“A tree is best measured when it is down,” the poet Carl Sandburg once observed, “and so it is with people.” The recent death of Harry Belafonte at the age of 96 has prompted many assessments of what this pioneering singer-actor-activist accomplished in a long and fruitful life.
Belafonte’s career as a ground-breaking entertainer brought him substantial wealth and fame; according to Playbill magazine, “By 1959, he was the highest paid Black entertainer in the industry, appearing in raucously successful engagements in Las Vegas, New York, and Los Angeles.” He scored on Broadway, winning a 1954 Tony for Best Featured Actor in a Musical – John Murray Anderson's Almanac. Belafonte was the first Black person to win the prestigious award. A 1960 television special, “Tonight with Belafonte,” brought him an Emmy for Outstanding Performance in a Variety or Musical Program or Series, making him the first Black person to win that award. He found equal success in the recording studio, bringing Calypso music to the masses via such hits as “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” and “Jamaica Farewell.”
Harry Belafonte - Day-O (The Banana Boat Song) (Live)www.youtube.com
Belafonte’s blockbuster stardom is all the more remarkable for happening in a world plagued by virulent systemic racism. Though he never stopped performing, by the early 1960s he’d shifted his energies to the nascent Civil Right movement. He was a friend and adviser to the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. and, as the New York Times stated, Belafonte “put up much of the seed money to help start the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and was one of the principal fund-raisers for that organization and Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center notes that “he helped launch one of Mississippi’s first voter registration drives and provided funding for the Freedom Riders. His activism extended beyond the U.S. as he fought against apartheid alongside Nelson Mandela and Miriam Makeba, campaigned for Mandela’s release from prison, and advocated for famine relief in Africa.” And in 1987, he received an appointment to UNICEF as a goodwill ambassador.
Over a career spanning more than seventy years, Belafonte brought joy to millions of people. He also did something that is, perhaps, even greater: he fostered the hope that a better world for all could be created. And, by his example, demonstrated how we might go about bringing that world into existence.
Hating Robocalls, and Other Things that All Americans Can Agree On
We live in a divided nation—but there some things will always bind us together.
Very few people seem to be getting along in America right now. Countless relationships have ended, and families have broken apart because of political and ideological differences, which have only grown more extreme following the 2016 election. The divide between Democrats and Republicans, pro-lifers and pro-choicers, climate-change deniers and believers, and many more have become unfathomably vast.
Image via the Seattle Times
But amidst all the chaos, violence and noise, there are just some issues that are decidedly non-partisan; some topics that are so unanimously agreed on that for a moment, it almost seems like we're all only human. In a time of rage, here are the few points of commonality we have.
1. Robocalls Should Stop Forever
There are so many contentious issues being debated in Congress today—from the Green New Deal to bathrooms to anything even remotely connected to the president; it's safe to say that there are very few things everyone in the House and Senate agree upon. But recently, two bills were introduced in the spirit of stopping robocalls—those awful telemarketer messages that constantly interrupt our day with health insurance scams or calls from the Chinese consulate—forever. One is the proposal Stopping Bad Robocalls, from Senator Frank Pallone of New Jersey. The other is Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey's Telephone Robocall Criminal Abuse Enforcement and Deterrence Act. Both of these proposals will make it much harder for telemarketers to call and force their wills upon unsuspecting constituents. According to Markey, "If this bill can't pass, no bill can pass."
AI support centreImage via Ars Technica
2. Voting is Important
Now, though the issue of who to vote for is one of the easiest ways to turn an ordinary Thanksgiving dinner into a full-on screamfest, most Americans do agree that as citizens of this country, we are responsible for performing our civic duty and making our political opinions heard. Starting way back with the Founding Fathers, this has been an American ideal that nobody except for the staunchest anarchists or most apathetic among us is resistant to. Even so, only around 58.1% of America's voting-eligible population voted in 2016, although 67% of Americans believe that not voting is a huge problem, according to a survey by the Public Religion Research Institute. Maybe the disparity lies in the fact that the people who do not believe in voting also probably wouldn't be too likely to respond to a random political survey.
3. The News Is Fake
No matter where you prefer to get your news, most Americans agree that the media has serious issues—namely the abundance of falsified information plaguing and distorting everything from our elections to our dating lives. The issue isn't only a problem among journalists; politicians themselves are also widely distrusted, and for a good reason. In 2010, Senator Jim McMinn proclaimed that 94% of bills in Congress are passed without issue (it was found to be about 27.4%—although who knows if that statistic is true, though it did come from a Pulitzer-prize-winning political fact-checking organization). Since then, things have spiraled more and more out of control. There's no legitimate way to check how much fake news is out there, but according to one survey, most viewers were suspicious of 80% of the news they saw on social media and 60% of what they saw online overall. Though if you're like the majority of Americans, you won't be taking this article's word for it.
Image via Vox
4. We Should Have Healthcare
Although there is certainly not a clear consensus, most Americans do support healthcare for all. According to a 2018 poll, 6 out of 10 Americans believe that the government should provide healthcare for everyone; another survey from The Hill found that 70% of Americans support Medicare for all, and even a small majority of Republicans are in favor of the idea.
5. The Nation Is Divided
We can all agree on one thing: disagreeing. 81% of Americans believe that we are more divided than at any other time in our nation's history, according to Time. (Remember, there was this thing called the Civil War). Americans can't even agree on what exactly the nation's most significant points of disagreement are: most Democrats believe gun control is a huge issue while most Republicans consider it unimportant; same with climate change and income equality, according to surveys from the Pew Institute.
Although contention and chaos might be the laws of the day, at least we'll always have a shared hatred of telemarketers to bind us all together.
Eden Arielle Gordon is a writer and musician from New York City.
Researchers Have Created an AI Too Dangerous to Release. What Will Happen When It Gets Out?
The GPT-2 software can generate fake news articles on its own. Its creators believe its existence may pose an existential threat to humanity. But it could also present a chance to intervene.
Researchers at OpenAI have created an artificial intelligence software so powerful that they have deemed it too dangerous for public release.
The software, called GPT-2, can generate cohesive, coherent text in multiple genres—including fiction, news, and unfiltered Internet rants—making it a prime candidate for creating fake news or fake profiles should it fall into the wrong hands.
Fears like this led the Elon Musk-founded company OpenAI to curtail the software's release. "Due to our concerns about malicious applications of the technology, we are not releasing the trained model," they announced in a blog post. "As an experiment in responsible disclosure, we are instead releasing a much smaller model for researchers to experiment with, as well as a technical paper."
In addition to writing a cohesive fictional story based on Lord of the Rings, the software wrote a logical scientific report about the discovery of unicorns. "In a shocking finding, scientist discovered a herd of unicorns living in a remote, previously unexplored valley, in the Andes Mountains," the software wrote. "Even more surprising to the researchers was the fact that the unicorns spoke perfect English. The scientist named the population, after their distinctive horn, Ovid's Unicorn. These four-horned, silver-white unicorns were previously unknown to science."
This journalistic aptitude sparked widespread fears that AI technologies as sophisticated as the GPT-2 could influence upcoming elections, potentially generating unfathomable amounts of partisan content in a single instant. "The idea here is you can use some of these tools in order to skew reality in your favor," said University of Washington professor Ryan Calo. "And I think that's what OpenAI worries about."
Elon Musk quit OpenAI in 2018, but his legacy of fear and paranoia regarding AI and its potential evils lives on. The specter of his caution was likely instrumental in keeping GPT-2 out of the public sphere. "It's quite uncanny how it behaves," echoed Jack Clark, policy director of OpenAI, when asked about his decision to keep the new software under locks.
The fears of Elon MuskImage via express.co.uk
In a world already plagued by fake news, cat-fishing, and other forms of illusion made possible by new technology, AI seems like a natural next step in the dizzying sequence of illusion and corruption that has rapidly turned the online world from a repository of cat videos (the good old days) to today's vortex of ceaselessly reproduced lies and corrupted content. Thinkers like Musk have long called for resistance against AI's unstoppable growth. In 2014, Musk called AI the single largest "existential threat" to humanity. That same year, the late physicist Stephen Hawking ominously predicted that sophisticated AI could "spell the end of the human race."
Stephen Hawking's apocalyptic visionsImage via longroom.com
But until AI achieves the singularity—a level of consciousness where it achieves and supersedes human intelligence—it is still privy to the whims of whoever is controlling it. Fears about whether AI will lend itself to fake news are essentially fears of things humans have already done. All the evil at work on the Internet has had a human source.
When it comes down to the wire, for now, AI is a weapon.
When AI is released into the world, a lot could happen. AI could become a victim, a repository for displaced human desire. Some have questioned whether people should be allowed to treat humanoid creatures in whatever ways they wish to. Instances of robot beheadings and other violent behaviors towards AI hint towards a darker trend that could emerge should AI become a free-for-all, a humanoid object that can be treated in any way on the basis of its presumed inhumanity.
Clearly, AI and humanity have a complex and fundamentally intertwined relationship, and as we all become more dependent on technology, there is less of a clear line dividing the human from the robotic. As a manmade invention, AI will inevitably emulate the traits (as well as the stereotypes) of the people who created it. It could also take on the violent tendencies of its human creators. Some thinkers have sounded the alarm about this, questioning the dearth of ethics in Silicon Valley and in the tech sphere on the whole. Many people believe that AI (and technology in general) is fundamentally free of bias and emotion, but a multitude of examples have shown that this is untrue, including instances where law enforcement software systems displayed racist bias against black people (based on data collected by humans).
AI can be just as prejudiced and close-minded as a human, if not more so, especially in its early stages where it is not sophisticated enough to think critically. An AI may not feel in and of itself, but—much like we learn how to process the world from our parents—it can learn how to process and understand emotions from the people who create it, and from the media it absorbs.
Image via techno-pundit.blogspot.comAfter all, who could forget the TwitterBot who began spewing racist, anti-Semitic rants mere hours after its launch—rants that it, of course, learned from human Twitter users? Studies have estimated that 9 to 15 percent of all Twitter accounts are bots—but each one of these bots had to be created and programmed by a human being. Even if the bot was not created for a specific purpose, it still learns from the human presences around it.
A completely objective, totally nonhuman AI is kind of like the temperature absolute zero; it can exist only in theory. Since all AI is created by humans, it will inevitably take on human traits and beliefs. It will perform acts of evil when instructed to, or when exposed to ideologies that can inspire it to. It can also learn morality if its teachers choose to imbue it with the ability to tell right from wrong.
Image via cio.com
Their quandary may not be so different from the struggle parents face when deciding whether to allow their children to watch R-rated movies. In this case, both the general public and the AIs are the children, and the scientists, coders, and companies peddling new inventions are the parents. The people designing AIs have to determine the extent to which they can trust the public with their work. They also have to determine which aspects of humanity they want to expose their inventions to.
OpenAI may have kept their kid safe inside the house a little longer by freezing the GPT-2, but that kid is growing—and when it goes out into the world, it could change everything. For better or worse, at some point, super-intelligent AI is going to wind up in the public's hands. Now, during its tender, formative stages, there is still a chance to shape it into whom it's going to be when it arrives.
Eden Arielle Gordon is a writer and musician from New York City. Talk to her about AI on Twitter @edenarielmusic.
Myanmar Military Used Facebook to Incite Genocide, Ethnic Cleansing
700,000 Muslims were forced to flee to neighboring Bangladesh in 2017.
On Monday, Facebook said it removed 13 pages and 10 accounts controlled by the Myanmar military in connection with the Rohingya refugee crisis.
The accounts were masquerading as independent entertainment, beauty, and information pages, such as Burmese popstars, wounded war heroes, and "Young Female Teachers." Fake postings reached 1.35 million followers, spreading anti-Muslim messages to social media users across the Buddhist-majority country.
Facebook's move comes a year after 700,000 Rohingya, a Muslim minority group in Myanmar, were forced to flee to neighboring Bangladesh amid widely-documented acts of mob violence and rape perpetrated by Myanmar soldiers and Buddhist mobs. The United Nations Human Rights Council denounced the crisis as "a textbook case of ethnic cleansing and possibly even genocide."
Rohingya children rummaging through the ruins of a village market that was set on fire.Reuters
Last month, the social media giant announced a similar purge, removing Facebook and Instagram accounts followed by a whopping 12 million users. Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, commander-in-chief of the Myanmar armed forces, was banned from the platform, as was the military's Myawady television network.
Over the last few years, Facebook has been in the hot seat for their tendency to spread misinformation. In the 2016 U.S. presidential election, inauthentic Facebook accounts run by Russian hackers created 80,000 posts that reached 126 million Americans through liking, sharing, and following. This problem has persisted in the 2018 midterm elections, ahead of which 559 pages were removed that broke the company's policies against spreading spam and coordinated influence efforts. Recent campaigns originating in Iran and Russia target not only the U.S., but also Latin America, the U.K., and the Middle East.
The situation in Myanmar is particularly troubling—it's not an effort by foreign powers to stoke hate and prejudice in a rival, but rather an authoritarian government using social media to control its own people. According to the New York Times, the military Facebook operation began several years ago with as many as 700 people working on the project.
Screen shots from the account of the Myanmar Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, whose pages were removed in August.
Claiming to show evidence of conflict in Myanmar's Rakhine State in the 1940s, the images are in fact from Bangladesh's war for independence from Pakistan in 1971.
Fake pages of pop stars and national heroes would be used to distribute shocking photos, false stories, and provocative posts aimed at the country's Muslim population. They often posted photos of corpses from made-up massacres committed by the Rohingya, or spread rumors about people who were potential threats to the government, such as Nobel laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, to hurt their credibility. On the anniversary of September 11, 2001, fake news sites and celebrity fan pages sent warnings through Facebook Messenger to both Muslim and Buddhist groups that an attack from the other side was impending.
Facebook admitted to being "too slow to prevent misinformation and hate" on its sites. To prevent misuse in the future, they plan on investing heavily in artificial intelligence to proactively flag abusive posts, making reporting tools easier and more intuitive for users, and continuing education campaigns in Myanmar to introduce tips on recognizing false news.
The company called the work they are doing to identify and remove the misleading network of accounts in the country as "some of the most important work being done [here]."
Joshua Smalley is a New York-based writer, editor, and playwright. Find Josh at his website and on Twitter: @smalleywrites.
A New Golden Age of Journalism
The press is under siege, but it hasn't stopped great journalists from doing their job.
Last week, Luke O'Brien, a writer for the Huffington Post, penned an article which revealed the person behind the Twitter handle @AmyMek (real name: Amy Jane Mekelberg), an account dedicated to peddling racist garbage predominantly aimed at Muslims. O'Brien's story itself quickly gets muddled in minutia (albeit interesting minutia), revealing various details about Mekelberg's life. As one can imagine, the article was met with scorn from Mekelberg's many fans, but things took a distinctly violent turn over the past few days, with O'Brien receiving death threats online. Over the course of Donald Trump's presidency, rhetoric against the mainstream press has become increasingly malignant.
Political criticisms are touted as un-American and there's a rapidly growing sentiment that our freedom of the press is under siege. But, while direct threats against journalists are frightening, there's an argument to be made that we're entering a new golden era of American journalism.
Here is an example of what I received after Mekelburg orchestrated a harassment mob against me. pic.twitter.com/qIThLoU9Cl
— Luke O'Brien (@lukeobrien) June 5, 2018
A Brief History Lesson:
The rise of newspapers in this country runs directly parallel to the adoption of our two party system in the late 18th century. Following the end of George Washington's second term, political groups rapidly began sponsoring papers to curry favor with the general public and to support their candidates. In this way, the press is directly responsible for stoking the fires of American partisanism. Still, these early papers were little more than pamphlets, and there were no pretenses surrounding unbiased reporting. These political newspapers were essentially used as a means of smearing the competition. The press as we know it began with the invention of the Linotype Machine, a device that rapidly industrialized the newspaper business by allowing papers to be printed at astonishing (for the time) speeds. It's important to remember though,while freedom of the press was baked into the fabric of the constitution, there were no rules prohibiting newspapers from distorting the truth, or in some case, outright lying in their publications.
In the late 19th century, the yellow journalism of William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer pushed us into the Spanish American War. Throughout the early 20th century, the news slowly became more and more fact-based, eventually reaching what many consider to be the "Golden Age of Journalism," that brief period during the Vietnam War when the press core took on the U.S. government and won. Unfortunately, this period was little more than a blink, an exception to the rule of American media. In the decades following journalism's golden age, the 24-hour cable news circuit coupled with the Internet, rendered print newspapers obsolete.