from the world's big
Exploring how a small change in your DNA sequence can make you a natural blonde.
A few weeks after preparing them, Dr Catherine Guenther checked her mouse embryos and knew that she had identified the source of a blond-haired mutation in human DNA.
Thanks to modern technology, we can reexamine our assumptions about ancient warriors.
- The 2600-year-old remains of a young Scythian warrior are now known to be female.
- The young warrior appears to have been around 13 years old when she died.
- The findings shed light on the Scythian culture.
Joan of Scythia?<p>The 2600-year-old remains were discovered at Saryg-Bulun in Central Tuva in 1988 when the region was still part of the USSR. Contained in a tightly sealed coffin made of larch trunk, the remains were mummified and well preserved. One report states that <a href="https://siberiantimes.com/science/casestudy/news/ancient-girl-amazon-warrior-no-older-than-13-is-confirmed-by-modern-scientific-techniques/" target="_blank">a wart on the child's face was still evident</a>. The coffin also contained a battle-ax, a quiver with arrows, a headdress, coat, and various bronze ornaments.</p><p>As the young warrior was presumed to be male, the researchers were surprised when they analyzed her genome and discovered the remains belonged to a young woman. Despite how common it is to see the remains of female warriors, this coffin did not contain items typically given to deceased women, such as beads or mirrors. <br> <br> Excavator Marina Kilunovskaya explained this to <a href="https://www.archaeology.org/news/8802-200617-scythian-mummy-genome" target="_blank">Archaeology.org</a>, "This discrepancy in the norms of the funeral rite received an unexpected explanation: firstly, the young man turned out to be a girl, and this young 'Amazon' had not yet reached the age of 14 years." <strong></strong></p><p>The research team will now attempt to get a more accurate dating of the remains and will use CT scans to try and learn precisely how this <a href="https://www.sciencealert.com/new-dna-analysis-reveals-an-ancient-scythian-warrior-was-a-13-year-old-girl" target="_blank">young warrior died</a>. The various artifacts discovered in the coffin will also be analyzed for metal composition and preserved. </p>
Who were the Scythians and why did they have little girls as warriors?<p>The Scythians were the rulers of the Steppes from Ukraine to Xinjiang and the probable inventors of horseback riding. These nomadic warriors also had a reasonably egalitarian society for the ancient world. Many sources agree that cross-dressing was common in their culture, and some go so far as to suggest their <a href="https://books.google.com/books?id=IR6yDwAAQBAJ&pg=PA218&lpg=PA218&dq=Scythians+gender+fluid&source=bl&ots=jNeRBBfbo5&sig=ACfU3U1BcS8vFzFafib6erkEjiUXaOs_qw&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwibnrSzm53qAhWbAp0JHbn1CtEQ6AEwDXoECAsQAQ#v=onepage&q=Scythians%20gender%20fluid&f=false" target="_blank">idea of gender was fluid.</a></p><p>Across the steppes, women were trained to be warriors just as men were and could prove fearsome in battle. Skeletal remains proven to be female (about a fifth of all discovered remains) <a href="https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/magazine/2020/05-06/fierce-amazons-more-than-myth-real/" target="_blank">often show the same battle injuries as males</a>. Burial sites with weapons and all the honors of a warrior are common for both sexes. Just last year, the gravesite of other <a href="https://www.archaeolog.ru/ru/expeditions/expeditions-2019/donskaya-arkheologicheskaya-ekspeditsiya" target="_blank">female warriors were found.</a> </p><p>They were known as a warlike people, and it is thought entire tribes participated in <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iYL5CLJ2prA" target="_blank">battles</a>. It was said that no nation could stand against them without outside help. However, they also made beautiful <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scythian_art" target="_blank">art</a>, had an elaborate <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scythian_religion" target="_blank">religious system,</a> and were known for their <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scythians#Clothing" target="_blank">unique clothing.</a> They had no written language, but descriptions of their culture endure in the writings of their neighbors. </p><p>Even if the Amazons weren't quite real, they were based on an existing culture. As we learn more about how the Scythians lived and died, we're better able to contextualize the stories and myths they appear in. As with all archaeological discoveries, it also allows us to better understand where humanity has been, so we might make a better choice of where we're going. </p>
Did you know that shifting to a positive perspective on aging can add 7.5 years to your life? Or that there is a provable U-curve of happiness that shows people get happier after age 50?
The programming giant exits the space due to ethical concerns.
- IBM sent a latter to Congress stating it will no longer research, develop, or sell facial recognition software.
- AI-based facial recognition software remains widely available to law enforcement and private industry.
- Facial recognition software is far from infallible, and often reflects its creators' bias.
In what strikes one as a classic case of shutting the stable door long after the horse has bolted, IBM's CEO Arvind Krishna has announced the company will no longer sell general-purpose facial recognition software, citing ethical concerns, in particular with the technology's potential for use in racial profiling by police. They will also cease research and development of this tech.
While laudable, this announcement arguably arrives about five years later than it might have, as numerous companies sell AI-based facial recognition software, often to law enforcement. Anyone who uses Facebook or Google also knows all about this technology, as we watch both companies tag friends and associates for us. (Facebook recently settled a lawsuit regarding the unlawful use of facial recognition for $550 million.)
It's worth noting that no one other than IBM has offered to cease developing and selling facial recognition software.
Image source: Tada Images/Shutterstock
Krishna made the announcement in a public letter to Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Kamala Harris (D-CA), and Representatives Karen Bass (D-CA), Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), and Jerrold Nadler (D-NY). Democrats in Congress are considering legislation to ban facial-recognition software as reported abuses pile up.
IBM's letter states:
"IBM firmly opposes and will not condone uses of any technology, including facial recognition technology offered by other vendors, for mass surveillance, racial profiling, violations of basic human rights and freedoms, or any purpose which is not consistent with our values and Principles of Trust and Transparency. We believe now is the time to begin a national dialogue on whether and how facial recognition technology should be employed by domestic law enforcement agencies."
Prior to their exit entirely from facial recognition, IBM had a mixed record. The company scanned nearly a million Creative Commons images from Flickr without their owners' consent. On the other hand, IBM released a public data set in 2018 in an attempt at transparency.
Image source: Best-Backgrounds/Shutterstock
Privacy issues aside — and there definitely are privacy concerns here — the currently available software is immature and prone to errors. Worse, it often reflects the biases of its programmers, who work for private companies with little regulation or oversight. And since commercial facial recognition software is sold to law enforcement, the frequent identification errors and biases are dangerous: They can ruin the lives of innocent people.
The website Gender Shades offers an enlightening demonstration of the type of inaccuracies to which facial recognition is inclined. The page was put together by Joy Buolamwini and Timnit Gebru in 2018, and doesn't reflect the most recent iterations of the software it tests, from three companies, Microsoft, the now-presumably-late IBM Watson, and Face++. Nonetheless, it's telling. To begin with, all three programs did significantly better at identifying men than women. However, when it came to gender identification — simplified to binary designations for simplicity — and skin color, the unimpressive results were genuinely troubling for the bias they reflected.
Amazon's Rekognition facial recognition software is the one most frequently sold to law enforcement, and an ACLU test run in 2018 revealed it also to be pretty bad: It incorrectly identified 28 members of Congress as people in a public database of 28,000 mugshots.
Update, 6/11/2020: Amazon today announced a 12-month moratorium on law-enforcement use of Rekognition, expressing the company's hope that Congress will in the interim enact "stronger regulations to govern the ethical use of facial recognition technology."
In 2019, a federal study by the National Institute of Standards and Technology reported empirical evidence of bias relating to age, gender, and race in the 189 facial recognition algorithms they analyzed. Members of certain groups of people were 100 times more likely to be misidentified. This study is ongoing.
Facial rec's poster child
Image source: Gian Cescon/Unsplash
The company most infamously associated with privacy-invading facial recognition software has to be Clearview AI, about whom we've previously written. This company scraped identification from over 3 billion social media images without posters' permission to develop software sold to law enforcement agencies.
The ACLU sued Clearview AI in May of 2020 for engaging in "unlawful, privacy-destroying surveillance activities" in violation of Illinois' Biometric Information Privacy Act. The organization wrote to CNN, "Clearview is as free to look at online photos as anyone with an internet connection. But what it can't do is capture our faceprints — uniquely identifying biometrics — from those photos without consent." The ACLU's complaint alleges "In capturing these billions of faceprints and continuing to store them in a massive database, Clearview has failed, and continues to fail, to take the basic steps necessary to ensure that its conduct is lawful."
The longer term
Though it undoubtedly sends a chill down the spine, the onrush of facial recognition technologies — encouraged by the software industry's infatuation with AI — suggests that we can't escape being identified by our faces for long, legislation or not. Advertisers want to know who we are, law enforcement wants to know who we are, and as our lives revolve ever more decisively around social media, many will no doubt welcome technology that automatically brings us together with friends and associates old and new. Concerns about the potential for abuse may wind up taking a back seat to convenience.
It's been an open question for some time whether privacy is even an issue for those who've grown up surrounded by connected devices. These generations don't care so much about privacy because they — realistically — don't expect it, particularly in the U.S. where very little is legally private.
IBM's principled stand may ultimately be more pyrrhic than anything else.
It takes a special person with a special set of skills to reach students on an emotional level.
- Teachers have arguably the most important job on Earth. It's their responsibility to help shape who young people will become by inspiring them and connecting with them as human beings.
- Trust has to be earned before any meaningful learning can happen.
- The superpower that poet and children's fiction author Kwame Alexander learned from his mother is the ability to connect emotionally with his audience first so that they are open and interested in tackling heavier subjects and having challenging conversations.