Tag Archives: fear

Nightmare Machine

mit-nightmare-machine

Now that the abject terror of the US presidential election is over — at least for a while — we have to turn our minds to new forms of pain and horror.

In recent years a growing number of illustrious scientists and technologists has described artificial intelligence (AI) as the greatest existential threat to humanity. They worry, rightfully, that a well-drilled, unfettered AI could eventually out-think and out-smart us at every level. Eventually, a super-intelligent AI would determine that humans were either peripheral or superfluous to its needs and goals, and then either enslave or extinguish us. This is the stuff of real nightmares.

Yet, at a more playful level, AI can also learn to deliver imagined nightmares. This Halloween researchers at MIT used AI techniques to create and optimize horrifying images of human faces and places. They called their AI the Nightmare Machine.

For the first step, researchers fed hundreds of thousands of celebrity photos into their AI algorithm, known as a deep convolutional generative adversarial network. This allowed the AI to learn about faces and how to create new ones. Second, they flavored the results with a second learning algorithm that had been trained on images of zombies. The combination allowed the AI to learn the critical factors that make for scary images and to selectively improve upon upon them. It turns out that blood on the face, empty eyeball sockets, and missing or misshaped teeth tend to illicit the greatest horror and fear.

While the results are not quite as scary as Stephen Hawkins’ warning of AI-led human extinction the images are terrorizing nonetheless.

Learn more about the MIT Media Lab’s Nightmare Machine here.

Image: Horror imagery generated by artificial intelligence. Courtesy: MIT Media Lab.

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Online Social Networks Make Us More and Less Social

Two professors walk in to a bar… One claims that online social networks enrich our relationships and social lives; the other claims that technology diminishes and distracts us from real world relationships. Professor Keith N. Hampton at Rutgers University’s School of Communication and Information argues for the former positive position. While Professor Larry Rosen at California State University argues against. Who’s right?

Well, they’re both probably right.

But, several consequences seem to be more certain about our new, social technologies: our focus is increasingly fragmented and short; our memory and knowledge retention is being increasingly outsourced; our impatience and need for instant gratification continues to grow; and our newly acquired anxieties continue to expand — fear of missing out, fear of being unfriended, fear of being trolled, fear of being shamed, fear from not getting comments or replies, fear of not going viral, fear of partner’s lack of status reciprocity, fear of partner’s status change, fear of being Photoshopped or photobombed, fear of having personal images distributed, fear of quiet…

From the WSJ:

With the spread of mobile technology, it’s become much easier for more people to maintain constant contact with their social networks online. And a lot of people are taking advantage of that opportunity.

One indication: A recent Pew Research survey of adults in the U.S. found that 71% use Facebook at least occasionally, and 45% of Facebook users check the site several times a day.

That sounds like people are becoming more sociable. But some people think the opposite is happening. The problem, they say, is that we spend so much time maintaining superficial connections online that we aren’t dedicating enough time or effort to cultivating deeper real-life relationships. Too much chatter, too little real conversation.

Others counter that online social networks supplement face-to-face sociability, they don’t replace it. These people argue that we can expand our social horizons online, deepening our connections to the world around us, and at the same time take advantage of technology to make our closest relationships even closer.

Larry Rosen, a professor of psychology at California State University, Dominguez Hills, says technology is distracting us from our real-world relationships. Keith N. Hampton, who holds the Professorship in Communication and Public Policy at Rutgers University’s School of Communication and Information, argues that technology is enriching those relationships and the rest of our social lives.

Read the entire story here.

 

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The Biggest Threats to Democracy

Edward_SnowdenHistory reminds us of those critical events that pose threats to us on various levels: to our well being at a narrow level and to the foundations of our democracies at a much broader level. And, most of these existential threats seem to come from the outside: wars, terrorism, ethnic cleansing.

But it’s not quite that simple — the biggest threats come not from external sources of evil, but from within us. Perhaps the two most significant are our apathy and paranoia. Taken together they erode our duty to protect our democracy, and hand over ever-increasing power to those who claim to protect us. Thus, before the Nazi machine enslaved huge portions of Europe, the citizens of Germany allowed it to gain power; before Al-Qaeda and Isis and their terrorist look-a-likes gained notoriety local conditions allowed these groups to flourish. We are all complicit in our inaction — driven by indifference or fear, or both.

Two timely events serve to remind us of the huge costs and consequences of our inaction from apathy and paranoia. One from the not too distant past, and the other portends our future. First, it is Victory in Europe (VE) day, the anniversary of the Allied win in WWII, on May 8, 1945. Many millions perished through the brutal policies of the Nazi ideology and its instrument, the Wehrmacht, and millions more subsequently perished in the fight to restore moral order. Much of Europe first ignored the growing threat of the national socialists. As the threat grew, Europe continued to contemplate appeasement. Only later, as true scale of atrocities became apparent did leaders realize that the threat needed to be tackled head-on.

Second, a federal appeals court in the United States ruled on May 7, 2015 that the National Security Agency’s collection of millions of phone records is illegal. This serves to remind us of the threat that our own governments pose to our fundamental freedoms under the promise of continued comfort and security. For those who truly care about the fragility of democracy this is a momentous and rightful ruling. It is all the more remarkable that since the calamitous events of September 11, 2001 few have challenged this governmental overreach into our private lives: our phone calls, our movements, our internet surfing habits, our credit card history. We have seen few public demonstrations and all too little ongoing debate. Indeed, only through the recent revelations by Edward Snowden did the debate even enter the media cycle. And, the debate is only just beginning.

Both of these events show that only we, the people who are fortunate enough to live within a democracy, can choose a path that strengthens our governmental institutions and balances these against our fundamental rights. By corollary we can choose a path that weakens our institutions too. One path requires engagement and action against those who use fear to make us conform. The other path, often easier, requires that we do nothing, accept the status quo, curl up in the comfort of our cocoons and give in to fear.

So this is why the appeals court ruling is so important. While only three in number, the judges have established that our government has been acting illegally, yet supposedly on our behalf. While the judges did not terminate the unlawful program, they pointedly requested the US Congress to debate and then define laws that would be narrower and less at odds with citizens’ constitutional rights. So, the courts have done us all a great favor. One can only hope that this opens the eyes, ears and mouths of the apathetic and fearful so that they continuously demand fair and considered action from their elected representatives. Only then can we begin to make inroads against the real and insidious threats to our democracy — our apathy and our fear. And perhaps, also, Mr.Snowden can take a small helping of solace.

From the Guardian:

The US court of appeals has ruled that the bulk collection of telephone metadata is unlawful, in a landmark decision that clears the way for a full legal challenge against the National Security Agency.

A panel of three federal judges for the second circuit overturned an earlier rulingthat the controversial surveillance practice first revealed to the US public by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden in 2013 could not be subject to judicial review.

But the judges also waded into the charged and ongoing debate over the reauthorization of a key Patriot Act provision currently before US legislators. That provision, which the appeals court ruled the NSA program surpassed, will expire on 1 June amid gridlock in Washington on what to do about it.

The judges opted not to end the domestic bulk collection while Congress decides its fate, calling judicial inaction “a lesser intrusion” on privacy than at the time the case was initially argued.

“In light of the asserted national security interests at stake, we deem it prudent to pause to allow an opportunity for debate in Congress that may (or may not) profoundly alter the legal landscape,” the judges ruled.

But they also sent a tacit warning to Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate who is pushing to re-authorize the provision, known as Section 215, without modification: “There will be time then to address appellants’ constitutional issues.”

“We hold that the text of section 215 cannot bear the weight the government asks us to assign to it, and that it does not authorize the telephone metadata program,” concluded their judgment.

“Such a monumental shift in our approach to combating terrorism requires a clearer signal from Congress than a recycling of oft?used language long held in similar contexts to mean something far narrower,” the judges added.

“We conclude that to allow the government to collect phone records only because they may become relevant to a possible authorized investigation in the future fails even the permissive ‘relevance’ test.

“We agree with appellants that the government’s argument is ‘irreconcilable with the statute’s plain text’.”

Read the entire story here.

Image: Edward Snowden. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

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Through the Eyes of Children

Sderot_Home

The very human invention that is war has taken an incalculable cost since it was first conceived, presumably when the first hunter-gatherers picked up the first rock or fashioned the first club. The cost on the innocent — especially the children — is brutal: death, pain, broken bodies, maimed limbs, fractured minds, shredded families.

Photographer Brian McCarty has chronicled the stories of some victims from the war and violence in the Middle East. In his visits to a therapeutic center in Jerusalem in 2011 he would watch the children work with therapists as they voice their painful memories and fear through art and play. Later, we would re-create their “war art” in photographs, often with the help of the children.

From Wired:

At the Spafford Children’s Center for in East Jerusalem, L.A.–based photographer Brian McCarty watched as a little girl made a crayon drawing of a dead boy. She carefully colors in a red pool of blood around his body. It was a drawing that McCarty would later use to stage one of his photographs for WAR-TOYS, a series that recreates children’s memories and fears of conflict in the Middle East with toys.

“Play can become a mechanism for healing,” says McCarty. Drawing on the tenets of art and play therapy, which help children express emotions in non-verbal ways, he sees WAR-TOYS as providing witness to the often unseen impact of armed conflict on children, while serving as part of these children’s therapeutic process.

McCarty first visited this therapeutic center in 2011 where he would observe as children worked with art and play therapists to tell and draw their stories. The drawings then served as a storyboard of sorts for McCarty, who re-created the scenes using locally purchased toys as characters and props. When possible, he brought the child along to help art direct the shoot.

McCarty worked with children in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, which produced a variety of drawings. Some children drew the keys their families kept as symbols of the homes they had to flee. A few boys portrayed heroic militants with homemade bombs. Young girls in Gaza City often drew mothers and babies near scenes of carnage.

Yet most of the drawings depicted the children’s fears. One boy’s drawing expressed how unattainable safety felt even with defense systems ready. It shows the sky full of incoming rockets and defensive interceptor missiles, while on the ground a bus explodes.

The use of toys as surrogates gives McCarty’s reenactments a playful, fictional distance while shifting the perspective to that of a child’s: closer to the ground, helplessly witnessing the shocking blur of play and violence.

The local toys also reveal the socio-economic layers of the region. While most of the toys in the region were made in China; in Gaza they were often botched discount versions.

And despite some previous efforts to rid the region of war toys, plastic soldiers, guns and bombs are ubiquitous. Notably, Israeli and Palestinian flags figures largely in the children’s drawings, and thus McCarty’s photographs, revealing the intensely divisive tribalism recognized, and sometimes identified with, from an early age.

“I’ve chosen to be as neutral as possible for the project. Much like the kids, I only know that the person shooting at me is a bad guy. They are ‘them,’ no matter which side of the border I’m on,” McCarty says.

McCarty, who has used toys in his photographs for 17 years, views this series as the first phase of a larger project — though gaining access is a challenge. “It took two years and a number of face-to-face meetings for an Israeli NGO to grant me access,” he says.

And that’s only the first difficulty. There’s also an element of danger. He recalled one particularly harrowing photo shoot: “Throughout, the sounds of outbound rockets and concussions from incoming airstrikes grew in intensity. I managed to complete my work, while experiencing first-hand the fear and anxiety the children face throughout their lives.”

See more images and read the full story here.

Image:  Photograph from WAR-TOYS by Brian McCarty. Courtesy of Brian McCarty / Wired.

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Anxiety, Fear and Wisdom

In a recent essay author Jana Richman weaves her personal stories about anxiety with Bertrand Russell’s salient observations on fear, and the desert Southwest is her colorful backdrop.

From the New York Times:

On a cold, sunny day in early March, my husband, Steve, and I layered up and took ourselves out to our backyard: Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. For a few days we had been spiraling downward through a series of miscommunications and tensions — the culmination of my rigorous dedication to fear, or what Bertrand Russell aptly coined “the tyranny of the habit of fear.”  A fresh storm had dropped 10 inches of snow with little moisture giving it an airy, crystallized texture that sprayed out in an arc with each footstep and made a shushing sound, as if it were speaking directly to me. Shush. Shush. Shush.

Moving into the elegant world of white-draped red rock is usually enough to strip our minds of the qualms that harass us, but on this particular day, Steve and I both stomped into the desert bearing a commitment to hang onto the somber roles we had adopted. Solemnity is difficult, however, when one is tumbling down hills of snow-covered, deep sand and slipping off steep angles of slickrock on one’s backside. Still, it took a good half-mile before we were convinced of our absurdity.

Such is the nature of the desert. If you persist in your gravity, the desert will take full advantage — it will have you falling over yourself as you trudge along carrying your blame and angst and fear; it will mock you until you literally and figuratively lighten up and conform to the place. The place will never conform to you. We knew that; that’s why we went. That’s why we always go to the desert when we’re stuck in a cycle of self-induced wretchedness.

“Fear,” Russell writes, “makes man unwise in the three great departments of human conduct: his dealings with nature, his dealings with other men, and his dealings with himself.”

I can attest to the truth of Russell’s words. I’ve spent many lifetime hours processing fear, and I’ve brought fear’s oppression into my marriage. Because fear is the natural state of my mind, I often don’t realize I’m spewing it into the atmosphere with my words and actions. The incident that drove us into the desert on that particular day was, in my mind, a simple expression of concern, a few “what will happen ifs”; in Steve’s mind, a paranoid rant. Upon reflection, I have to agree with his version.

A few months prior, Steve and I had decided upon a change in our lives: certainty in the form of a bi-weekly paycheck was traded for joy in the form writing time. It wasn’t a rash decision; it was five years in the making. Yet, from the moment the last check was cashed, my fear began roiling, slowly at first, but soon popping and splashing out of its shallow container. My voiced concerns regarding homelessness and insolvency went considerably beyond probable, falling to the far side of remotely possible. In my world, that’s enough for worry, discussion, obsession, more discussion, and several nights of insomnia.

We had parked the truck at the “head of the rocks,” an understated description of a spot that allows a 360-degree view of red and white slickrock cut with deep gulches and painted with the sweeping wear of wind and water. The Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument is 1.9 million acres of land, much of it devoid of human intrusion on any given day. Before we moved to the small town of Escalante on the Monument’s border, we came here from our city home five hours away — alone or together — whenever life threatened to shut us down.

From the head of the rocks, we followed the old cream cellar road, a wagon trail of switchbacks carved into stone in the early 1900s. We could see our destination about two miles out — a smooth, jutting wall with a level run of sand at its base that would allow us to sit with our faces to the sun and our backs against the wall — a fitting spot.

Steve walked behind me in silence, but I knew his thoughts. My fear perplexes and disparages him. His acts of heroism should dispel my anxiety, but it persists beyond the reach of his love.  Yet, his love, too, persists.

Knowing I’ll pick up and read anything placed in my path, Steve had left on the butcher block where I eat breakfast Russell’s timeless collection of essays, “New Hopes for a Changing World,” published in 1951, five years before I was born. I skimmed the table of contents until I reached three essays entitled, “Fear,” “Fortitude,” and “Life Without Fear,” in which Russell writes about the pervasive and destructive nature of fear. One of the significant fears Russell writes about — a fear close to his own heart — is the fear of being unlovable, which, he writes, is self-fulfilling unless one gets out from under fear’s dominion.  I’ve been testing Russell’s theory for the past eight years.

I’ve heard it said that all fear stems from the knowledge of our own mortality, and indeed, many of our social systems thrive by exploiting our fear of death and our desire to thwart it. But fear of death has never been my problem. To me, life, not death, holds the promise of misery.  When life is lived as a problem to be solved, death offers the ultimate resolution, the release of all fears, the moment of pure peace.

Read the entire article following the jump.

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