Koko, the Gorilla Who Learned Sign Language, Passes Away at 46


If you were a kid in the ’90s, you wanted to do three things: go to Space Camp, complete the Temple Run on Legends of the Hidden Temple, and meet Koko, the sign language gorilla. Sadly, the world-famous gorilla has passed away at the age of 46, at her home at The Gorilla Foundation in the Santa Cruz mountains. The Gorilla Foundation released a statement saying, “Her impact has been profound and what she has taught us about the emotional capacity of gorillas and their cognitive abilities will continue to shape the world. She was beloved and will be deeply missed.”

Koko was born on the Fourth of July in 1971 at the San Francisco Zoo, where she was named Hanabi-ko (Japanese for “fireworks child”). The western lowland gorilla was selected as an infant by animal psychologist Dr. Francine “Penny” Patterson, who developed a language research project designed to teach a modified form of American Sign Language, known as “Gorilla Sign Language” or GSL. Koko was able to master more than 1,000 signs in GSL, and reportedly understood up to 2,000 English verbal words. She quickly became world famous for her remarkable intelligence and empathy for others.

In addition to GSL, Koko showed extraordinary intelligence and aptitude, learning to play the recorder and operate a camera. Her self portrait made the cover of the National Geographic in 1978. Did Koko invent the selfie? Sure looks like it.

Koko was widely recognized in pop culture after meeting several celebrities, such as Mister Rogers, Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea, and Robin Williams. When Williams died in 2014, Koko’s handlers said she expressed sadness at the news.

Koko was also famous for her love of kittens, and for expressing grief when her kitten Ball died. The beloved gorilla inspired generations of children and adults with her compassion and playful nature, reminding us that we are not so different from our fellow mammals. Rest in Peace, Koko.

(via NPR, image: PBS)

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Professor Alice Roberts Designs the “Perfect” Human Body and It’s Here to Haunt Your Nightmares

The quest for perfection has plagued mankind since the dawn of time. We’ve poured countless hours, resources, and money into anything and everything to improve ourselves, be it physically, emotionally, mentally, etc. There seem to be no limits to the Faustian bargains we seek to be the very best version of ourselves. Anatomist Alice Roberts delves into the problems with perfection in her new BBC Four special, Can Science Make Me Perfect?.

In the special, Roberts enlists the help of virtual sculptor Scott Eaton and SFX model maker Sangeet Prabhaker to design a “perfect” version of herself with evolutionary upgrades and improvements. She debuted the finished model in a presentation at the London Science Museum and the results were…something. The audience giggles as Roberts walks them through the “improvements” made to Alice 2.0, which include a chimp’s sturdy lower back to support the transition to walking upright as well as the shock-absorbing legs of an emu.

Included are tiny thigh pumps to improve circulation, a dog’s heart, and the lungs of a swan. Swans, like most birds, have ultra-efficient respiratory systems, which are necessary to be able to fly. Birds can breathe up to ten times faster than mammals, thanks to a one-way breathing system that rapidly intakes and expels enough oxygen to power the bird’s muscles (unlike mammals, whose lungs have a “dead end” where air must flow in and out on the same pathway).

In addition, Alice 2.0’s neck features a choke-proof windpipe, and her sensory capabilities are enhanced by large ears and enlarged, light-sensitive eyes. Oh, and to avoid painful childbirth/baby Bjorns, Alice 2.0 can now carry her baby in a marsupial-style pouch. The model comes complete with an iPhone, because of course it does. Part manimal, part Na’Vi, part Quatto, Alice 2.0 is truly a wonder…or a nightmare, depending on your perspective.

(via The A.V. Club, image: BBC Four)

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It’s Raining Seafood in China and Other Headlines I Never Thought I’d Write

Citizens of the Chinese coastal city Qingdao experienced a bizarre natural phenomenon this week, when a storm rained down octopi, shrimp, starfish and more aquatic sea life. The fishy weather was due to a tornadic waterspout, otherwise known as a tornado that occurs over a body of water. The high speed winds act as a vacuum, sucking up sea life, which ends up raining back down when the weather disperses. This phenomenon was depicted in the nature documentary series Sharknado, which captured raw real life footage of sharks decimating the city of Manhattan. #NeverForget.


Folks in Qingdao took photos of the storm of ceviche that hit the city, and the images are pretty bonkers.

Imagine driving down the street when, out of nowhere, an octopus lands on your windshield. Try explaining that to GEICO.

As wild as this shellfish storm may seem, it is not an isolated phenomenon. Last year, several fish fell from the sky in Tampico, Mexico during a rainstorm. And the phenomenon of raining frogs dates back to 1st Century AD, when the Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder documented a rain of fish and frogs.

This meteorological occurrence also pops up in the Old Testament. In the Book of Exodus, a plague of frogs is the second plague visited upon Egypt after the Pharoah denies Moses’s request for liberation. More recently, a rain of frogs occured in the town of Odzaci, Serbia in 2005. And if you’re looking for nightmare fuel, in 2014 a 1,000-foot-tall funnel of insects (probably locusts) appeared in Vila Franca de Xira, Portugal in what was termed a “bugnado“. BRB, never leaving the house again.

(via Newsweek, image: FRED TANNEAU/AFP/Getty Images)

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Stephen Hawking’s Voice Will Be Beamed Into Space, and Other Details from the Physicist’s Memorial Today

Stephen Hawking at New Space Exploration Initiative "Breakthrough Starshot" Announcement

On March 14th, 2018, we grieved the loss of the inspiring, brilliant, and endlessly charming Stephen Hawking who passed away at 76 years old. Today at noon, Westminister Abbey is holding a Service of Thanksgiving for the physicist, whose ashes will be buried in Scientist’s Corner, between Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin.

In a tribute that could not be more appropriate, an antenna in Spain will beam his voice around 3,500 light years into space towards the nearest known black hole (1A 0620-00) following the service. His voice will be set to a six-and-a-half minute piece of original music from Greek composer Vangelis. CNN reports that it is, according to senior adviser for science and exploration at the European Space Agency Mark McCaughrean, “pretty somber” and “about considering the Earth as a place people come form and need to look after.” He also calls it “a lovely, beautiful symbolic gesture.”

The service also includes tributes, addresses, and reading to be delivered by Kip Thorne, Tom Nobarro, Astronomer Royal Martin Rees, Benedict Cumberbach, Lucy Hawking, and Tim Peake. 1,000 members of the public, decided by ballot, are also attending.

Stephen Hawking’s daughter, Lucy Hawking, calls it “a beautiful and symbolic gesture that creates a link between our father’s presence on this planet, his wish to go into space and his explorations of the universe in his mind”.

(via CNN, image: Jemal Countess / Stringer)

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Google Will Not Renew Their Contract with the Pentagon’s Drone Program


In an announcement on Friday, Google Cloud CEO Diane Greene stated that the company would not be renewing its contract on the controversial Project Maven, which provides artificial intelligence to the U.S. Department of Defense for drone footage analysis. Greene cited backlash from the public and Google employees in the announcement, saying that the company would not be continuing its work on the project once their current contract expires in 2019. The company plans on taking a step back from pursuing military contracts, and will be releasing a new new ethical principles about its use of AI in the coming weeks.

Project Maven has been subject to massive outrage and backlash, mainly from the Google employees themselves. A dozen employees resigned from the company, and over 4,000 employees signed an internal petition against the project. The petition asks Google to cancel the contract and decline to pursue any future work on behalf of the military, reading:

“This plan will irreparably damage Google’s brand and its ability to compete for talent. Amid growing fears of biased and weaponized AI, Google is already
struggling to keep the public’s trust. By entering into this contract, Google will join the ranks of companies like Palantir, Raytheon, and General Dynamics. The argument that other firms, like Microsoft and Amazon, are also participating doesn’t make this any less risky for Google. Google’s unique history, its motto ‘Don’t Be Evil’, and its direct reach into the lives of billions of users set it apart.”

“We cannot outsource the moral responsibility of our technologies to third parties. Google’s stated values make this clear: Every one of our users is
trusting us. Never jeopardize that. Ever. This contract puts Google’s reputation at risk and stands in direct opposition to our core values. Building this technology to assist the US Government in military surveillance – and potentially lethal outcomes – is not acceptable.”

Google had high hopes for Project Maven and the highly lucrative government contracts it promised. While Google executives said that the Project Maven contract was merely a deal to provide the Pentagon with open-source software, the contract had wide reaching implications for privacy and security. Essentially, Project Maven developed artificial intelligence for speeding up drone footage analysis by automatically classifying images of objects and people. Fears of a drone-based surveillance system raised ethical red flags throughout the company and led to employee and public backlash.

Despite stepping away from military contracts, Google is not alone in pursuing government involvement. Several large tech companies are actively bidding for highly profitable contracts with their emerging technologies. In addition, there doesn’t seem to be much governmental oversight into the ethical and legal ramifications of these deals. One only has to look at the Facebook Congressional hearings as an upsetting example, as the members of congress (many in their 70s and 80s) struggled to comprehend the company and its technology. To deal with the increasingly complex and nuanced issues of modern technology, we need an up to speed congress capable of understanding the very real threat that this technology possesses. Hopefully the 2018 elections will bring new blood into this archaic sector of government.

(via Gizmodo, image: LIONEL BONAVENTURE/AFP/Getty Images)

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MIT Made a Psychopathic AI Because We’re Not Hurtling Towards the Apocalypse Fast Enough

anthony perkins

You would think that the killer combination of global warming, Doritos Locos tacos, and the Trump administration is sending us on a one-way ticket to the end of the world. Whelp, the nerds at MIT just asked us to hold their beer as they slammed their foot on the gas pedal. A team of scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Killing Us All, I mean Technology have developed a psychopathic algorithm named Norman. Like Norman Bates, get it?

Norman was designed as part of an experiment to see what effects training AI on data from “the dark corners of the net” would have on its world view. Instead of exposing the AI to “normal” content and images, the software was shown images of people dying in violent circumstances. And where did MIT find such gruesome imagery? From Reddit, of course. Where else?

After exposure to the violent imagery, Norman was shown inkblot pictures and asked to interpret them. His software, which can interpret pictures and describe what it sees in text form, saw what scientists (okay, me) now describe as “some fucked up shit.” The procedure, commonly referred to as a Rorschach test, has been traditonally used to help psychologists figure out whether their patients perceive the world in a negative or positive light. Norman’s outlook was decidedly negative, as he saw murder and violence in every image.

MIT compared Norman’s results with a standard AI program, which was trained with more normal images of cats, birds and people. The results were…upsetting. After being shown the same image, the standard AI saw “a close-up of a vase with flowers.” Norman saw “a man is shot dead.” In another image, standard AI saw “a person is holding an umbrella in the air.” Norman saw “man is shot dead in front of his screaming wife.” And finally, in my personal favorite, normal AI saw “a black and white photo of a small bird” while Norman saw “man gets pulled into dough machine.”

Rather than running for the goddamn hills, MIT Professor Iyad Rahwan came to a different conclusion, saying that Norman’s test shows that “data matters more than the algorithm. It highlights the idea that the data we use to train AI is reflected in the way the AI perceives the world and how it behaves.” Ultimately, AI that is exposed to bias and flawed data will retain that world view. Last year, a report claimed that an AI-generated computer program used by a US court for risk assessment was biased against black prisoners. Based on skewed data, AI can be programmed to be racist.

Another study on software trained on Google News was conditioned to become sexist as a result of the data it received. When asked to complete the statement, “Man is to computer programmer as woman is to X”, the software replied ‘homemaker”. Dr Joanna Bryson, from the University of Bath’s department of computer science, said that machines can take on the view points of their programmers. Since programmers are often a homogenized group, there is a lack of diversity in exposure to data. Bryson said, “When we train machines by choosing our culture, we necessarily transfer our own biases. There is no mathematical way to create fairness. Bias is not a bad word in machine learning. It just means that the machine is picking up regularities.”

Microsoft’s chief envisioning officer Dave Coplin thinks Norman is an avenue to the important conversation of AI’s role in our culture. It must start, he said, with “a basic understanding of how these things work. We are teaching algorithms in the same way as we teach human beings so there is a risk that we are not teaching everything right. When I see an answer from an algorithm, I need to know who made that algorithm.”

(via BBC, image: Universal Pictures)

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Why Is Everyone Updating Their Privacy Policies?

keyboard says privacy

This morning, I opened my email inbox to find yet another privacy policy update from a site whose privacy policy I was never really all that worried about, and I’m not alone. All across the internet, everyone is being bombarded with privacy policy update notices from nearly every last online service they’ve ever signed up for, which can start to feel kind of eerie when it happens all at once like this. Online privacy has been a major national conversation lately, what with Facebook’s role in the election and Mark Zuckerberg’s half-hearted apology tour, but this is actually the result of something international.

While we struggle for even the most basic accountability from our tech companies, the European Union is going on the attack with a new law called GDPR (General Data Protection Regulations). The law, ironically enough, is about as massive as the bloated privacy policies it seeks to simplify, coming in at 261 pages that you can read for yourself, but you probably won’t, which is exactly the problem with many privacy policies—beyond the “legalese” they employ that typically leaves even those who read them confused about exactly what they’re agreeing to. In that case, it’s often hard to tell when a company is just covering its own ass for totally normal purposes or planning to do something nefarious, and that ambiguousness isn’t exactly an accident.

So, the basis of the GDPR is essentially to simplify all of that and require online services to allow users to willfully opt in to more simplified, specific ways in which their data will be used, rather than leave them trying to find out how much they can opt out of later on. (It also has other functions, like putting more responsibility on businesses for stolen or misused personal data.) Though it’s a European law, internet-based companies’ wide international reach means that they’ve all had to make adjustments to comply, resulting in the scramble of privacy policy updates you’ve noticed in recent weeks.

That all culminated with the official start of the new standards today, and even all those privacy policy updates haven’t gotten everything 100% prepared and above board. This morning, the BBC reported that a number of big U.S. news sites had gone down in the EU due to GDPR. Meanwhile, Facebook and Google are already facing complaints over violations of the brand new regulations, thanks to privacy activists who were standing by to nail them as soon as GDPR went into effect.

ZDNet reports that Austrian lawyer Max Schems, who has successfully litigated against Facebook in the past, through his crowdfunded “None Of Your Business” group, has launched a coordinated campaign of complaints: “The first, over Android’s “forced consent”, was filed in France. Facebook is being complained about in Austria and its subsidiaries, WhatsApp and Instagram, are being targeted in north-German city Hamburg, and Belgium respectively.”

And that’s likely only the beginning. While we’d like to get some more modern protections of our own here inside the U.S., it’ll be interesting to see, in the near future, how online businesses change their ways in reaction to GDPR.

(image: g4ll4is on Flickr)

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Facebook Wants Your Nude Pics in an Effort to Protect You From Revenge Porn

Mark Zuckerberg

In lieu of protecting our elections, Facebook has decided to protect our boobies. The social networking giant launched an experimental program designed to combat the scourge of revenge porn by taking preemptive measures. The program, called the Non-Consensual Intimate Image Pilot, was launched in Australia in November 2017, and expanded to the US, the UK, and Canada last week. The program works by assigning a digital fingerprint to nude content, which will then block the image from spreading. The only catch: you have to send your nude photos to Facebook.

“But how does it work?” you may ask while repeatedly banging your head against the wall. Once you fill out a permission form, Facebook sends you an encrypted link where you can upload your images. Then, “a specially trained representative from our Community Operations team” eyeballs your photo before attaching a digital marker, after which they delete the image from Facebook’s storage. The whole process takes about a week.

Let’s just take a moment to step back and marvel at the sheer audacity of these nerd burgers. After making explosive headlines over data breaches that swung the outcome of the 2016 presidential election, they now expect us to trust them with our nudes? I would sooner trust my bank account numbers to a Nigerian prince. And what’s to stop another high powered company (let’s call them Schmambridge Schmanalytica) from accessing this data for nefarious purposes? Nothing. Now send over them dick pics!

This tone-deaf request is not only wildly invasive, but it also puts revenge porn prevention squarely in hands of the victims. Wouldn’t it make more sense to target and delete accounts that engaged in revenge porn distribution? And why should we trust a company whose employees are accessing private data to stalk their Tinder dates? Facebook, like other social media sites, has also come under criticism for ignoring reports of harassment from women, choosing to flag the victims instead.

I might be wrong, but I would bet all my Trump/Kim Jong Un collective coins that this pilot program was never approved by a human woman. The complete lack of self awareness is truly mind melting.


(via Vox, image: ALAIN JOCARD/AFP/Getty Images)

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Conservatives Try to Boycott Netflix Again, This Time Over the Obamas’ Producing Deal

Barack and Michelle Obama

Barack and Michelle Obama recently landed a deal with Netflix to produce “a diverse mix of content, including the potential for scripted series, unscripted series, docu-series, documentaries and features,” reportedly working both in front of and behind the camera, which is a pretty unique and interesting development for a former president and first lady. Or, if you’re a conservative who hates the Obamas, despite the massive stretch of the imagination it takes to find something to hate about them even if you don’t particularly like them, it may be the end of the world—or, at least, your Netflix subscription.

The news yesterday was met with some fanfare and trending topics on social media, but a voice of dissent cropped up, too, in the form of yet another conservative boycott, under the hashtag #boycottnetflix, suggesting like-minded consumers delete their Netflix accounts. This form of protest at least isn’t quite as silly as some others have been, like ones with participants smashing their personal property or ordering Starbucks drinks but giving Trump’s name, haha! They really stuck it to ’em with that one. Still, this Netflix boycott probably isn’t really going to have much of an effect, considering that it’s been tried before (for such crimes as the Dear White People series), as a Twitter user pointed out with screenshots as receipts.

Really, these proud “deplorables” should probably just be embarrassed that they didn’t give up their Netflix subscriptions during the previous boycotts, after the company’s CEO endorsed Hillary Clinton’s election bid against their Dear Leader, who he also said would “destroy much of what is great about America” and must be defeated in a landslide in order to show our rejection of everything he stood for. Although, if all this really bothers Trump supporters that much, they should probably just never use the internet or technology again, given the similar feelings of other tech leaders.

It will be difficult, but we’ll all try our best to get along without them.

(image: Netflix)

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The Senate Just Voted to Save Net Neutrality, but the House Is Probably Going to Screw It Up

The story around “net neutrality” has probably already given you more than your fair share of whiplash at this point. It’s alive! It’s dead. But not yet! But more than likely soon. But wait, there’s one more step! After which it will probably be dead. But—! You get the point. Well, get ready for another round.

The Senate voted today to save net neutrality! The vote went, expectedly, mostly along party lines, with all Democrats in favor of preventing ISPs from doing awful things that would hurt the fairness of the internet, and almost all Republicans casting their “no” votes in favor of letting your internet provider find new, innovative ways to extract more money from you through more complicated packages and features.

OK, that’s a very rough overview of a much more complicated issue, but it’s a basic outline of what’s at stake. Companies that physically provide internet service want to be able to treat traffic from different internet-based services differently in order to make more money than the ridiculous amount that they already rake in.

Anyway, the three Republican Senators who allowed the bill to pass when their party could have easily shut it down were Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and John Kennedy of Louisiana. I’d recommend you look at their voting records before giving them too much credit, but I’m happy to have their support in this instance. The vote comes just a few weeks before the end-date the FCC set for its own rules that were previously put in place to protect net neutrality, June 11.

So it’s saved, right!? Nope. The bill now has to pass the much more Republican-controlled House of Representatives, where it is expected to die an untimely death. I mean, this is the speaker of the house attempting to internet, which doesn’t exactly inspire confidence:

Calling your representatives couldn’t hurt (it never hurts). So stay tuned for whatever happens there, when we’ll surely learn what the next step is on the path to possibly preserving the openness of the internet—individual states taking their own measures, etc.—before it inevitably doesn’t work out, and then … well, you get it. I hear we have a great chance to do something more concrete about it in November, which leaves plenty of time for more whiplash and uncertainty in between.

(via NBC, image: Blaise Alleyne)

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