Category: Uncategorized

Artificial intelligence: Critique of chatty reasoning

Why AI is not intelligent at all, and therefore can’t speak, reason, hallucinate, or make errors

(This is a slightly extended version of my June column as “der Wissenschaftsnarr” in the German Laborjournal: “Kritik der schwätzenden Vernunft“)

The ongoing debate whether ChatGPT et al. are a blessing for mankind or the beginning of the reign of the machines is riddled with metaphors and comparisons. The products of Artificial Intelligence (AI) are “humanized“ by means of analogy: They are intelligent, learn, speak, think, reason, judge, infer decide, generalize, feel, hallucinate, are creative, (self-)conscious and make errors, are based on neuron-like structures, etc. At the same time, functions of the human brain are described using terms like computer, memory, storage, code, algorithm, and we are reminded that electric currents flow in the brain, just like in a computer. Befuddled by the astounding achievements of chatting and painting bots, many now argue that generative AI displays features of “real” intelligence, and that it is just a matter of more programming and time until AI surpasses human cognition.

The camp of those who think AI is intelligent proves its point with a long list of what AI can do that all look pretty intelligent. The doubters, however, are not convinced; they complain that AI still lacks certain “functionalities” of intelligence, following Tesler’s theorem: “AI is whatever hasn’t been done yet.”

In the following, I will argue that the current AI debate is missing the point, completely.  Instead of simply marveling at AI’s putative intelligence, we should ask what intelligence, thinking, language, consciousness, etc. actually are – to measure AI against them.    

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Fraud in science is rare. But is this actually true?

After a break of 2 years, here again an English translation of one of the musings of the ‚Wissenschaftsnarr‘ (i.e. ‚science jester‘) – my alter ego that writes a monthly column for the German periodical Laborjournal. My apologies, to save time I used DeepL, but the AI has some difficulty with the writing style of the science jester…

Wissenschaftsnarr # 53 (German version available here)

Almost weekly we read about cases of scientific misconduct. Often, renowned journals and prominent scientists play a role in them. The website Retractionwatch by Ivan Oranski and Adam Marcus provides us with such news and their backgrounds in an incessant stream. The Laborjournal, too, has a story in almost every issue about a lab where things were not going right. Most of the time, this came to light after an article with manipulated, falsified or even invented data was exposed. Whistleblowers or attentive readers who anonymously publish their doubts about the dignity of figures on PubPeer often bring this to the attention of the scientific public. Universities, funding agencies, or journals, on the other hand, conspicuously seldom uncover such malignant machinations.

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Boost your score: Digital narcissism in the competition of scientists

Do you have a fitness tracker? Are you on Twitter or Facebook and count your likes and followers? Do you know your ResearchGate score? Do you pay attention to Gault Millau toques and Michelin stars when you visit restaurants? Then you’re in good company, because you’re doing reputation management on a wide variety of levels with quantitative indicators. Just like universities and research sponsors. Except that you do it privately and entirely voluntarily!

On these pages I have recently discussed (here, and here) why in academia today we hardly judge research on the basis of its originality, quality and true scientific or societal impact. Instead, we use quantitative indicators such as Journal Impact Factor (JIF) or third-party funding, and distribute grants or academic titles based on these indicators. I also pondered a few foolish ideas on how to turn the wheel back a bit, in the direction of a content-based evaluation of research achievements. But these considerations still failed to take into account that institutions and funding agencies are in good company – namely ours – when they foster competition with simple, abstract metrics. This makes things easier for them. And at the same time, harder for us to change the system. Because we may have to change ourselves.

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Judging science by proxies Part II: Back to the future

Science gobbles up massive amounts of societal resources, not just financial ones. For academic research in particular, which is self-governing and likes to invoke the freedom of research (which in Germany is even enshrined in the constitution), this raises the question of how it allocates the resources made available to it by society. There is no natural limit to how much research can be done – but there is certainly a limit to the resources that society can and will allocate to research. So which research should be funded, which scientists should be supported?

Mechanisms for answering these questions, which are central to the academic enterprise, have evolved evolutionarily over many decades. However, these mechanisms control not only the distribution of funds among researchers and within as well as between institutions, but ultimately also the content and quality of research. The mechanisms by which research funds and tenure are evaluated and allocated and the metrics used in these processes determine scientists’ daily routines and the way they do research more than their reading literature, their views through a microscope, or their presentations at conferences. Continue reading

Science meets politics, or: Survival of the ideas that fit

Despite the fact that the number of cases is now rising sharply again and we have now entered a lockdown ‘light’, we in Germany are rightly pleased that we have so far come through the corona crisis much better than many of our neighbors or the USA. Was the ‘German way’ perhaps so successful because politicians in Germany had an open ear for science and therefore prescribed the right measures based on evidence?

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“The Ioannidis Affair”

On March 17th, just as many countries were taking draconian measures to contain the SARS-COV-2 pandemic, the Greek-American meta-researcher and epidemiologist John Ioannidis, whom I often quote in my posts proclaimed a “fiasco in the making‘! With strong language and a few ad hoc estimations of COVID fatality rates he warned that based on poor data or no evidence at all politicians might inflict incalculable damage on society, possibly much worse than what a virus, putatatively as dangerous as influenza, could cause. As one of the most highly cited researchers in the world and a vocal critic of quality problems in biomedicine, his COVID related interviews, opinion pieces and articles since then have received a great deal of attention, in the scientific community, in the lay press, and especially among his worldwide fan base. Continue reading

We don’t need animal experiments! We get our drugs from the pharmacy!

Research using animals is a sensitive issue. Anyone who does animal experiments, like myself, is reluctant to talk about it, at least outside our natural habitat, the laboratory or scientific conventions. Institutions where animal experiments are carried out are also quite shy about the topic. Recently, the Max Planck Society left Nikos Logothetis (MPI Tübingen) standing in the rain when he was targeted by a media campaign. Now he and some of his laboratory staff are off to Shanghai… The websites of prominent research institutes feature all kinds of colorful illustrations showing immunohistochemistry slides, doctors and students in white coats with pipettes in their hands, sitting at computers or their microscopes. But rats or mice are conspicuously missing! They proudly display their research activities, and enthusiastically advertise (future) research breakthroughs towards completely new and effective therapies. But no reference is made to animal experiments on campus!

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World sensation: Increase in life expectancy by more than 10 years!

Anyone who follows this blog must get the impression that I am a nag and misanthropist. Nothing and nobody seems to please me. I alway find the sample sizes too small, the statistics too lazy, the data hand-picked, or the results too positive and the conclusions drawn from them too exaggerated. Also, I find the peer review system unreliable, not to mention support of mainstream research and giving to those who already have (‘Matthew effec’)  by the funding agencies. I even dared to critsize the Nobel Prize an atavistic instrument celebrating the lonely, white male reseacher and genius. Artificial intelligence I find stupid, and the academic career system the core of all these evils. To name but just a few examples.

But that is far from the truth! I am a science enthusiast! I am convinced that science is the best that the 1500 grams of protein and fat encapsulated in our skull have ever produced. Yes, I am a science nut. So with this entry, at the beginning of the new decade, let’s start with a proper hymn to biomedical science. Continue reading