World Cup! Soccer or football! Turing Test & artificial intelligence!

Soccer to ‘em

World Cup soccer/football blah blah blah, world’s most popular game blah blah blah, but Brazil deserves a World Cup for its performance in saving its Amazon rainforest and preventing carbon dioxide emissions, according to a paper Science is publishing today. Bouncing up and down with little glad cries, Andrew Revkin gives details at Dot Earth.

Credit: Roman.b   Read all about the Brazuca at

Credit: Roman.b
Read all about the Brazuca at

It’s a stunning achievement. The forecast is that clearcutting the Amazon rainforest will have stopped by 2020. In 2005, nearly 20,000 square kilometers were being cleared every year. Last year, Amazon clearcutting was down 70%, to well under 6000 square kilometers. That’s a world record for cutting greenhouse gas emissions, down more than a billion metric tons. At the same time, Brazil is producing more soybeans and beef on the same amount of land. The gains, researchers say, are fragile, but real.

A post at New Scientist celebrates this and also  other Brazilian science: research on a vaccine for schistosomiasis, building a dark matter detector under the Andes, and a plan to use genetically modified mosquitoes as a control for dengue fever. Brazil is also getting into the space business and has a program to encourage entrepreneurs. And you don’t have to be Brazilian to qualify.

Meet Tolypeutes tricinctus

The three-banded armadillo, Tolypeutes tricinctus–or, rather, a peppy Disneyesque version called Fuleco that bears little resemblance to the very homely real animal–is the World Cup mascot. T. tricinctus was picked, I guess, because in situations when it feels that armor isn’t enough, it rolls itself into a spherical shape that to some looks a bit like a soccer ball.



Fuleco is everywhere, but T. tricinctus, which is easy to catch and barbecue, lives only in a Northeast corner of Brazil and has been classified as “vulnerable” to extinction. FIFA, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association, has attempted to wrest some benefit for its universally despised position as soccer’s governing body by saying its choice of the armadillo is an attempt to help save it. The International Union for Conservation of Nature says whether the beast’s mascot status will help remains to be seen.

The real three-banded armadillo, Tolypeutes tricinctus.  Credit: Chatsam

The real three-banded armadillo, Tolypeutes tricinctus. Credit: Chatsam

Henry Nicholls, blogging at the Guardian’s AnimalMagic, is quite a bit more emphatic. In fact, he’s seriously annoyed because FIFA stands to make a great deal of money from Fuleco but, despite its vows, has yet to pledge any of it to saving T. tricinctus. Nicholls has started a petition to FIFA’s head of Corporate Social Responsibility–is it possible to hold that job with a straight face?–asking for a serious committment to saving the armadillo and its ecosystem. Find the petition (and sign it) here.

World Cup health

The British Medical Journal blogs are using the World Cup to promote healthful behaviors–or at least to decry unhealthful ones. Tiago Villanueva claims research shows physical inactivity of the sort encouraged by hours of soccer/football of both kinds on television is responsible for over 5 million deaths a year, more than smoking. One in three adults and four out of five of kids between 13-15 don’t get the recommended amount of physical activity, 150 minutes per week for adults and an hour a day for adolescents.

Villanueva is also alarmed about the health effects of increases in alcohol consumption during the World Cup. Emergency room visits associated with assaults went up 37% in the UK during the 2010 World Cup.  The Brazilian government has long banned booze in the country’s stadiums, but FIFA persuaded the government to lift the ban. You will be astonished to learn that one of the World Cup sponsors is Budweiser.

Also at BMJ, Gareth Iacobucci reports that in China people are buying fake sick notes purportedly from hospitals in order to stay home from work and watch the games without using up vacation time.

Soccer vs. football

And why do we (and a number of other English-speaking countries) call it soccer when much of the soccer-mad world calls it football? Turns out it’s the Brits’ fault. A prof at the University of Michigan School of Kinesiology–an entire school devoted to human movement?–says “soccer” was invented in Britain late in the 19th century, and it was even an upper-class term. An official US Embassy source gives details, saying “soccer” was fabricated because priggish Victorian Oxonians were disinclined to make a nickname out of the first syllable of “Association Football,” which is what the game was called originally.

“Soccer” was used interchangeably with “football” in Britain  until about 1980, but the Brits then dropped it because it had come to be regarded as an American word. Victoria McNally explains at Geekosystem. Doesn’t seem likely that we’ll ever accept “football,” at least as long as football, which only occasionally involves kicking, remains the favorite American game.

Still more soccer science–and math, and gambling

This post would be even longer were it not for the fact that the Guardian has rounded up several sciencey World Cup blog postsSciAm has done the same. Several seem to be items from yesteryear. But there’s also an interview with neuroengineer Miguel Nicolelis, the driving force behind that mind-controlled robotic suit that paraplegic Juliano Pinto wore to kick off the games. I’m happy to report that the robotic kickoff happened on schedule.

One new SciAm post is Michael Moyer’s, on the math behind World Cup predictions. But my favorite World Cup gambling post is Daniel Altman’s sly take at Big Think’s Econ201. The secret of successful World Cup prediction, Altman says, is to exploit public ignorance about probability and mathematical models. Here’s how to do it:

Brazil is the strong favorite among bookies, so assign that team a 45%-49% chance of winning. Altman says, “If Brazil comes through, the statistically naive among the public will say, ‘The model was right!’ If Brazil doesn’t win, you’ll say, ‘Well, the chance of Brazil losing was greater than 50 percent,’ and the public will nod in agreement. Either way, the model looks like it was correct.”

Altman suggests gleefully that his is a “win-win strategy that the most visible predictors may in fact be using.” Altman names no names, but  Moyer points out that Goldman Sachs’ Macroeconomics Insights gives Brazil a 48.5 percent chance of winning, and Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight puts the odds at 45%.


Touring the Turing Test

Why did so many writers fall for the claim that the artificial intelligence apotheosis had been achieved? That a computer program–a chatbot–had passed the Turing Test and was able to fool judges into thinking a five-minute text-based dialog with a computer was actually a conversation with a 13 year-old Ukrainian boy named Eugene Goostman?

The Turing Test is called that because a version of it was suggested by mathematician Alan Turing, OBE, FRS. The Alan Turing who helped win World War II by cracking German ciphers. The Alan Turing who is a venerated founder of theoretical computer science and the study of artificial intelligence. The Alan Turing who was prosecuted for homosexuality and chemically castrated. The Alan Turing who took cyanide and died in 1954. Yes, that Alan Turing.

Turing in slate at Bletchley Park, site of WWII cryptography triumphs. Credit: Jon Callas

Turing in slate at Bletchley Park, site of WWII cryptography triumphs. Credit: Jon Callas

Knight Science Journalism Tracker Paul Raeburn links to a number of sources that simply regurgitated what they were fed in a press release, the claim that Eugene had fooled judges (among them an actor who played the robot Kryten in the 1980s television series Red Dwarf.) Raeburn also cites others, notably bloggers, who had more sense.

Raeburn speculates that reporters can’t resist a good story, and the idea of computers deceiving people is a good story. That’s a slightly more respectable theory than mine, which is that (some) reporters can’t resist the idea of doing a quick-and-dirty piece based on a press release. Digging around to find qualified comment and interviewing outside sources takes time.

This applies, to my dismay, even to sources I have believed are trustworthy–and that certainly know better. At Ars Technica, shockingly, Staff Editor Nathan Matisse, with an entirely straight face, posted the Eugene tale based solely on the news release and other secondary sources. More shockingly, the site doesn’t seem to have taken it back or corrected it or acknowledged in any way that Eugene’s victory was in dispute. At Ars Technica! A Staff Editor! In the Information Technology section! At Ars Technica! Ars Technica!

The scales have fallen from my eyes.

At Neurologica, Steven Novella says that the competition was gamed by pretending that the responses were from a 13 year-old Ukrainian boy, which would help excuse and account for weird responses. In any case, Novella argues, Turing’s test is not “a true test of AI self-awareness, or true AI. It really is just a test of how well a computer can simulate human conversation.”

There is an online version of Eugene available to play with, although the program’s developers say it’s not the same as the competition version. A couple bloggers have chatted with the online version, Tom Bartlett at Pecolator and Scott Aaronson at Shtetl-Optimized. Not only are the dialogues unpersuasive, the two  are remarkably alike,  with Eugene reiterating a few canned responses and questions. This is the best that chatbot programmers can muster?

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