Forge Friday Roundup - July 16, 2021

July 16, 2021

In today’s Roundup: analogy, embodiment, and the future of AI; understanding the perils of dataset shift for algorithmic medicine; turmoil envelopes Tennessee vaccination programs; sarcasm detection; polygenic testing and embryo selection;  COVID derails routine immunization worldwide; COVID vaccination and parental consent; wolves just aren’t that into you; health toll of growing sugar; Surgeon General marshals forces against misinformation; proposed ARPA-H program courts constructive failure; much more:


Small golden retriever puppy running on a sidewalk toward the camera. Image credit: Andrew Schultz/Unsplash
Image credit: Andrew Schultz/Unsplash

DEEP BREATHS

  • “Wolves and dogs were evenly matched in memory and self-control, the researchers found. But in tasks involving human communication, dogs surpassed wolves. Dogs were twice as likely to follow a pointed finger or a wooden block as a clue. Dogs also made twice as much eye contact, meeting humans’ gaze in four-second bursts compared with wolf pups’ average of 1.47 seconds.” At Science News, Jaime Chambers reports on a recent study by Duke’s Hannah Salomons and colleagues that confirms a key difference in canine behavior: namely, wolves just aren’t that into people.

AI, STATISTIC & DATA SCIENCE

  • “My intuition is that yes, we will not be able to get to humanlike analogy [in AI] without some kind of embodiment. Having a body might be essential because some of these visual problems require you to think of them in three dimensions. And that, for me, has to do with having lived in the world and moved my head around, and understood how things are related spatially.” John Pavlus’ Quanta interview with AI expert Melanie Mitchell explores her interest in reasoning by analogy – and why the ability to do so will mark a significant frontier for machine intelligence.
  • “…the University of Michigan Hospital implemented the widely used sepsis-alerting model developed by Epic Systems; in April 2020, the model had to be deactivated because of spurious alerting owing to changes in patients’ demographic characteristics associated with the coronavirus disease 2019 pandemic. This was a case in which dataset shift fundamentally altered the relationship between fevers and bacterial sepsis, leading the hospital’s clinical AI governing committee…to decommission its use.” A research letter in the New England Journal of Medicine by Finlayson and colleagues explores the problem of “dataset shift” in artificial intelligence applications that have been deployed in healthcare settings. Accompanied by tweetorials by study authors Finlayson and Karendeep Singh.
  • “Sarcasm detection is the task of identifying irony containing utterances in sentiment-bearing text. However, the figurative and creative nature of sarcasm poses a great challenge for affective computing systems performing sentiment analysis. This article compiles and reviews the salient work in the literature of automatic sarcasm detection.” “Automatic Sarcasm Detection” sounds like something you’d find affixed to a prop in the Adam West version of Batman, but not only is it a real endeavor in artificial intelligence, it’s a genuinely challenging task for AI systems. A preprint review article by Yahgoobian and colleagues available from arXiv surveys current approaches to the problem.
  • To study imbrication is to explore how our experience of being subject to datafication is enabled by making do with digital systems that partially overlap with each other. This making do, however, also produces challenges to our lived experiences with data. Imbrication works for some at the expense of others; it produces difference in everyday lives of people increasingly made subject to a data infrastructure-in-use.” A post by postdoctoral scholar Ranjit Singh at the AI Now Institute’s Medium channel deploys the idea of “imbrication” – that technologies, rather than forming seamless layers, overlap and in doing so create discontinuities and boundaries that have to be navigated by users.
    Closeup photograph of yellow and white overlapping snake scales illustrating imbrication. Image credit: James Lee/Unsplash
    Image credit: James Lee/Unsplash
  • “Flock, whose cameras use automatic license plate reader technology, is well on its way to deploying a connected network of AI-powered cameras that detect the movements of cars across the United States…Communities have created "virtual gates" around their neighborhoods, with cameras capturing each vehicle driving in and out of the area. Through a program called TALON, this little-known company is allowing police officers to track cars—and by extension, specific people—outside of their own jurisdictions.” An investigation reported by Joseph Cox at Motherboard highlights the rise of a security camera network whose AI powered database is resulting in some double-takes from privacy experts.
  • “Despite the fact that AI continues to be implicated in social ills ranging from the spread of disinformation to unequal outcomes in law enforcement and health care, there are still few resources to help with this; AI research often falls outside the purview of existing entities such as the Institutional Review Board, which is designed to evaluate harm to individuals, rather than society.” Last month, Stanford’s Human Centered Artificial Intelligence Institute announced the creation of a program designed to foster consideration of the societal impacts of artificial intelligence research.
  • “Halo intends to make its cars slightly more autonomous, but its goals only extend to Level 3 of 5 on the Society of Automotive Engineers scale. Level 5 means fully driverless operation in all conditions, while 3 covers “conditional driving automation”—sufficient to serve as a “traffic jam chauffeur,” an SAE chart suggests.” Fast Company’s Rob Pegoraro reports on a new “driverless car” startup that is less reliant on cutting-edge AI than it is on low-latency networks that allow remote piloting of the vehicles.
  • “TikTok’s mysterious recommendation algorithms are part of its success—but its unclear and constantly changing boundaries are already having a chilling effect on some users. Fiesler notes that many TikTok creators self-censor words on the platform in order to avoid triggering a review. And although she’s not sure exactly how much this tactic is accomplishing, Fielser has also started doing it, herself, just in case. Account bans, algorithmic mysteries, and bizarre moderation decisions are a constant part of the conversation on the app.”  MIT Technology Review’s Abby Ohlheiser reports on the groundswell of frustration with opaque and unpredictable content recommendation and moderation at TikTok – frustrations that are being felt disproportionately by members of marginalized groups.
  • “Current polygenic risk scores have limited predictive strength and reflect the shortcomings of genetic databases, which are overwhelmingly Eurocentric. Alicia Martin, an instructor at Massachusetts General Hospital and the Broad Institute of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University, says her research examining polygenic risk scores suggests ‘they don’t transfer well to other populations that have been understudied.’” Scientific American’s Laura Hercher reports on how a new company’s promise to apply genetic testing for embryo selection has triggered a new round of concern, both about the degree of trust that can be reposed in polygenic risk scores and the ethics of reproductive technologies.
  • “TrueAllele is reshaping DNA analysis, providing key evidence in thousands of homicides, rapes and other crimes like the armed robbery in Virginia in which genetic material was too complex to interpret. But that comes with a major caveat: Not a single prosecutor, government crime lab or defendant has had a meaningful look at how it works.” The Washington Post’s Justin Jouvenal examines the dense complexities of a legal challenge to algorithm that uses probabilistic matching for DNA samples found at crime scenes – one whose inner workings remain opaque to external observers.

BASIC SCIENCE, CLINICAL RESEARCH & PUBLIC HEALTH

  • Nature’s Smriti Mallapaty reports on the impending closure of the Animal Resources Centre based in Perth, Western Australia, a facility that breeds mice and rats for the purpose of medical research, and how scientists believe that the Center’s decision to shut down supply operations over the next year and half could have “devastating impacts” on the future of biomedical research in Australia.  
  • Scientists have long seen communication and sociability as the keys to the success of life, and researchers may have found the most elemental social organelles in the tree of life: mitochondria. Researchers Martin Picard and Carmen Sandi make the case for mitochondria’s social life in Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews. Their work is reported in Quanta Magazine by Katarina Zimmer
  • “Each year in the United States, tens of thousands of people die prematurely from exposure to particulate matter… Palm Beach County emits more particulate matter from agricultural fires than any other county nationwide. Those emissions are almost entirely byproducts of cane burning: 98.5% of the agricultural acreage burned in the county since 2010 has been for sugar cane.” In collaboration with the Palm Beach Post’s Lulu Ramadan, ProPublica’s Ash Ngu and Maya Miller investigate America’s billion-dollar cane sugar industry setting cane fields in Palm Beach County ablaze in order to save money on manual harvesting, and the dire repercussions the process has on air quality and the quality of life of neighboring residents.
  • “’It’s a perfect opening scene for a thrilling movie where everyone gets sick with Delta all over the world, and they trace it to the Olympics,’ Peter Chin-Hong, an infectious disease specialist at the University of California, San Francisco told Bender. ‘The Olympics are not only just a local potential superspreading event in a poorly vaccinated country but [could perhaps become] a global superspreading event.’” Infectious disease and public health experts continue to raise the alarm about the risk of COVID-19 outbreaks at the Summer Olympics in Tokyo. Maddie Bender reports on those concerns in an article for Scientific American.
    Photograph of an empty track and stands at an Olympic stadium in Berlin. Image credit: Leif Christoph Gottwald/Unsplash
    Image credit: Leif Christoph Gottwald/Unsplash
  • The Kansas City Star’s Jonathan Shorman and colleagues report on how the highly contagious COVID-19 Delta variant is raging among the unvaccinated pockets of Missouri due to inaction from Missouri’s Department of Health and Senior Services, overwhelming the local hospital systems as the rest of the country experiences fewer and fewer cases and life goes back to normal.    
  • After the Tennessee Department of Health fired Dr. Michelle Fiscus, the top vaccine official in the Tennessee state government, Dr. Fiscus released a statement about the circumstances around her dismissal. In the statement, published in full in the Tennessean, she wrote: “It is the mission of the Tennessee Department of Health to “protect, promote and improve the health and prosperity of the people of Tennessee” and protecting them against the deadliest infectious disease event in more than 100 years IS our job. It’s the most important job we’ve had in recent history. Specifically, it was MY job to provide evidence-based education and vaccine access so that Tennesseans could protect themselves against COVID-19. I have now been terminated for doing exactly that.” And in a coda that shortly followed…
  • …“These changes to Tennessee’s vaccination strategy, detailed in an COVID-19 report distributed to health department staff on Friday, then reiterated in a mass email on Monday, illustrate how the state government continues to dial back efforts to vaccinate minors against coronavirus. This state's approach to vaccinations will not only lessen efforts to inoculate young people against coronavirus, it could also hamper the capacity to vaccinate adults and protect children from other infectious diseases.” Shortly after Tennessee’s recently ousted Health Commissioner excoriated state politicians for their handling of the COVID pandemic, state legislators doubled down with a decision that left public health experts nationwide stunned and appalled: the state ordered the Department of Health to cease all outreach activities for vaccinating adolescents – even for routine childhood immunizations. The Nashville Tennessean’s Brett Kelman has the story.
  • “Routine immunisation services faced stark challenges in 2020, with the COVID-19 pandemic causing the most widespread and largest global disruption in recent history. Although the latest coverage trajectories point towards recovery in some regions, a combination of lagging catch-up immunisation services, continued SARS-CoV-2transmission, and persistent gaps in vaccine coverage before the pandemic still left millions of children under-vaccinated or unvaccinated against preventable diseases at the end of 2020, and these gaps are likely to extend throughout 2021.” A modelling study published this week in Lancet by Causey and colleagues reveals what many public health experts had feared: among the damage done by the COVID pandemic, routine childhood immunization programs took a big hit, and the shortfalls are likely to persist throughout the current year.
  • “More than 15 years ago, a man who was only 20 years old had a massive stroke when a major artery supplying his brain stem burst. The incident left him unable to control his limbs or any muscles related to speech….Now he is the first person ever to produce whole words via a computer intermediate that decodes his brain’s messages. A processor connected to an array of electrodes implanted in his brain receives the messages and translates them into words displayed on a screen.” Scientific American’s Emily Wilingham describes a major milestone in neurology, reported this week by Moses and colleagues in the New England Journal of Medicine, in which an implanted “brain-computer interface” was used successfully for the first time to relay whole words directly from the brain signals of a stroke victim.

COMMUNICATIONS & DIGITAL HEALTH

  • Even as pandemic-driven deregulation meant to stimulate the use of telehealth and remote monitoring was promulgated, the easement of barriers for such approaches by the FDA did not lead to significant uptake of these tools in research published between May 2020 and February 2021. These findings were revealed in an analysis of ClinicalTrials.gov published in BMJ Open. This suggests researchers have not made the most of using novel digital approaches to conduct research during the pandemic.   
  • New York Times’ Reed Abelson reports on how many Americans, especially those with lower incomes and less education, continue to feel socially isolated even as COVID-19 health crisis slowly subsides due to mass vaccination campaigns across the country, according to new results from The COVID States Project, a joint venture of Northeastern, Harvard, Rutgers, and Northwestern universities.
  • “Nicole Lawson spent the beginning of the pandemic incredibly worried about her daughter, who has asthma… [But] Scarlett hasn’t had a single asthma attack. Not a single visit to the ER. Nothing. She’s breathing so much better, and all it took was a global pandemic that completely upended normal life.” The Atlantic’s Sarah Zhang sheds light on how masking mandates, social distancing and lockdowns brought asthma attacks down over the course of the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, but what happens when the world opens back up?
  • “The U.S. has dealt with misinformation around other public health crises, including decades of persistent rumors about HIV/AIDS, but Murthy says the coronavirus pandemic is underscoring just how problematic the false information and rumors related to health can be.” NPR’s Geoff Brumfiel reports on U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy’s urgent warning about the impact of misinformation on the COVID pandemic – a warning accompanied by an official advisory on the threat.
    Woman standing by a lake with mountains in the background at dusk, her face illuminated by the smartphone she is holding in her hand. Image credit: Becca Tapert/Unsplash
    Image credit: Becca Tapert/Unsplash
  • “…the CrowdTangle story is important, because it illustrates the way that Facebook’s obsession with managing its reputation often gets in the way of its attempts to clean up its platform. And it gets to the heart of one of the central tensions confronting Facebook in the post-Trump era. The company, blamed for everything from election interference to vaccine hesitancy, badly wants to rebuild trust with a skeptical public. But the more it shares about what happens on its platform, the more it risks exposing uncomfortable truths that could further damage its image.” A remarkable story by the New York Times’ Kevin Roose explores the internal tensions at Facebook as the company weighs reputational interests against the merits of transparency.
  • “A medical student in London, Jack Lawrence, was among the first to identify serious concerns about the paper, leading to the retraction….It appeared that the authors had run entire paragraphs from press releases and websites about ivermectin and Covid-19 through a thesaurus to change key words….The data also looked suspicious to Lawrence, with the raw data apparently contradicting the study protocol on several occasions.” The Guardian’s Melissa Davey reports on the withdrawal of an influential preprint touting ivermectin as an effective therapy for COVID-19 after multiple issues with the study’s basic integrity were spotted.

POLICY

  • “The care of people with severe mental illness is necessarily a public responsibility that has been neglected in our primarily for-profit private health care system. The United States has shirked this public responsibility more than any other developed nation on earth. Mahatma Gandhi once said that a nation’s greatness is judged by how it treats its weakest members. By this standard, the United States is morally bankrupt and the very opposite of great.” In a First Opinion for STAT, Duke Psychiatry’s Allen Frances laments the omission of any concrete plans for improving mental health in President Biden’s recent call for an ambitious $1.6-billion funding increase for the CDC.
  • “Medical education should move beyond acknowledging the institutional basis of health inequities. Students should be empowered to apply their knowledge of these inequities to develop community-based projects and learn how to collaborate with policymakers… Medical students can serve as agents for change to improve the social determinants of health when given the necessary education, instruments, and support to succeed.” In an important piece for Duke’s Opinion and Analysis channel on Medium, med student Antoinette Charles highlights the lack of tools and solutions provided to medical students by medical institutions in the United States to fight health disparities and inequity within their communities and on a national level.
  • Two separate reports have urged that the World Health Organization take the lead in regulating genome editing. The reports were published by groups in the wake of a scandal spurred by a rogue Chinese scientist who used CRISPR-CAS9 gene editing to altered embryos that were eventually carried to term. Their findings were summarized by Heidi Ledford in Nature 
  • “Collins also bluntly acknowledged what many of ARPA-H’s biggest proponents have recently alleged: That in many cases, the NIH has grown too risk-averse. The new agency, Collins said, could bring  a heightened pace, increased ambition, and a willingness to pursue projects that don’t pan out.” STAT News’ Lev Facher talks with NIH chief Francis Collins about the proposed ARPA-H agency, which would be oriented toward innovative and in some cases, high-risk research projects in health science.
  • “Children and adolescents have the capacity to understand and reason about low-risk and high-benefit health care interventions. State laws should therefore authorize minors to consent to COVID-19 vaccination without parental permission.” A viewpoint article published by Morgan and colleagues at JAMA Pediatrics makes the case for permitting COVID vaccination in children without parental consent, depending on the child’s age and other factors.

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