New #MeTooBots scan emails to detect harassment

Artificial-intelligence programmers are developing software programs that will scan read emails for content indicates sexual harassment or bullying. The programmers plan to introduce the software to businesses across the globe who are in the market for new solutions to help root out sexual harassment within their workplaces.

The software will flag any communications that its algorithms determine to be problematic. But even the developers admit that a computer may have a hard time knowing harassment when it sees it.

Jay Lieb, chief executive of NexLP, is marketing a platform that already has more than 50 corporate customers. Lieb said in an interview harassment comes in more forms than even he knew.

“I thought it was just talking dirty. It comes in so many different ways. It might be 15 messages … it could be racy photos,” he said.

He declined to say exactly how the software will determine which communications are harassing and which are not. In more general terms, it will look for anomalies in the language or in the frequency and timing of messages over spans of weeks, he said.

Critics question whether the software will be able to learn all of the cues that indicate harassment. Some critics also contend that electronically monitoring employees’ communications creates a climate of mistrust and that companies will need to find ways to protect employees’ privacy while collecting all of their data.

The law firm Morgan Lewis is using the technology in an alternative way: to analaze clients’ past communications, according to Tess Blair, a partner at the firm. Blair said that while the technology has helped attorneys build cases, the attorneys are able to exercise their human judgement and determine which flagged messages are really relevant or not.


GirlsDoPorn ex-performers win lawsuit against website

Pornographic website GirlsDoPorn is guilty of misleading at least 22 women into appearing into video for mass distribution and must pay them $12.8 million in damages, San Diego Superior Court Judge Keven Enright ruled Thursday. The judge acknowledged that many of the women have suffered extreme emotional distress and real-life harassment as a result of the videos in which they performed, and that they did not know when appearing in the videos that the videos would be posted publicly online.

“As a result, plaintiffs have suffered and continue to suffer far-reaching and often tragic consequences,” Enright wrote. He noted that plaintiffs described major damage to their personal relationships and career prospects, loss of academic opportunities, and that some were so traumatized that they contemplated suicide.

The judge also ordered the site’s owners to remove the videos from their site and get them removed from other sites in which they were posted.

The women were 18-23 years old at the time they appeared in the videos. Many were students in need of extra money, according to court documents.

The court heard evidence that the site had falsely promised the actresses that the videos they performed in would be for private personal use only and would not be posted online for mass subscribing audiences. Some of the women were given alcohol and cannabis just before being asked to sign the eight-page contracts authorizing the site to feature them in videos.

It also heard testimony that the site had shared private information about the actresses with third-party forums, which led to some of their real names being revealed and them and their families suffering harassment online.


China sentences scientist who edited babies’ genes to jail

A Chinese court in Shenzhen sentenced the scientist who created the world’s first “gene-edited” babies to three years in jail and a fine of 3 million yuan ($430,000) on Monday. The scientist, He Jiankui, will also be permanently banned from further involvement in reproductive medicine, according to China’s Xinua news agency.

The court, Shenzhen Nanshan District People’s Court, also sentenced He’s coworkers Zahang Renli and Qin Jinzhou to prison terms of two years and 18 months, respectively. Like their boss, they are going to prison for “caarrying out human embryo gene editing… for repdroductive purposes,” the court said in a statement.

“The three accused did not have the proper certification to practise medicine, and in seeking fame and wealth, deliberately violated national regulations in scientific research and medical treatment,” the court said. “They’ve crossed the bottom line of ethics in scientific research and medical ethics.”

Jiankui made news worldwide last year when he claimed to have created genetically modified human twins, who were named Lulu and Nana. He and his team were using CRISPR, a DNA-editing technology, to alter the twins’ genomes while they were only fertilized embryos in a petri dish. After completing the gene-editing procedure, the team implanted the embryos into a woman’s uterus for them to be carried to term.

He said at the time that he wanted to make the twins immune to HIV by giving them a gene that makes some people HIV-resistant. Subsequent research published in the MIT Technology Review found that he may not have been successful in reporducing this gene in the twins, however.

Most countries ban the practice of editing unborn children’s genes.


Mindfulness video game boosts players’ attention spans, researchers say

Digital devices get a lot of blame for distracting kids from learning, but researchers have developed a “mindfulness” video game that they said could make its young players more attentive. The researchers, working at the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of California-Irvine, said that young people playing this game show positive growths in areas of the brain associated with attention.

The game, called “Tenacity,” directs players to take deep breaths and count their breaths by tapping a touch screen once per breath. The players advance as they do this through relaxing landscapes and backgrounds, such as ancient Greek ruins or outer space.

The players are supposed to tap once per breath for their first four breaths and then tap twice every fifth breath. Players earn more points and advance in the game when they count five breaths in sequence accurately. The game’s designers said that counting of breaths helps train the players in mindfulness, the state of being calmly aware of the present moment.

“Most educational video games are focused on presenting declarative information: various facts about a particular subject, like biology or chemistry,” said Elena Patsenko, a research scientist at the Center for Healthy Minds and lead author on the recently published paper. “Our aim is different. We want to actually change the cognitive or emotional processes—how people think or process information they’re trying to learn.”

The research team gathered 95 middle-school children into two groups and had one group play Tenacity for 30 minutes a day for two weeks; the other group played another educational video game that did not involve mindful breathing. The Tenacity group showed increased connectivity between areas of their brains essential to attention; ans they performed better than the other group on an attention task.


Spotify will halt selling political ads in 2020

Music-streaming service Spotify is following Twitter and Google and halting political advertising, starting in the new year. Spotify announced the change Friday in a statement in which it said that its platform does not have the capability to fact-check political ads and screen out misinformation.

“At this point in time, we do not yet have the necessary level of robustness in our processes, systems and tools to responsibly validate and review this content,” the company said.

The halt will be in effect in the U.S. market only, according to the company, which said that such ads will be prohibited on both the site’s ad-supported tier and its exclusive podcasts. The U.S. market is the only one in which the platform has sold political ads. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) has run ads for his presidential campaign on Spotify, and the Republican National Committee has used the site to advertise for Republican candidates.

Spotify is not the first tech company to actively rein in political advertising on its platform. Twitter announced an indefinite ban in October on any paid content that refers to political candidates, parties, legislation, or ballot initiatives. Twitter’s announcement came in response to a statement by Facebook earlier this year that it will not fact-check statements in political ads on its platform.

Google will also implement new restrictions on political ads. Its policy will go into effect worldwide on January 6th and will limit advertisers from targeting people based on their party affiliations or voting records, although it will still allow geo-targeted political ads and ads targeting demographics such as age or gender.


Iraqi PM resigning as protests rage across Iraq

Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi announced his resignation Friday, ceding to pressure from dissenting top clerics and increasingly violent protests from Iraqi citizens who were decrying government corruption. His announcement comes at the end of six weeks of confrontations between demonstrators and government security forces in which more than 400 Iraqis have died and the Iranian consulate in Najaf was torched.

A parliamentary session will convene Sunday to discuss Mahdi’s resignation and ways to end the crisis.

Protests first broke out October 1, when demonstrators in cities in southern and central Iraq accused the government establishment of ignoring its citizens’ needs and using oil revenues to enrich themselves. Security forces attempted to suppress demonstrations with force, and protests turned bloody. 

Instead of dispersing, however, the protests morphed into antigovernment movements calling for toppling the country’s leadership. An estimated 200,000 Iraqis have participated in the demonstrations.

“How is it that we are one of the richest countries and our people are broke? How is it that we still don’t have access to water though we have two major rivers? We have high unemployment, corruption, no services and they still have the guts to fire at us when we protest,” said Karrar Moussawi, a Baghdad resident who joined the protests.

Dissent also arose from national religious leaders, including Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who demanded that Iraq’s parliament hold hearings on Mahdi. Sistani, who hold great influence among the public and only speaks on political matters in times of crisis, urged the government Friday to stop killing protesters and told protesters to refrain from further violence.


America’s “non-religious” population is surging

The United States is becoming a less Christian country, according to Pew Research Center data. The data shows that more than a quarter of Americans are agnostic, atheist, or “non-religious,” while the percentages of Americans who identify as Christian or attend church services regularly has dropped steadily over the last decade.

The proportion of U.S. adults who identify as Christian now stands at two-thirds, a 12-percentage point drop from 10 years ago, according to Pew. And 54% of Americans now either do not attend religious services or only go to them a few times a year, versus 45% who attend services at least once a month; while the percentage who go to services more than once a month has fallen by 7 percentage points over the last decade.

In the same 10-year time span, the percentage of adults who describe themselves as atheist, agnostic, or “nothing in particular” rose from 17% to more than 25%.

“Religious ‘nones’ are growing faster among Democrats than Republicans, though their ranks are swelling in both partisan coalitions,” the report states.

The report found that the upward trends away from religion run strongest among young adults, although it noted rising percentages of adults identifying as non-religious in all age brackets: Only 49% of millennials identify as Christians, and 40% are non-religious.

Non-Christian faiths have also seen some growth, according to Pew. The report indicated that 7% of Americans now identify with another non-Christian faith tradition, up from 5% in 2009. The percentage includes 2% who are Jewish, 1% who are Muslim, 1% who are Buddhist, 1% who are Hindu, and 3% who practice another faith, follow their own faith practice, or are “spiritual”.


Scientists link religious fundamentalism to brain damage

Religious fundamentalism is partly a product of a certain cognitive impairment, states a study published in the journal Neuropsychologia. The researchers posit that limited function in a brain region known as the prefrontal cortex renders some people more prone to rigid ways of thinking and less cognitive openness,  and therefore more inclined to holding intensely dogmatic religious beliefs.

The researchers, led by Jordan Grafman of Northwestern University, have previously researched the prefrontal cortex and found that it is strongly linked to “cognitive flexibility,” which they define as the ability to think about multiple ideas simultaneously and to switch from thinking about one concept to another. Limited cognitive flexibility may make for more dogmatic thinking that is not open to new information, the researchers said.

In this latest study, the team analyzed CT brain scans of 119 Vietnam War veterans who had suffered brain damage in areas of the prefrontal cortex. Grafman and colleagues compared them with set of CT scans of 30 veterans who had not suffered any such damage.

They also had all 149 veterans take a survey assessing their religious beliefs. The majority of veterans identified as Christian of some kind, though 32.5% did not specify any particular religion.

The veterans with damage to their prefrontal cortexes generally gravitated toward more fundamentalist religiousity, the researchers noted. The researchers suggested that the specific brain impairment made the individuals less open to considering alternative points of view or new evidence that might contradict their pre-existing beliefs.

“Human beliefs, and in this case religious beliefs, are one of the cognitive and social knowledge stores that distinguish us from other species and are an indication of how evolution and cognitive/social processes influenced the development of the human brain,” Grafman told reporters


Iran could hit the U.S. with cyber attacks, experts warn

U.S. banks, private businesses, and even power grids may be at risk from Iranian cyberattacks, security experts warn. They warn that Iran’s cyberwarfare capabilities have evolved considerably in recent years, and Iran might use it along with other forms of warfare against the United States as retaliation for the assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani.

Iranian hackers have already been targeting U.S. IT systems on a daily basis for years, according to Oded Vanunu, a vulnerability researcher at Check Point. But he expects these attacks to increase in the wake of the Iranian general’s death.

“Maybe they’ll double,” said Vanunu. “There will be many more cyberattacks in a short time. Most of which will target online services.”

Iran is capable of a “major cyberattack,” warned Jamil Jaffer, vice-president of IT security startup IronNet Cybersecurity. Paul Martini, co-founder of network security platform iBoss, agreed and said that private-sector businesses such as banks, health care services, and energy companies could all be targets.

In a worst-case scenario, Iran could shut down a power grid, he said. He added that even if Iranian hackers are not capable of such large-scale cyberattackers, the Iranian government could pay other countries’ hackers who have more capabilities to carry out attacks.

The United States has deployed cyberattacks against Iran in recent years, including a major cyberattack that disrupted work at Iranian weapons research facilities. But the United States’ IT systems are not as secure as they could be against Iranian counterattacks, warned Adam Levin, founder of cybersecurity platform Cyberscout.

Martini and other experts advise consumers to be diligent about securing their data and to store important information offline so that it will still be accesible even if the network fails.