Sunday, January 20, 2008

The Strange Case of the Dead AI Researchers - The Dead Scientists meme

Wired published a story on Friday entitled

Two AI Pioneers. Two Bizarre Suicides. What Really Happened?

that spins the tale of two similar suicides, only four weeks apart, by researchers in the world of artificial intelligence.

Perked your interest yet? I bet it has, it did mine at that point. But there is something else to be learned here.

It brings to mind several manifestations of a powerful meme in the Spooky Paradigm: the missing and dead scientists. I don't know how far back the meme goes, I know it is over fifty years old in the world of fiction. Maybe it goes back to the Manhattan Project. But in brief, it is a collection of disappearances and deaths amongst top-flight scientists, or scientists within a particular field, leaving a pattern that suggests a sinister motive.

The most infamous fictional example would be Alternative 3, a television program that has left a substantial mark on the conspiracy and UFO parts of the Spooky Paradigm. This British programme was supposed to air on April Fool's Day, but because of scheduling issues, it aired in June, leading to many angry viewers who believed the news-style show was real (like the infamous radio iterations of the War of the Worlds). In summary, the show starts by examining a real-world concern of the day, the "Brain Drain" of highly educated workers leaving Britain's flagging economy. But the "drain" turns out to be actual disappearances, leading to a conspiracy of global elites, imminent danger due to global warming and overpopulation, and scientists kidnapped and forced to work on the Moon.

Alternative 3 may have spanned the boundary between fiction and conspiracy theory (some people continued to believe the idea was at least partially true), but there are two major examples within "conspiracy theory" where real-world events are interpreted through the dead scientists meme.

In the late 1980s, people began to notice a series of unusual deaths of scientists and others in the UK who worked on technology projects associated with military contracting (all had worked at GEC-Marconi at some point), including space weaponry. These deaths were considered suicides, though in a number of cases the conditions of death were quite bizarre. This attracted both the mainstream press as well as other outlets, but resulted in nothing more than. While speculation included Cold War spy games, terrorism, and corruption, the narrative that has had the most enduring play was that the scientists knew too much about some project they had worked on, presumably involving SDI or some other aspect of space weaponry.

In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11/01 attacks and the anthrax murders that targeted the American press and the Democratic leadership in the U.S. Senate, a similar list of dead microbiologists began making the rounds. The original version of this narrative in late 2001 noted the death of five scientists, but eventually the list would not only grow but also become merged with the Marconi scientists to make a master list. This time, the story is more obvious: by simply combining the deaths with mention of the anthrax attacks, an article suggests the scientists were involved with or could potentially identify the still-unidentified perpetrators of the attacks. Not surprisingly these narratives are typically constructed by those who also suggest more than al-Qaeda involvement in the 9/11/01 air attacks. Dr. David Kelly takes his place on the list after his strange and high profile death, also ruled a suicide.

Death lists are not restricted to the scientific world. During the 1990s, GOP and others passed along and added to the Clinton Body Count, a list of the deaths of people involved or believed to be involved with the Clintons and their scandals (the Vince Foster incident serves as the main wellspring for this meme). Somehow conspiracy theory martyr Daniel Casolaro ended up on the list, don't ask me how. Even more esoteric, Loren Coleman has created the Mothman Death List, compiling the deaths of people associated with the Mothman incidents, including the film version of The Mothman Prophecies.

All of these lists argue through compilation, bargaining that (to borrow from H. P. Lovecraft) "the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality." Or to steal again from fiction, this time from Ian Fleming, "Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. The third time it's enemy action." The counterpoint would be that the deaths are coincidence in a world with a lot of scientists where bad things happen to people.

And more importantly, that the facts got mangled by accident or on purpose by those compiling the lists. The NYTimes Magazine piece, in between soft paragraphs on coincidence, notes.

The article went on to call Benito Que, the cancer lab technician, ''a cell biologist working on infectious diseases like H.I.V.,'' and said that he had been attacked by four men with a baseball bat but did not mention that he suffered from high blood pressure. It then described the disappearance of Wiley without mentioning his seizure disorder and the death of Pasechnik without saying that he had suffered a stroke. It gave the grisly details of Schwartz's murder, but said nothing of the arrests of his daughter's friends. Nguyen, in turn, was described as ''a skilled microbiologist,'' and it was noted that he shared a last name with Kathy Nguyen, the 61-year-old hospital worker who just happened to be the one New Yorker to die of anthrax.

This is where we return to our two dead AI scientists in the recent Wired piece. The title of the piece promises mystery, possibly something sinister. The two men are identified as pioneers in AI, and their suicides linked and called bizarre. The story can write itself from there, leaping past the mundane to exciting plots of a rogue AI, an uploaded machine ghost hellbent on revenge, you get the picture. William Gibson already got the picture when he wrote an X-Files episode with a similar storyline.

Of course as soon as we start reading the piece itself, it becomes clear that other forces are at work, and one of them is the bipolar disorder one of the two pioneers has suffered from for over fifteen years, while the other was in chonic pain from a back injury and depressed as a result. But the title of the piece isn't

Mental illness claims two AI pioneers

is it?

This is the key to understanding so much writing and reporting about Spooky Paradigm topics. The best cases and reports hold up with scrutiny, but in many others, either sloppiness or willing desire to sensationalize or even remotely connect certain facts requires discretely emphasizing certain aspects and ignoring others. Wired is obviously not doing this, but the bait switch between the title (a title that got this piece a place on high-profile paranormal news portals) and the content is a good illustration of the principle. Snappy wording brings the piece far more attention and revenue or sales.

On the other hand, the same approach can be followed by debunkers. The NYTimes Magazine article above on coincidence doesn't just investigate the case of the microbiologists, it also loops in more bizarre pattern recognition such as numerology. This is guilt by association. And I would be clear that I am not trying to do the same thing here by mixing fact and fiction. A pattern of bizarre deaths, if properly investigated, that show common links is something anyone would rightly find suspicious. But it can't be ignored that the meme has a long pedigree in fiction, as attested by the text of numerous discussions of these topics that reference fictional examples.

So why mention all of this? Because I suspect Wired's piece may well end up spawning a new list: The Strange Case of the Dead AI Researchers.

Did I just change my title to The Strange Case of the Dead AI Researchers? Hmm.

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