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Need a Hypothesis? This A.I. Has One

By The New York Times

November 24, 2020

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Machine-learning algorithms seem to have insinuated their way into every human activity short of toenail clipping and dog washing, although the tech giants may have solutions in the works for both. If Alexa knows anything about such projects, she's not saying.

But one thing that algorithms presumably cannot do, besides feel heartbreak, is formulate theories to explain human behavior or account for the varying blend of motives behind it. They are computer systems; they can't play Sigmund Freud or Carl Jung, at least not convincingly. Social scientists have used the algorithms as tools, to number-crunch and test-drive ideas, and potentially predict behaviors — like how people will vote or who is likely to engage in self-harm — secure in the knowledge that ultimately humans are the ones who sit in the big-thinking chair.

Enter a team of psychologists intent on understanding human behavior during the pandemic. Why do some people adhere more closely than others to Covid-19 containment measures such as social distancing and mask wearing? The researchers suspected that people who resisted such orders had some set of values or attitudes in common, regardless of their age or nationality, but had no idea which ones.

The team needed an interesting, testable hypothesis — a real idea. For that, they turned to a machine-learning algorithm.

 

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