligence (AI), that can do much the same thing, at least to a limited extent: It can read scientific papers and render a plain-English summary in a sentence or two.

An April 17, 2019 MIT news release, which originated the news item, delves into the research and its implications,

Even in this limited form, such a neural network could be useful for helping editors, writers, and scientists [emphasis mine] scan a large number of papers to get a preliminary sense of what they’re about. But the approach the team developed could also find applications in a variety of other areas besides language processing, including machine translation and speech recognition.

The work is described in the journal Transactions of the Association for Computational Linguistics, in a paper by Rumen Dangovski and Li Jing, both MIT graduate students; Marin Soljačić, a professor of physics at MIT; Preslav Nakov, a principal scientist at the Qatar Computing Research Institute, HBKU; and Mićo Tatalović, a former Knight Science Journalism fellow at MIT and a former editor at New Scientist magazine.

From AI for physics to natural language

The work came about as a result of an unrelated project, which involved developing new artificial intelligence approaches based on neural networks, aimed at tackling certain thorny problems in physics. However, the researchers soon realized that the same approach could be used to address other difficult computational problems, including natural language processing, in ways that might outperform existing neural network systems.

“We have been doing various kinds of work in AI for a few years now,” Soljačić says. “We use AI to help with our research, basically to do physics better. And as we got to be  more familiar with AI, we would notice that every once in a while there is an opportunity to add to the field of AI because of something that we know from physics — a certain mathematical construct or a certain law in physics. We noticed that hey, if we use that, it could actually help with this or that particular AI algorithm.”

This approach could be useful in a variety of specific kinds of tasks, he says, but not all. “We can’t say this is useful for all of AI, but there are instances where we can use an insight from physics to improve on a given AI algorithm.”

Neural networks in general are an attempt to mimic the way humans learn certain new things: The computer examines many different examples and “learns” what the key underlying patterns are. Such systems are widely used for pattern recognition, such as learning to identify objects depicted in photos.

But neural networks in general have difficulty correlating information from a long string of data, such as is required in interpreting a research paper. Various tricks have been used to improve this capability, including techniques known as long short-term memory (LSTM) and gated recurrent units (GRU), but these still fall well short of what’s needed for real natural-language processing, the researchers say.

The team came up with an alternative system, which instead of being based on the multiplication of matrices, as most conventional neural networks are, is based on vectors rotating in a multidimensional space. The key concept is something they call a rotational unit of memory (RUM).

Essentially, the system represents each word in the text by a vector in multidimensional space — a line of a certain length pointing in a particular direction. Each subsequent word swings this vector in some direction, represented in a theoretical space that can ultimately have thousands of dimensions. At the end of the process, the final vector or set of vectors is translated back into its corresponding string of words.

“RUM helps neural networks to do two things very well,” Nakov says. “It helps them to remember better, and it enables them to recall information more accurately.”

After developing the RUM system to help with certain tough physics problems such as the behavior of light in complex engineered materials, “we realized one of the places where we thought this approach could be useful would be natural language processing,” says Soljačić,  recalling a conversation with Tatalović, who noted that such a tool would be useful for his work as an editor trying to decide which papers to write about. Tatalović was at the time exploring AI in science journalism as his Knight fellowship project.

“And so we tried a few natural language processing tasks on it,” Soljačić says. “One that we tried was summarizing articles, and that seems to be working quite well.”

The proof is in the reading

As an example, they fed the same research paper through a conventional LSTM-based neural network and through their RUM-based system. The resulting summaries were dramatically different.

The LSTM system yielded this highly repetitive and fairly technical summary: “Baylisascariasis,” kills mice, has endangered the allegheny woodrat and has caused disease like blindness or severe consequences. This infection, termed “baylisascariasis,” kills mice, has endangered the allegheny woodrat and has caused disease like blindness or severe consequences. This infection, termed “baylisascariasis,” kills mice, has endangered the allegheny woodrat.

Based on the same paper, the RUM system produced a much more readable summary, and one that did not include the needless repetition of phrases: Urban raccoons may infect people more than previously assumed. 7 percent of surveyed individuals tested positive for raccoon roundworm antibodies. Over 90 percent of raccoons in Santa Barbara play host to this parasite.

Already, the RUM-based system has been expanded so it can “read” through entire research papers, not just the abstracts, to produce a summary of their contents. The researchers have even tried using the system on their own research paper describing these findings — the paper that this news story is attempting to summarize.

Here is the new neural network’s summary: Researchers have developed a new representation process on the rotational unit of RUM, a recurrent memory that can be used to solve a broad spectrum of the neural revolution in natural language processing.

It may not be elegant prose, but it does at least hit the key points of information.

Çağlar Gülçehre, a research scientist at the British AI company Deepmind Technologies, who was not involved in this work, says this research tackles an important problem in neural networks, having to do with relating pieces of information that are widely separated in time or space. “This problem has been a very fundamental issue in AI due to the necessity to do reasoning over long time-delays in sequence-prediction tasks,” he says. “Although I do not think this paper completely solves this problem, it shows promising results on the long-term dependency tasks such as question-answering, text summarization, and associative recall.”

Gülçehre adds, “Since the experiments conducted and model proposed in this paper are released as open-source on Github, as a result many researchers will be interested in trying it on their own tasks. … To be more specific, potentially the approach proposed in this paper can have very high impact on the fields of natural language processing and reinforcement learning, where the long-term dependencies are very crucial.”

The research received support from the Army Research Office, the National Science Foundation, the MIT-SenseTime Alliance on Artificial Intelligence, and the Semiconductor Research Corporation. The team also had help from the Science Daily website, whose articles were used in training some of the AI models in this research.

As usual, this ‘automated writing system’ is framed as a ‘helper’ not an usurper of anyone’s job. However, its potential for changing the nature of the work is there. About five years ago I featured another ‘automated writing’ story in a July 16, 2014 posting titled: ‘Writing and AI or is a robot writing this blog?’ You may have been reading ‘automated’ news stories for years. At the time, the focus was on sports and business.

Getting back to 2019 and science writing, here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Rotational Unit of Memory: A Novel Representation Unit for RNNs with Scalable Applications by Rumen Dangovski, Li Jing, Preslav Nakov, Mićo Tatalović and Marin Soljačić. Transactions of the Association for Computational Linguistics Volume 07, 2019 pp.121-138 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1162/tacl_a_00258 Posted Online 2019

© 2019 Association for Computational Linguistics. Distributed under a CC-BY 4.0 license.

This paper is open access.

The future of work during the age of robots and artificial intelligence

2014 was quite the year for discussions about robots/artificial intelligence (AI) taking over the world of work. There was my July 16, 2014 post titled, Writing and AI or is a robot writing this blog?, where I discussed the implications of algorithms which write news stories (business and sports, so far) in the wake of a deal that Associated Press signed with a company called Automated Insights. A few weeks later, the Pew Research Center released a report titled, AI, Robotics, and the Future of Jobs, which was widely covered. As well, sometime during the year, renowned physicist Stephen Hawking expressed serious concerns about artificial intelligence and our ability to control it.

It seems that 2015 is going to be another banner for this discussion. Before launching into the latest on this topic, here’s a sampling of the Pew Research and the response to it. From an Aug. 6, 2014 Pew summary about AI, Robotics, and the Future of Jobs by Aaron Smith and Janna Anderson,

The vast majority of respondents to the 2014 Future of the Internet canvassing anticipate that robotics and artificial intelligence will permeate wide segments of daily life by 2025, with huge implications for a range of industries such as health care, transport and logistics, customer service, and home maintenance. But even as they are largely consistent in their predictions for the evolution of technology itself, they are deeply divided on how advances in AI and robotics will impact the economic and employment picture over the next decade.

We call this a canvassing because it is not a representative, randomized survey. Its findings emerge from an “opt in” invitation to experts who have been identified by researching those who are widely quoted as technology builders and analysts and those who have made insightful predictions to our previous queries about the future of the Internet. …

I wouldn’t have expected Jeff Bercovici’s Aug. 6, 2014 article for Forbes to be quite so hesitant about the possibilities of our robotic and artificially intelligent future,

As part of a major ongoing project looking at the future of the internet, the Pew Research Internet Project canvassed some 1,896 technologists, futurists and other experts about how they see advances in robotics and artificial intelligence affecting the human workforce in 2025.

The results were not especially reassuring. Nearly half of the respondents (48%) predicted that robots and AI will displace more jobs than they create over the coming decade. While that left a slim majority believing the impact of technology on employment will be neutral or positive, that’s not necessarily grounds for comfort: Many experts told Pew they expect the jobs created by the rise of the machines will be lower paying and less secure than the ones displaced, widening the gap between rich and poor, while others said they simply don’t think the major effects of robots and AI, for better or worse, will be in evidence yet by 2025.

Chris Gayomali’s Aug. 6, 2014 article for Fast Company poses an interesting question about how this brave new future will be financed,

A new study by Pew Internet Research takes a hard look at how innovations in robotics and artificial intelligence will impact the future of work. To reach their conclusions, Pew researchers invited 12,000 experts (academics, researchers, technologists, and the like) to answer two basic questions:

Will networked, automated, artificial intelligence (AI) applications and robotic devices have displaced more jobs than they have created by 2025?
To what degree will AI and robotics be parts of the ordinary landscape of the general population by 2025?

Close to 1,900 experts responded. About half (48%) of the people queried envision a future in which machines have displaced both blue- and white-collar jobs. It won’t be so dissimilar from the fundamental shift we saw in manufacturing, in which fewer (human) bosses oversaw automated assembly lines.

Meanwhile, the other 52% of experts surveyed speculate while that many of the jobs will be “substantially taken over by robots,” humans won’t be displaced outright. Rather, many people will be funneled into new job categories that don’t quite exist yet. …

Some worry that over the next 10 years, we’ll see a large number of middle class jobs disappear, widening the economic gap between the rich and the poor. The shift could be dramatic. As artificial intelligence becomes less artificial, they argue, the worry is that jobs that earn a decent living wage (say, customer service representatives, for example) will no longer be available, putting lots and lots of people out of work, possibly without the requisite skill set to forge new careers for themselves.

How do we avoid this? One revealing thread suggested by experts argues that the responsibility will fall on businesses to protect their employees. “There is a relentless march on the part of commercial interests (businesses) to increase productivity so if the technical advances are reliable and have a positive ROI [return on investment],” writes survey respondent Glenn Edens, a director of research in networking, security, and distributed systems at PARC, which is owned by Xerox. “Ultimately we need a broad and large base of employed population, otherwise there will be no one to pay for all of this new world.” [emphasis mine]

Alex Hearn’s Aug. 6, 2014 article for the Guardian reviews the report and comments on the current educational system’s ability to prepare students for the future,

Almost all of the respondents are united on one thing: the displacement of work by robots and AI is going to continue, and accelerate, over the coming decade. Where they split is in the societal response to that displacement.

The optimists predict that the economic boom that would result from vastly reduced costs to businesses would lead to the creation of new jobs in huge numbers, and a newfound premium being placed on the value of work that requires “uniquely human capabilities”. …

But the pessimists worry that the benefits of the labor replacement will accrue to those already wealthy enough to own the automatons, be that in the form of patents for algorithmic workers or the physical form of robots.

The ranks of the unemployed could swell, as people are laid off from work they are qualified in without the ability to retrain for careers where their humanity is a positive. And since this will happen in every economic sector simultaneously, civil unrest could be the result.

One thing many experts agreed on was the need for education to prepare for a post-automation world. ““Only the best-educated humans will compete with machines,” said internet sociologist Howard Rheingold.

“And education systems in the US and much of the rest of the world are still sitting students in rows and columns, teaching them to keep quiet and memorise what is told them, preparing them for life in a 20th century factory.”

Then, Will Oremus’ Aug. 6, 2014 article for Slate suggests we are already experiencing displacement,

… the current jobless recovery, along with a longer-term trend toward income and wealth inequality, has some thinkers wondering whether the latest wave of automation is different from those that preceded it.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson, among others, see a “great decoupling” of productivity from wages since about 2000 as technology outpaces human workers’ education and skills. Workers, in other words, are losing the race between education and technology. This may be exacerbating a longer-term trend in which capital has gained the upper hand on labor since the 1970s.

The results of the survey were fascinating. Almost exactly half of the respondents (48 percent) predicted that intelligent software will disrupt more jobs than it can replace. The other half predicted the opposite.

The lack of expert consensus on such a crucial and seemingly straightforward question is startling. It’s even more so given that history and the leading economic models point so clearly to one side of the question: the side that reckons society will adjust, new jobs will emerge, and technology will eventually leave the economy stronger.

More recently, Manish Singh has written about some of his concerns as a writer who could be displaced in a Jan. 31, 2015 (?) article for Beta News (Note: A link has been removed),

Robots are after my job. They’re after yours as well, but let us deal with my problem first. Associated Press, an American multinational nonprofit news agency, revealed on Friday [Jan. 30, 2015] that it published 3,000 articles in the last three months of 2014. The company could previously only publish 300 stories. It didn’t hire more journalists, neither did its existing headcount start writing more, but the actual reason behind this exponential growth is technology. All those stories were written by an algorithm.

The articles produced by the algorithm were accurate, and you won’t be able to separate them from stories written by humans. Good lord, all the stories were written in accordance with the AP Style Guide, something not all journalists follow (but arguably, should).

There has been a growth in the number of such software. Narrative Science, a Chicago-based company offers an automated narrative generator powered by artificial intelligence. The company’s co-founder and CTO, Kristian Hammond, said last year that he believes that by 2030, 90 percent of news could be written by computers. Forbes, a reputable news outlet, has used Narrative’s software. Some news outlets use it to write email newsletters and similar things.

Singh also sounds a note of concern for other jobs by including this video (approximately 16 mins.) in his piece,

This video (Humans Need Not Apply) provides an excellent overview of the situation although it seems C. G. P. Grey, the person who produced and posted the video on YouTube, holds a more pessimistic view of the future than some other futurists.  C. G. P. Grey has a website here and is profiled here on Wikipedia.

One final bit, there’s a robot art critic which some are suggesting is superior to human art critics in Thomas Gorton’s Jan. 16, 2015 (?) article ‘This robot reviews art better than most critics‘ for Dazed Digital (Note: Links have been removed),

… the Novice Art Blogger, a Tumblr page set up by Matthew Plummer Fernandez. The British-Colombian artist programmed a bot with deep learning algorithms to analyse art; so instead of an overarticulate critic rambling about praxis, you get a review that gets down to the nitty-gritty about what exactly you see in front of you.

The results are charmingly honest: think a round robin of Google Translate text uninhibited by PR fluff, personal favouritism or the whims of a bad mood. We asked Novice Art Blogger to review our most recent Winter 2014 cover with Kendall Jenner. …

Beyond Kendall Jenner, it’s worth reading Gorton’s article for the interview with Plummer Fernandez.