Nov 9, 2018

Axios Future

By Bryan Walsh
Bryan Walsh

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1 big thing: When scientists get overloaded

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Science is moving at a dizzying pace: around 2.5 million scientific journal articles are published a year around the world, and still the volume keeps climbing. But rather than propel science at an increasing clip, the flood has created information overload — and that threatens to hold back progress.

  • We have written about how artificial intelligence and faster computing are allowing scientists to go after much bigger problems.
  • But part of the problem is also the mundane task of simply keeping up with their field in an age of too much data.

Axios' Kaveh Waddell writes: Much of what scientists do is read each others’ work — for the day’s trends, techniques, and outstanding questions. But the sheer volume means no one can read all the relevant work. Nor can anyone realistically find only the best papers.

This sets up an impossible choice, says Doug Raymond of the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence: A scientist can take the time to understand where her field stands, and risk getting scooped, or publish fast with possibly only incremental results.

So several new projects are using AI to cast a wide net — searching the internet to sift out interesting scientific papers that may otherwise be buried.

  • Mikey Fischer, a Stanford PhD student, created Assert, a site that shows 10 papers at a time, scored by how much they are discussed by influential Twitter accounts and whether their authors published their computer code.
  • Andrew Mauboussin, a Twitter data scientist, wrote PCA News, a feed that searches for tweets about AI-related papers, scoring them based on likes and retweets, the quality of replies, and the influence of the account.
  • The Allen Institute yesterday announced improvements to Semantic Scholar, a popular search engine for academic research. Now, the site shows tweets, videos, presentations, news stories, and computer code next to research.

By turning away from the traditional peer-review system, these new projects reward research that sparks online buzz, and is verifiable by other scientists.

  • "I want a kid in their garage to publish a paper and for it to have impact," says Fischer.
  • Raymond, who manages Semantic Scholar, said the new approaches are "making it easier for new scientists to break through with high-impact and high-risk research in fields where there is just an overwhelming amount of publications to sift through."

But, but but: The rigors of peer review can’t be replaced by 240 characters, and social media can be as much of an echo chamber as the ivory tower.

  • A focus on Twitter chatter means researchers with a large following will see a disproportionate boost.
  • Assert aims for a middle ground by soliciting simple feedback: Readers can rate papers on their quality, leave comments, and ask researchers questions.
2. Understanding the strongmen

Photo: Josep Lago/AFP/Getty

Across the globe, democracy appears to be on the wane and strongman-led populism on the rise. But while the direction is authoritarian, it does not necessarily mean dictatorship everywhere.

What's happening: The sharp turn to authoritarian politics appears to reflect the re-emergence of conservative forces buried by the post-Soviet democratic wave. "All the momentum is with the populists and nationalists right now," Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, tells Axios.

But authoritarianism comes in different shades, says Dan Slater, the head of the Center for Emerging Democracies at the University of Michigan, who writes about the issue in a new piece at Foreign Affairs.

They include:

  • "Electoral authoritarians" — election cheats who stop at nothing to stay in power.
  • Illiberal democrats — who don't necessarily cheat, but dish out attacks on norms and institutions to make themselves more powerful.

The U.S. has taken on characteristics of both, Slater tells Axios: With his attacks on the Fed, courts, generals, intelligence agencies, other politicians and the media, President Trump behaves like an illiberal democrat.

And the U.S. has allowed an electoral authoritarian dynamic to take hold with the electoral college, which twice in the last two decades has allowed presidents to take power with a minority of the votes. "As soon as it becomes systematic that one party can win the entire executive branch with fewer votes it is a loser-take-all system," Slater said.

  • Voting restrictionsexact-match voter identification laws in Georgia, and a street address requirement to register in North Dakota — work with the electoral college to reinforce systemic authoritarianism.
  • Slater does not think a full-on electoral authoritarian system is inevitable in the U.S. "It takes people willing to use the system in illiberal and authoritarian ways," he said.
3. What you may have missed

Photo: Margaret Bourke-White/LIFE/Getty

The week got away from you? No worries. Catch up on the best of Future:

1. Amazon, HQ2, and a breakup threat: The Sherman Act, 2018

2. The uprising for higher wages: Cities are stepping in when companies won't

3. When markets and government fall short: Voters take charge of the economy

4. Lobsters, soy, and surging exports: China withstands the age of tariffs

4. Worthy of your time

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

China's AI news anchor (Helen Regan — CNN)

The self-driving race is about surviving till the end (Joann Muller — Axios)

Robot rings the NYSE bell (Janet Morrissey — NYT)

50 million empty homes (Bloomberg)

A midterm threat to the U.S. quantum plan (Martin Giles — MIT Tech Review)

5. 1 fading thing: The "B" word

Corporate America's latest buzzword may already be nearing the end of its life span: Blockchain is on fewer and fewer tongues.

For the last several months, touting a "blockchain initiative" was the new cool thing. But in a perusal of earnings calls, Quartz' Jason Karaian tweets that he is hearing the word less and less.

What's happening: It turns out that few of the big companies were actually working on the long-term, world-changing blockchain-based projects that they were suggesting.

What's next: We don't know. Send along your candidates for the next buzzword.

Bryan Walsh