Walking the line in the media age

By Dr. Yiming Xiao. Dr. Xiao is a BrainsCAN postdoctoral fellow at Robarts Research Institute, Western University, Canada. His research is focused on image-guided procedures and medical image analysis.

One morning, on the bus to work, I couldn’t help but tune into a heated discussion between two people regarding AI and deep learning. During the 10-minute ride, the conversation went from different neural network models to their real-life applications, and from the technical challenges to the socio-economic impacts. In short, it was a pretty deep and extensive conversation, and I was surprised and amused when I learned that they actually worked in university administrative affairs, and all their knowledge was from the news, blogs, and social media.

Today, it has never been more important for researchers to have a presence in the media to promote their works, and there has never been more interest from the general public to learn about the latest scientific and technological advancements. On the one hand, people are greatly concerned about how these advancements, particularly in medicine and computer science, will improve their well-being and affect their careers. On the other hand, sufficient promotion is needed to attract funding and support for researchers to further their investigation and implementation. In the process, scientific journalists and the volunteer researchers have played an important role in translating, packaging, and transmitting the discoveries from their original journal formats with complex jargon and equations to dinner table small talk.

As researchers, we should thank and celebrate these efforts to help the public to understand and embrace the future. Unfortunately, with the explosion of digital publishers, the incentive to attract more clicks has on some level pushed the trend of replacing facts and cautious statements to exaggerated and even distorted misinformation. As with the latest AI and big data movements, despite great funding and progress, the public perception of technology has led to anxiety, fears, and disappointment, to which the media may have partially contributed. As we watched the odd congress testimony of Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, the absence and misinformed knowledge of technology was evident among the policymakers, who are supposed to set laws to regulate the potential abuse of scientific achievements, such as machine learning.

Effective communication of scientific concepts and methodologies is part of the training in many graduate schools. These skills are no longer used just for grant applications, but also to help empower the public with the correct knowledge to make the right judgment when it comes to participating, supporting, and regulating the ever-involving technological landscape. As marketing and branding is becoming an integral part of tech education and development, let’s remain optimistically cautious and critical both in the science itself and the related media exposures.