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Reddit Users 'Ask Scientists Anything' at AAAS Annual Meeting

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From rear-right, Olga Mena, Andre Salles, Peter Wilson, Katie Yurkewicz, Carlo Giunti, Jon Weiner, and Kam-Biu Luk participate in a Reddit AMA on sterile neutrinos. | Gavin Stern/AAAS

Whether humans will be banned from driving cars in a future dominated by autonomous vehicles, and what elusive neutrino particles can tell us about dark matter were a few of more than 3,200 questions asked online by curious users of Reddit, an forum website, in a 12-13 February "Ask Me Anything" (AMA) event at the AAAS Annual Meeting.

A session on autonomous intelligent machines and the impacts of their widespread use was particularly popular, garnering more than 4,500 upvotes from Reddit users and landing on the site’s homepage. Other AMAs addressed the science of drug abuse and addiction; the use of stem cell-derived “mini-brains” to aid research on addiction and toxicology; and the hunt for the sterile type of neutrinos, the universe’s most abundant particle of matter.

Bart Selman, a professor of computer science at Cornell University, said the online discussion of the future of artificial intelligence focused on areas that will most closely affect people’s everyday lives.

“The online discussion is dominated largely by the issue of work and economic consequences for people” as jobs are replaced by autonomous intelligent systems, Selman said.

Other questions the scientists received were more esoteric or humorous.

“There was a question about if you can make walkie-talkies using neutrinos. You might think that’s a strange question. But it’s actually a good one, even though it’s not going to happen,” said Peter Wilson, short baseline neutrino program coordinator at Fermilab, who participated in an AMA on the implications of his team’s research.

The participating scientists agreed that participating in an AMA is not just a way to promote their work. Astrophysicist Olga Mena of IFIC/CSIC and University of Valencia in Spain said that it’s the duty of scientists to reach out to open forums like Reddit.

“We should do these things more often,” she said. “What we’d like to do is unravel the early origins of our universe. We want people to understand why and how we do that. We cannot ask for thousands or millions of dollars to conduct these experiments if people do not understand that this is really important."

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Participants of a Reddit AMA event at the 2016 AAAS Annual Meeting | Gadi Ben-Yehuda

Reddit, which bills itself as "the front page of the Internet," is an ideal space for "meaningful and broad engagement," said Gadi Ben-Yehuda, AAAS social media director.

The hundreds of questions submitted by Redditors for the scientists "demonstrate that people want to participate in the conversation," Ben-Yehuda said.

“People will support science if we do our job. They are engaged — and we engage them,” added Kam-Biu Luk, a particle physicist at UC Berkeley. “It’s good, it’s interesting. What’s actually surprising, people already have a lot of good feedback among themselves.”

Selman noted that knowledgeable users full of “well-informed opinions” jumped into the discussion, answering even more new questions that his responses fueled. The Science and AskScience subreddits, where the discussions took place,  both verify users with degrees in the sciences, listing their level of education, field, and subspecialty next to their username to help distinguish between educated opinions and those of curious amateurs. Most reasonable responses are welcome, but everyone’s comments are subject to fellow community members’ upvotes or downvotes.

“It’s fun. It’s a little exhausting, but it’s fun,” said Selman. The AMA experience is “very positive—I think AAAS should keep doing it,” he added.

Addictive behavior AMA

Wilson Compton, deputy director, National Institute on Drug Abuse, Bethesda, Md.

Sterile neutrino AMA

Olga Mena Requejo, IFIC/CSIC and University of Valencia, Paterna, Spain

Carlos Giunti, Carlo Giunti, INFN Turin and University of Turin, Torino, Italy

Peter Wilson, short baseline neutrino program coordinator, Batavia, Ill.

Katie Yurkewicz, Communications Director, Fermilab, Batavia, Ill.

Kam-Biu Luk, scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, professor of physics at the University of California, Berkeley, and co-spokesperson for the Daya Bay neutrino experiment in China

Intelligent machine AMA

Bart Selman, professor of computer science, Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y.

Moshe Vardi, director of the Ken Kennedy Institute for Information Technology, Rice University, Houston, Texas

Wendell Wallach, ethicist, Yale University’s Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics, New Haven, Conn.

Mini-brain AMA

Thomas Hartung, director of the Center for Alternatives to Animal Testing, Johns Hopkins University Bloomburg School of Public Health, Baltimore, Md.

Lena Smirnova, Research Associate, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Md.