Politics, Psychology

Brexit as an example of failure to comprehend conditional probabilities

It’s been 2 years 5 months 12 days 12 hours 25 minutes since my first post about Brexit, and I still don’t really know what will happen.

Almost everything is conditional probability: “If there’s a hard (no-deal) Brexit, then the traffic jams from Dover, Harwich/Felixstowe, etc. will be about as long as is physically possible given the number of trucks in the UK.”

Conditional probabilities suck for human-human interactions.

Any pro-Brexit person who reads that will tend, I think, to remember that prediction without the “if” clause; and if there is a deal, they will be much more likely to crow about it as “yet another Remoaner failure”. (Also often missed: “much more likely” doesn’t mean “will”, but I keep seeing people read it that way).

This sort of prediction tends to be used by propagandists as a modern-day Cassandra: the worst case scenario is so bad that everyone strives to prevent it — in this case by not countenancing a no-deal scenario — and so it becomes just another reason to distrust experts who fought against a no-deal scenario. In turn, this increases the chances of something as bad as a no-deal scenario next time. I see the same thing with the Millennium Bug, and as a kid with global warming (no, it wasn’t scientists who told you we were heading straight into an ice age, it was newspapers; any scientists actually talking about an actual ice age were talking about the end of an interglacial warm period and were even then outnumbered 6-to-1 by those concerned about things getting warmer).

I can only think of three post-Brexit-Great-Britain (yes I do mean GB, not UK, I know too little about NI) predictions that are not conditional on the final form that Brexit takes:

  1. The UK population will still be arguing about it
  2. These arguments will involve at least one large march (≥10,000 people)
  3. At least one building will be set on fire (or an attempt will be made: they’re designed to not be on fire)

I put at least 1-in-3 odds that events 2 and 3 will be performed by both angry Leavers and angry Remainers.

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AI, Software, Technology

Automated detection of propaganda and cultural bias

The ability of word2vec to detect relationships between words (for example that “man” is to “king” as “woman” is to “queen”) can already be used to detect biases. Indeed, the biases are so easy to find, so blatant, that they are embarrassing.

Can this automated detection of cultural bias be used to detect deliberate bias, such as propaganda? It depends in part on how large the sample set is, and in part on how little data the model needs to become effective.

I suspect that such a tool would work only for long-form propaganda, and for detecting people who start to believe and repeat that propaganda: individual tweets — or even newspaper articles — are likely to be far too short for these tools, but the combined output of all their tweets (or a year of some journalist’s articles) might be sufficient.

If it is at all possible, it would of course be very useful. For a few hours, until the propagandists started using the same tool the way we now all use spell checkers — they’re professionals, after all, who will use the best tools money can buy.

That’s the problem with A.I., as well as the promise: it’s a tool for thinking faster, and it’s a tool which is very evenly distributed throughout society, not just in the hands of those we approve of.

Of course… are we right about who we approve of, or is our hatred of Them just because of propaganda we’ve fallen for ourselves?

(Note: I’ve seen people, call them Bobs, saying “x is propaganda”, but I’ve never been able to convince any of the Bobs that they are just as likely to fall for propaganda as the people they are convinced have fallen for propaganda. If you have any suggestions, please comment).

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