Monday, February 06, 2006

Scientists to Develop Expensive Machine to Chase Squirrels, Play Fetch, and Bark at the T.V.

The fact that dogs seem to be able to detect cancer doesn't surprise me in the least. It's the kind of hypothesis that lots of naive new agey nutcakes probably believed the first time they heard it--because it's, like, so, like cool and, like, natural. It's also the kind of hypothesis lots of folks who fancy themselves hard-headed skeptics would dismiss out of hand. It's also the kind of hypothesis that should send the truly scientifically-minded scurrying for the labs (in both senses of 'lab').

What sent me through the roof in this story was this line:
So is the point to eventually have a dog in every doctor's office?

No. The researchers at the Pine Street Foundation are hoping someone will figure out what the dogs smell and then develop a test -- an electronic nose, if you will -- to detect it in breath,
urine, or something else
.

This is absurd. If dogs really work, use the goddamn dogs. Is it that there's no money to be made on that idea? No dog industry to reap obscene profits from it? Nothing wrong with trying to make a machine that does it better, but it's utterly absurd to refuse to use dogs if they work. It's like we've gotten stuck in some kind of machine mentality--machines are more reliable, even when they aren't.

You've heard me fulminate about this before in the matter of bomb-sniffing dogs vs. machines. I've read--dunno whether it's true--that bomb-sniffing dogs are more accurate than machines. They're also a lot cheaper. But we don't use them in airports routinely in the U.S., and the justification for this that I read was based primarily on some vague hand-waving about dogs making people nervous. Anybody know whether this is right?

Anyway.

18 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

The 36 dogs didn't always pick out the cancer every time -- in fact, only 41 percent of the time -- but it was better than the 14 percent expected by chance alone.

Man, the technological animal, will not be satisfied with 41%, and rightly so. That's why an engineering approach is not wrong.

Of course, use dogs in the meantime and even selectively breed for better success and more specific detection, if that works or saves money.

Still, dog selection and training is hard to scale to meet the need. An artificial sniffer that Microscent could stamp out by the jillions might be better in the end.

2:58 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Well, I don't mean that we shouldn't see whether or not we can make a better one. I just mean we should presuppose (a) that we can and (b) that it would be cost efficient.

Dogs may end up being best or not: empirical question. I'm just saying: don't presuppose an answer.

Also: bees, cockroaches, etc. could end up being better still...or bred to be better.

5:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, *you're* presupposing the answer. You haven't a clue whether training the number of dogs will even be possible or cost effective, or efficient or whatever. The technology of electronic noses is quite sophisticated these days. It isn't at all clear which would be the better bet and it's not unreasonable to think that even with current technology that e-noses would be the better bet.

Next time why don't you do a wee bit of googling and some research before going off on a holy tirade.

12:08 PM  
Blogger Alexander Wolfe said...

Well "anonymous", I for one would rather have a dog than a machine sniffing at my crotch, but that's just me.

2:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Then again, after the Butlerian jihad, dogs will be more socially acceptable. And it is true that reliance on engineering can dull our appreciation for the trainability and tunability of billions of years of biological evolution.

5:34 PM  
Blogger Orlando C. Harn said...

Well "anonymous", I for one would rather have a dog than a machine sniffing at my crotch, but that's just me.

Why on earth would you say that? If I have to have something sniffing at my crotch, I would rather have something that is guaranteed to have 0% probability of biting me.

As for the post...scientists don't like to use things when they don't know how they work. They would rather use a machine, because if it fails they know why it failed.

5:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"As for the post...scientists don't like to use things when they don't know how they work."

A.S., this is why I thought it was remarkable when my brother, who is an anesthesiologist, told me that we don't know the exact molecular method by which modern general anesthetics work, but we use them anyway.

Considerably more frightening than a dog sniffing my crotch, not that I'd necessarily want that either though.

7:31 PM  
Blogger Jim said...

I've done a fair amount of work with autonomous vehicles. If we had good chemical sensors for the appropriate compounds, we could install it on a robotic vehicle (be it autonomous, tele-operated, or a hybrid), and try to have it sniff out land mines without putting a person (or dog) at risk.

8:15 PM  
Blogger Tom Van Dyke said...

Why don't they use dolphins? They're much smarter.

(Apologies to Ali G...)

5:39 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Speaking of Cancer, Robert Brown, of Chapel Hill, NC, civil rights activist, founded of the North Carolina Anvil in 1966, and before that of Reflections Magazine, died of cigarettes on Sunday at the age of 72. Might be some here who knew him. --Beel

8:44 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Looks like we have another dumbass Anonymous around. The first one in this thread, that is.

Jeez, dumbass, read the post before you dribble words on the screen.

I specifically noted that I'm NOT presupposing an answer to the question.

A hint for your future dialectica endeavors: when someone explicitly says they don't want to presuppose an answer to a question and they give you no reason to think they're insincere, they probably don't want to presuppose an answer to the question.

Sheesh. I gotta get a hobby that puts me in contact with fewer pompous idiots...

Christ, you know the first thousand or so time you read the comments of lame-brains like this it's kinda funny. Then it just gets tiresome.

10:26 AM  
Blogger Random Michelle K said...

That's what disemvowelling is for.

12:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My, my, my.

This is absurd. If dogs really work, use the goddamn dogs. Is it that there's no money to be made on that idea? No dog industry to reap obscene profits from it? Nothing wrong with trying to make a machine that does it better, but it's utterly absurd to refuse to use dogs if they work. It's like we've gotten stuck in some kind of machine mentality--machines are more reliable, even when they aren't. Sounds like a holy tirade that has presupposed that dogs are the way to go.

So, let's see. Dogs take food. They need a place to stay. They need companionship. Since they do what they do for a trainer - i.e. they do this for praise and rewards - and thus they won't do this for just anyone. All that adds up to an awful lot of money just for one dog. Now let's scale this across the country. How many dogs actually have this talent? How many of them can be trained? Out of them, how many are accurate? See my point?

Apparently you've already figured out all these answers and have concluded that "we've gotten stuck in some kind of machine mentality" based on - what? A single article written by a journalist who really doesn't know what's going on?

Bravo! That's what I call objective thought.

12:42 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Well, if you read the passage in an extremely uncharitable way, I can understand how you might--if you squint really hard and ignore all the explicit qualifiers--come to what I'll charitably characterize as your "interpretation" of the claim.

So I didn't explicitly note that dogs should only be used if they are cost-effective...uh...I thought reasonable people would recognize that. Does it really seem plausible that I'd be defending the proposition that dogs should be used even if a more efficient and cost-effective machine could be developed?

I don't really know how to make the point more clearly, but I'll try:

In addition to trying to develop machines we should also investigate whether dogs and other organisms can be trained to do this more accurately and in a cost-effective way. That is, we should not presuppose that a machine-based solution will be the best one.

Given that these would not be based in doctors' offices but would be based in labs, and that a single dog could process lots of samples every day, there's, again, no reason to rule out such a solution *a priori*.

And that, of course, was the only claim I ever made. So, if you're disagreeing with me, you must be arguing for the claim that non-machine-based solutions SHOULD be ruled out without investigating them.

Which is a conclusion that simply can't be defended.

Unless you come up with some interesting material, I'm not going to waste time responding on this one again.

2:33 PM  
Blogger Tom Van Dyke said...

WS, I've been brushing up with Aristotle's Rhetoric, which is available to the interested free here. The science of persuasion.

It's unfortunate that the general public cares more about how things are said than what is actually said, but that's the fact, Mac.

But what is strange is that I've observed myself keeping to Aristotle's niceties much more here on hostile ground than on my own home turf. It makes sense on a practical level: I don't want to be turned off completely or else I'm wasting my time.

(Not that I'm all that nice anywhere, nor are you all that cuddly when you venture unto my blog.)

But I wonder if we (I observe this about you, too), when on comfortable ground, paradoxically get more challenging and may I say prickly, so as to forgo the easy assent that comes with the predisposition to agree with the speaker (us), and therefore test the strength of our ideas.

If so, I think that's a good thing, and the most intellectually rigorous course. It makes us less loved even among those who are sympathetic to us, and is totally unsuited to becoming successful demagogues which means we'll probably never turn a profit from our thoughts, things being what they are.

But I thought I'd mention it. For most writer/thinkers, it swings the other way, that they simply reward their friends and punish their enemies.

7:23 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Put with admirable subtlety, Tom. Point taken.

If I might say a word in my defense:
I'm perfectly o.k. with honest and reasonably respectful challenges. Heck, I thrive on 'em. But when somebody writes a half-assed comment with a snide, condescending tone, I think I'm within my rights to just tell 'em to f*ck off. You're right--it's not the best way to persuade, nor to foster inquiry. But such folk can rarely be reasoned with, anyway.

11:31 AM  
Blogger Tom Van Dyke said...

Screw 'em. Pearls before swine.

Something more interesting struck my fancy, so I just thought I'd piggyback on this and share it.

4:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Watching Elektra over the weekend, I thought of the current explosion of kung fu movies and then of this thread. Kung fu movies connect individual talent and devoted training with fantastic (literally) accomplishment. In the machine age we live in, people long for that.

2:36 PM  

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