Google and Max Planck

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In last week's New Scientist magazine, Hal Hodson wrote an interesting article reporting on Google's project to try and weed out what New Scientist magazine often refers to as 'fruitloopery'. Google's plan is to assess websites' statements for accuracy by comparing them to its own store of knowledge. If that website's 'facts' don't match Google's own official facts, then Google will lower that website's ranking accordingly, so that viewers won't be exposed to spurious information. This sounds great, but there is a problem. Here's the letter I wrote in response:

Hal Hodson reports that Google's software for ranking pages on their trustworthiness will make its judgement by drawing on a store of facts gathered from the internet. Isn't this circular logic? How would the Google system handle a statement such as "glass is a liquid"? On the internet, the notion that glass is a slow-moving liquid, resulting in medieval windows that are thicker at the bottom, seems far more prevalent than the truth – that glass is a solid and medieval glaziers placed the thicker end of blown glass sheets at the bottom. Since nothing on the internet is unanimously agreed, Google's software would have to take the majority consensus. If this happened, there is a good chance that any site dispelling a popular misconception would appear far down the list of search results, making it harder, not easier, for people to learn the truth. Popular fiction would dominate because the software would add it to the Knowledge Vault and use that reference point to downgrade the truth. Intelligent people can make clever software, but no one makes intelligent software.


This project also reminded of the physicist Max Planck's comment about new ideas. He said:

A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.


This puts Google's project in an interesting light. According to Max, new scientific truths spend a long time being officially rubbished by those in charge of deciding what's true. This isn't just negative pessimism. The list of famous scientists holding back new developments is long. Eddington rubbished Chandrasekhar’s theory of black holes. Einstein spent decades fighting against the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum physics. Lord Kelvin was entirely against the existence of nuclear energy for his entire life. Fortunately, black holes, the Copenhagen Interpretation and nuclear physics survived, but how would they get on if software programmes decided if anyone should read about them? In that situation, the baby could most definitely be thrown out with the bathwater.

Facts, belief and reality is such a fun topic to explore. I'm working on my science fiction comedy novel at the moment, motivated by the good response to my short stories
18% Happier and The Lost Emotion. Here's a short passage from my gestating novel on the topic of belief and reality:

There are many different beliefs throughout the galaxy about the nature of reality. For example, an ancient race known as the Zhol believe that the entire universe was created by a deity to get some practice in before He made a proper universe. The Zhol therefore always refer to the universe the Rough Version and they still wait in earnest for the time they call the Great Upgrade.

Although many developed races mock the Zhol’s belief, none make the mistake of not believing in anything, lest they suffer the fate of the Ambiguons from Ashram-Q. Millennia ago, the Ambiguons grew tired of the many, different and sometimes very strange beliefs of the different clans and tribes on their planet, including beliefs such as ‘our world was created by vengeful in-laws’, ‘our moon is a cunningly disguised spaceship’ and ‘cats can talk but chose not to’. To stop this nonsense, Ambiguon engineers began work on a powerful new machine that would make every mind on their planet stop believing in anything at all. This way, they thought, they would be able to enter a new era where they would only think of real, provable things and their minds would be free of all delusional tomfoolery.

After years of intense work, Ambiguon engineers completed the device. All that was left to do was to turn it on. One sunny morning, the entire Ambiguon race gathered in their capital city to begin their new and enlightening Era of Disbelief. The Ambiguon High Leader waved to the huge, assembled crowd, walked on to the console podium and stood before the great machine. He took a deep breath, stepped forward, turned it on and the entire planet and everyone on it disappeared.

The fate of the Ambiguons is regarded as a sober lesson for all other sentient races in the galaxy. Believe something weird if you like, but do believe
something.

There's a strong whiff of 'Hitch-hikers' guide to the galaxy' in the above passage, but that's okay as I adore Adams' book. I definitely
don't want the novel to be just like Hitch-hiker's, as that would probably be a disaster. Instead, at the moment, the novel is looking like a cross between Hitch-hikers, Star Trek and Catch-22, which should conjure up some very weird images. I'll report more on the novel as I reach meaningful milestones. Until then, wish me luck! :-)