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Daniel Kahneman: ‘Clearly AI is going to win. How people are going to adjust is a fascinating problem’ | Science and nature books

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Daniel Kahneman, 87, was awarded the Nobel prize in economics in 2002 for his work on the psychology of judgment and decision-making. His first book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, a worldwide bestseller, set out his revolutionary ideas about human error and bias and how those traits might be recognised and mitigated. A new book, Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgment, written with Olivier Sibony and Cass R Sunstein, applies those ideas to organisations. This interview took place last week by Zoom with Kahneman at his home in New York.

I guess the pandemic is quite a good place to start. In one way it has been the biggest ever hour-by-hour experiment in global political decision-making. Do you think it’s a watershed moment in the understanding that we need to “listen to science”?
Yes and no, because clearly, not listening to science is bad. On the other hand, it took science quite a while to get its act together.

One of the key problems seems to have been the widespread inability to grasp the basic idea of exponential growth. Does that surprise you?
Exponential phenomena are almost impossible for us to grasp. We are very experienced in a more or less linear world. And if things are accelerating, they’re usually accelerating within reason. Exponential change [as with the spread of the virus] is really something else. We’re not equipped for it. It takes a long time to educate intuition.

Do you think the cacophony of opinion on social media exacerbates that?
I know too little about social media, there’s just too large a generational gap. But clearly the potential for misinformation to spread has grown. It’s a new kind of media that has essentially no responsibility for accuracy and not even reputational controls.

Could you define what you mean by “noise” in the book, in layman’s terms – how does it differ from things like subjectivity or error?
Our main subject is really system noise. System noise is not a phenomenon within the individual, it’s a phenomenon within an organisation or within a system that is supposed to come to decisions that are uniform. It’s really a very different thing from subjectivity or bias. You have to look statistically at a great number of cases. And then you see noise.

Daniel Kahneman receives the Nobel Memorial prize in Economic Sciences from King Carl Gustaf of Sweden in Stockholm, 2002.
Daniel Kahneman receives the Nobel Memorial prize in Economic Sciences from King Carl Gustaf of Sweden in Stockholm, 2002. Photograph: Jonas Ekstromer/AFP/Getty Images

Some of the examples you describe – the extraordinary variance seen in sentencing for the same crimes (even influenced by such external matters as the weather, or the weekend football results), say, or the massive discrepancies in insurance underwriting or medical diagnosis or job interviews based on the same baseline information – are shocking. The driver of that noise often seems to lie with the protected status of the “experts” doing the choosing. No judge, I imagine, wants to acknowledge that an algorithm would be fairer at delivering justice?
The judicial system, I think, is special in a way, because it’s some “wise” person who is deciding. You have a lot of noise in medicine, but in medicine, there is an objective criterion of truth.

Have you been on a jury yourself – or spent much time in courtrooms?
I haven’t. But I have had many conversations with judges about the possibility of doing research on how noise affects their judgment. But, you know, it’s not in the interest of the judicial community to investigate themselves.

I suppose people are instinctively or emotionally still more inclined to trust human systems than more abstract processes?
That is certainly the case. We see that, for example, in terms of the attitude to vaccination. People are willing to take far, far fewer risks when they face vaccination than when they face the disease. So this gap between the natural and the artificial is found everywhere. In part that is because when artificial intelligence makes a mistake, that mistake looks completely foolish to humans, or almost evil.

You don’t talk about driverless cars in your analysis. But that, I guess, is becoming a key arena of this argument, isn’t it? However much safer automated cars might be statistically, every time they cause an accident, it will be excessively magnified?
Being a lot safer than people is not going to be enough. The factor by which they have to be more safe than humans is really very high.

It’s 50 years since you and the late Amos Tversky first started researching these questions. Do you feel that your conclusions about measurable human bias and fallibility should have been more widely understood by now?
You know, we didn’t have any particular expectations of changing the world when we did our research. And my own experience of how little this knowledge has changed the quality of my own judgment can be sobering. Avoiding noise in judgment is not really something individuals are going to be very good at. I really put my faith, if there is any faith to be placed, in organisations.

I wonder if you see your work in almost a satirical tradition, highlighting human folly?
Not really. I see myself as really quite an objective psychologist. Obviously, humans are limited. But they’re also pretty marvellous. In Thinking, Fast and Slow, I really was trying to talk about the marvels of intuitive thinking and not only about its flaws – but flaws are more amusing so there is more attention paid there.

One of the things that struck me reading the book is that however much individuals and organisations profess the desire to be efficient and rational, there’s a fundamental part of us that is bored by predictability and just wants to roll the dice. Do you think you take enough account of that?
There are many domains where you really want diversity and creativity. But there is also a need for uniformity in well-defined tasks. If the effort to achieve uniformity gets people unmotivated, or if it becomes excessively bureaucratic, that in itself can be a problem. That is something that organisations are going to have to negotiate.

I was struck watching the American elections by just how often politicians of both sides appealed to God for guidance or help. You don’t talk about religion in the book, but does supernatural faith add to noise?
I think there is less difference between religion and other belief systems than we think. We all like to believe we’re in direct contact with truth. I will say that in some respects my belief in science is not very different from the belief other people have in religion. I mean, I believe in climate change, but I have no idea about it really. What I believe in is the institutions and methods of people who tell me there is climate change. We shouldn’t think that because we are not religious, that makes us so much cleverer than religious people. The arrogance of scientists is something I think about a lot.

You end your book with some ideas for eliminating noise, creating checklists for decision making, having “designated decision observers” and so on. I was reminded of those studies that show how corporate efforts to reduce unconscious racial and gender bias through compulsory training have been either ineffective or counter-productive. How do you take account of such unforeseen consequences?
There is always a risk of that. And those ideas you mention are largely untested but, we think, worth considering. Others in the book are founded on more experience, are more solid.

Do you feel that there are wider dangers in using data and AI to augment or replace human judgment?
There are going to be massive consequences of that change that are already beginning to happen. Some medical specialties are clearly in danger of being replaced, certainly in terms of diagnosis. And there are rather frightening scenarios when you’re talking about leadership. Once it’s demonstrably true that you can have an AI that has far better business judgment, say, what will that do to human leadership?

Are we already seeing a backlash against that? I guess one way of understanding the election victories of Trump and Johnson is as a reaction against an increasingly complex world of information – their appeal is that they are simple impulsive chancers. Are we likely to see more of that populism?
I have learned never to make forecasts. Not only can I certainly not do it – I’m not sure it can be done. But one thing that looks very likely is that these huge changes are not going to happen quietly. There is going to be massive disruption. The technology is developing very rapidly, possibly exponentially. But people are linear. When linear people are faced with exponential change, they’re not going to be able to adapt to that very easily. So clearly, something is coming… And clearly AI is going to win [against human intelligence]. It’s not even close. How people are going to adjust to this is a fascinating problem – but one for my children and grandchildren, not me.

Your own life began in even more extreme uncertainty – as a boy in occupied France: your father was first arrested by the Nazis as a Jew, then spared and your family escaped into hiding. How much of your lifelong interest in these questions – the need to understand human motivations – was rooted in those anxieties and fears do you think?
When I look back, I think I was always going to be a psychologist. I had curiosity from a really early age about how the mind works. I don’t think that my personal history had much to do with it though, it was always there.

Do you feel that you’re fundamentally still the child that you were when you were six or seven?
Yes. There’s certainly a continuity. I can still recognise something within myself.

When you embarked on this work, could you imagine you would still be hard at it at 87?
No, I imagined I would be dead! But to my surprise, I still have the same curiosity. I’m collaborating on several projects and investigations since I finished the book. One is how the inability to solve the famous “bat and ball problem” correlates with belief in God and that 9/11 was a conspiracy. It’s all as fun to me as it ever was.

Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgment by Daniel Kahneman, Olivier Sibony and Cass R Sunstein is published by HarperCollins (£25). To support the Guardian order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

Daniel Kahneman and his co-authors will discuss Noise at a Guardian Live online event on Sunday 27 June. Book tickets here

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Virtual contact worse than no contact for over-60s in lockdown, says study | Coronavirus

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Virtual contact during the pandemic made many over-60s feel lonelier and more depressed than no contact at all, new research has found.

Many older people stayed in touch with family and friends during lockdown using the phone, video calls, and other forms of virtual contact. Zoom choirs, online book clubs and virtual bedtime stories with grandchildren helped many stave off isolation.

But the study, among the first to comparatively assess social interactions across households and mental wellbeing during the pandemic, found many older people experienced a greater increase in loneliness and long-term mental health disorders as a result of the switch to online socialising than those who spent the pandemic on their own.

“We were surprised by the finding that an older person who had only virtual contact during lockdown experienced greater loneliness and negative mental health impacts than an older person who had no contact with other people at all,” said Dr Yang Hu of Lancaster University, who co-wrote the report, published on Monday in Frontiers in Sociology.

“We were expecting that a virtual contact was better than total isolation but that doesn’t seem to have been the case for older people,” he added.

The problem, said Hu, was that older people unfamiliar with technology found it stressful to learn how to use it. But even those who were familiar with technology often found the extensive use of the medium over lockdown so stressful that it was more damaging to their mental health than simply coping with isolation and loneliness.

“Extensive exposure to digital means of communication can also cause burnout. The results are very consistent,” said Hu, who collected data from 5,148 people aged 60 or over in the UK and 1,391 in the US – both before and during the pandemic.

“It’s not only loneliness that was made worse by virtual contact, but general mental health: these people were more depressed, more isolated and felt more unhappy as a direct result of their use of virtual contact,” he said.

The report, Covid-19, Inter-household Contact and Mental Wellbeing Among Older Adults in the US and the UK, analysed national data from the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council-funded Understanding Society Covid-19 survey and the US Health and Retirement Study.

Hu said more emphasis needed to be placed on safe ways to have face-to-face contact in future emergencies. There must also, he added, be a drive to bolster the digital capacity of the older age groups.

“We need to have disaster preparedness,” he said. “We need to equip older people with the digital capacity to be able to use technology for the next time a disaster like this comes around.”

The findings outlined the limitations of a digital-only future and the promise of a digitally enhanced future in response to population ageing in the longer term, added Hu.

“Policymakers and practitioners need to take measures to pre-empt and mitigate the potential unintended implications of household-centred pandemic responses for mental wellbeing,” he said.

Caroline Abrahams, charity director at Age UK, welcomed the report. “We know the virtual environment can exacerbate those feelings of not actually being there with loved ones in person,” she said.

“It’s essential therefore that government makes preventing and tackling loneliness a top policy priority, backed up with adequate funding.

“It’s not over the top to point out that in the worst cases, loneliness can kill in the sense that it undermines resilience to health threats of many kinds, as well as leading to older people in the twilight of their lives losing all hope, so they lack a reason to carry on.”

Patrick Vernon, associate director at the Centre for Ageing Better, said he saw many examples of older people using technology to stay connected in “really positive ways”.

But he was also doubtful: “We know that even for those who are online, lack of skills and confidence can prevent people from using the internet in the ways that they’d like to.”

Previous research by the Centre for Ageing Better found that since the pandemic, there had been significant increases in the use of digital technology among those aged 50-70 years who were already online.

But there are still 3 million people across the UK who are offline, with a significant digital divide affecting low-income households. Twenty-seven per cent of people aged 50-70 with an annual household income under £25,000 were offline before the pandemic.

Vernon said: “Our research has found that some people who were offline found it difficult to connect with family, friends and neighbours during the pandemic – and even those who were online said technology didn’t compensate for missing out on physical social interactions.”

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For a true display of wealth, dab printer ink behind your ears instead of Chanel No. 5 • The Register

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Printer ink continues to rank as one of the most expensive liquids around with a litre of the home office essential costing the same as a very high-end bottle of bubbly or an oak-aged Cognac.

Consumer advocate Which? has found that ink bought from printer manufactures can be up to 286 per cent more expensive than third-party alternatives.

Dipping its nib in one inkwell before delicately wiping off the excess on some blotting paper, Which? found that a multipack of colour ink (cyan, magenta, yellow) for the WorkForce WF-7210DTW printer costs £75.49 from Epson.

“This works out at an astonishing £2,410 a litre – or £1,369 for a pint,” said Which?.

The consumer outfit also reported that since the Epson printer also requires a separate Epson black cartridge for £31.99, it takes the combined cost of replacement inks for the Workforce printer to a wallet-busting £107.98.

On the other hand, if people ditched the brand and opted for a full set of black and colour inks from a reputable third-party supplier, it would cost just £10.99 – less than a tenth of the price.

Printing has become essential for plenty of workers holed up at home during the pandemic. The survey by Which? of 10,000 consumers found 54 per cent use their printer at least once a week. Which? said it estimates an inkjet cartridge would need to be replaced three times a year.

The report discovered tactics used by the big vendors to promote the use of “approved”, “original”, and “guaranteed” ink supplies.

It found Epson devices, for example, flagging up a “non-genuine ink detected” message on its LCD screen when using a non-Epson cartridge, and HP printers are actively blocking customers from using non-HP supplies.

Adam French, a consumer rights champion at Which?, reckons this situation is simply unacceptable.

“Printer ink shouldn’t cost more than a bottle of high-end Champagne or Chanel No. 5,” said French. “We’ve found that there are lots of third-party products that are outperforming their branded counterparts at a fraction of the cost.”

In a rallying call to consumers he said that third-party ink should be a personal choice and not “dictated by the make of your printer.”

“Which? will continue to make consumers aware of the staggering cost differences between own-brand and third-party inks and give people the information they need to buy the best ink for their printer,” he said.

Which is exactly what the Consumers Association said almost 20 years ago when it reported that printer ink cost around £1,700 a litre. Then – as now – the Consumer Association advised consumers to steer clear of brand-name printer cartridges and pick cheaper alternatives instead.

The survey by Which? found that 16 third party brands beat the big brands in terms of ink prices.

Epson wasn’t the only printer biz to be singled out for sky-high ink prices. Canon, and HP were fingered too.

For its part, Epson said customers “should be offered choice… to meet their printing needs” and listed a number of options including its EcoTank systems and a monthly Ink Subscription service.

And in a nod to anyone looking to save money by using a third party, Epson said: “Finally, as non-genuine inks are not designed or tested by Epson we cannot guarantee that these inks will not damage the printer. Whilst Epson does not prevent the use of non-Epson inks, we believe that it is reasonable, indeed responsible, that a warning is displayed as any damage caused by the use of the inks may invalidate the warranty.”

As part of its investigation, Which? found that some HP printers use a system called “dynamic security” which recognises cartridges that use non-HP chips and stops them from working.

HP has tried to battle against third party ink makers trying to capture supplies sales by overhauling the model of its printer business: by shifting to ink tanks printers that come pre-loaded with supplies for an estimated timeframe; or by selling the printer hardware for more upfront and allowing biz customers or consumers to buy the supplies they want.

In response to Which?, HP said it “offers quality, sustainable and secure print supplies with a range of options for customers to choose from, including HP Instant Ink – a convenient printing subscription service with over 9 million users that can save UK customers up to 70 per cent on ink costs, with ink plans starting at £0.99 per month.”

Reg readers may remember the kerfuffle around HP’s Instant Ink. The free plan was reinstated, sort of. For existing customers.

Over at Canon, a spokesperson said third-party ink products can work with its printers, but the “technology inside is designed to function correctly with our genuine inks which are formulated specifically to work with Canon technology.”

“Customers are encouraged to use genuine inks to ensure the longevity of their printer, and also to ensure that their final prints are of a standard we deem Canon quality. In addition, the use of third party inks invalidates the warranty of the printer.”

With almost four in ten (39 per cent) people saying that they do not use third-party cartridges because of fears that they might not work with their printer, it might go some way to explain why more than half (56 per cent) of the consumers quizzed said they persist with using potentially pricey original-branded cartridges despite cheaper alternatives being available. ®

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Repligen to create 130 new jobs in Waterford site expansion

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The project adds to the 74 people already employed at the Artesyn Biosolutions facility acquired by Repligen in 2020.

Repligen Corporation is undertaking an expansion of its Waterford site which will see 130 new jobs created, Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment Leo Varadkar, TD, has announced.

The life sciences company is building a new 3,000 sq m facility which will be a centre of excellence for single-use consumable products used in bioprocessing applications. The site currently hosts a 1,000 sq m facility employing 74 people, which was established by Ireland’s Artesyn Biosolutions before that company was acquired by Repligen last November.

Repligen Corporation is a multinational that produces bioprocessing products for use in the pharmaceutical manufacturing process. Headquartered in Massachusetts, the company has sites across the United States and in Estonia, France, Germany, Sweden and the Netherlands, as well as here in Ireland.

According to the company, the new building will be certified silver on the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system from the US Green Building Council. The consumable products manufactured there will be used in filtration and chromatography systems during the production of vaccines and other biopharmaceutical products.

Commenting on the announcement, Varadkar said: “This is excellent news from Repligen with the creation of 130 new jobs in Waterford. It comes on foot of a major jobs announcement by Bausch and Lomb. Waterford is on the move as a centre for jobs and investment.

“I wish the team the very best with their expansion plans.”

James Bylund, senior vice-president at Repligen, added: “We are thrilled to continue the collaboration with the Irish Government and the IDA that was initiated by the Artesyn team. This build-out is an important step in expanding our capacity and establishing dual manufacturing sites for key single-use consumable products used in manufacture of biological drugs.

“With its LEED Silver designation, the facility is closely aligned with our commitment to responsible growth and sustainability.”

Dr Jonathan Downey, managing director at the Waterford facility, said: “Having delivered beyond our commitment in 2019 to bring new jobs to the region through our development of high-end manufacturing capabilities, we are energised and excited about our integration with Repligen and this next phase of growth.

“In addition to our expansion of Artesyn products, and the transfer of manufacturing of certain of Repligen’s current products to our Irish operations, we expect to be utilising the Irish sites to advance additional research, development and innovation programs.”

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