Bonding With Bots

by Brendan James

This embed is invalid

Jessica Love wonders what it will be like “when our daily conversations are as likely to take place with computers as with humans”:

Just this month, the New York Times’s Ian Urbina reported on the increasing ubiquity of socialbots: robotic programs designed to lure actual humans into virtual conversations, and then, more often than not, convince them to do something: buy stock, adopt a political stance, even fall in love. (And who better to fall for than a Nigerian Prince?) “Within two years,” Urbina writes, “about 10 percent of the activity occurring on social online networks will be masquerading bots, according to technology researchers.”

Make no mistake: these bots will get good. As will Siri and Google Search and any number of algorithms programmed—for reasons insidious or otherwise—to behave as humanly as possible. I find it very probable that, in my lifetime, I’ll be able to have entire conversations without ever quite knowing whom or what I’m talking to.

Previous Dish on our future robot companions here and here.

Justice For Revenge Porn?

by Brendan James

Maureen O’Connor profiles a victim of “revenge porn” in New Jersey, the only state where the sick practice is illegal:

[Anonymous victim “A”] remembers shooing her young cousins away during a back-to-school shopping trip at Target, when an older man approached to compliment “your pictures.” Another time, printouts of her nude photos were left outside her front door.

A’s story is remarkable not because of the personal betrayal it involved or the public humiliation of having an X-rated digital doppelgänger. Those things happen to countless victims of “revenge porn,” the term for sexually explicit images distributed without the subject’s consent, whether by an ex-boyfriend or anonymous hackers. What’s truly remarkable is that the legal system took interest in A at all.

For victims elsewhere, the legal system provides few options:

At the heart of a burgeoning movement to change that is End Revenge Porn, the advocacy group that A began volunteering for in the wake of her nightmare experience. It’s the brainchild of Florida resident Holly Jacobs, who went public last spring with her five-year battle against a pornographic attack so pervasive it led her to change her name. She has since built a network of around 50 victims and legal experts advocating for laws banning revenge porn, and she’s now spinning End Revenge Porn into a nonprofit called the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative. She works with lawyers, academics, and legislators — including California state senator Anthony Cannella, who has sponsored a California bill to make revenge porn a misdemeanor, punishable by up to six months in jail for a first offense; the popular bill is under consideration right now.

But Lux Alptraum argues new legislation is misguided:

[R]evenge porn is already illegal. Distributing pornographic content without maintaining an extensive database conforming to the specifics of 18 USC 2257 records keeping requirements is a criminal offense. So are harassment and stalking, which could be interpreted to include revenge porn. If it’s already on the books as illegal, why do we need more laws to specifically call it out as illegal? And, more pressingly, if the existing laws aren’t enough to deter and punish the distributors of revenge porn, how can we genuinely believe that one more law is going to fix the problem?

The UK Won’t Touch Syria

by Brendan James

Yesterday, as we noted, the House of Commons voted down David Cameron’s motion for intervention in Syria 285 votes to 272. It can safely be said that the parliament delivered the will of the people, with British public opposing strikes two to one. Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry sees this as “an example of democracy actually working, and in the best sense of the word”:

The neocons urging Cameron to ignore the vote since it was non-binding are missing the point. And David Cameron gets it. Britain’s Parliament, its House of Commons, spoke. And the Prime Minister has to yield. There is no law that says that in this specific instance the Prime Minister should do that–but no matter. The United Kingdom has centuries of tradition of the highest respect for the will of its Parliament, and so there really was no other option for David Cameron.

Larison expects the US to go it alone:

The defeat for Cameron makes it that much more likely that Obama will proceed while ignoring Congress, since he won’t want to risk the same rebuke from our representatives. In truth, that rebuke would probably not be forthcoming, but it’s a chance that Obama isn’t going to want to take at this point. Despite the embarrassment for both Cameron and Obama that this vote represents, it is hard to imagine the administration won’t proceed with the attack because of this. This is good news for Britain, but regrettably won’t have much effect here except to cause a lot of whining about the state of the U.S.-British relationship.

Jack Goldsmith suggests Obama is now going full-Dubya:

The President is way out on a limb, by himself.  Independent of legality, unilateral military intervention in these circumstances is extraordinarily imprudent, and it is hard to fathom that it is being considered by the man who based his case for the presidency in 2008 on his commitment to domestic and international legality, and on opposition to imprudent wars.

Using Your Tongue To “See”

by Brendan James

When we really try, humans can perform echolocation à la bats and dolphins, like blind man Daniel Kish in the above video:

We can’t match the 200 or so clicks per second achieved by bats and dolphins, but it’s not really necessary. Kish, for one, simply makes a clicking noise every few seconds, with interludes of silence when he doesn’t need to get a new picture of his surroundings.

From there, the sound waves produced by the click are broadcast into our environment at a speed of roughly 1,100 feet per second. Shot out in all directions, these waves bounce off the objects, structures and people around the echolocator and arrive back in his or her ears. The volume of the returning click is much quieter than the original, but those with proper training readily identify the subtle sound. And although it might seem amazing to be able to analyze these sound waves to generate a picture of the environment, some of the basic principles in play are concepts you already rely on everyday.

Previous Dish on how the blind utilize other senses here.

Assaulted On Social Media

by Brendan James

Ann Friedman studies the mixed effects of social media in the aftermath of of rape and sexual assaults:

For decades, the challenge facing anti-rape activists was to take what is often an intensely private crime—54 percent of sexual assaults are estimated to go unreported—and bring it to national attention as a pervasive crisis. Now that cases regularly crop up in which photos and videos of sexual assaults are circulated on social media, it’s becoming harder to argue that rape is anything but a public scourge. We are all bystanders. We all bear witness.

Yet the increased attention on social media often has tragic consequences for victims. They don’t just have to grapple with the physical and psychological ramifications of being sexually violated. They have to deal with the fact that everyone else knows what happened, too. …

For a victim, there’s no difference between people who share footage of the assault because they want to raise awareness about the problem and people who share footage to laugh at it or, worse, because it turns them on. “The horror of having the intimate violation of your body exposed, shared, transmitted, and existing in a way that you know can never be expunged is awful,” says Kaethe Morris Hoffer, legal director of the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation. “Since the advent of the Internet, it has been a tremendous and devastating burden for survivors to live with the knowledge that they have no hope of ensuring that images of their sexual violation will ever be erased. What social media does is make the transmission of it a hundred times faster and more shareable.”

The Space Between Black And White

by Brendan James

Michael A. Fletcher bemoans the state of racial inequality 50 years after the March on Washington:

In 1963, blacks families earned 55 cents for every dollar earned by whites. In 2011, blacks earned 66 cents for every dollar earned by whites. The black unemployment rate averaged 11.6 percent between 1963 and 2012, more than double the white jobless rate over that time. The black poverty rate of 55.1 percent was just over three times the white rate in 1959. It dropped to 32.2 percent in 1972. But since then, progress has been slow. In 2011, 27.6 percent of black households were in poverty — nearly triple the 9.8 percent white rate, according to the Census Bureau.

Plumer lays out an array of charts tracking the largely unchanged disparity across the board:

“The wealth gap between minorities and whites has not improved over the past three decades,” reports the Urban Institute. “From 1983 to 2010, average family wealth for whites has been about six times that of blacks and Hispanics — the gap in actual dollars growing as average wealth increased for both groups.” And the Great Recession exacerbated that gap, as blacks and Hispanics were hit especially hard.


Joseph Ritter examines the role of discrimination:

Black workers seem to earn less because of differences in education or upbringing, while black workers’ employment shortfall appears to be more a factor of employer discrimination. In other words, black workers that manage to get a job appear to earn at comparable rates, controlling for education levels—but regardless of education, they appear to have a harder time getting a job, due to their race.

Derek Thompson homes in on the point about education:

“Today, white adults 25 and older are significantly more likely than blacks to have completed at least a bachelor’s degree,” Pew tells us. On the one hand, the black completion rate as a percentage of the white completion rate has increased from 42% then to 62% now. On the other hand, whites are still far more likely to graduate from a bachelor’s program by 25. This college advantage — reinforced through dual-earner households — translates into higher family incomes, higher home-ownership, and (as a result) higher wealth for whites. There is a reason why so many discussions of social mobility begin and conclude with education.