Tech News

Paleontologists see stars as software program Bleeps Scientific Phrases

The problems started when Thomas R. Holtz Jr., an expert on the Tyrannosaurus Rex, typed "Hell Creek Formation," the rock unit in Montana where the remains of the last giant dinosaurs in North America were found.

He tried to answer a colleague's question about an online presentation on the first day of the 80th annual Society of Vertebrate Paleontology conference.

But Mr. Holtz was stunned when instead of the word "Hell" four asterisks appeared in the chat.

Confused, he described the problem on Twitter. In other words, colleagues interfered which were rejected by the software system that was set up to filter out swear words: button, pubic bone, penetration and stream, among others.

"The funniest thing for us was the censorship of 'bones', which we mainly work with," said Holtz.

Many have raised concerns about online censorship by large tech companies. Instagram has been criticized for banning art posts with nudity. In 2016, the Swedish Cancer Society used graphics of square breasts in a video about breast exams to evade Facebook censorship.

But the blocking of benign terms commonly used by paleontologists seemed particularly overzealous.

After Mr. Holtz posted a list of prohibited words on Twitter, he received a number of replies.

Some users were outraged.

“Pubis? Seriously? What will you call it ??? "wrote L. P. Norman, a self-described amateur astronomer." The front of the ischium bone ??? "

Others tried to be helpful.

"Gettathesaurus," wrote one person.

The paleontology conference, attended by hundreds of scientists, amateur bone collectors, and dinosaur enthusiasts each year, was supposed to be held in Cincinnati. But the pandemic forced organizers to put them online, like thousands of other trade shows, summits and professional conferences that were supposed to be held in hotels and convention centers.

This meant trying to organize meetings for panelists who expected to make presentations in public and developing codes of conduct for participants to prevent embarrassing behavior on the Internet.

The company has signed a contract with a software company to provide chat sessions with built-in algorithms that can filter swear words or offensive terms.

"All software plug-ins are filtered to ensure they don't get out of hand," said Carolyn Bradfield, general manager of Convey Services, the company's contractor.

"In this particular case the filter was too tight," she said.

Ms. Bradfield, who overheard 10 sessions, said she learned about the problem from attendees who spoke about it. She said she was just as surprised as everyone else.

"I don't know why on earth the word 'bone' was in there," said Ms. Bradfield.

Jessica Theodor, president of the company, said attendees kept coming up with different words that set off the asterisks and alerted the company leaders, who then passed the information on to Convey Services. The company quickly removed the words when it found out.

Paleontologists enjoyed the system.

They typed in random words to see which would lead to asterisks. A meme was created that compared their efforts to those of the velociraptors in Jurassic Park, who threw themselves against an electric fence to find weak spots.

"A couple of us giggled and called Hell Creek 'Heck Creek,'" said Stephanie K. Drumheller, professor and paleontologist at the University of Tennessee.

Jack Tseng, a professor of paleontology at the University of California at Berkeley, said some censored words weren't that amusing.

For example, Wang, a family name popular in China, has also been replaced with asterisks.

"I knew how Wang was used in slang," said Professor Tseng. "I went to high school."

He was curious to see if Johnson, another family name that can be used to denote male genitalia, would make it. To his dismay, the system allowed it.

"That was annoying," said Professor Tseng. "If you want to censor, censor everything. Censor Johnson, so that everyone is offended."

Ms. Bradfield said she did not know why Wang was caught by the algorithm, but Johnson did not.

Convey Services used a third party vendor – Arena.im – to provide the technology used to filter out certain words. But Ms. Bradfield said it was ultimately her company's responsibility to ensure that a similar problem is avoided in the future.

The solution is straightforward.

"We have to make sure we take that filter and remove words that are stupid and shouldn't have been there," she said.

Still, Professor Theodor, who teaches at the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada, said she was relieved at how smoothly the five-day conference ended up going.

"If this is the worst thing that happens when we put our paleontology conference online, that's fine," she said.

Professor Tseng, who has been attending the conferences since graduation, said the episode made him wonder how he and his colleagues sound when lay people hear buttons and bones out of context.

"It might sound very dirty to hear some paleontologists talking in the field," he said. "And we just don't notice."

Related Articles