Science Just Wants To Be Free

This article was originally published in the Huffington Post

 

For a long time now, scientists were held in thrall by publishers. They worked voluntarily – without getting any pay – as editors and reviewers for the publishers, and they allowed their research to be published in scientific journals without receiving anything out of it. No wonder that scientific publishing had been considered a lucrative business.

Well, that’s no longer the case. Now, scientific publishers are struggling to maintain their stranglehold over scientists. If they succeed, science and the pace of progress will take a hit. Luckily, the entire scientific landscape is turning on them – but a little support from the public will go a long way in ensuring the eventual downfall of an institute that is no longer relevant or useful for society.

To understand why things are changing, we need to look back in history to 1665, when the British Royal Society began publishing research results in a journal form called Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. Since the number of pages available in each issue was limited, the editors could only pick the most interesting and credible papers to appear in the journal. As a result, scientists from all over Britain fought to have their research published in the journal, and any scientist whose research was published in an issue gained immediate recognition throughout Britain. Scientists were even willing to become editors for scientific journals, since that was a position that demanded request – and provided them power to push their views and agendas in science.

Thus was the deal struck between scientific publishers and scientists: the journals provided a platform for the scientists to present their research, and the scientists fought tooth and nail to have their papers accepted into the journals – often paying from their pockets for it to happen. The journals publishers then had full copyrights over the papers, to ensure that the same paper would not be published in a competing journal.

That, at least, was the old way for publishing scientific research. The reason that the journal publishers were so successful in the 20th century was that they acted as aggregators and selectors of knowledge. They employed the best scientists in the world as editors (almost always for free) to select the best papers, and they aggregated together all the necessary publishing processes in one place.

And then the internet appeared, along with a host of other automated processes that let every scientist publish and disseminate a new paper with minimal effort. Suddenly, publishing a new scientific paper and making the scientific community aware of it, could have a radical new price tag: it could be completely free.

Free Science

Let’s go through the process of publishing a research paper, and see how easy and effortless it became:

  1. The scientist sends the paper to the journal: Can now be conducted easily through the internet, with no cost for mail delivery.
  2. The paper is rerouted to the editor dealing with the paper’s topic: This is done automatically, since the authors specify certain keywords which make sure the right editor gets the paper automatically to her e-mail. Since the editor is actually a scientist volunteering to do the work for the publisher, there’s no cost attached anyway. Neither is there need for a human secretary to spend time and effort on cataloguing papers and sending them to editors manually.
  3. The editor sends the paper to specific scientific reviewers: All the reviewers are working for free, so the publishers don’t spend any money there either.

Let’s assume that the paper was confirmed, and is going to appear in the journal. Now the publisher must:

  1. Paginate, proofread, typeset, and ensure the use of proper graphics in the paper: These tasks are now performed nearly automatically using word processing programs, and are usually handled by the original authors of the paper.
  2. Print and distribute the journal: This is the only step that costs actual money by necessity, since it is performed in the physical world, and atoms are notoriously more expensive than bits. But do we even need this step anymore? I have been walking around in the corridors of the academy for more than ten years, and I’ve yet to see a scientist with his nose buried in a printed journal. Instead, scientists are reading the papers on their computer screens, or printing them in their offices. The mass-printed version is almost completely redundant. There is simply no need for it.

In conclusion, it’s easy to see that while the publishers served an important role in science a few decades ago, they are just not necessary today. The above steps can easily be conducted by community-managed sites like Arxive, and even the selection process of high quality papers can be performed today by the scientist themselves, in forums like Faculty of 1000.

The publishers have become redundant. But worse than that: they are damaging the progress of science and technology.

The New Producers of Knowledge

In a few years from now, the producers of knowledge will not be human scientists but computer programs and algorithms. Programs like IBM’s Watson will skim through hundreds of thousands of research papers and derive new meanings and insights from them. This would be an entirely new field of scientific research: retrospective research.

Computerized retrospective research is happening right now. A new model in developmental biology, for example, was discovered by an artificial intelligence engine that went over just 16 experiments published in the past. Imagine what would happen when AI algorithms cross and match together thousands papers from different disciplines, and come up with new theories and models that are supported by the research of thousands of scientists from the past!

For that to happen, however, the programs need to be able to go over the vast number of research papers out there, most of which are copyrighted, and held in the hands of the publishers.

You may say this is not a real problem. After all, IBM and other large data companies can easily cover the millions of dollars which the publishers will demand annually for access to the scientific content. What will the academic researchers do, though? Many of them do not enjoy the backing of the big industry, and will not have access to scientific data from the past. Even top academic institutes like Harvard University find themselves hard-pressed to cover the annual costs demanded by the publishers for accessing papers from the past.

Many ventures for using this data are based on the assumption that information is essentially free. We know that Google is wary of uploading scanned books from the last few decades, even if these books are no longer in circulation. Google doesn’t want to be sued by the copyrights holders – and thus is waiting for the copyrights to expire before it uploads the entire book – and lets the public enjoy it for free. So many free projects could be conducted to derive scientific insights from literally millions of research papers from the past. Are we really going to wait for nearly a hundred years before we can use all that knowledge? Knowledge, I should mention, that was gathered by scientists funded by the public – and should thus remain in the hands of the public.

 

What Can We Do?

Scientific publishers are slowly dying, while free publication and open access to papers are becoming the norm. The process of transition, though, is going to take a long time still, and provides no easy and immediate solution for all those millions of research papers from the last century. What can we do about them?

Here’s one proposal. It’s radical, but it highlights one possible way of action: have the government, or an international coalition of governments, purchase the copyrights for all copyrighted scientific papers, and open them to the public. The venture will cost a few billion dollars, true, but it will only have to occur once for the entire scientific publishing field to change its face. It will set to right the ancient wrong of hiding research under paywalls. That wrong was necessary in the past when we needed the publishers, but now there is simply no justification for it. Most importantly, this move will mean that science can accelerate its pace by easily relying on the roots cultivated by past generations of scientists.

If governments don’t do that, the public will. Already we see the rise of websites like Sci-Hub, which provide free (i.e. pirated) access to more than 47 million research papers. Having been persecuted by both the publishers and the government, Sci-Hub has just recently been forced to move to the Darknet, which is the dark and anonymous section of the internet. Scientists who will want to browse through past research results – that were almost entirely paid for by the public – will thus have to move over to the Darknet, which is where weapon smugglers, pedophiles and drug dealers lurk today. That’s a sad turn of events that should make you think. Just be careful not to sell your thoughts to the scholarly publishers, or they may never see the light of day.

 

Dr Roey Tzezana is a senior analyst at Wikistrat, an academic manager of foresight courses at Tel Aviv University, blogger at Curating The Future, the director of the Simpolitix project for political forecasting, and founder of TeleBuddy.

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Robit: A New Contender in the Field of House Robots

The field of house robots is abuzz in the last two years. It began with Jibo – the first cheap house robot that was originally advertised on Indiegogo and gathered nearly $4 million. Jibo doesn’t look at all like Asimov’s vision of humanoid robots. Instead, it resembles a small cartoon-like version of Eve from the Wall-E movie. Jibo can understand voice commands, recognize and track faces, and even take pictures of family members and speak and interact with them. It can do all that for just $750 – which seems like a reasonable deal for a house robot. Romo is another house robot for just $150 or so, with a cute face and a quirky attitude, which has sadly gone out of production last year.

 

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Pictures of house robots: Pepper (~$1,600), Jibo (~$750), Romo (~$130). Image on the right originally from That’s Really Possible.

 

Now comes a new contender in the field of house robots: Robit, “The Robot That Gets Things Done”. It moves around the house on its three wheels, wakes you up in the morning, looks after lost items like your shoes or keys on the floor, detects smoke and room temperature, and even delivers beer for you on a tray. And it’s doing all that for just $349 on Indiegogo.

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I interviewed Shlomo Schwarcz, co-founder & CEO at Robit Robot, about Robit and the present and future of house robots. Schwarcz emphasized that unlike Jibo, Robit is not supposed to be a ‘social robot’. You’re not supposed to talk with it or have a meaningful relationship with it. Instead, it is your personal servant around the house.

“You choose the app (guard the house, watch your pet, play a game, dance, track objects, find your list keys, etc.) and Robit does it. We believe people want a Robit that can perform useful things around the house rather than just chat.”

It’s an interesting choice, and it seems that other aspects of Robit conform to it. While Jibo and Romo are pleasant to look at, Robit’s appearance can be somewhat frightening, with a head that resembles that of a human baby. The question is, can Robit actually do everything promised in the campaign? Schwarcz mentions that Robit is essentially a mobile platform that runs apps, and the developers have created apps that cover the common and basic usages: remote control from a smartphone, movement and face detection, dance, and a “find my things” app.

Other, more sophisticated apps, will probably be left for 3rd parties. These will include Robit analyzing foodstuff and determining its nutritional value, launching toy missiles at items around the house using a tiny missile launcher, and keeping watch over your cat so that it doesn’t climb on that precious sofa that used to belong to your mother in law. These are all great ideas, but they still need to be developed by 3rd parties.

This is where the Robit both wins and fails at the same time. The developers realized that no robotic device in the near future is going to be a standalone achievement. They are all going to be connected together, learn from each other and share insights by means of a virtual app market that can be updated every second. When used that way, robots everywhere can evolve much more rapidly. And as Shwarcz says –

“…Our vision [is] that people will help train robots and robots will teach each other! Assuming all Robits are connected to the cloud, one person can teach a Robit to identify, say a can and this information can be shared in the cloud and other Robits can download it and become smarter. We call these bits of data “insights”. An insight can be identifying something, understanding a situation, a proper response to an event or even just an eye and face expression. Robots can teach each other, people will vote for insights and in short time they will simply turn themselves to become more and more intelligent.”

That’s an important vision for the future, and one that I fully agree with. The only problem is that it requires the creation of an app market for a device that is not yet out there on the market and in people’s houses. The iPhone app store was an overnight success because the device reached the hands of millions in the first year to its existence, and probably because it also was an organic continuation of the iTunes brand. At the moment, though, there is no similar app management system for robots, and certainly not enough robots out there to justify the creation of such a system.

At the moment, the Robit crowdfunding campaign is progressing slowly. I hope that Robit makes it through, since it’s an innovative idea for a house robot, and definitely has potential. Whether it succeeds or fails, the campaign mainly shows that the house robots concept is one that innovators worldwide are rapidly becoming attached to, and are trying to find the best ways to implement. In twenty years from now, we’ll laugh about all the whacky ideas these innovators had, but the best of those ideas – those that survived the test of time and market – will serve us in our houses. Seen from that aspect, Shwarcz is one of those countless unsung heroes: the ones who try to make a change in a market that nobody understands, and dare greatly.

Will he succeed? That’s for the future to decide.

 

 

Images of Israeli War Machines from 2048

Do you want to know what war would look like in 2048? The Israeli artist Pavel Postovit has drawn a series of remarkable images depicting soldiers, robots and mechs – all in the service of the Israeli army in 2048. He even drew aerial ships resembling the infamous Triskelion from The Avengers (which had an unfortunate tendency to crash every second week or so).

Pavel is not the first artist to make an attempt to envision the future of war. Jakub Rozalski before him tried to reimagine World War II with robots, and Simon Stalenhag has many drawings that demonstrate what warfare could look like in the future. Their drawings, obviously, are a way to forecast possible futures and bring them to our attention.

Pavel’s drawings may not based on rigorous foresight research, but they don’t have to be. They are mainly focused on showing us one way the future may be unfurled. Pavel himself does not pretend to be a futures researcher, and told me that –

“I was influenced by all kind of different things – Elysium, District 9 [both are sci-fi movies from the last few years], and from my military service. I was in field intelligence, on the border with Syria, and was constantly exposed to all kinds of weapons, both ours and the Syrians.”

Here are a couple of drawings to make you understand Pavel’s vision of the future, divided according to categories I added. Be aware that the last picture is the most haunting of all.

 

Mechs in the Battlefield

Mechs are a form of ground vehicles with legs – much like Boston Dymanic’s Alpha Dog, which they are presumbaly based on. The most innovative of those mechs is the DreamCatcher – a unit with arms and hands that is used to collect “biological intelligence in hostile territory”. In one particularly disturbing image we can see why it’s called “DreamCatcher”, as the mech beheads a deceased human fighter and takes the head for inspection.

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Apparently, mechs in Pavel’s future are working almost autonomously – they can reach hostile areas on the battlefield and carry out complicated tasks on their own.

 

Soldiers and Aerial Drones

Soldiers in the field will be companied by aerial drones. Some of the drones will be larger than others – the Tinkerbell, for example, can serve both for recon and personal CAS (Close Air Support) for the individual soldier.

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Other aerial drones will be much smaller, and will be deployed as a swarm. The Blackmoth, for example, is a swarm of stealthy micro-UAVs used to gather tactical intelligence on the battlefield.

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Technology vs. Simplicity

Throughout Pavel’s visions of the future we can see a repeated pattern: the technological prowess of the west is going to collide with the simple lifestyle of natives. Since the images depict the Israeli army, it’s obvious why the machines are essentially fighting or constraining the Palestinians. You can see in the images below what life might look like in 2048 for Arab civillians and combatants.

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Another interesting picture shows Arab combatants dealing with a heavily armed combat mech by trying to make it lose its balance. At the same time, one of the combatants is sitting to the side with a laptop – presumbaly trying to hack into the robot.

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The Last Image

If the images above have made you feel somewhat shaken, don’t worry – it’s perfectly normal. You’re seeing here a new kind of warfare, in which robots take extremely active parts against human beings. That’s war for you: brutal and horrible, and there’s nothing much to do against that. If robots can actually minimize the amount of suffering on the battlefield by replacing soldiers, and by carrying out tasks with minimal casualties for both sides – it might actually be better than the human-based model of war.

Perhaps that is why I find the last picture the most horrendous one. You can see in it a combatant, presumably an Arab, with a bloody machette next to him and two prisoners that he’s holding in a cage. The combatant is reading a James Bond book. The symbolism is clear: this is the new kind of terrorist / combatant. He is vicious, ruthless, and well-educated in Western culture – at least well enough to develop his own ideas for using technology to carry out his ideology. In other words, this is an ISIS combatant, who begin to employ some of the technologies of the West like aerial drones, without adhering to moral theories that restrict their use by nations.

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Conclusion

The future of warfare in Pavel’s vision is beginning to leave the paradigm of human-on-human action, and is rapidly moving into robotic warfare. It is very difficult to think of a military future that does not include robots in it, and obviously we should start thinking right now about the consequences, and how (and whether) we can imbue robots with sufficient autonomous capabilities to carry out missions on their own, while still minimizing casualties on the enemy side.

You can check out the rest of Pavel’s (highly recommended) drawings in THIS LINK.

Review: Star Wars – the Force Awakens… and Falls to Sleep in the Middle of the Movie

I’ve finally had the chance to watch Star Wars – The Force Awakens, and I’m not going to sweeten the deal: It was incredibly mediocre. The director mainly played up on nostalgia value to replace the need for humor, real drama or character development. I’m not saying you shouldn’t watch it – just don’t set your expectations too high.

The really interesting thing in the movie for me, though, was the ongoing Failure of the Paradigm woven throughout the movie. As has often been mentioned in the past, Star Wars is in fact a medieval tale of knights in a shiny armor, a princess in distress (an actual princess! in space!), an evil dark wizard and some father-son unresolved issues. So yeah, we have a civilization that is technologically advanced enough to travel between planets at warp speed without much need for fuel, but we see no similar developments in any other fields: no nano-robots, no human augmentation, no biological warfare, no computer-brain interface, and absolutely no artificial intelligence. And please don’t insult my intelligence by claiming that R2D2 has one.

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Star Wars: a medieval space tale of knights and damsels in distress. Image originally from GeekTyrant

The question we should be asking is why. Why would any script writer ignore so many of these potential technological developments – some of which are bound to pop up in the next few decades – and focus instead on plots around which countless other stories have been told and retold throughout thousands of years?

The answer is the Failure of Paradigm: we are stuck in the current paradigm of humanity, love, heroes and free will expressed by biological entities. It takes a superb director and script writer – the Wachowskis’ The Matrix comes to mind – to create an excellent movie that makes you rethink those paradigms. But if you stick with the current paradigms, all you need is an average script, an average director and a lot of explosions to create a blockbuster.

Star Wars is a great example of how NOT to make a science fiction movie. It does not explore the boundaries of what’s possible and impossible in any significant way. It does not make us consider the impact of new technologies, or the changing structure of humanity. It sticks to the old lines and old terms: evil vs. good, empire vs. rebels, father vs. son, and a dashing hero with a bumbling damsel in distress (even though the damsel in the new movie is male). It is not science fiction. Instead, it is a fantasy movie.

And that’s great for some people. Heck, maybe even most people. That’s why it’s the ruling paradigm at the moment – it makes people feel happy and content. But I can’t help thinking and regretting the opportunity lost here. A movie with such a huge audience could make people think. The director could have involved a sophisticated AI in the plot, to make people consider the future of working with artificial virtual assistants. Instead we got a clownish robot. And destroying planets with cannons, requiring immense energy output? What evil empire in its right mind would use such an inefficient method? Why not, instead, just reprogram a single bacteria to create ‘grey goo’ – a self-replicating nano-robot that can devour all humans in its path in order to make more replicas of itself?

The answer is obvious: developments like these would make this fictional world too different from anything we’re willing to accept. In a world of sophisticated risk-calculating AI, there’s not much place for heroics. In a world of nano-technology, there’s no place for wasteful explosions. And in a world with brain-machine interfaces, it is entirely possible that there’s no place for love, biological or otherwise. All of these paradigms that are inherent to us would be gone, and that’s a risk most directors and script writers just aren’t willing to take.

So go – watch the new Star Wars movie, for old time sakes. But after you do that, don’t skimp on some other science fiction movies from the last couple of years that force us to rethink our paradigms. I recommend Chappie and Ex Machina from the last year in particular. These movies may not have the same number of eager followers, and in some cases they are quite disturbing (Chappie only received a rating of 31% in Rotten Tomatoes) – but they will make you think between the explosions. And in the end, isn’t that what we should expect from our science fiction?