This post is part of a series about Artificial Intelligence (AI). In this concluding post, I explore the possibilities of AI to help scientists be better communicators.
As I’ve talked about before, many scientists have difficulty communicating their work in a way that is interesting and compelling, both intellectually and emotionally. This situation is improving, as more people recognize the importance of addressing the growing anti-science movement in the U.S. and the need for credible and articulate scientists to state the case for science. Once upon a time, scientists could safely remain in their ivory towers and talk among themselves about science. But no longer. Scientists are increasingly called upon to talk to the media (the AAAS has even published media interview tips for scientists), to testify before Congressional committees, to give public lectures, and to explain the “broader impacts” of their research on society. Consequently, efforts are underway to train the next generation of scientists to be better communicators (e.g., through academic programs focused on science communication). Science students today also seem to have a greater interest in developing better communication skills than when I was a student (just my personal impression).
Despite the advances in communication technology and emphasis on the new media to communicate information, though, I find that students still struggle with many of the same issues that plagued earlier generations when it comes to explaining science. And as the volume of science information grows exponentially, staying abreast of the literature and communication technology will be increasingly difficult for these future scientists.
The following are a few ways in which AI may help.
Designing a More Effective Science Message
One of the difficulties faced by a science communicator is how to design a message that resonates with a particular target audience. Few scientists are trained in communication theory and often rely on their default mode—explaining their work as they would for a technical audience. But what if the intended audience is not trained in science? How would you know if your message is appropriate in content and tone? AI might help, for example with the tone. The IBM Watson Tone Analyzer “uses linguistic analysis to detect three types of tones from text: emotion, social tendencies, and language style. Emotions identified include things like anger, fear, joy, sadness, and disgust. Identified social tendencies include things from the Big Five personality traits used by some psychologists. These include openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and emotional range. Identified language styles include confident, analytical, and tentative.” One of the intended uses is to optimize a message intended for a particular audience. A message that shows strong emotions and is less analytical in style may be perceived more favorably by the general public, for example. You can try it out by inserting a piece of text into a dialog box and get an analysis of the overall tone of the message as well as a sentence by sentence breakdown. There are links to additional information about what a particular tone conveys and how to improve the tone of a message.
Finding Appropriate Material for Your Science Message
AI may be particularly useful in reducing the time involved in finding material to include in a message as well as to locate media that can be freely reused (such as in the public domain) or purchased for a fee. I know I spend a lot of time searching for footage, images, animations and music that I can freely use in a science video. Because I can’t review everything available, I probably miss a lot of really good material. Search engines can locate photos or videos posted on the Internet based on provided keywords and criteria (e.g., size, resolution, format). However, I may still end up with thousands of candidate media, not necessarily ranked according to what I might need. Artificial intelligence systems may improve such searches. Google, which used algorithms (rules set by humans) in the past to respond to search queries, is transitioning to deep neural networks, which can learn to respond to new search queries and other tasks such as figure out where a photo was taken. Improvements in search tools could make finding the right media for a video or other information product much easier.
Creating Media for Your Science Message
Another way AI might help is in creating new media such as art or music that can be used in an information product. If you need a painting or jingle but are not artistic or musically inclined, you may one day be able to generate what you need using an AI system trained to do this. An example of artwork created by an AI system and a 3-D printer is a new painting by Rembrandt…or rather one created by a computer based on information from 346 of Rembrandt’s paintings. The video below shows the amazing process by which this 3-D painting was created:
There are also efforts to develop AI systems that can compose music. Google is apparently working on such a system, although not everyone is impressed with the result. If you want to play around with a music-composing system (based on language algorithms), check out Wolfram Tones. You can select a music style and change up the instruments and other aspects to create a unique tune.
Teaching Science Professionals to Communicate Like Normal People
Scientists are traditionally taught to maintain a serious demeanor when speaking to an audience of our peers so that we are judged to be credible sources of information. But this approach doesn’t work so well with the average person. By hiding our emotions, we can come across on camera as “robotic”, for lack of a better term. So it’s rather ironic to consider if an AI can help scientists be better communicators.
The computer, Watson, was trained to “recognize” different emotions displayed in a film and to assess and rank the ones that would work best in a movie trailer about that film. In the same way, an AI system could be trained to evaluate video footage showing scientists or students conducting their research or discussing the challenges they faced and select the best clips in terms of conveying emotion (enthusiasm, humor, curiosity, tension). But we don’t really need a computer to tell us which footage shows a particular emotion—we are much better at this than any machine or program currently available.
However, an in-depth analysis of a person’s on-camera delivery of information might be used to train science professionals to be better communicators. A video clip could be fed into a computer like Watson to be assessed on the basis of both content and tone. The speaker would be evaluated and scored according to various criteria. They could then try to alter some aspect of their performance and see how it affects their scores. This immediate feedback from a machine might be a faster, more efficient, and less painful way for someone to improve their communication skills. A problem could be identified early and eliminated before it becomes a habit.
I’m not aware of any system that can analyze a video of a person speaking, but there are AI-based personality tests that use what someone has written (an essay, a letter). One example is the Watson-based service, Personality Insights. You can see the outcome for famous people (Gandhi, Barack Obama) or you can insert your own text. I gave it a try by inserting the text from one of my blog posts. Here’s what it said about me:
“You are unconventional, somewhat indirect and skeptical. You are authority-challenging: you prefer to challenge authority and traditional values to help bring about positive changes. You are philosophical: you are open to and intrigued by new ideas and love to explore them. And you are unstructured: you do not make a lot of time for organization in your daily life. Your choices are driven by a desire for discovery. You are relatively unconcerned with both tradition and taking pleasure in life. You care more about making your own path than following what others have done. And you prefer activities with a purpose greater than just personal enjoyment.“
This analysis is eerily correct about some aspects of my personality. However, I got different results when I tried different text. For example, a second blog post generated the statement that my “choices are driven by a desire for organization”–opposite to the preceding analysis. Other aspects remained the same: authority-challenging, love of discovery, going my own way rather than following others. It’s necessary to provide sufficient text for a strong analysis, and the service warns you if you’ve given too little text. It also provides a more in-depth breakdown of the various traits that were analyzed.
As I said above, I don’t think there are any AI systems that can analyze a person’s performance in a video. However, it seems that this might be possible using a combination of existing AI systems such as the movie trailer and the personality test described above.
In this post, I’ve mentioned only a few ways AI might be used to improve science communication. Some of these systems, such as better search engines for locating media, are already available to us. Others will need more work and testing. I started this series with a hypothetical, futuristic scenario about a scientist using an AI system to create a video proposal. I don’t know if such a thing would ever exist or even be of widespread use in the scientific community. But it was fun thinking about it and learning more about AI systems.
This post is final part of a series about Artificial Intelligence (AI) and its potential role in science communication. You can find the first post in the series here.