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How Video Games Are Exploring Our Fear of Police Militarization

November 22, 2014 Tech Comments Off

For those of us who enjoy plugging our brains into the rapidly progressing immersion of video games, the narrative power of the medium has thankfully advanced one hundred-fold since the days of Contra, Sonic the Hedgehog, and the rest of the iconic franchises born of our youths 16-bit gaming revolution (if you were born in the 80s, as much of Motherboard’s audience was, that is).

That increased narrative power allows game developers to explore much of the same topics that theyve been digging into for yearsnamely, the inevitable destruction of our entire species, due to human greed and a hunger for powerbut with a seriously advanced level of interactivity and character development. A slate of blockbuster games have pushed the envelope forward on one specific topic, police militarization, as it pertains to video game storytelling, with varying degrees of success.

In The Last of Us, you play as a grizzled, blood-thirsty survivor of a near-apocalyptic event that has infected most of the human race and turned them into zombie-like waste cases. As Joel, the grizzled survivor in question, you end up getting paired up with a young girl named Ellie, who is the only known human being on Earth to have been bitten by one of these zombie-like creatures and survived. Your mission, which you (SPOILER ALERT) choose not to accept, is to bring Ellie to a freedom-fighting group of activists called the Fireflies, who promise to extract some DNA goop out of Ellie, which will help save the rest of humanity.

If youve played through the game, youll know that once Joel is actually confronted with the choice of allowing the Fireflies to operate on Ellie, a procedure that would kill her in the process, he snaps, and you are left with no choice but to steal her back from the Fireflies, thus ending humanitys last hope. Its a fucked up ending, but you can only get to it if youre able to fight through the roving gangs of bandits, militia, and heavily armed cops.

In one of the games opening sequences, youre faced with an assault-rifle wielding police officer in suburban America who aims his gun at you, thinking youve been infected; even though Joel is with his daughter, the officer aims to take the shot. You see and hear the officer, who is obviously conflicted, try and argue with his superior who is urging him to shoot at a father and daughter. Its the games narrative turning point where the police are no longer protecting the human population, theyre keeping it contained.

Throughout the game you kill many, many cops, which is not dissimilar to say, Grand Theft Auto, where youre taking out the boys in blue left and right. But in TLOF, the lines of morality are blurred slightly. As Joel, youre carrying the cargo that could save humanity, and yet these gun-toting cops keep getting in your way. The cities that were once known as pillars of American freedom are now locked down, covered in checkpoints, and further restricted by curfews. This is the landscape youre given to struggle through; and the scary part is, it all seems vaguely possible, were North America to be rocked by a devastating epidemic that killed the majority of humans, and left the remainder either struggling for their lives, or turned into murderous zombie-like beings.

Standing against the beautifully rendered TLOF, the latest iteration of the Call of Duty franchise, Advanced Warfare (COD:AW), feels comparatively clunky, but nonetheless entertaining. In COD:AW, you play as Jack Mitchell, (MORE SPOILERS) an American soldier who loses his arm in conflict, and ends up being recruited by a sociopathic leader of a Blackwater-esque private military called Atlas named Jonathan Irons.

As the brief, 6-8 hour story unfolds, you realize quickly that a catastrophic attack on a nuclear plant in Seattle, which was ostensibly carried out by no-good foreign terrorists, was in fact planned in part by Jonathan Irons, who swept into Seattle post-disaster to build veritable internment camps for the displaced citizens rocked by the catastrophic meltdown.

In between the stunning scene of the nuclear plant falling and a flash-forward level that takes place four years after the attack, the game presents you with a TV ad produced by Atlas that shows you how a private military would market their services to a broken populace.

The ad boasts that Atlas brought safety to Americans while they were down, with the apparent subtext that the United States government had failed them. Jonathan Irons, who, by the way, is played magnificently by Kevin Spacey, is shown later in a war room with a United States general, defying the orders of the government, and effectively making his play to take over the world.

While COD:AW is Fast and the Furious compared to TLOFs Easy Rider, the real fear of a disastrous terrorist attack hitting North America, followed by an overwhelming wave of police militarization to secure the continent, is exploited to its fullest. In a scene that shows futuristic Detroit, where civilians are interned in an Atlas-built camp to separate those with high levels of nuclear isotopes from the normies, an already-crippled and bankrupt city is cut down once again by the impending siege of a private, futuristic military.

I won’t tell you how the game ends, but the damage Irons’s army did to the very structure of American exceptionalism rings out in the world of COD:AW.

Then theres the upcoming Battlefield: Hardline (BH), which takes the topic of police militarization and addresses it head-on, rather than including it as subplot. In BH, the traditional Battlefield war game mode of army versus army becomes cops versus robbers in a fictional LA where supercharged cops battle criminals on palm tree-lined streets.

The unadulterated, naked look at cops with big guns teased in the game’s promotion has already caused a shit-ton of controversy, but perhaps its because people dont want to look directly at the reality of beefed up cops patrolling our streets. Its a valid concern to question, and the intensity of video games makes the examination of one of our greater, harder to discuss fears that much more shocking.

In Canada, where I write this, we are witnessing disturbing glimmers of police militarization creeping into our country. The 2010 Toronto G20 saw 20,000 cops in heavily armed gear descend on city streets, kettling protesters and building temporary detention centres and heavy-duty security fencing in the city. In 2012, Montreal was torn apart by student protesters, who were met with a police force that was twice as angry, who lobbied to push through emergency riot control laws. And just recently, the police force of Medicine Hat, Alberta, a town of 61,000 people, received a $ 275,000 armoured vehicle.

The advancement of video games has allowed for intense stories to be told in the most immersive fashion possible; a progression that will only increase exponentially as the Oculus Rift edges closer to being a consumer product. With a growing fear of police oppression, governments and armies overreacting to terror, the possibility of an Ebola-like virus killing us all, and other existentially ruinous ideas crushing our collective subconscious, video games are stepping in to confront these fears directly, by allowing us to play through and within them.

Their handling of it may, sometimes, be cheesy, but games like TLOF and COD:AW provide some of the best and most honest narratives on the issue that we currently have at our disposal. And with the way things are going, both in the real world and in the studios of game development companies, these titles are only going to get more technologically advanced, while exploring scarier stories that are influenced by our crazy planet.

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This Is What American Airstrikes on ISIS Look Like

November 22, 2014 Tech Comments Off

Even before the US entered the latest iteration of the War on Terror against the Islamic State, the brooding civil war in Iraq was already a social media war. Whether it was ISIS militants posting beheading images or kittens strewn across firearms, Twitter and YouTube have been considered assets that reach beyond the Iraqi and Syrian battlefields.

In fact, almost as soon as the US started firing Tomahawk missiles at ISIS, American Central Command (CENTCOM) was posting YouTube videos of onboard the battleships lobbing those missiles on terrorists in Iraq. There was also the laughable State Department social media account, “Think Again Turn Away,” showcasing the barbarity of ISIS by trolling Terrorist Twitter and posting alame video.

These practises havent slowed down, either, especially as American bombings escalate. Late Thursday, CENTCOM posted five brand new videos in a row with the same classic perspective: night vision black and white screens with targeting systems locking onto the enemy, before a precision missile is fired and a massive explosion ensues.

According to a CENTCOM release, the airstrikes targeted a mixture of ISIS armoured vehicles, barracks, storage yards, bunkers, and tactical units, all over Iraq and Syriaincluding around the contested city of Kobani, where YPG Kurdish forces are facing off with ISIS in fierce fighting.

The destruction of ISIL targets in Syria and Iraq further limits the terrorist group’s ability to project power and conduct operations, said the release.

The apparent transparency from the Department of Defense showcasing its ongoing military operations has trickled down to other Western militaries involved with the airstrikes. While reportedly restricting journalists access to troops deploying to Iraq, Canada has posted similar videos and explanations of its own CF-18 fighters smart-bombing ISIS targets.

In the age of social media, Western armies are increasingly manicuring their media exploits with their own YouTube channels to post UNCLASSIFIED bombing videos to show the success of their expensive campaigns. Compare this to the last two forays into Iraq, when American forces leaned heavily on media companies like CNN to showcase their military operations. But now, the US government has essentially its own slick syndicated online channel to completely control its message.

The appetite within allied armies engaging with ISIS to escalate the war in Iraq, beyond just dropping bombs or training Kurdish forces, is low. Politically, showing that the fighter planes youve dispatched to Iraqi airspace are effectively incinerating terrorists affirms the argument that the army can quell the threat of ISIS in the region with current firepower.

Not to mention, if youre a military looking to score public opinion points for your operations, posting YouTube videos is clearly in style. Just look to one recent conflict for examples.

The Israeli Defense Forces infamously made use of YouTube propaganda videos all summer as its war with Hamas raged on in Gaza. Everything from air strikes to first-person shooter videos of ground operations helped the IDF justify its war with the militant group. Those kinds of PR moves are a calculated tactics on the part of the IDF to improve its public image.

For its part, Hamas used the same sorts of video tactics, albeit on a much lower scale given its monetary limitations.

In the end, American bombing videos in Iraq contradict the ongoing shadowy CIA drone strike campaigns happening in nearby Pakistan or Yemen. Because in Iraq, judging by the wealth of new YouTube videos (courtesy of DoD), the US is proud to show you its work. Everywhere else itll barely cop to it

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NASA’s Chief Technologist Says We’re ‘Halfway’ to Getting Humans on Mars

November 21, 2014 Tech Comments Off

Theres a lot of technology required to get humans to Mars.

Thats the main takeaway I come away with after talking to NASAs chief technologist, David Miller. Its a trite observation, to be surebut having all the challenges laid out really hammers the point home.

Its one of those things where there are so many things you can work on, he told me. But you have to pick and choose, and you have to choose wisely.

Some of it you likely would never have considered. Take water walls. Line your space shuttle with water and hey presto: you both help protect against radiation during the journey and transport a vital resource for your astronauts. Water with hydrogen content absorbs radiation to some degree, Miller explained. Seeing as you need to take water, maybe you could line the walls of your capsule with water. So its used for drinking as well as shielding.

I spoke to Miller after he gave a talk with NASAs chief scientist, Ellen Stofan, at the Royal Institution in London. The pair discussed the US space agencys plans for human exploration of Mars, and what itll take to meet President Obamas target of a manned mission to the Red Planets orbit by the 2030s, followed by a Mars landing.

The longer they talked, the more challenges became clear, until the whole idea of sending people into space at all seemed ridiculous.

Stofan gave an overview of some of the scientific challenges such a mission presentedfrom radiation to potentially toxic dustand Miller added insight into the kinds of tech well need to develop to overcome them. The main steps: We have to be able to land there, we have to be able to live and work productively, and we also have to be able to return home.

In some ways we are already halfway to Mars with humans

Mars One might have visions of a one-way trip, but NASA is dead set on maintaining the option of getting its astronauts back. And as Miller put it in response to an audience members question, If we dont have the technology to come back, I dont think we have the technology to go.

From landing systems on a planet that has a very thin atmosphere to designing life support for a place where supplies will take months to arrive, theres a lot of tools to factor in. But Miller, who joined NASA this March from MITs Space Systems Laboratory, told me its not as far off as you might think.

I think one of the things NASA does poorly is that we always talk about the challenges ahead, but we dont talk about the challenges that weve addressed, he said. As I got to NASA and started looking at the programs, I saw that in some ways we are already halfway to Mars with humans. We are there with robots today, but we are halfway there with humans.

Thats not to say the spaceships already on its way, but the technologies necessary to keep a human alive through lift-off, landing, and beyond are making stridesthough there are obviously still great challenges.

Miller used the issue of radiation as an example. Given the amount of time it would take to get to Marsabout eight months with current technologyand the danger posed to humans by exposure to galactic cosmic ray radiation, its a big one on NASAs list of 30-something identified risks on the roadmap for human research.

An artist’s concept of crew on Mars. Image: NASA

The thing is, I dont think there is one technology that is going to win the day, he said. Its one of those things which you have to look at as a mix of technologies working together. This could mean everything from choosing to launch at solar maximum, when solar winds would help reduce the galactic cosmic ray effect, to coming up with novel ways to shield the capsule of the spacecraft like the water walls mentioned above.

Then theres the less high-tech approach of simply selecting for astronauts who are less susceptible to the effects of radiation, though that obviously carries its own pros and cons. And technology built with another primary purpose can also help: designing a rocket to get to the surface faster, for instance, would have the additional benefit of reducing exposure to radiation. So if you can look at different techniques such as nuclear thermal propulsion that can shorten the duration of the journey, that helps as well, Miller said.

But all that is just to address the one problem of radiation.

Miller took me through a whirlwind tour of the major equipment that, hypothetically, would get me to Mars. First up is transportation, where unlike conventional shuttles, crew is separated from cargo so as to deal with their separate requirements and so you can use different propulsion techniques for each. NASA is exploring solar electric propulsion, a very fuel efficient but relatively slow method that could be used for cargo.

Humans, on the other hand, need to move quickly. But you might want to send up some cargo before they take off. So maybe your landing system is already out at Mars before you send humans, Miller suggested. Perhaps you have put down a habitat on the surface, so you can check it out to make sure its all ready. Tools for in-situ resource utilisation (ISRU) could also be on the packing list, which would attempt to harness resources like water or oxygen from the site itself.

We have to be able to land there, we have to be able to live and work productively, and we also have to be able to return home

When you do send up a crew, theyll probably want more space than a simple shuttle given the extremely long-haul flight and the lack of leg room in most capsules. There are a lot of ideas about inflatable habitats, which you inflate once youre up in orbit and are a nice way to create a nice interior room without a lot of mass or complexity, Miller said.

And once your intrepid space explorers are up there, youre going to need to keep them alive with whatever limited cargo is available. That means recycling resources (its probably best not to think about recycling water too much). And, Miller noted, communications tech would be an important aspect, not only for operational purposes but because well probably want to televise the whole thing.

Finally, theres getting off the surface when you need to get people back. Think about the infrastructure required to launch a spacecraft from Earth; theres no handy spaceport on Mars right now.

Its a lot to take on, but NASA is working towards each of the issues on its chart of risks. Were not there yet, but in a roundabout way, each failure means a step forward.

In his talk, Miller showed the audience a video clip of a recent test of NASAs Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator, fondly known as the flying saucer. This could be one way of helping land a vehicle on Mars. In June, the rocket-powered vehicle was flown into near-space from Hawaii, with the largest supersonic parachute ever flown on board.

All goes welluntil the parachute inflates and pretty much immediately gets shredded into pieces. NASA didnt seem too put out with the result, with the principle investigator for the project later saying it was such a blessing to this program to get an early look at where they needed to redesign.

Miller told the crowd it was the type of thing he liked to see, if it was going to happen, in a technology testnot on the way to Mars.

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A Tiger Stripe Database Is Tracking India’s Killer Cats

November 20, 2014 Tech Comments Off

Where human civilization and wildlife meet, violence can erupt. Identifying the animals involved in a conflict can be tricky, but pattern-matching software can help.

Indian tigers living in conservation areas near human settlements are prone to violent altercations with humans and livestock. It is, after all, their turf. When villagers lose some cattle to a tiger attack, or, as is all too often the case, a member of their community, conservationists are faced with a choice: either move the tiger or the people. They usually opt for the former, transferring so-called problem tigers to other conservation areas or zoos.

The first step to relocating a tiger is identifying it, and researchers working with the Wildlife Conservation Society in India have turned to cameras, software, and databases for assistance.

Tiger-finding starts long before a tiger actually needs to be found. A database first needs to be built. To do this, researchers set up camera traps inside tiger conservation areas and photograph as many tigers as they can. They then analyze each tigers stripes using imaging software, storing their unique patterns in a database in order to identify them as individuals.

Image: Ullas Karanth / Wildlife Conservation Society

When a tiger stalking a particular area needs to be found, camera traps are set up around the perimeter. After a period of time, researchers analyze the stripes of the photographed tigers. If, for example, a tiger is featured prominently in the photos and is known to reside in a far away region (thanks to the database), conservationists can safely assumed that its the culprit and capture it.

According to a new paper, published in the latest issue of Oryx, 750 individual Indian tigers have been identified and stored in a database using camera traps and software.

The software, first described in a 2009 paper, uses a computer grid model of a tigers body to map the unique stripe patterns of tigers captured on film. The grid maps over a photographed tiger and an algorithm morphs it to fit the body. The tigers stripes are then catalogued and stored in a database for future reference. Pelts confiscated from poachers have been matched to killed tigers using this method, and now its being used to identify live ones.

When humans and animals are forced live together, a tense relationship characterized by violence and mistrust can form. For the humans and tigers of India, technology has emerged as an unlikely mediator.

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Acid Rain Is Turning Canada’s Lakes to Jelly

November 19, 2014 Tech Comments Off

Canada is home to some of the most beautiful lakes in the world, but many of them are at risk of jellification, according to a paper published today in The Proceedings of The Royal Society B.

The studys authors, led by ecologist John P. Smol, found that over a century of industrial pollution has leached lakes of calcium. In particular, acid rain and deforestation have been major drivers of this decalcification, which Smol called aquatic osteoporosis.

For thousands of years, it was kind of in balance, Smol told me over the phone. Then acid rain came alongthis uncontrolled experiment. It was a bit like putting vinegar on an Alka-Seltzer tablet. For a little while, whatever calcium was there would have been released very quickly, so for a short while, lakes would have had high calcium. But eventually, the easily removable calcium was washed out.

Lumbering also contributed to this rapid loss of lakeside calcium. If you cut down a tree and you let it rot there, the calcium goes into the lake. It just recycles, said Smol. But if you cut down a tree and put it in your house, youve removed that calcium and brought it to your house.

Because calcium is such a crucial nutrient in food webs, its absence gives calcium-poor microorganisms an adaptive edge over competitors that require a lot of calcium. In this case, decalcification led to an ecological war between two planktonic water flea species: Daphnia and the jelly-coated Holopedium. Guess which one is responsible for the recent jellification of lakes.

A handful of Holopedium. Image: Ron Ingram, Ontario Ministry of the Environment.

[Holopedium] has all this jelly, so it doesnt need all this protection of a calcified exoskeleton. They have a big advantage now that the calciums lower, Smol said. Daphnia, these keystone water fleas, were disappearing because they had high calcium requirements.

The rise of Holopedium has unleashed a death-by-1,000-cuts type of fate upon Daphnia. Not only are daphniids unable to subsist on withering calcium reserves, they are also targeted more by predators put off by Holopediums jellified exteriors.

A lot of things cant eat these jelly-clad fleas, explained Smol. They are about 10 times bigger because theyre encased in this jelly. They are too big and too non-palatable to be eaten by many organisms. Also, the food quality of Holopedium is much lower, so it can have far reaching ecosystem effects.

Larval midges are among the many predators that refuse to dine on Holopedium, but love to feast on Daphniain fact, they are its main predator. As if that werent enough of a run of bad luck for Daphnia fleas, climate change is also reducing oxygen deep in lakes, which provides better breeding conditions for midges.

Its a multiple stressor world, Smol said, and its almost been a perfect storm for these organisms.

Its also not a Canadian-only issue. Though the 80 lakes Smols team studied were primarily in Ontario and Nova Scotia, Holopedium are thriving in calcium-depleted regions all over the world.

The same types of issues are probably happening throughout New England, said Smol. Theres also reports of Holopedium in the Pacific Northwest. Scandinavia is another area with similar types of lakes and similar types of stressors.

The displacement of daphniids by Holopedium also has repercussions beyond ecological disruption. The large jelly clumps holopediids form in lakes could potentially clog water intake valves.

Just in Ontario, about 20 percent of our water intake for drinking water are from low calcium areas, so that could be a factor, said Smol, who also pointed out the aesthetic problems inherent in finding gross clumps of gelatinous goo floating around lakes and washing on beaches.

There are no easy answers when it comes to restoring the ecological balance between the two water fleas, and between calcium-poor and calcium-rich organisms more generally. It may take thousands of years to return to historic lake water calcium concentrations solely from natural weathering of surrounding watersheds, said co-author Andrew Tanentzap in a University of Cambridge statement.

In the meanwhile, while weve stopped acid rain and improved the pH of many of these lakes, we cannot claim complete recovery from acidification, he added. Instead, we many have pushed these lakes into an entirely new ecological state.

So if the toxic algae bloom in Lake Erie wasnt enough of a reminder to remain hyper-vigilant about lake pollution in the future, let the prospect of invertebrate jelly clumps floating around our lakes refresh our collective memory.

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Testing if a computer has human-level intelligence: Alternative to ‘Turing test’ proposed

November 19, 2014 Robots Comments Off

A Georgia Tech professor recently offered an alternative to the celebrated “Turing Test” to determine whether a machine or computer program exhibits human-level intelligence. The Turing Test — originally called the Imitation Game — was proposed by computing pioneer Alan Turing in 1950. In practice, some applications of the test require a machine to engage in dialogue and convince a human judge that it is an actual person.

Creating certain types of art also requires intelligence observed Mark Riedl, an associate professor in the School of Interactive Computing at Georgia Tech, prompting him to consider if that might lead to a better gauge of whether a machine can replicate human thought.

“It’s important to note that Turing never meant for his test to be the official benchmark as to whether a machine or computer program can actually think like a human,” Riedl said. “And yet it has, and it has proven to be a weak measure because it relies on deception. This proposal suggests that a better measure would be a test that asks an artificial agent to create an artifact requiring a wide range of human-level intelligent capabilities.”

To that end, Riedl has created the Lovelace 2.0 Test of Artificial Creativity and Intelligence.

For the test, the artificial agent passes if it develops a creative artifact from a subset of artistic genres deemed to require human-level intelligence and the artifact meets certain creative constraints given by a human evaluator. Further, the human evaluator must determine that the object is a valid representative of the creative subset and that it meets the criteria. The created artifact needs only meet these criteria but does not need to have any aesthetic value. Finally, a human referee must determine that the combination of the subset and criteria is not an impossible standard.

The Lovelace 2.0 Test stems from the original Lovelace Test as proposed by Bringsjord, Bello and Ferrucci in 2001. The original test required that an artificial agent produce a creative item in such a way that the agent’s designer cannot explain how it developed the creative item. The item, thus, must be created in such a way that is valuable, novel and surprising.

Riedl contends that the original Lovelace test does not establish clear or measurable parameters. Lovelace 2.0, however, enables the evaluator to work with defined constraints without making value judgments such as whether the artistic object created surprise.

Riedl’s paper will be presented at Beyond the Turing Test, an Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence (AAAI) workshop to be held January 25 — 29, 2015, in Austin, Texas.

Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Georgia Institute of Technology. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

Robotics Research News — ScienceDaily



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