How artificial intelligence can detect – and create – fake news
When Mark Zuckerberg told Congress Facebook would use artificial intelligence to detect fake newsposted on the social media site, he wasn’t particularly specific about what that meant. Given my own work using image and video analytics, I suggest the company should be careful. Despite some basic potential flaws, AI can be a useful tool for spotting online propaganda – but it can also be startlingly good at creating misleading material.
Researchers already know that online fake news spreads much more quickly and more widely than real news. My research has similarly found that online posts with fake medical information get more views, comments and likes than those with accurate medical content. In an online world where viewers have limited attention and are saturated with content choices, it often appears as though fake information is more appealing or engaging to viewers.
The problem is getting worse: By 2022, people in developed economies could be encountering more fake news than real information. This could bring about a phenomenon researchers have dubbed “reality vertigo” – in which computers can generate such convincing content that regular people may have a hard time figuring out what’s true anymore.
Machine learning algorithms, one type of AI, have been successful for decades fighting spam email, by analyzing messages’ text and determining how likely it is that a particular message is a real communication from an actual person – or a mass-distributed solicitation for pharmaceuticals or claim of a long-lost fortune.
Building on this type of text analysis in spam-fighting, AI systems can evaluate how well a post’s text, or a headline, compares with the actual content of an article someone is sharing online. Another method could examine similar articles to see whether other news media have differing facts. Similar systems can identify specific accounts and source websites that spread fake news.
An endless cycle
However, those methods assume the people who spread fake news don’t change their approaches. They often shift tactics, manipulating the content of fake posts in efforts to make them look more authentic.
Using AI to evaluate information can also expose – and amplify – certain biases in society. This can relate to gender, racial background or neighborhood stereotypes. It can even have political consequences, potentially restricting expression of particular viewpoints. For example, YouTube has cut off advertising from certain types of video channels, costing their creators money.
Context is also key. Words’ meanings can change over time. And the same word can mean different things on liberal sites and conservative ones. For example, a post with the terms “WikiLeaks” and “DNC” on a more liberal site could be more likely to be news, while on a conservative site it could refer to a particular set of conspiracy theories.
Using AI to make fake news
The biggest challenge, however, of using AI to detect fake news is that it puts technology in an arms race with itself. Machine learning systems are already proving spookily capable at creating what are being called “deepfakes” – photos and videos that realistically replace one person’s face with another, to make it appear that, for example, a celebrity was photographed in a revealing pose or a public figure is saying things he’d never actually say. Even smartphone apps are capable of this sort of substitution – which makes this technology available to just about anyone, even without Hollywood-level video editing skills.
Researchers are already preparing to use AI to identify these AI-created fakes. For example, techniques for video magnification can detect changes in human pulse that would establish whether a person in a video is real or computer-generated. But both fakers and fake-detectors will get better. Some fakes could become so sophisticated that they become very hard to rebut or dismiss – unlike earlier generations of fakes, which used simple language and made easily refuted claims.
Human intelligence is the real key
The best way to combat the spread of fake news may be to depend on people. The societal consequences of fake news – greater political polarization, increased partisanship, and eroded trust in mainstream media and government – are significant. If more people knew the stakes were that high, they might be more wary of information, particularly if it is more emotionally based, because that’s an effective way to get people’s attention.
When someone sees an enraging post, that person would do better to investigate the information, rather than sharing it immediately. The act of sharing also lends credibility to a post: When other people see it, they register that it was shared by someone they know and presumably trust at least a bit, and are less likely to notice whether the original source is questionable.
Social media sites like YouTube and Facebook could voluntarily decide to label their content, showing clearly whether an item purporting to be news is verified by a reputable source. Zuckerberg told Congress he wants to mobilize the “community” of Facebook users to direct his company’s algorithms. Facebook could crowd-source verification efforts. Wikipedia also offers a model, of dedicated volunteers who track and verify information.
Facebook could use its partnerships with news organizations and volunteers to train AI, continually tweaking the system to respond to propagandists’ changes in topics and tactics. This won’t catch every piece of news posted online, but it would make it easier for large numbers of people to tell fact from fake. That could reduce the chances that fictional and misleading stories would become popular online.
Reassuringly, people who have some exposure to accurate news are better at distinguishing between real and fake information. The key is to make sure that at least some of what people see online is, in fact, true.
A large new study uses an online game to inoculate people against fake news.
- Researchers from the University of Cambridge use an online game to inoculate people against fake news.
- The study sample included 15,000 players.
- The scientists hope to use such tactics to protect whole societies against disinformation.
Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.
- Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
- They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
- The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.
The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?
But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.
What's dead may never die, it seems
The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.
BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.
The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.
As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.
The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.
"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.
An ethical gray matter
Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.
The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.
Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.
Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?
"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."
One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.
The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.
"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.
It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.
Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?
The dilemma is unprecedented.
Setting new boundaries
Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."
She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.
Many governments do not report, or misreport, the numbers of refugees who enter their country.
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