The Digital Human podcast

The Digital Human

BBC Radio 4

Aleks Krotoski explores the digital world

144 Episodes

  • The Digital Human podcast



    Aleks Krotoski asks if how we use technology has affected our attitudes to ephemerality and the transience of things. Producer: Peter McManus
  • The Digital Human podcast



    There are many ways in which the taint of prejudice, outdated ways of thinking and plain old human error can enter our artificial intelligence systems. The weakest link is always where the sticky handprints of humans are most visible. To train AIs, systems need two things: computer vision, to precisely identify images, and machine learning algorithms. But they also need a person to label images over and over and over again, so when the AI perceives that image they learn what it is. In this episode Aleks Krotoski takes a look at affect recognition and explores how it became part of a multi-billion dollar AI industry. It all comes back to a system called FACS or Facial Action Coding System, which was devised by a psychologist called Dr Paul Ekman. FACS is a framework which categorises facial expressions and was widely adopted by artificial labs in the nineties for use in computer vision. But, the science behind FACS has been widely disputed in the science community for two centuries. From a Parisian asylum, via the tropical rainforests of Papua New Guinea, Aleks Krotoski traces the history of this controversial science and tells the story of how it ended up in our AIs. Producer: Caitlin Smith
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    We've all had experiences of our attention wandering, usually at those moments when we most need to concentrate. But, in our productivity-driven society, are we placing too much emphasis on paying attention and failing to recognise the benefits of more unstructured thought processes? After all, focus comes at a cost. With numerous demands on our attention, it's all too easy to experience burnout. Unfocus can recharge our batteries and allow us to be creative by making connections and connecting with other people. In this episode, Aleks Krotoski explores some of the different modes of attention we can switch between and asks whether, perhaps, we should be awarding our unfocus equal status to our focus. Producer: Lynsey Moyes
  • The Digital Human podcast



    If you want to send a message without any chance of it being intercepted then end-to-end encryption services are the way to do it. Governments and intelligence agencies can’t even intercept these messages, without compromising the phone they’re sent or received on, because the tech companies themselves don’t even have access. In the pursuit of protecting people’s privacy, in the wrong hands these messaging apps can be dangerous. Aleks discovers how the Taliban used WhatsApp to help them sweep through Afghanistan and take Kabul, without a bullet being fired. Unless you turn off the internet it's impossible with technology like WhatsApp, Telegram and Signal to let the ‘good’ guys use it while restricting the ‘bad’ guys. Aleks hears why turning off the internet is not the answer because it often favours those who are trying to oppress rather than the people who need help. Aleks learns that while the Taliban were using WhatsApp to organise and disarm those who may have tried to resist their takeover of Afghanistan, many Afghans who were desperately trying to escape Kabul relied on WhatsApp to connect and keep in touch with military officers and diplomats in order to get to and through the right gate and onto flights to safety. For some, when their phone battery ran out so did their hopes of escape. "WhatsApp has provided a lifeline to millions of people around the world and we're grateful to have played a small role in helping people in Afghanistan. Of course, WhatsApp requires a mobile connection, and anyone who has spent time in Afghanistan knows its complex terrain often times requires multiple forms of communications to reach across the country." WhatsApp spokesperson. Producer: Kate Bissell Researcher: Anna Miles
  • The Digital Human podcast



    Aleks Krotoski explores the relationships between social media content creators and their audience, asking how does it get complicated when money starts to change hands. These are often described as para-social relationships. Ones were the audience knows a lot about the content creator and they know next to nothing about the viewers. This can lead to misunderstandings and even behaviours that border on coercive control. How can this new breed of celebrity navigate this world when what their subscribers are paying for is their own piece of them? Producer: Peter McManus
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    We all cheat at least a little bit, some of us in family games of monopoly others on their taxes. Aleks asks if the digital era has made that easier; with less apparent consequence and therefore more tempting? If that's the case where does that lead us. Why for example would people hack the language learning app Duolingo to achieve an entirely meaningless high score, just to beat those of their fellow learners? And if you use the fitness app Strava to compete with others who cycle the same route what possesses you to use an electric bike next time, or even do it in your car? One of the key factors that encourage us to cheat is psychological distance - we can't see the impact of our cheating so it becomes more tempting. That's the digital world. More charitably, another influence on our cheating is if we're already exhausted physically, psychologically or emotionally. Is that what might explain the rise in academic cheating that experts have detected during the course of the pandemic, when so much education and assessment has moved online? Aleks explores all these examples along with the justifications people engage not own up to their behaviour. Producer: Peter McManus
  • The Digital Human podcast



    Aleks Krotoski explores what it's like to be 'villain of the day' on social media. It seems every day an individual rightly or wrongly becomes the object of the online world's condemnation. What's that like and what motivates people to pile on? Are the criticisms always made in good faith or is there something more complex going on with what the critics are trying to signal. Producer: Peter McManus
  • The Digital Human podcast



    Dr Charu Smita, a media researcher in Delhi explains how as the social contract between middle class Indians and the Government, to provide medical assistance, crumbled, people realised they'd need to mobilise to help save lives. Anirudh Deshmukh is a musician from Mumbai and when the second wave of Covid hit India and he saw the urgent tweets and posts from people searching for oxygen and hospital beds for loved ones he decided to do something about it. Using a combination of social media, WhatsApp and the meet up platform Clubhouse Anirudh began finding strangers hospital beds and oxygen. He quickly became inundated and along with others he began working day and night to locate beds and oxygen. Anirudh found himself having to decide who to save, a morally and ethically difficult decision even for a highly trained medic or relief worker. Dr Venkata Ratnadeep Suri explains how technology enabled people to form local microcosmic systems to allow those most in need get the oxygen they needed. Aleks also hears how in desperation people started to think very creatively about how to use apps and online social platforms to save lives. Sohini Chattopadhyay returned to Kolkata at the beginning of the pandemic to be with her mum. When her childhood friend got sick with Covid during the second wave her doctors suggested plasma therapy. It was going to be too difficult to go through official channels so Sohini turned to Tinder to find a suitable match. She set up a profile with the most flattering selfie she could find but explained she wasn't looking for a date but people who'd recently had Covid with the right blood type. Two people came forward. Produced by Kate Bissell Researched by Anna Miles
  • The Digital Human podcast



    Aleks Krotoski explores the impact of Sci-hub on science and the Open Access Movement.
  • The Digital Human podcast



    Aleks Krotoski talks to the children of those lost to Qanon conspiracies. Many have sought support and advice in online forums where they exchange stories of estrangement and bereavement unable to prevent their parent falling further down the rabbit of outlandish plots, twisted ideas and political extremism. For many experts Qanon behaves like an authoritarian cult demanding total obedience to its ideas and anyone who can’t be converted are to be shunned. In an ironic twist on the classic cult narrative there as many parents as impressionable young people that have fallen under Qanon’s sway. But like cult members of the past can they be deprogrammed and reunited with their children? Producer: Peter McManus

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