Artificial intelligence: The idea of “thinking machines” discussed at SMASH16 sparked interest, excitement, and denial around the world.
This post is part of our ongoing SMASH Reflections series, authored by our inaugural class of Fellows.
By Israel Bionyi
The 2016 Science and Media Awards Summit in the Hub (SMASH16) celebrated the best works of science in media, highlighting the need to effectively communicate science and creating synergies between the scientific community and the media world. Big science stories, trends in science media, insights around science topics relevant to food, evolution, astrophysics, biodiversity, forensics, big data, neuroscience, and sound were discussed in a variety of panels.
A keynote by Joi Ito, director of MIT Media Lab on Tuesday, 20 September 2016, moderated by Paula Apsell Senior Executive Producer at NOVA, discussed the potential of disruptive technologies in shaping the future of societies, including artificial intelligence and bitcoin.
Ito discussed two types of Artificial Intelligence (AI): artificial general intelligence (AGI), a machine system that could successfully perform any intellectual task a human being can, and specialized AI, often called machine learning, which appears in self-driving cars, the algorithms of Facebook and Google, and predictive policing. “My focus is specialized learning, things like machines assisting judges determining bail and things like driverless cars,” Ito said. “AI or any kind of machine learning system isn’t programmed. What happens is that an algorithm is created and trained with data, much more like raising a kid.”
But do we need thinking machines or automated things that act like humans and could control certain aspects of our lives?
On the streets of Boston, Uber drivers are terrified by the idea of driverless cars. Christopher Obazee, 35, from Nigeria, makes $4,000 a week from Uber as a full-timer. His colleague, Mohammed, 55, from Morocco, makes $60 a night as a part-timer. Both Uber drivers worry that they will not be able to provide for their families both in the US and back in Africa if driverless cars take away their jobs. “I have heard about AI before, and the idea that we are going to have automated cars really scares me, because it is going to put many people out of jobs,” said Mohammed. However, Ito’s argument during the keynote focused more on quality of work and safety. “If you spent enough money building a driverless car kind of quality like Google has in the streets and you eliminate humans driving cars, it would be much safer today,” Ito stated. In all, whether linguists, scientists, researchers, businesses or philosophers, people from same industries often have divergent interests on AI and equally opposing concerns.
At the heart of the Netherlands in the city of Ede, located directly between the large cities of Utrecht and Arnhem in the province of Gelderland, a social worker, Annemieke Eshuis, was exposed to Ito’s prospect of AI through machines and robots that played key medical roles, such as “huggable robots” in hospitals and doctors’ “consulting robots”. “If you start putting robots around patients as doctors and social workers, I really feel we are going the wrong way,” said Eshuis. “The purpose of life is to love and to be loved, to have intimate relationships. We need trust from two sides to build a relationship; a robot doesn't have a heart, so you cannot have real communication with a robot. As a social worker, I see that people want to share their heart’s feelings. They want to sense that you are listening to them; they can feel that in their hearts if you really do.”
In rural towns and villages of Cameroon, rural chiefs and natives reacted to the concept of AI. Nehemiah Yumoh, a native of Bangolan (found in the Northwestern part of Cameroon) who now resides in Germany, said this technology is out of place in the African context. Like many chiefs interviewed about AI, Yumoh will fight it with his last bone, because otherwise “the value and place of man will disappear,” he said. “Besides, robots are strange to an African man and I think something like that is certainly not welcome in Bangolan”. But Janis Sacco, Director of exhibitions at Harvard Museums of Science and Culture, sees the potential for AI to help preserve African cultures and heritage. She believes that documenting, digitalizing, and archiving historical traditions and practices in machine learning systems could prevent them from disappearing.
Whether we agree with AI or not, machine learning systems is a reality today and it is proving effective to ensure safety and productivity. Despite risks, research and development on AI is continually advancing and we are going to learn to have a world where we trust robots to perform certain tasks.
View Joi Ito’s keynote on Facebook
About the author: Israel Bionyi is a freelance reporter, communications specialist, and environmental blogger specializing in climate change, water, energy, forests, and wildlife conservation. He founded the blog ‘The Wink Writes’ and contributes to Fairplanet magazine and Cameroon’s Standard Tribune. He is also Assistant Editor for the Society for Conservation Biology’s African Conservation Telegraph and a member of the International League of Conservation Writers.
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SMASH Reflections: Science storytelling in the era of millennials: The top 5 things you need to know if you want to be successful
This post is part of our ongoing project of SMASH Reflections, authored by our inaugural class of Fellows.
By Rodrigo Pérez Ortega
Did you hear that last Radiolab show? Did you watch the last episode of MinutePhysics? What about the shark photo from NatGeo on Instagram?
From YouTube channels to tweets and Facebook pages, science is now everywhere in the digital world, and science communication has found its niche in this ever-changing landscape. YouTubers, podcasters and bloggers have emerged, each with a very personal touch to their content. With nearly one-third of the world population using social media, creating engaging content for such wide and dynamic audience is especially hard. A key feature of digital and social media is that the production costs are quite low and the reach is high. New platforms and trends are always emerging, and we have to constantly adapt to them if we want to reach more people. During the SMASH 2016, a special session tackled the challenges and peculiarities of creating compelling content in different digital platforms. Anna Rothschild, host of Gross Science, moderated the discussion among the panelists: Joe Hanson, host of It’s Okay to Be Smart, Erin Chapman, host of the Shelf Life series, and James Williams, VP of Digital Video at National Geographic Partners.
What did we learn from this interesting discussion? Here are the 5 most important things you have to take into consideration if you want to go viral.
1. KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE AND BE LOYAL
Now, more than ever, science communication is about establishing a personal relationship with the viewer/ listener/ reader, connecting with your audience on a deep level. And so, one of the best things about social media is that you get to know them pretty well. With every platform and app, you can get instant statistics and feedback. You can track the age group, the male to female ratio, watch time, etc. of your audience and use this information to shape your content, get more shares and views, and present the science in a more meaningful way. “Going viral” is especially hard, because the competition is fierce and the online audience is quite demanding. As Joe Hanson says: “they have a high bulls**t filter”. So come up with a compelling story and make it authentic. And deliver on any promise you make to your audience.
2. CHOOSE THE RIGHT PLATFORM
There are more than 50 social media platforms these days, some more popular than others. And there’s a reason for it: they’re all different, and so are their audiences. YouTube is video and animation, Instagram is pure photo and some video without audio, on Facebook you can throw some text, but visuals are definitely key. So, you have to find the right platform for your content. Always have a story and don’t try to push your content from one platform to another if it doesn't fit the format. For some platforms you have to keep it short, while in others long format is better. For some, you have to start with the punchline in order to hook your audience. What works well in Snapchat might not work in Facebook, so be wise. Also, don't worry about mastering all the platforms. Stick to what works for you and embrace it.
3. FAIL! AND LEARN
Please fail. That's the best way to learn what works and what doesn't. And your audience will let you know. “We’re just bouncing off of failures until we find our focus. We need the failures” says Williams. And you know what's the best part? As Hanson puts it, "if it fails in the internet, nobody sees it". Sounds like a good deal.
4. COLLAB. COLLAB. COLLAB.
In every platform, there are subgroups, small communities that are interested in similar things. And even if it's all science, the audiences can be quite different. So contact fellow science communicators and invite them to do something together. You don't have to be in the same physical space. Great things can come out of a collaboration.
5. BE BRAVE AND EXPERIMENT!
Remember that there are no rules in the internet, so it's a playground for creativity. It has an amazing built-in democracy. Don’t be afraid to try new things and use your platform to its maximum potential. An Instagram documentary? Sure! “It doesn’t matter what the medium is, what matters is the truth and the story” says Erin Chapman. Getting out of your comfort zone and putting yourself out there might be hard at first, but it’s worth it. Some things might not work, but hey, remember point 3?
Perhaps your goal might be to educate and entertain, to make science fun. But always think big, because after all the effort, the payoff can be quite surprising. For example, Hanson was once contacted by somebody in Iran asking how to download one of his videos because the bandwidth was not the best and he/she wanted to share it because it was important content for an Iranian audience. Champan’s series, Shelf Life, has accomplished a good male to female ratio of viewers. Achieving gender balance is difficult in science communication reach, let alone science itself. Thanks to one of Chapman’s videos, an entomologist from Singapore reached out and initiated a collaboration with a laboratory at her institution. Williams recounts that the week Finding Dory came out, his team launched a campaign to raise awareness about the danger of buying tang fishes, which are taken from the wild. It went viral and had a big impact—they were literally “saving Dory”.
So, always take the extent and power of the internet into account. And remember to always take different languages and ethnicities into consideration, since you might be making a bigger difference than you think.
Note: Appropriately for a panel on social media, this session was transmitted live on Facebook. You can watch it here.
About the author: Rodrigo is finishing his degree in Biomedical Science at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México in Mexico City. He is passionate about neuroscience, research and science journalism. For the past couple of years, he has been a contributor at TecReview, Medscape en Español, ¿cómo ves? and others as a freelance science writer. His work has been published both in English and Spanish and he works continuously to raise awareness about the science and scientific journalism made in Latin America.
This post is part of our ongoing “SMASH Reflections” series, authored by our inaugural class of Fellows.
by Shaena Montanari
With an event like SMASH, gathering science media professionals and scientists from around the world, it can be difficult to distill the incredibly action-packed week into take-home lessons—but I’m going to give it a try. As a Fellow of the conference, I had the opportunity to attend every session and talk to a diverse array of people. Through my lens as a scientist who is driven by a need to communicate, here are my three take-home messages from SMASH:
Science communication is important and can drive change
Despite questions in policy, the popular press, and even among scientists themselves around the utility of science communication, a major takeaway of this summit was that almost everyone working at the intersection of science and media agrees that science communication is important. At the end of the day, documentary filmmakers, podcasters, TV producers, journalists, thinkers, and scientists are all striving towards getting science out to every segment of the population they possibly can in extremely diverse ways. There is a wide world of media out there seeking to engage the public on different platforms.
For me as a scientist, it is invaluable to learn how those in different forms of media view science and how to communicate it. From documentaries to podcasts, I realized there is a place and a need for experts to communicate their research with clarity and disseminate their messages. As a scientist, sometimes it seems difficult to connect with the public, but scores of experienced communication professionals are excited and energized by those of us who want to share our messages with the public—we just need to connect with them.
Above all, SMASH brought home to me how important science communication is for advocacy and promoting curiosity in society. We heard from Dan Kahan from Yale University, whose research on science communication shows that scientific curiosity is intimately tied to the public’s understanding of often “controversial” topics like climate change and evolution. If we scientists can connect with the media to broadcast our message, perhaps we can increase scientific curiosity and change the world in a positive way.
The world of possibility of science communication is enormous
From the 30-second Facebook video to long-form documentary, there is no shortage of ways to share your science. While traditional forms such as the epic nature documentary will always have their place, new forms of media are taking over the world of science communication and reaching new sets of eyes on all parts of the Internet.
As a scientist of the younger generation that essentially grew up online, the “Beyond Clickbait” panel at SMASH resonated the most with me. It highlighted how the world of communication is changing in general, and how scientists can ride the wave in this world of viral videos and Internet celebrity. Hearing from creators of YouTube series like Anna Rothschild of “Gross Science” and Joe Hanson of “It’s Okay To Be Smart” really drove home how new media on YouTube and Snapchat is the delivery method of science for the Millennial generation of thinkers—and beyond. Erin Chapman at the American Museum of Natural History is creating the series “Shelf Life” and revolutionizing the way a nearly 150-year-old institution communicates science to the public, while promoting the work of researchers who may not have previously had a voice.
While the most popular videos on Facebook are now captioned because people aren’t using headphones, there is still space for immersive science media that captivates listeners—as we learned in the panel on podcasting. This panel featured unbelievably creative producers like Mary E. Harris of WNYC’s “Only Human”, who is personalizing health stories for popular audiences. And if someone only has a few moments to listen to a podcast, they can check out a 10 second Snapchat story, like those from National Geographic that change every day. I was genuinely impressed and inspired by the idea of transmedia—disseminating a message across platforms—and saw how vital it is and will continue to be to touch many different groups of people across the world.
We have no idea where we might be in 5 years—and that’s the most exciting thing of all
As science communicators, we are constantly evolving and changing how we disseminate our message. Where we will be in even 5 short years will likely be completely uncharted territory.
The entire summit kicked off with a keynote from Director of the MIT Media Lab Joi Ito, who emphasized that what we think of as bizarre now, like self-driving cars, will become an accepted fact of life in at most two generations. In another panel, we heard about the uses of virtual reality and saw an award-winning use of this for medical education in HoloAnatomy. The scientists that spoke at SMASH are doing truly groundbreaking things— for example Steve Ramirez at Harvard University who is manipulating memories, or Kim Arcand from NASA who is visualizing the furthest reaches of the universe.
These are just a selection of the scientists who are pushing the very bounds of the disciplines we’ve grown to accept. Both science and communication are going to new places at breakneck speeds, so not only do we need to figure out how to communicate boundary-pushing science, but we need to do it in a way that brings together design, science, and creativity. New spaces between disciplines are being created that innovators will thrive in—as Ito calls it: “antidisciplinary space”— and will likely create things we haven’t even dreamed up yet. There is a world of possibility and opportunity. We just need to keep unraveling it.
About the author: As a Newton International Fellow at the University of Edinburgh, Shaena Montanari works on uncovering archives of modern and ancient ecology locked in bones. She is also a contributor at Forbes online, where she writes about paleontology, natural history, and comparative biology. She received her PhD from the Richard Gilder Graduate School at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.
By: Peter Hamilton
We are enjoying a swing of the pendulum back to signature, big-budget documentaries, including science-based films. The biggest is the profound structural change in viewing from broadcast and cable/satellite channels to online platforms. The other driver is Financial.
Let’s look at the shift in industry structure first. We are entering the “Post Schedule Documentary Economy.” US channel viewing has dropped around 20% in recent years, and much more among the most desirable younger demo. Channels are being challenged by SVOD (subscription video on-demand) platforms, particularly Netflix and Amazon, and now Hulu and Vimeo, as well as niche players like CuriosityStream. The SVOD platforms developed a programming strategy of acquiring and then commissioning original docs. The SVODs are expanding this strategy and commissioning more original docs.
Meanwhile, the channels like National Geographic, Discovery and History had relied for many years on a schedule based heavily on reality series. But reality lost the leading-edge following it had earned when shows like Ice Road Truckers, Jersey Shore and Pawn Stars dominated the conversation around the office water cooler.
The reality television era left another challenge for the networks: their programs had become commodified, and all-too-often interchangeable. Their once distinct brands had become diluted in the quest for a hit, character-based series. For example, Duck Dynasty could have been scheduled on several channels, and it muddied the A&E brand. There wasn’t much history on History. And National Geographic strayed from the promise of the famous Yellow Border brand with series like Border Wars.
Now, in the “Post Schedule” economy led by Netflix and Amazon, channels that rely on factual programs need to return to their brands if they want to compete with Netflix, and the signature, event documentary is one of the keys to this process. Discovery, History and particularly Nat Geo are leading the effort to boost their documentary commissioning teams, and many of the less-distributed channels are following suit.
What are the financial factors driving this trend?
The SVOD era is dominated by big, scripted, multi-season series like House of Cards. It’s the binge-watching era! The platforms can only afford so many scripted series with A-List talent like Kevin Spacey, and documentaries are relatively affordable in comparison. Even a higher budget documentary is much less expensive than a scripted series involving even B-List stars, but brings along the passionate audience that B-Listers don’t.
Documentaries also attract A-Listers as executive producers rather than as performers. Beginning with Netflix’s Virunga, Leonardo Dicaprio now seems to have his name on a half-dozen projects including The Ivory Game. Making a documentary to address social and environmental issues is part of the zeitgeist today, so A-Listers are really motivated to become involved. Celebs also raise the odds of winning that invaluable Oscar nom against hundreds of competitors.
Another financial factor is that documentaries attract passionate affinity audiences who promote their favorite docs across their own press and social media communities. The message of The Ivory Game will be amplified through networks of conservationists, elephant-lovers, schools, and of course Dicaprio fans.
To sum up, docs are financially efficient because they are relatively affordable to produce or acquire by SVOD platforms, and they bring along their own passionate audiences.
Where is Science in the editorial mix in this ‘Post-schedule Documentary Economy’?
The History and Science genres are the big winners. Archive based ‘event’ docs are nearly always about celebrities and historical figures with huge name recognition, and therefore the film is presold to the audience. And anniversaries are a big deal, because programs ride on their buzz. This matters a lot in a universe where there are thousands of channels, and networks can’t afford to develop and market a concept from a standing start.
Of a recent sample of eleven productions announced by National Geographic Channel, Amazon and Netflix, five involve extensive use of the archive, and six are science-themed. They are Werner Herzog on Volcanoes, Leo Dicaprio on Ivory, a Katie Couric project on the Gender Revolution from Nat Geo, a Jane Goodall retrospective, and another on the global water crisis.
Looking over this list of big, signature docs, there seems to be little room here for revealing and compelling but untold stories about unheralded scientists working on obscure scientific challenges.
There’s not much of an opening for newbie and mid-scale doc creatives, unless the film has broken through at a major festival, or unless you control access to a stunning archive. The big signature productions are typically packaged by agents, include A-List talent, and are sold to the nets in advance. That is definitely a trend.
Peter Hamilton directs Peter Hamilton Consultants, Inc. where he helps his clients to successfully develop, produce and market video content. With decades of experience in the documentary business, he’s a keen observer of trends in unscripted programming, captured in his weekly newsletter DocumentaryTelevision.com
Peter will be leading the "Science Storytelling: What's Trending Now?" session at SMASH - the Science Media Awards & Summit. Passes are still available! Join us here: http://www.sciencemediasummit.org/summit.html
We reached out to our Science Media Awards finalists with five questions about the experience of making their projects. Uranium - Twisting the Dragon's Tail is a finalist in five categories.
Uranium - Twisting the Dragon's Tail is three- part series examining the history and role of one of Earth's most mysterious and dangerous rock - uranium. The series is a finalist in the Long Form Series Category. The first episode of the series, The Rock That Became a Bomb, is a finalist in the categories: Physical, Science Ambassador, Writing and Visualization.
What inspired this story?
It began with a mad commitment to tell a cracking story of the most desirable and hated rock on Earth. Uranium changed the world. It revolutionized physics and changed the way we think about the nature of reality. Uranium bent our culture. Uranium is the rock in rock- and-roll. Uranium has the power to take us into a future of clean, limitless energy, or kill every single one of us on this planet. Those are high stakes, and that’s a story that needed telling.
Describe some of the challenges faced while making this film?
Making the series was quite simply the most arduous, intensive, exhausting, dangerous and wonderful working experience. We shot the series in eight weeks in nine countries. Our crew was small, only five people, and they humped equipment up cliffs in Northern Australia in 45 degree heat. They rattled down a dilapidated Soviet mineshaft in a squealing metal cage in wet darkness, and they suited up with spacesuits and respirators and descended into lethal radiation zones. Shooting in high radiation environments has some unique challenges.
The main danger in a radiation zone is time. In one place inside the Chernobyl exclusion zone, we were limited to only four minutes exposure to the intense radiation. It’s surprising how scary this can be. Walking in torchlight through abandoned underground buildings holding a shrieking Geiger counter concentrates the mind wonderfully. All in all, not an ordinary day at the office and not, ordinary film making.
How do you approach science storytelling?
Service the audience that you can count on to watch your film, but court the other audience, the one who isn’t automatically drawn to the subject. We apply dramatic principles to our stories. We thought of Uranium as many things, but mostly, as a character. Complex, beguiling, savage. And the series became an autobiography of this character. I think our audience understood this. This character thrilled them, scared them and intrigued them to watch three hours of science and story about a rock.
Did the film team use any unusual techniques or unique imaging technology?
We used a variety of animations to convey complexities of nuclear physics and uranium. What happens when an atomic nucleus splits? What is an element? Why does Uranium split? What is half-life? It was essential to illuminate these concepts for a broad audience, but it was just as essential that an informed audience be engaged and so, animated metaphor was used and the decay chain of uranium became a metamorphosis of baby dragons changing form. The dragon motif is a brave and radical departure from traditional rendering of uranium and it was discussed at length with our team of science advisors and physics experts. The magic realism approach is a gamble in films about science but one that we feel allows people – especially family viewers and school students – to connect and engage. All of our animations are deliberately quirky and fun and hugely entertaining because we wanted to make uranium clear and powerful and engaging for a diverse global audience.
Why did you pick Derek Muller to be the on-camera host telling this story?
URANIUM – Twisting the Dragon’s Tail sees Dr Derek Muller hosting his first television documentary series. Derek is a physicist. He also has a substantial online presence that demonstrated to our team and our broadcast partners, an infectious enthusiasm for science. Derek unleashes a historian’s passion for detail, a physicist’s understanding of science, and a journalist’s nose for a good story. He loves science, but he also loves the poetry and the beauty of science. Derek took the audience with him on this journey. He invited us to wonder, and charmed us to listen.
We reached out to our Science Media Awards finalists with five questions about the experience of making their projects. Invisibilia is a finalist in the Audible Science category.
What inspired this story?
Observation. For nearly a decade Alix Spiegel was reporting on mental health for NPR, and during that time, realized she was watching the tail end of a slow sea-tide change in the therapeutic community. While many therapists used to believe that thoughts revealed some inner wishes of the soul, and that following a thought to its source was the way to achieve insight and ultimately healing in a distressed person (an idea popularized by Freud), newer schools of thought challenge that notion and believe that a thought may not reveal anything at all about your inner wishes. As one therapist we interviewed, Dr. Tom Corboy, put it, thoughts "are just synapses popping off and we don't have to take them all so seriously." As Alix noticed that there was this quiet revolution going on in the therapeutic community about what our thoughts mean (by the time of broadcast, a majority of therapist offices practice CBT or "Third Wave Therapy" which do not believe thoughts are as revealing of inner wishes as Freud), she also realized that this seemingly subtle and small shift in how we see thoughts, could actually have huge consequences for how we live our lives. In her reporting on this, she met a man who suffered from extremely violent thoughts -- everywhere he looked he pictured people being stabbed or mutilated in horrific ways -- and was ultimately tremendously healed by a therapist who told him he could ignore his thoughts. In fact, this man received a kind of exposure therapy in which he was asked to hold a butcher's knife to his therapist's throat in order to "prove" that his thoughts had no relation to his inner desires and that he wouldn't hurt anybody. It was shortly after meeting this man, that Alix met Lulu Miller, and the two journeyed to visit the man with violent thoughts and try to tell his story, and more broadly, the 'secret history' of this revolution in what therapists think about thoughts. That first reporting adventure turned into a melding of radio styles that created their very first episode and ultimately set the tone for the kinds of stories they wanted to tell: mixes of narrative and social science that reveal to listeners new way of thinking about their own behavior.
Press play for a clip of the upcoming Invisibilia season
Describe some of the challenges faced while making this project?
Blending our two techniques could sometimes be a challenge! Alix came from a more scripted and writerly background of piecing together radio stories (which she learned as one of the founding producers of This American Life) and Lulu came from a more conversational method (which she learned at Radiolab). There was a lot of forcing each other out of our comfort zones to try new ways, which wasn't always easy. We also had to understand who were were as 'co-hosts'. What was our relationship to the material, the listener, each other. In season one, we eventually settled on a sort of hybrid, in which the narration for the stories is largely written, but with the occasional raw conversational moment (a moment of teasing or authentic inquiry or confusion) popping through and blowing up the tightly orchestrated narrative. We also forced ourselves to take an improv class to get more comfortable playing around with our rapport. Which was fun. And terrifying.
Alix Spiegel, Hanna Rosin and Lulu Miller: team Invisibilia
How do you approach science storytelling?
We try to always start with an interesting story. The kinds of human mysteries or dramas, or predicaments, that have always hooked listeners since the time of the campfire. And then bring in the science just at the moment where suspense has made a person really wonder. In the story of the man with the violent thoughts, for example, we turned to the science just at the moment where the man was wondering what these thoughts meant. He was so terrified that he was losing weight, suffering at his job, afraid to have knives in the house with his wife, and wondering whether he needed to check himself into a mental hospital. The thing he really needed to understand was, what do these thoughts mean. At that moment and only at that moment, do we turn to the scientists. In other words, we try to always make the science feel like a relief, a deepening of the puzzle, and never 'dutiful.' Never like class, or like 'vegetables.'
What impact do you hope this project will have?
Our biggest hope is that Invisibilia will make people feel a little less alone in the world. Revealing through story and science that there are other ways of approaching life. That they have more tools in their psychological toolbelt than they may realize for approaching the emotional challenges of life-- overcoming fear, for example, or strengthening relationships. Another aspect of the show is that we are not afraid to talk about the dark, or scary, or seemingly shameful things (violent thoughts, paralyzing fear, suicidal thoughts, concern one is going "mad," family struggles, etc). It's our belief that when you talk about these things (and hear about others talking about these things on the radio), when you shine a little light on this stuff, that it steals its power. We hope our stories will make people feel less shame, less stigma around the kinds of struggles everyone faces.
What are the biggest challenges of an audio–only medium?
Is this a trick question!? We adore the audio-only medium of radio! Freed from visual judgments we believe that a listener can connect in a deeper way with the people in the stories. That said, every now and then, a visual is simply so stunning that radio can't do it justice. For example: a blind man riding a bicycle or removing his eyeballs from his head. An atom becoming temporarily entangled with another atom, right before our eyes. These are all moments we have included in our stories and without visuals, it forces us to be extra vivid in our descriptions. Sometimes, we surely fail to capture the visual reality before us. Alas. That's what video extras are for!
by Caitlin Kossmann
Our relationship with technology is always fraught. Each new social media platform gives us more ways to connect with people we know--and people we don’t--from all over the world. But each new development also provokes fear of increasing isolation and alienation. There have been many articles voicing concerns that technology makes us less social and less aware of one another's humanity (e.g. here or here). But technology can be a powerful empathy-building tool, as well, giving us access to other people’s experiences in new and more immersive ways. Here are three different examples of how technologies can be used to promote empathy and widen our horizons.
1. Virtual Reality: Bodyswapping to reduce racial bias
From the start, one of the major selling points of VR has been its ability to provide a convincing experience of being someone other than yourself—its ability to provoke empathy, in other words. Take a simple bodyswapping example. Several labs have been experimenting with ways to make participants feel ownership of a different body. This can be as simple as touching a hidden part of the participant's body (hand or face) while simultaneously touching a virtual or unrelated hand or face. Or it can be inhabiting a body of another race or even another gender through VR. It might not seem like a big deal. Simply changing the color of your skin in an only semi-realistic avatar, even if that avatar’s face is touched at the same time as yours, shouldn’t be that convincing, right? Yet Implicit Association Tests (IATs) have shown slightly decreased negative bias toward pictures of black faces when white subjects experienced “being” black with a VR headset. Controlling an avatar with a different skin tone by moving your own body may look more puppeteering than real bodyswapping. But it’s a powerfully simple model. Could we decrease racial bias across whole populations through just a quick VR demonstration?
2. Exoskeleton: Instant aging
An even more immersive experience of inhabiting another body has been developed by Applied Minds, LLC for Genworth Financial, Inc. The R70i Exoskeleton Aging Suit gives you the works. The 40-lb suit includes attachments to restrict joint movement, headphones that can simulate tinnitus (ringing in your ears) and aphasia (a speech impediment often provoked by stroke), and VR-simulated cataracts or vertigo. Restricting joint movement isn’t the same as the internal pain of arthritis. But the makers of the Aging Suit have tapped into a particularly effective combination, involving both brain and body in several ways. The exoskeleton makes you really feel the unresponsiveness of creaky joints or a damaged leg, giving you a full sensory experience of living in a different body. It seems to work: several participants immediately made promises to be kinder and more understanding of elderly people after the experience.
3. The Homeless GoPro Project
Here’s a project that argues both sides of the technology and empathy question. The Homeless GoPro Project in San Francisco aims to combat the decreased empathy that they argue is caused by technology with... more technology. Homeless participants wear a GoPro two hours a day and the footage is uploaded onto the web. The aim is to share the daily experience of being homeless in San Francisco with a wider population. The project leaders refer to this project as recording “extreme living”, a clear reference to the extreme sports the camera is more often used for. It is likely also an attempt to make the project sound more appealing. However, such a formulation highlights a potential downside: charges of voyeurism or a kind of disaster tourism. Founder Kevin Adler assures us he was aware of this potential from the start, and took steps to insure this project was pursued with all due respect. Still, awareness of a potential problem isn’t the same as solving it. There haven’t been any follow-ups to see if viewers found this experience to deepen their empathy, as it was intended to do, but Adler reports plenty of positive feedback, and an ever-growing community of people who want to help move the project forward and give the homeless a voice.
So, can technology build empathy?
Film has long been an effective medium for showing us a world and getting us to connect to others’ experiences. But it seems that affective empathy--really feeling what another person feels--is more easily accessed if we are given other clues to make it seem as if these problems or aspects are our own. VR has been billed as “the ultimate empathy machine” because of these immersive capabilities. However, how much any of these experiences will affect your actions, particularly in the longer term, is not clear. They certainly confuse our perception. But each of these examples is a mediated experience, and uses technologies still strongly associated with games and entertainment. The moment it stops, you’re back to being yourself.
We’re still left with the question: does it work? In the moment, weighed down by the exoskeleton and reeling from simulated aphasia, you can’t help feeling empathetic for others who suffer this way every day. As that memory fades, will you still be able to hold on to that increased empathy? Without significant follow-ups to see if these modifications of thought and behavior stick, it seems too early to put too much faith in a technological fix for problems of social justice. But can technology change your behavior, individually? That one’s easy—try for yourself and see.
SMASH attendees will have an opportunity to try VR for themselves on Tuesday, September 20 at 6:00PM at an immersive technology exhibition and reception. More information can be found on our website at www.sciencemediasummit.org. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter @scienceSMASH, and join the conversation using the hashtag #sciencemedia.
Caitlin Kossmann is a production assistant for SMASH.
As the curators of the Science Media Awards Summit in the Hub (SMASH), we believe storytelling is a common thread in our shared human experience, and that new media allows us to convey the wonders of scientific discovery in new and compelling ways.