Even After Death, Social Media Still Connects Loved Ones

Posted November 17th, 2017 at 4:04 pm (UTC-5)
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VOA/Techtonics/M. Sandeen

VOA/Techtonics/M. Sandeen

Social media is turning into a vast graveyard for profiles of owners who have passed away, leaving them unattended or as standing memorials. And some experts are urging social networks to do more to help users prepare for their digital deaths.

There are millions of them – pages that remain on social media sites, and in some cases, automatically update after their owners’ death.

The numbers vary from 5 million to as many as 300 million, according to Jed Brubaker, a digital death expert with the University of Colorado, Boulder. But it’s hard to know the exact numbers because “tracking the rate of death across the world is hard,” he said.

Facebook, in particular, has millions of dead profiles that could overtake those of the living by the latter half of the century, if the social media giant fails to grow its user base further.

“This of course presumes that … what Facebook will look like 20 years from now is what it looks like right now in 2017,” Brubaker noted.

Social media was developed as a place for people to connect with friends, family and colleagues. And Brubaker’s research shows this continues to be the case even after people have died.

“We turn to social media profiles as a way to remember, to reflect on the memories of loved ones, or to remain connected to them and remind ourselves of who or what they meant to us while they were alive,” he said.

FILE - A printout of the Facebook page for Loren Williams, now deceased, at his mother's home in Beaverton, Ore., Feb. 16, 2013. (AP)

FILE – A printout of the Facebook page for Loren Williams, now deceased, at his mother’s home in Beaverton, Ore., Feb. 16, 2013. (AP)

But unlike funerals, typically attended by relatives, friends, and acquaintances, social media breaks down space and time barriers. A post about someone’s death reaches friends and strangers around the world. Sometimes people don’t see it until months later as it gets buried under a deluge of information.

Facebook alone shares up to 4.7 billion pieces of content daily, according to Ken Huening, founder of MiLegacy, a media archive service. When something is posted in the morning, “if you don’t look on your Facebook [account] until later in the evening,” he said, “you have to scroll through a number of different top topics and various different people” to find what you are looking for.

“People get information about death the way they might learn about “the latest political update or shoot viral cat videos,” said Brubaker. “And this is in contrast to what we historically might have thought of as a fellow picking up the phone and calling you, and learning about it in a more intimate and supportive conversation.”

Some death studies experts, noted Brubaker, argue that social media is “repositioning” death back into everyday practices as a way to keep information about ancestors present for reflection.

These are memories and photographs that often are tucked away in physical scrapbooks and photo albums. And they are the things people risk their lives to save when disaster strikes.

But in a world that increasingly digitizes everyday life, these prized possessions are now on smartphones, social media sites, and cloud servers. When they disappear, then “what we’re losing is actually all the photos that maybe ever existed of those people,” said Brubaker.

Yet his research shows that people tend to de-prioritize non-material things, so they defer making decisions about the fate of their digital assets. At the same time, when asked about the experiences they’ve had with loved ones and their digital memories, people spoke about “the immense, incredible importance of those spaces,” he said.

 Screenshot that shows some of the features of MiLegacy that allows users to leave an online legacy for their loved ones. (MiLegacy)

Screenshot that shows some of the features of MiLegacy that allows users tell their story and leave an online legacy for their loved ones. (MiLegacy)

Services like MiLegacy are filling the gap. Registered users can upload the memories they have on their phones to their profiles, where they can curate them and share them with trusted contacts. And with the “time capsule” feature, users can leave audio and written messages for their children and grandchildren “that will post in the future,” said Huening.

These types of services are relatively new. Some, like MiLegacy, let people save their digital credentials to pass on after their death to designated caretakers. The process takes away “from having to go through a whole legal process,” he said.

Brubaker said social media services also should do more to help people decide the fate of their digital profiles. And he has been working to reconcile the living and the dead on social media by figuring out “how postmortem data and how our digital legacies can inform our lives today and encourage us to be more reflective.

“There’s a bit of an irony with social media,” he noted. “We’re so bent on capturing our social lives that maybe we need to pay a little more attention or at least build up the policies or tools to let users make their own choices for what is inevitably one of the most important social things that will ever happen to us, which is our death.”

Aida Akl
Aida Akl is a journalist working on VOA's English Webdesk. She has written on a wide range of topics, although her more recent contributions have focused on technology. She has covered both domestic and international events since the mid-1980s as a VOA reporter and international broadcaster.

Voice Technologies Not Yet Ready to Push Literacy

Posted October 27th, 2017 at 9:11 am (UTC-5)
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FILE - An Afghan letter writer (R) writes for his customer in Kabul May 17, 2010. (Reuters)

FILE – An Afghan letter writer (R) writes for his customer in Kabul, May 17, 2010. (Reuters)

Voice-enabled devices have the potential to unlock a world of information for illiterate populations around the world. But certain needs have to be met before voice recognition can significantly impact literacy, says a leading education technology expert.

“There is so much going on where you need to be literate,” said Michael Trucano, the World Bank’s senior education and technology policy specialist.

One issue is that the world, particularly in developing regions, is full of printed content – documents that need to be written or signed, and vital information about health and well-being that needs to be read. For 780 million non-literate people in the world, the inability to do any of these things is a huge impediment.

But voice recognition technologies can be a potential bridge to promote literacy, Trucano said. One example is the subtitling of karaoke or movies in India.

Small pieces, big picture

Members of the community view songs with Same Language Subtitling at the Gulbai Tekra Slum in Ahmedabad, India. (Jaydeep Bhatt)

Members of the PlanetRead community view songs with Same Language Subtitling at the Gulbai Tekra Slum in Ahmedabad, India. (Jaydeep Bhatt)

Working with local partners, PlanetRead uses eye-tracking and karaoke-style subtitles to push literacy through a sound-to-text system. As people watch television, they see the lyrics of music videos and film songs displayed on the screen in the same language as the audio.

Called “Same Language Subtitling,” the approach strengthens correspondence among weak and struggling readers by “integrating perfectly matching text into their film song viewing,” the organization said.

The subtitling “gives automatic and inescapable reading practice to millions of viewers,” said ​PlanetRead founder Brij Kothari. It’s “karaoke on existing Bollywood content on TV for everyday and lifelong reading practice.”

A woman in Upper West Ghana listens to a message on a Talking Book (©Literacy Bridge, 2015)

A woman in Upper West Ghana listens to a message on a Talking Book (©Literacy Bridge, 2015)

A different approach is taking place in Ghana, in regions with few resources and low literacy levels. Using a low-cost audio computer called the Talking Book, the Literacy Bridge, a nonprofit group, disseminates information to users about health, agriculture, and education “in their own dialect,” said the group’s executive director, Cliff Schmidt.

Users also record their own messages and feedback, thereby creating their own digital content in areas where there is none.

While promising, these low-cost interventions yield “marginal and diffuse” literacy gains, said Trucano of the World Bank. They are, however, pieces of a much larger “literacy, low literacy, illiteracy challenge.” Paired with voice recognition, they could spur people to increase their literacy skills.

“These will be important building blocks of many of the illiteracy efforts that we’re going to see,” he said.

Aida Akl
Aida Akl is a journalist working on VOA's English Webdesk. She has written on a wide range of topics, although her more recent contributions have focused on technology. She has covered both domestic and international events since the mid-1980s as a VOA reporter and international broadcaster.

Virtual Reality Helps Seniors With Dementia Get Back on Track

Posted October 6th, 2017 at 11:56 am (UTC-5)
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A senior resident at Maplewood Senior Living experiences virtual reality with a Rendever VR headset. (Maplewood Senior Living)

A senior resident at Maplewood Senior Living experiences virtual reality with a Rendever VR headset. (Maplewood Senior Living)

Virtual reality (VR) is helping seniors with cognitive and physical impairments express themselves and experience the outside world. But its use in therapy is far outpacing research, which has yet to determine how VR affects the brain in the long-term.

Residents at Maplewood Senior Living, assisted-living communities in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Ohio, are typically in their 80s or 90s, with cognitive disorders, chronic medical conditions, or mobility constraints.

One resident, Olympia, struggles with dementia. People with dementia often get “agitated or upset,” said Brian Geyser, Maplewood’s Vice President of Clinical Innovation and Population Health. They obsess over a single, frustrating thought and can’t let go.

A lover of horses, Olympia joined 10-15 other residents when Maplewood first introduced VR for group events and therapy a few months ago. When she put her headset on, she found herself immersed in a 360 degree-world of wild horses.

The effect was calming, said Geyser. Distraction and redirection, and reminiscence therapies help people with dementia forget troubling thoughts and reduce their anxiety and agitation. With a tool like Rendever’s VR headset, they can go on a virtual African safari or take a stroll down memory lane.

In one case, a woman with dementia and an anxious look on her face, had a virtual tour of her childhood home, thanks to Google Earth technology. “She was able to tell us all about the house that she lived in,” said Geyser.

A half-hour later, he said she had “this peaceful look on her face.” And when he asked her about the experience, she said, ‘That was just a miracle.'”

Geyser said he is “seeing positive impact across the board” with the use of virtual reality.

Micky has expressive aphasia – a partial loss of verbal language. Her speech is garbled and she is frustrated with her inability to express herself. During her first virtual experience, she found herself surrounded by puppies.

“She just lit up,” he said. “And she said …, ‘Oh my God, look at the puppies.’” It was the first time in months that she had said anything meaningful that people could understand.

“The cool thing about Rendever,” added Geyser, “is it allows us to use VR both on an individual basis, but even more importantly, in group settings,” where participants physically interact with the virtual environment and with each other instead of watching television for hours.

One of Maplewood's residents uses a Rendever VR headset to experience virtual reality in a group session. (Maplewood Senior Living)

One of Maplewood’s residents uses a Rendever VR headset to experience virtual reality in a group session. (Maplewood Senior Living)

VR for seniors

Rendever designed its platform for seniors based on reminiscence therapy and a graduate study by a team member about the benefits of VR experiences versus TV watching.

After two weeks, the study found the participants’ “perceived overall health improved significantly,” said Rendever cofounder and CEO Kyle Rand. “And they also felt improvements in their social and physical well-being.”

The study was just a pilot, but Rand said Rendever spends a “good portion of time talking with researchers and looking into positive quality of life and health outcomes.”

Along those lines, Rendever focuses on providing seniors with positive content. And its videos are processed in a way that stabilizes motion sickness, common in virtual reality.

Maplewood had no reports of motion sickness during its trials, said Geyser. But some participants felt as if they were about to fall because, in virtual reality, they cannot see their feet. They knew they were seated, however, with their hands on a table, so they don’t fall forward.

But their initial reaction was “astounding,” he said, with residents “saying things like, ‘how do you do this? How is it even possible? This is like magic.'”

Outpacing research

Virtual reality has been in use since the early 1990s, helping treat phobias and war-related trauma. Far outpacing scientific research, there is little or no data to show how it affects the brain or if it has long-term harmful effects.

But UCLA neurophysicist Mayank Mehta and his team have been investigating how VR environments affect the brain.

Earlier studies showed that “more than half of hippocampal neurons shut down in virtual reality and other neurons have corrupted neural maps [i.e., spatial awareness],” he noted. And the distinct rhythm generated by the Hippocampus was “significantly altered” in the virtual environment.

It is unclear why the neurons shut down. The Hippocampus is a key part of the brain for spatial mapping, learning, memory and emotions. It has a distinct rhythm that leaves long-lasting effects on the subject’s learning and memory processes when disrupted, said Mehta.

Maplewood’s Geyser is aware of the need for more scientific research. But he would like to learn more about VR’s therapeutic potential for senior populations and people who otherwise might not engage in physical therapy.

“For someone who’s 85-years old and … has limited mobility, to actually just stand up from a sitting position is exercise for them,” he said.

Aida Akl
Aida Akl is a journalist working on VOA's English Webdesk. She has written on a wide range of topics, although her more recent contributions have focused on technology. She has covered both domestic and international events since the mid-1980s as a VOA reporter and international broadcaster.

Temporary Email Gives Users Edge on Spammers

Posted September 8th, 2017 at 8:40 am (UTC-5)
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(M. Sandeen for VOA/Techtonics)

(M. Sandeen for VOA/Techtonics)

Spammers around the world send out millions of emails every day, in some cases laced with malware or ransomware. To escape the inbox clutter, some users are resorting to disposable email addresses. That might curb spam, some security experts say, but it won’t stop targeted attacks.

There is a range of free services that offer disposable or temporary email addresses, useful when users want to sign up for special offers without divulging their real email address.

The homepage of 10 inute Mail, where users can auto-generate addresses and receive messages for a limited time. (10 Minute Mail)

The homepage of 10 inute Mail, where users can auto-generate addresses and receive messages for a limited time. (10 Minute Mail)

Some, like Spamex, require an account. Others, like 10 Minute Mail and Guerilla Mail, auto-generate a disposable email address without requiring you to sign up. Emails sent through the temporary address show up automatically on the service’s website, where users can read them and reply to them. The address and related emails expire shortly thereafter, within minutes, hours, or days.

“Each service offers a user a great number of temporary email addresses,” said Josiah Hamilton, an attorney and a developer with Spamgourmet, a temporary email service.

Created and run by volunteers, Spamgourmet requires users to sign up and confirm an email address that they want to protect. After that, they can create a temporary address or auto-generate self-destructing addresses to forward email to their protected mailbox. They can specify which messages should get through and filter out undesirable senders.

A screenshot from the homepage of Spamgourmet.org website explains how the service works. (Spamgourmet)

A screenshot from the homepage of Spamgourmet.org website explains how the service works. (Spamgourmet)

Disposable email management

Keeping track of many temporary and self-destructing accounts can get complicated in the long-term. But Hamilton, a heavy user of temporary email for the past 17 years, said the approach gives users direct control and prevents their real email from falling into the hands of spammers and cybercriminals.

He acknowledged, however, that giving an online service a personal email address “increases [by one] the number of systems and organizations with access to the user’s email messages.” That, in turn, “marginally” increases the likelihood that “one such system is compromised at some point,” he said.

Privacy and security

It is also unclear how much personal information temporary email services save, so it’s always good to read the privacy policy before signing up for anything. Services that don’t require accounts don’t need to collect any information, said Hamilton, but that’s not always the case.

“The addresses themselves expire individually,” he said, “but the user’s ‘account,’ so to speak, stays active indefinitely, as with most internet services.”

And if the service requires far more personal information than is necessary to operate, “that could be a red flag,” he cautioned.

(M. Sandeen for VOA/Techtonics)

(M. Sandeen for VOA/Techtonics)

Eldon Sprickerhoff, founder and chief security strategist at eSentire, a cybersecurity firm, said he worries about “watering hole” situations, where malicious spammers mark specific employees or developers who frequent legitimate websites. They then target them with infected links and downloads that, once clicked, redirect them to infected sites or set in motion a process to extract information.

“Disposable email addresses won’t help there,” said Limor Kassem, global executive security advisor at IBM Security.

She is also the co-author of a recent study that found that spammers work regular business hours around the world to match their victims’ schedules. India, South America, and China, respectively, are home to the world’s most prolific spammers, according to the research.

Temporary email might help limit spam, said Kassem, but it doesn’t apply to every case or protect users from spam altogether. The most impactful attacks, she noted, look legitimate, seemingly coming from known contacts.

Disposable email can be helpful. But “user awareness, education, and training are much more effective tools,” she said.

Aida Akl
Aida Akl is a journalist working on VOA's English Webdesk. She has written on a wide range of topics, although her more recent contributions have focused on technology. She has covered both domestic and international events since the mid-1980s as a VOA reporter and international broadcaster.

For Low Vision, Diabetes, These Apps Can help

Posted September 1st, 2017 at 11:30 am (UTC-5)
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Data-driven apps often are criticized for sacrificing privacy in the interest of providing personalized services. But they can also help guide people with low vision or track diabetes and scoliosis. Here are a few of them:

Seeing AI

Microsoft’s intelligent camera app, Seeing AI, is a research project that uses artificial intelligence to analyze pictures and guide users with low vision around people, places, and objects.

By taking a picture of an object, users of Seeing AI get an audio narration that describes what’s in front of them, whether it’s a person or a can of soup. The app can describe facial expression, emotion, and approximate age. With documents, Seeing AI can read short text or identify currency denominations.

Users trying to figure out what’s in that can of soup can get audio prompts to guide them to the item’s bar code so that they can take a picture of it. The app then offers information about the contents of the soup and how to prepare it.

Seeing AI, available for free for iOS, also includes an experimental feature that gives users an audible description of their immediate surroundings, such as buildings and signs.

A screenshot from SpineScreen that helps users understand scoliosis and how to check for its symptoms. (Shriners Hospitals for Children)

A screenshot from SpineScreen, an app that helps users understand scoliosis and how to check for its symptoms. (Shriners Hospitals for Children)

SpineScreen

SpineScreen is a new offering from Shriners Hospitals for Children, a U.S. nonprofit that provides children with advanced care for orthopedic conditions and spinal cord injuries, among other specialties.

Parents can use the app to monitor their children’s spine on a regular basis. Once they have the app, they can run the smartphone along the spine of the child. The app helps them detect any unusual curves or signs of scoliosis, an abnormal curvature of the spine that can restrict movement and could lead to other serious medical conditions

Scoliosis runs in families and tends to appear during adolescent years in children aged 10 to 15 years old, said Dr. Amer Samdani, chief of surgery for Shriners Hospitals for Children in Philadelphia, Penn.

“Early detection of scoliosis is key because it can mean more and potentially less-invasive treatment options for a growing child,” he said.

The app is part of a broader Shriners’ initiative to encourage regular screenings and educate parents on the signs of scoliosis and its treatment options.

SpineScreen is free for Android and iOS platforms. It is available in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico, although theoretically, it should work anywhere once downloaded.

'FoodPrint analyzes the nutritional the user's diet to determine the amount of carbohydrate, protein, and other components and suggest adjustments. (Nutrino)

‘FoodPrint analyzes the user’s diet to determine the amount of carbohydrate, protein, and other components and suggest adjustments. (Nutrino)

FoodPrint

Nutrino’s FoodPrint is a companion for diabetics. The app illustrates how insulin and food affect blood sugar and lets users monitor both glucose and insulin levels.

The free app, which can be downloaded for Android and iOS, provides personalized information about the user’s diet, including the percentage of ingested carbohydrates and protein. It then offers suggestions to improve nutritional content and related habits.

The app is also compatible with several wearable trackers and fitness devices so users can access their data on the move.

Other health apps of note include WebMD. The updated app from the online health site by the same name works in tandem with a range of wearable fitness devices and the Apple Health app to encourage healthy habits. Available on both Android and iOS, it provides information about drugs, first aid, a symptom checker, and listings of local health facilities.

And as we get into flu season, keep an eye on disease outbreaks with Sickweather, a social network of sorts that lets users join local groups to track the threat levels of contagious diseases in their immediate area.

To do this, the Android and iOS app crowdsources millions of user and social media reports each month to provide real-time alerts about disease outbreaks, including the flu and 19 other illnesses. The reports are then represented on a color-coded map that highlights the most recent reports first.

All of these apps trade privacy for convenience and health benefits. So if you choose to use any of them, read their privacy policies first.

Aida Akl
Aida Akl is a journalist working on VOA's English Webdesk. She has written on a wide range of topics, although her more recent contributions have focused on technology. She has covered both domestic and international events since the mid-1980s as a VOA reporter and international broadcaster.

‘Michka’ App Fights Child Sex Abuse in Iran

Posted August 25th, 2017 at 10:10 am (UTC-5)
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 A screenshot from the video game shows Michka trying to catch bubble chocolates to go home. (United4Iran)

A screenshot from the video game shows Michka trying to catch bubble chocolates to go home. (United for Iran)

California nonprofit United for Iran is on a mission to build technologies to help Iranian society tackle sexual violence, women’s rights, and other challenges. Its latest app – Michka – takes on child sexual abuse.

Michka is an insect. Her little wings are her private parts. And when someone touches them, Michka becomes confused and needs help understanding what just happened.

The app, part e-book and part video game, is intended to help children and their parents tackle topics that usually are not talked about inside Iran, said United for Iran’s Executive Director Firuzeh Mahmoudi, an Iranian-American.

A screenshot from the game shows Michka talking to its flower, remembering the time when it was happy. (United4Iran)

A screenshot from the game shows Michka talking to its flower, remembering the time when it was happy. (United for Iran)

Michka was created by women’s rights activist Sahar Shams, who experienced sexual abuse as a child and wanted to help children understand and discuss the subject.

Parents often avoid talking about topics that are taboo in Iranian society, such as sexual abuse, said Mahmoudi. Michka helps them begin the conversation.

There are no data available on sexual abuse in Iran, and international organizations are not allowed to study domestic violence in the country, according to the U.S. State Department. In the absence of reliable numbers, United for Iran, founded in 2009 and based in the San Francisco Bay Area, works directly with communities within Iran to survey needs and identify priorities. Then, it runs a contest for developers. Through its IranCubator program, the organization connects app developers outside Iran with Iranian communities to address those needs.

“We don’t build the apps ourselves,” said Mahmoudi. “We support community leaders and activists in building the apps.

Participating developers and advocates like Shams, the human rights activist, receive financial support and help with design, development, and dissemination. Their apps address human rights, sexual harassment, women’s marriage rights, domestic abuse, and drug addiction.

“The owners of the apps are the community leaders,” said Mahmoudi.

Other apps out of United for Iran include Toranj, which focuses on domestic violence.

“Oftentimes, women think they’re not victims of domestic violence,” she said. So Toranj includes a survey to help women establish a healthier relationship, and find resources for psychological and legal support.

The opening screen from 'Haami' welcomes recovering drug addicts and informs them that the app will be their companion on the road to recovery. (United4Iran)

The opening screen from ‘Haami’ welcomes recovering drug addicts and informs them that the app will be their companion on the road to recovery. (United and Iran)

With the Haami app, which takes on drug addiction in Iran, United and Iran provides recovering drug addicts with support to stay on the course to recovery. The app includes resources translated into Persian from Narcotics Anonymous, information about help centers, and motivational sections.

Michka and most of the other apps are available only in Persian on Google Play. The exception is RadiTo, an audio network available in five languages spoken in Iran – Arabic, Azari, Turkish, Balouchi, and Kurdish. The open-source app gives artists, journalists and commentators a secure, censorship-free platform to download and share audio files.

RadiTo has seen somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 installs on the Google Play Store since it launched in April. According to Mahmoudi, Haami was downloaded more than 15,000 times in recent weeks. Michka has seen more than 2,200 installs within a week.

Mahmoudi said United for Iran might expand to Iranian diaspora communities in other countries, such as Egypt or Vietnam. But for now, she said the organization has “traction” in the country and is focused on “improving the lives of those inside Iran.”

“We know our audience,” she said. “And we know the communities. And we help them advocate for what’s important to them.”

Aida Akl
Aida Akl is a journalist working on VOA's English Webdesk. She has written on a wide range of topics, although her more recent contributions have focused on technology. She has covered both domestic and international events since the mid-1980s as a VOA reporter and international broadcaster.

Teens Build Double Lives Under Social Media Pressure

Posted August 18th, 2017 at 11:43 am (UTC-5)
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Young internet users are leading double lives as social media increasingly shapes their behavior, often trapping them in a vicious cycle that experts say is detrimental to their health.

Likes, followers, “friends,” instant internet stars, and viral content have become the new measure of social status, particularly with young people between 10 to 20 years old, a tech generation growing up in a connected world.

And they are under tremendous pressure “to alter how they are in an online context in order to be more popular, for social gratification,” said Liam Hackett, founder and CEO of Ditch the Label, an international anti-bullying charity.

So they “benchmark their lives and experiences against the people that they follow,” he said, without realizing that these lifestyles often are portrayed in a positive light and “do not necessarily represent the reality.”

Online, offline lives

(M. Sandeen for VOA/ Techtonics)

(M. Sandeen for VOA/ Techtonics)

Lisa Strohman, a clinical psychologist, calls it a “dichotomous lifestyle” – an online life of phones and technology.

“They have this offline life that isn’t as great because it’s real,” said Strohman, founder of Arizona’s Technology Wellness Center and DCAKids, a nonprofit that teaches children about the safe use of technology.

So they compare themselves to “this unrealistic, largely curated, filtered version of reality, which makes us feel … inadequate,” she said. “And so that puts young people in a psychological state that really impacts them.”

In a recent UK survey of more than 10,000 participants, Ditch the Label found that many young people change their personalities online because they feel “more confident or funnier or more likable on the internet” than they are offline,” said Hackett.

Many said they did this all the time, and most were comfortable talking only about positive things, while assuming their negative experiences were unique to them. He said this creates “huge dissatisfaction” and negatively impacts their mental health, leading to anxiety and depression.

According to these experts, it also encourages cyberbullying. Strohman said the internet and social media offer a platform where people can lead “this kind of duplicitous life online,” where they don’t have to be nice to others.

Bullies crave attention and drama, said John Huber, a clinical forensic psychologist and chair of Mainstream Mental Health organization. They may have thousands of online friends and only two in real life. But online, they feel untouchable.

“They feel empowered. And they feel strong and in control,” he said. “And the more bizarre people act on social media … the more bizarre and extreme they are, the more attention they get. So they get a bigger rush.”

In contrast, he said their real life “continues to be empty and full of false promises.”

All three experts said young people are becoming addicted to technology as they replace face-to-face interaction with social media. And they cited higher rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide among so-called Millennials and young people 10-15-years old.

Real and fake friends

Social media is a powerful and often positive force, but Strohman said it is important to teach children “that their online world is a reflection of who they are in their offline world.”

When kids construct “better” versions of themselves online, they often miss “the importance of friendship and having real friends,” said Hackett. “And you should never sacrifice those high-quality friendships for online digital followers and likes.”

Aida Akl
Aida Akl is a journalist working on VOA's English Webdesk. She has written on a wide range of topics, although her more recent contributions have focused on technology. She has covered both domestic and international events since the mid-1980s as a VOA reporter and international broadcaster.

Mobile Broadband Puts More Youth, Women Online

Posted August 11th, 2017 at 11:35 am (UTC-5)
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FILE - A woman uses a computer at the Global Mobile Internet Conference (GMIC) in Beijing, China, April 28, 2017. (AP)

FILE – A woman uses a computer at the Global Mobile Internet Conference in Beijing, China, April 28, 2017. (AP)

A new generation of young people is dominating internet use around the world, thanks to the increased availability of mobile broadband. And their sheer numbers are helping close digital gender gaps along the way.

Global youth “are embracing the emerging technologies, they are using social media, and that is a game-changer in itself,” said Cosmas Zavazava, chief of the projects and knowledge management department at the International Communications Union (ITU) and a Zimbabwe national.

China and India are at the forefront of this shift. In China, home to more than 1.3 billion people, internet content is produced locally and “there is a lot of communication taking place domestically,” he said. “That accounts for the huge usage by young people.”

Population size also pushes up the numbers in India’s urban areas, where more than 32 percent of the population lives and has access to unlimited internet.

The two countries combined account for 320 million internet users between the ages of 15 and 24, according to the ITU’s latest report, ICT Facts and Figures 2017. That’s 39 percent of the world’s total online youth population of 830 million.

Proportion of individuals using the Internet, by gender, 2017. (ITU's ICT Facts and Figures 2017.)

Proportion of individuals using the Internet, by gender, 2017. (ITU’s ICT Facts and Figures 2017.)

Quick Facts

  • Up to 94 percent of 15-24-year-old people in developed countries are online, compared with 67 percent
    in developing countries
  • Only 30 percent of people 15-24-year old are connected in the world’s least developed countries
  • 9 out of 10 young people not using the internet are in Africa, Asia, and the Pacific
  • Proportion of women online in Africa is 25 percent lower than that of men on the internet

  • Worldwide, there are 12 percent fewer women than men online

Source: CT Facts and Figures 2017

The uptick in connectivity is due to increased mobile and cellular coverage, competitive subscription bundles, the availability of cheap prepaid SIM cards, and government policies.

This in turn is helping narrow the digital gender gap, particularly in remote rural areas where fixed internet networks are unavailable or are prohibitively expensive.

In the Americas, which are leading the world with the number of women going online, the region’s policies “have enabled women to take IT seriously,” said Zavazava.

And there are “more women using IT than men” in the Caribbean, he noted. They are also working in that sector. “The rest of the world will be playing catch-up,” he said

The driving force behind this gender issue is the issue of broadband – ITU’s Cosmas Zavazava

But the picture is far from even. The proportion of women using the internet in Africa, many of whom live in rural areas, is 25 percent lower than the proportion of men online, according to the ITU’s report.

Rolling out internet services in large rural areas, where more than 70 percent of Africa’s population lives, is a challenge. “If you look at the mobile broadband in Africa,” he said, “it is still lagging behind although it is the faster-growing region of the world in terms of cellular, mobile.”

Other factors also impact the digital gender gap, such as regulations, education, and social and economic discrepancies. But despite “fundamental constraints,” he said “great progress” has been made.

Competing mobile broadband operators, propelled by deregulation and market dynamics, are lowering prices and offering more affordable packages, even in some of the continent’s least developed countries. And many governments have the regulations and the political will to provide more affordable mobile and fixed broadband.

“We are seeing positive vibes and it won’t be long before we see these figures rising,” he said.

There are still many challenges to tackle before more men and women are connected. But Zavazava is optimistic about the future of the new online generation.

“I can assure you that the future is really great for both boys and girls,” he said. It’s necessary to have “national policies that favor poor girls or young girls to interest them in scientific subjects, careers, and IT.”

Aida Akl
Aida Akl is a journalist working on VOA's English Webdesk. She has written on a wide range of topics, although her more recent contributions have focused on technology. She has covered both domestic and international events since the mid-1980s as a VOA reporter and international broadcaster.

Can We Control Our Intelligent Machines?

Posted August 4th, 2017 at 11:00 am (UTC-5)
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An illustration projected on a screen shows a robot hand and a human one moving towards each others during the 'AI for Good' Global Summit at the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) in Geneva, Switzerland, June 7, 2017. (Reuters)

An illustration projected on a screen shows a robot hand and a human one moving towards each others during the ‘AI for Good’ Global Summit at the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) in Geneva, Switzerland, June 7, 2017. (Reuters)

Hardly a day goes by without news about a breakthrough in machine intelligence or some debate about its pros and cons, more recently between Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Tesla Motors’ Elon Musk. Adding his voice to the mix, author and IT specialist Peter Scott warns that rapid AI growth comes with serious risks that, if mitigated, could take humanity to a new level of consciousness.

If we build ethical artificial intelligence and it becomes superintelligent, it could become our partner

In Crisis of Control: How Artificial SuperIntelligences May Destroy or Save the Human Race, Scott, a former contractor with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, argues that there are two risks associated with rapid AI development. If these dangers are successfully mitigated, they “will propel us into a new utopia,” he said. Failing that, they could lead to the “destruction of the human race.”

FILE - Product and graphic designer Ricky Ma, 42, poses with his life-size robot "Mark 1", modeled after a Hollywood star, in Hong Kong, China, March 31, 2016. (Reuters)

FILE – Product and graphic designer Ricky Ma, 42, poses with his life-size robot “Mark 1,”  modeled after a Hollywood star, in Hong Kong, China, March 31, 2016. (Reuters)

The first risk is that AI could put biological weapons and weapons of mass destruction in the hands of average people “so that someone in their garage could create a killer virus that could wipe out millions of people.”

The second is that as the technology becomes more prevalent, someone could accidentally or deliberately cause a disaster through internet networks connecting global infrastructure. This “crisis of control,” as he calls it, is “whether we can control what we create.”

“Will we be able to control the results of this technology, the technology itself?” he asked. “There’s always been a debate about technology going back to at least the atom bomb, if not the sword, but the further we get, the more volatility there is because of the large-scale potential effects of this technology.”

There have been multiple revolutions throughout history that changed the way people lived and worked. But Scott said this time is different.

Where do we go from there? What’s left? There really isn’t much room about that in what you would call a ‘hierarchy.’

A woman input orders for a robot which works as a waitress in a restaurant in Xi'an, Shaanxi Province, China, April 20, 2016. (Reuters/China Stringer network)

FILE – A woman inputs orders for a robot which works as a waitress in a restaurant in Xi’an, Shaanxi Province, China, April 20, 2016. (Reuters/China Stringer network)

One could argue that humans still need to program and maintain their intelligent machines. “But that is also a knowledge-transfer function,” said Scott. “The point at which machines learn that job will transform the world in an instant because they will do it much, much faster. And the big question is when will that happen?”

That could be in 10 or 50 years. Whenever it happens, humans need to come up with a new basis for employment that hasn’t been done by machines, he said. “And it’s very hard to see what that might be in an era where machines can think as well as a human being.”

Alarm bells already are sounding off about the risks of automation to human workers. Scott predicts AI will take over jobs “traditionally associated with the pinnacle of employment development” such as chief executive officer, chief technology officer, and chief finance officer. It will take longer to automate jobs like therapists and psychologists that require sensory skills, and acute understanding of the human psyche, grounded in human experience

But the process has already begun, with AI systems like IBM’s Watson already tackling complex medical problems. And the “boundaries of what we call artificial intelligence keep getting moved,” he said. AI, which was little more than “parlor tricks” back in the 1980s, now extends to chatbots,

A man takes pictures with humanoid robot Jiajia produced by University of Science and Technology of China, at Jiajia's launch event in Hefei, Anhui province, April 15, 2016. Jiajia can converse with humans and imitate facial expressions, among other features. b (Reuters/China Stringer Network)

FILE – A man takes pictures with humanoid robot Jiajia, produced by University of Science and Technology of China, at Jiajia’s launch event in Hefei, Anhui province, April 15, 2016. Jiajia can converse with humans and imitate facial expressions, among other features.  (Reuters/China Stringer Network)

humanoids like China’s Jiajia robot, and voice assistants holding a conversation with humans – the stuff of science fiction.

Science fiction writers have already tackled some of these dilemmas. In the 1940’s, prominent science fiction writer and biochemist Isaac Asimov introduced the Three Laws of Robotics to govern the creation and ethics of intelligent machines.

There are similar efforts underway to create a set of AI ethics. In January, a group of AI experts came up with The Asilomar Principles, 23 statements they agreed upon on how to create ethical artificial intelligence.

But it’s not just about ethics. “A new renaissance of the study of the human heart” is needed, said Scott, to deal with the threats of not just machine intelligence but people who could wreak havoc if they get their hands on this technology. Given enough attention and funding, he said the next revolution will be in “human consciousness.”

His hope is that professions that “repair wounds in the human heart” will evolve in partnership with an ethical AI to develop medicines more quickly and cure cancer, disease, aging, and perhaps “have something to teach us in psychology, in philosophy, ethics as well.”

“If we do that, then we will be able to coexist on a planet that has a new species of silicon beings that are many times more intelligent than us.”

Aida Akl
Aida Akl is a journalist working on VOA's English Webdesk. She has written on a wide range of topics, although her more recent contributions have focused on technology. She has covered both domestic and international events since the mid-1980s as a VOA reporter and international broadcaster.

Decades Later, Governments Still Wary of Social Media

Posted July 28th, 2017 at 11:35 am (UTC-5)
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FILE - A notice announcing new Internet restrictions banning the use of Facebook, Twitter and other websites is displayed at an Internet provider's office in Pyongyang, North Korea, April 1, 2016. (AP)

FILE – A notice announcing new Internet restrictions banning the use of Facebook, Twitter, and other websites is displayed at an Internet provider’s office in Pyongyang, North Korea, April 1, 2016. (AP)

Social media has become a rallying ground for global citizens at odds with their governments. And while many governments have learned to coexist with this new reality, others still see it as a potential threat.

Things used to be simpler with early digital communications back in the ’70s and ’80s. Members of early pioneering social hubs like Compuserve and America Online would dial in to access email, share files, and frequent forums to chat with others about mutual interests.

Fast forward to June 2009, when Iran’s Green Movement hit the streets. Protesters, organizing and rallying on social media, demanded the ouster of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In response, the government blocked communications and social media sites.

A screenshot from the Iran Elections 2009 hashtag on Twitter that provided continuous updates on the unfolding situation following the presidential election and the demonstrations and crackdown that followed. (Twitter)

A screenshot shows the Iran Elections 2009 hashtag on Twitter that provided continuous updates on the demonstrations and crackdown that followed the presidential election. (Twitter)

When the dust settled, Iran published social media photos of protesters on a pro-Ahmadinejad website and circled their faces in red “in an attempt to identify individuals who participated in the protests,” said researcher Gillian Bolsover of the Oxford Internet Institute at the UK’s University of Oxford.

Social media, like any technology, can be used for good or ill, she noted. “It initially appears revolutionary but ends up being incorporated into existing power structures and benefiting existing power holders.”

The following year, The Arab Spring uprising rocked the Middle East. Democracy activists took to social media to rally, organize, and make a stand. “We had officials think they could turn off the internet for a period of time,” said digital media and marketing professor Ari Lightman, of Carnegie Mellon University.

They did. Egypt’s answer was a total shutdown of electronic media and all internet access.

Twitter users report on Egypt's internet shutdown in January 2011, following protests and against ousted President Husni mubarak. (Twitter)

Twitter users report on Egypt’s internet shutdown in January 2011, following protests against ousted President Hosni Mubarak. (Twitter)

Since then, many governments around the world have had an ambivalent relationship to social media platforms – they use them to communicate with their citizens but also are wary of what is happening in the digital realm. Governments are saying, ‘We need to pay attention to this trend that’s occurring and we have to utilize it to our advantage as best we can.’” said Lightman.

In some cases, government authorities turn to social media to engage citizens, pushing campaigns about disease outbreaks, for example, or debunking fake news and negative online coverage.

“What I’ve seen governments doing is … creating greater levels of awareness associated with engagement, social influence, differences between opinion versus fact,” he said.

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who won the 2014 election, used social media “really well to talk about his story, talk about his beliefs, to really engage various different citizens,” he added. “And some tout the fact that that helped him win the election.”

The victory tweet posted by Neranda Modi shortly after his 2014 election win as the country's prie minister. It was the most retweeted within a 20-minute period. (Twitter)

The victory tweet posted by Neranda Modi shortly after his 2014 election win as the country’s prime minister. It was the most retweeted tweet within a 20-minute period. (Twitter)

Despite the shift, Lightman argued that many governments, particularly in developing countries, don’t fully understand that social media “is not a traditional news aggregation channel” or that there are variations associated with it, such as bullying, radicalization, commercialization, and a host of other issues.

“One of the things we talk a lot about in my class is echo chambers, filter bubbles, and sort of this idea of radicalization or group mentality,” he said. “And that happens a lot within social media. And you want to pay attention to that. You want to sort of address it. But it shouldn’t dissuade governments, I believe, and it shouldn’t force them to crack down on the channel.”

FILE - A blocked website shows a notice from Thailand's Ministry of Digital Economy and Society with the message, 'This website contains content and information that is deemed inappropriate. It has been censored by the Ministry of Digital Economy and Society,' Nov. 17, 2016, in Bangkok, Thailand. (AP)

FILE – A blocked website shows a notice saying, ‘This website contains content and information that is deemed inappropriate. It has been censored by the Ministry of Digital Economy and Society,’ Nov. 17, 2016, Bangkok, Thailand. (AP)

Nevertheless, Thailand has been restricting online posts deemed critical of the monarchy in recent months. And China, which keeps a close eye on online discourse, uses the medium “as a channel to communicate directly with citizens and monitoring social media as a barometer of public opinion,” Oxford’s Bolsover said.

And for China, this is a “natural evolution” from the state media environment in the country pre-internet, she noted. “So I think that rather than seeing the internet as a completely new tool that changes state approaches to information, it should be seen as a tool that is used by existing power-holders to further their existing strategies and goals.”

More recently, China ordered internet service providers to shut down all virtual private networks (VPNs) that connect citizens to Western websites and social media services in an effort to curtail the flow of information.

That only goes so far, said Lightman, and even the country’s Great Firewall can be brought to its knees.

“People are incredibly innovative,” he said. “… Folks are always going to find a way.”

So instead of cracking down on these services, he said governments should find a way to work with online populations, which in the case of Facebook or Twitter-based Chinese service Weibo, for example, could number in the millions.

Aida Akl
Aida Akl is a journalist working on VOA's English Webdesk. She has written on a wide range of topics, although her more recent contributions have focused on technology. She has covered both domestic and international events since the mid-1980s as a VOA reporter and international broadcaster.