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Did extraterrestrials chew up my news release, or does artificial intelligence still have a ways to go?


Almost two years ago, in a Scope blog entry titled "Can Joe Six-Pack compete with Sid Cyborg?" I posed the question: "Just how long will it be before we can no longer tell our computers from ourselves?"

I think it's safe to say we're not there yet. Either that, or extraterrestrials have been reading my news releases and finding them puzzling.

Last week we put out a news release I'd written about a dramatic discovery by Stanford radiologists Mike Zeineh, MD, PhD, Brian Rutt, PhD, and their colleagues. In brief, they'd analyzed postmortem slabs of brain tissue from people diagnosed with Alzheimer's, compared them with equivalent brain-tissue slabs taken from people who'd died without any Alzheimer's-like symptoms, and noticed some striking and intriguing differences. In a key brain region essential to memory formation, Zeineh and Rutt had spotted - only in Alzheimer's brains, not normal ones - iron deposits engulfed by mobile inflammatory cells. This observation's potentially big implications were plenty newsworthy.

It so happened that, on the day we issued the release, a high-powered five-day-long meeting on Alzheimer's sponsored by the eponymous Alzheimer's Association was in session in Washington, D.C. As a result, many of the brain-oriented science writers to whom my news release was targeted were preoccupied.

I was a little anxious about that. So, the other day, I turned to my favorite search engine to see if the release had managed to get some traction in the popular press. As I'd feared, the Washington conference had sucked up a lot of the oxygen in the earthly neuroscience arena.

But apparently, the release had done better in Outer Space. I saw that it had been picked up by, for example, Red Orbit (a website that I've always assumed, based on its name, emanates from Mars).

My eyes were next drawn to a link to an unfamiliar outfit called AZ News, which bills itself in a tagline as an "International Online News Site." I clicked on the link, and saw a news report with the same title as my release. I started reading the text below.

The first words were: "In autopsy mind hankie from people not diagnosed with Alzheimer's..." I don't know what an "autopsy mind hankie" is, but I suspect it's a mind-blower.

I checked our release. That's not what I'd written at all. What I'd said was, "In postmortem brain tissue from people not diagnosed with Alzheimer's..."

It seemed pretty clear that the release had been translated into some language - I had no idea which - and then, for some reason, reverse-translated back into English. I read on.

Our release had stated: "Rutt teamed up with Zeineh to scrutinize the human brain specimens for iron particles." In the rebound-rewrite, the term "human brain specimens" had been replaced by "tellurian mind specimens." I had to look up "tellurian." It means "of, or inhabiting, the earth" - a clue, perhaps, that "AZ News" might be of extraterrestrial provenance. (What earthling would refer to humans as terrestrial?)

Is there a planet named AZ?

The AZians, we'll call them, had further substituted "haughtiness cells" for "nerve cells"; replaced "cell types" with "dungeon forms"; gone with "little intelligent blood vessels" instead of "small cerebral blood vessels." An "assistant professor of pathology" became a "partner highbrow of pathology."

It didn't stop there. In this boomerang Universe, my summary of the scientists' methodology ("a series of steps combining... MRI, computational analysis and painstaking laboratory staining techniques") had been snarkily supplanted by an erotic vision (an "array of stairs mixing... MRI, computational research and perfected laboratory dirty techniques"). Elsewhere, my words "Surprisingly, in the brain region of interest..." now read: "Surprisingly, in a mind segment of seductiveness..." What could they be thinking?

Suddenly it hit me that they were thinking nothing. I'm told a lot of technical translation these days is being done by machines. Machines or ETs, obviously this was not the work of intelligent lifeforms.

In that earlier blog item about Joe Six-Pack and Sid Cyborg, I'd argued: "A ones-and-zeroes-based gizmo, which can't even sprout body hair, may never acquire that precious thing called 'consciousness.'"

I rest my case.

Previously: Can Joe Six-Pack compete with Sid Cyborg?, Are Iron, and the scavenger cells that eat it, critical links to Alzheimer's? and Half-century climb in computer's competence colloquially captured by Nobelist Michael Levitt
Photo by AK Rockefeller


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