The letter, which was organized by the Stanford University microbiologist David Relman and the University of Washington virologist Jesse Bloom, takes aim at a recent joint study of covid origins undertaken by the World Health Organization and China, which concluded that a bat virus likely reached humans via an intermediate animal and that a lab accident was “extremely unlikely.”
That conclusion was not scientifically justified, according to the authors of the new letter, since no trace of how the virus first jumped to humans has been found and the possibility of a laboratory accident received only a cursory look. Just a handful of the 313 pages of the WHO origins report and its annexes are devoted to the subject.
Marc Lipsitch, a well-known Harvard University epidemiologist who is among the signers of the letter, said he had not expressed a view on the origin of the virus until recently, choosing instead to focus on improving the design of epidemiological studies and vaccine trials—in part because the debate over the lab theory has become so controversial. “I stayed out of it because I was busy dealing with the outcome of the pandemic instead of the origin,” he says. “[But] when the WHO comes out with a report that makes a specious claim about an important topic … it’s worth speaking out.”
Several of those signing the letter, including Lipsitch and Relman, have in the past called for greater scrutiny of “gain of function” research, in which viruses are genetically modified to make them more infectious or virulent. Experiments to engineer pathogens were also ongoing at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, China’s leading center for studying bat viruses similar to SARS-CoV-2. Some see the fact that covid-19 first appeared in the same city in which the lab is located as circumstantial evidence that a laboratory accident could be to blame.
Lipsitch has previously estimated the risk of a pandemic caused by accidental release from a high-security biolab at between 1 in 1,000 and 1 in 10,000 per year, and he has warned that the proliferation of such labs around the globe is a major concern.
Even though Chinese scientists have said no such leak occurred in this case, the letter writers say that can only be established through a more independent investigation. “A proper investigation should be transparent, objective, data-driven, inclusive of broad expertise, subject to independent oversight, and responsibly managed to minimize the impact of conflicts of interest,” they write. “Public health agencies and research laboratories alike need to open their records to the public. Investigators should document the veracity and provenance of data from which analyses are conducted and conclusions drawn.”
The chief scientist for emerging disease at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, Shi Zhengli, said in an email that the letter’s suspicions were misplaced and would damage the world’s ability to respond to pandemics. “It’s definitely not acceptable,” Shi said of the group’s call to see her lab’s records. “Who can provide an evidence that does not exist?”
“It’s really sad to read this ‘Letter’ written by these 18 prominent scientists.” Shi wrote in her email. “The hypothesis of a lab leaking is just based on the expertise of a lab which has long been working on bat coronaviruses which are phylogenetically related to SARS-CoV-2. This kind of claim will definitely damage the reputation and enthusiasm of scientists who are dedicated to work on the novel animal viruses which have potential spillover risk to human populations and eventually weaken the ability of humans to prevent the next pandemic.”
The discussion around the lab leak hypothesis has already become highly political. In the US, it has been embraced most loudly by Republican lawmakers and conservative media figures, including Fox News host Tucker Carlson. The resulting polarization has had a chilling effect on scientists, some of whom have been reluctant to express their own concerns, says Relman.
“We felt motivated to say something because science is not living up to what it can be, which is a very fair and rigorous and open effort to gain greater clarity on something,” he says. “For me, part of the purpose was to create a safe space for other scientists to say something of their own.”
“Ideally, this is a relatively uncontroversial call for being as clear-eyed as possible in testing several viable hypotheses for which we have little data,” says Megan Palmer, a biosecurity expert at Stanford University who is not affiliated with the letter group. “When politics are complex and stakes are high, a reminder from prominent experts may be what is needed to compel careful consideration by others.”
Transforming health care at the edge
Edge computing, through on-site sensors and devices, as well as last-mile edge equipment that connects to those devices, allows data processing and analysis to happen close to the digital interaction. Rather than using centralized cloud or on-premises infrastructure, these distributed tools at the edge offer the same quality of data processing but without latency issues or massive bandwidth use.
“The real-time feedback loop required for things like remote monitoring of a patient’s heart and respiratory metrics is only possible with something like edge computing,” Mirchandani says. “If all that information took several seconds or a minute to get processed somewhere else, it’s useless.”
Opportunities and challenges at the health-care edge
The sky’s the limit when it comes to the opportunities to use edge computing in health care, says Paul Savill, senior vice president of product management and services at technology company Lumen, especially as health systems work to reduce costs by shifting testing and treatment out of hospitals and into clinics, retail locations, and homes.
“A lot of patient care now happens at retail drugstores, whether it is blood work, scans, or other assessments,” Savill says. “With edge computing capabilities and tools, that can now take place on-site, on a real-time basis, so you don’t have to send things to a lab and wait a day or week to get results back.”
The arrival of 5G technology, the new standard for broadband cellular networks, will also drive opportunities, as it works with edge computing tools to support the internet of things and machine learning, adds Mirchandani. “It’s the combination of this super-low-latency network and computing at the edge that will help these powerful new applications take flight,” he says. Take robotic surgeries—it’s crucial for the surgeon to have nearly instant, sub-millisecond sensory feedback. “That’s not possible in any other way than through technologies such as edge computing and 5G,” he says.
Paul Savill, Senior Vice President, Product Management and Services, Lumen
Data security, however, is a particular challenge for any health-care-related technology because of HIPAA, the US health information privacy law, and other regulations. The real-time data transmission edge computing provides will be under significant scrutiny, Mirchandani explains, which may affect widespread adoption. “There needs to be an almost 100% guarantee that the information you generate from a heart monitor, pulse oximeter, blood glucose monitor, or any other device will not be intercepted or disrupted in any way,” he says.
Still, edge computing technologies, paired with the right security standards and tools, are often more secure and reliable than the on-premises environment a business could implement on its own, Savill points out. “It’s about understanding the entire threat landscape down to the network level.”
Anti-vaxxers are weaponizing Yelp to punish bars that require vaccine proof
Smith’s Yelp reviews were shut down after the sudden flurry of activity on its page, which the company labels “unusual activity alerts,” a stopgap measure for both the business and Yelp to filter through a flood of reviews and pick out which are spam and which aren’t. Noorie Malik, Yelp’s vice president of user operations, said Yelp has a “team of moderators” that investigate pages that get an unusual amount of traffic. “After we’ve seen activity dramatically decrease or stop, we will then clean up the page so that only firsthand consumer experiences are reflected,” she said in a statement.
It’s a practice that Yelp has had to deploy more often over the course of the pandemic: According to Yelp’s 2020 Trust & Safety Report, the company saw a 206% increase over 2019 levels in unusual activity alerts. “Since January 2021, we’ve placed more than 15 unusual activity alerts on business pages related to a business’s stance on covid-19 vaccinations,” said Malik.
The majority of those cases have been since May, like the gay bar C.C. Attles in Seattle, which got an alert from Yelp after it made patrons show proof of vaccination at the door. Earlier this month, Moe’s Cantina in Chicago’s River North neighborhood got spammed after it attempted to isolate vaccinated customers from unvaccinated ones.
Spamming a business with one-star reviews is not a new tactic. In fact, perhaps the best-known case is Colorado’s Masterpiece bakery, which won a 2018 Supreme Court battle for refusing to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple, after which it got pummeled by one-star reviews. “People are still writing fake reviews. People will always write fake reviews,” Liu says.
But he adds that today’s online audience know that platforms use algorithms to detect and flag problematic words, so bad actors can mask their grievances by blaming poor restaurant service like a more typical negative review to ensure the rating stays up — and counts.
That seems to have been the case with Knapp’s bar. His Yelp review included comments like “There was hair in my food” or alleged cockroach sightings. “Really ridiculous, fantastic shit,” Knapp says. “If you looked at previous reviews, you would understand immediately that this doesn’t make sense.”
Liu also says there is a limit to how much Yelp can improve their spam detection, since natural language — or the way we speak, read, and write — “is very tough for computer systems to detect.”
But Liu doesn’t think putting a human being in charge of figuring out which reviews are spam or not will solve the problem. “Human beings can’t do it,” he says. “Some people might get it right, some people might get it wrong. I have fake reviews on my webpage and even I can’t tell which are real or not.”
You might notice that I’ve only mentioned Yelp reviews thus far, despite the fact that Google reviews — which appear in the business description box on the right side of the Google search results page under “reviews” — is arguably more influential. That’s because Google’s review operations are, frankly, even more mysterious.
While businesses I spoke to said Yelp worked with them on identifying spam reviews, none of them had any luck with contacting Google’s team. “You would think Google would say, ‘Something is fucked up here,’” Knapp says. “These are IP addresses from overseas. It really undermines the review platform when things like this are allowed to happen.”
These creepy fake humans herald a new age in AI
Once viewed as less desirable than real data, synthetic data is now seen by some as a panacea. Real data is messy and riddled with bias. New data privacy regulations make it hard to collect. By contrast, synthetic data is pristine and can be used to build more diverse data sets. You can produce perfectly labeled faces, say, of different ages, shapes, and ethnicities to build a face-detection system that works across populations.
But synthetic data has its limitations. If it fails to reflect reality, it could end up producing even worse AI than messy, biased real-world data—or it could simply inherit the same problems. “What I don’t want to do is give the thumbs up to this paradigm and say, ‘Oh, this will solve so many problems,’” says Cathy O’Neil, a data scientist and founder of the algorithmic auditing firm ORCAA. “Because it will also ignore a lot of things.”
Realistic, not real
Deep learning has always been about data. But in the last few years, the AI community has learned that good data is more important than big data. Even small amounts of the right, cleanly labeled data can do more to improve an AI system’s performance than 10 times the amount of uncurated data, or even a more advanced algorithm.
That changes the way companies should approach developing their AI models, says Datagen’s CEO and cofounder, Ofir Chakon. Today, they start by acquiring as much data as possible and then tweak and tune their algorithms for better performance. Instead, they should be doing the opposite: use the same algorithm while improving on the composition of their data.
But collecting real-world data to perform this kind of iterative experimentation is too costly and time intensive. This is where Datagen comes in. With a synthetic data generator, teams can create and test dozens of new data sets a day to identify which one maximizes a model’s performance.
To ensure the realism of its data, Datagen gives its vendors detailed instructions on how many individuals to scan in each age bracket, BMI range, and ethnicity, as well as a set list of actions for them to perform, like walking around a room or drinking a soda. The vendors send back both high-fidelity static images and motion-capture data of those actions. Datagen’s algorithms then expand this data into hundreds of thousands of combinations. The synthesized data is sometimes then checked again. Fake faces are plotted against real faces, for example, to see if they seem realistic.
Datagen is now generating facial expressions to monitor driver alertness in smart cars, body motions to track customers in cashier-free stores, and irises and hand motions to improve the eye- and hand-tracking capabilities of VR headsets. The company says its data has already been used to develop computer-vision systems serving tens of millions of users.
It’s not just synthetic humans that are being mass-manufactured. Click-Ins is a startup that uses synthetic AI to perform automated vehicle inspections. Using design software, it re-creates all car makes and models that its AI needs to recognize and then renders them with different colors, damages, and deformations under different lighting conditions, against different backgrounds. This lets the company update its AI when automakers put out new models, and helps it avoid data privacy violations in countries where license plates are considered private information and thus cannot be present in photos used to train AI.
Mostly.ai works with financial, telecommunications, and insurance companies to provide spreadsheets of fake client data that let companies share their customer database with outside vendors in a legally compliant way. Anonymization can reduce a data set’s richness yet still fail to adequately protect people’s privacy. But synthetic data can be used to generate detailed fake data sets that share the same statistical properties as a company’s real data. It can also be used to simulate data that the company doesn’t yet have, including a more diverse client population or scenarios like fraudulent activity.
Proponents of synthetic data say that it can help evaluate AI as well. In a recent paper published at an AI conference, Suchi Saria, an associate professor of machine learning and health care at Johns Hopkins University, and her coauthors demonstrated how data-generation techniques could be used to extrapolate different patient populations from a single set of data. This could be useful if, for example, a company only had data from New York City’s more youthful population but wanted to understand how its AI performs on an aging population with higher prevalence of diabetes. She’s now starting her own company, Bayesian Health, which will use this technique to help test medical AI systems.
The limits of faking it
But is synthetic data overhyped?
When it comes to privacy, “just because the data is ‘synthetic’ and does not directly correspond to real user data does not mean that it does not encode sensitive information about real people,” says Aaron Roth, a professor of computer and information science at the University of Pennsylvania. Some data generation techniques have been shown to closely reproduce images or text found in the training data, for example, while others are vulnerable to attacks that make them fully regurgitate that data.
This might be fine for a firm like Datagen, whose synthetic data isn’t meant to conceal the identity of the individuals who consented to be scanned. But it would be bad news for companies that offer their solution as a way to protect sensitive financial or patient information.