Radiolab and Wired magazine each ran a story recently about a computer program they called a “robot scientist”. Its actual name is Eureqa. The Radio Lab story gave a compelling portrait of Eureqa’s capabilities. Just by looking at how a double pendulum moves Eureqa was able to deduce Newton’s famous law of motion “F=ma“. Even more amazingly, when Eureqa was told to watch biological cells eat, breathe, and grow it was able to deduce the underlying mechanics of that too. Eureqa was able to determine an equation that remained constant throughout the cellular processes and provided the scientists with this equation. Not only did this equation explain the data the biologists gave to Eureqa, but it was also able to predict some new behaviors that Eureqa had never before seen. A stellar accomplishment. Unfortunately Eureqa’s equation was just a string of symbols to the biologists. They had no idea how that equation related to any real-world quantities inside the cell. They got an answer, but couldn’t understand it.
Amazing as Eureqa is, its application may go far beyond science. It may even extend into the realm of news reporting. The first news story to fall to a Eureqa reporter might be climate change. Imagine feeding all the data we have about the Earth’s climate over the past 600,000 years into Eureqa. It could very well create an equation that relates all those variables into a planetary temperature model. All the issues skeptics complain about: sunspots, methane concentrations, increased albedo from deforestation, decreased albedo from polar ice melting, urban heat islands, etc, could be analyzed by Eureqa. Being a computer program we’d expect it would analyze the data without any bias or prejudice. And like the biology example above, it will produce an answer, perhaps one we won’t understand, but one that we can still use for predictive capabilities. We could feed it data indicating how we’d like to change our behavior to mitigate or even reverse global warming* and Eureqa would tell us if our hypothetical new behavior would help or not.
In the old days of news reporting some reporters were valued for their honesty and ethical integrity. If such a reporter said something was true the public would largely believe it. No reporter today understands climate change, they are all reporting what the scientists say and some are relying on old investigative reporting techniques to dig up dirt that appears significant but is essentially meaningless**. In other words instead of fact checking they’re merely questioning the motivation of the scientists and not digging into the science. However, if a result came from Eureqa it would be impossible to question its motives. The only thing to question would be the science.
Climate change with the data collected on that topic may be a field that’s within Eureqa’s grasp to analyze. However, future versions of Eureqa or programs like it may be able to answer other types of questions:
- How do taxes affect economic growth?
- Do generous social welfare programs decrease national productivity?
- Do gun control laws reduce gun deaths?
- If we legalized certain drugs how many more drug addicts would we have?
These questions may not seem like they easily lend themselves to numerical analysis, but we are a nation of fifty states, a world of many nations and we’ve been collecting data for a long time. Across our nation, across the globe and for the last several decades we have taken many different stances on these issues with many different results. A program like Eureqa one day may very well be able to analyze this information and determine the ideal tax rate for a country or what drugs can be safely decriminalized, or what level of social welfare minimizes the number of the poor while maximizing productivity.
The benefit of having a computer program report these results is that it’s immune to the motivational inquisition that passes for investigative journalism these days. You can’t question a computer’s motivation, but you can question the underlying data and the assumptions that go into its analysis. Somewhere along the line we’ve lost the ability to trust someone who doesn’t share our world view. Skepticism has devolved into merely ascertaining whether someone shares our world view and if not we stop listening. When computers are able to give answers to meaningful questions ascertaining whether the computer shares our world view will be a meaningless exercise. We’ll have to resort to verifying its conclusions the old fashioned way, questioning the data or verifying the results on a small scale. That’s the sort of reporting we’re aiming for here at News With Numbers. I’ve downloaded my copy of Eureqa, have you got yours?