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The Digital Human


Aleks Krotoski explores the digital world


United Kingdom




Aleks Krotoski explores the digital world



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Update from the Digital Human Team

The Digital Human is pausing to focus on what everyone's talking about - AI. Join Aleks and her co-host Kevin Fong for The Artifical Human from BBC Radio 4, listen on BBC Sounds.


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‘I asked myself this very question after a family member was affected by dementia. In her later years, the only person my grandmother still remembered was her husband – but he had passed away several years earlier. She asked about him every morning and finding out that he had died always upset her greatly.’ - Thomas Nørmark.Thomas Nørmark Dementia is a cruel and complex illness, one that robs individuals of their cognitive abilities, independence, and memories. The NHS website reports that in the UK alone, there are now over 944,000 people living with dementia, and this number continues to rise as our population ages. While there is no cure for dementia, emerging technological breakthroughs hold the promise of more personalised treatment plans, the potential to enhance the quality of life for longer periods, and the ability to provide much-needed respite and comfort to the caregivers of those affected. In this episode of Digital Human, Aleks explores some of the nascent AI tools that could help people living with dementia: AMPER, an AI programme designed to aid in Reminiscence therapy, helping people to remain independent for as long as possible. Moments, an app that creates timelines of memories, music, and photos that can be shared with clinical staff, so they can get to know who the person was before the disease took hold, meaning they can tailor care more effectively. And a radical proposition of creating Digital Avatars of loved ones that offer support and reassurance to people who no longer remember that that loved one has already passed away - saving family members from the emotional strain of having to pretend to be someone else, to keep the person they love happy. Aleks will explore not only how these technological developments will benefit people in the next few decades, but also the ethical complexities that arise in ensuring the well being and security of vulnerable users.


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Aleks Krotoski explores a story which sought to be forgotten, but wasn't. Agrippa (A Book of the Dead), was published in 1992. It was a book designed to decay from its very first use. It was an unusual conceit, and played into our fears about malfunctioning technology ahead of the dawning millennium. The book was created by publisher Kevin Begos Jr, artist Dennis Ashbaugh and writer William Gibson. The writing – a 302 line poem – was stored on a floppy disc within the publication. It would lock after play, meaning the user could experience the work only once. Dennis Ashbaugh’s art work was similarly motivated. His images distorted if touched. These qualities tied in with Agrippa’s dominant theme. Gibson’s poem centred on the loss of his father. The name Agrippa (A Book of the Dead) referred to the photo album in his family home. It was produced by Kodak, and the particular volume was called Agrippa. Inside the album, there were visual reminders of all those who’d gone before. They provided memories, of sorts, for Gibson, and his autobiographical poem centres on those images. With thanks to The Bodleian Library in Oxford, and to all of our contributors in this programme: Justine Provino, Dr Huw Twiston Davies, Dr Chris Fletcher, Professor Maureen Ritchey and Dr Laura King. Presenter: Aleks Krotoski Producer: Victoria McArthur Researcher: Juliet Conway


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Emails from friends should be safe. From a trusted friend especially. Hey, Aleks, check out this cool attachment. The message is a bit brief, sure, but you check that it isn’t a phishing account masquerading as a friend, it doesn’t seem like a hack. And the image, Smile.JPG, sounds like it might be something silly but cute. So ok, you open it up. And you see… dog… smiling. A smiling dog, with human teeth. Now the dog haunts your dreams, with it’s terrible human but inhuman smile, promising to leave you be if only you’d ‘spread the word’. For this Halloween Aleks traces the origin of curses in the online world, discovering what Smile Dog reveals about our subconscious fears, our own culpability in sharing anything and everything online, and how the evolution, and disintegration, of this iconic curse sheds light onto something deeper - the rot of the internet itself, and the possibility that we may all now exist within a cursed internet.


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Aleks Krotoski explores culture jamming in the digital world. Once used by "communications guerillas" to subvert corporate advertising, it's now taken on a new life online...


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Aleks Krotoski explores how matchmaking in the future will be influenced both by the emerging tech and our attitude towards it. Have we reached the point where the disposable mindset encouraged by certain dating apps is unappealing for today’s singletons? Many users get over dating fatigue by taking a break from apps altogether but the continued emergence of new platforms suggests that our search for love isn’t moving entirely offline. Whilst some companies are adapting so that users can spend more time on actual dates than online chats, others are harnessing the growing sophistication of AI as a dating coach or even, in some cases, outsourcing that awkward early chat altogether. Dishonest? Or an acceptable tool to enable positive self-presentation? S Shyam Sundar suggests that online etiquette is evolving and the use of AI chatbots could become ‘a mutually accepted social lie we tell ourselves’; Ben Hanney explains why he launched his own dating app 'tbc' after becoming disillusioned by ‘swipe-right’ models; mental health activist Blezzing Dada shares a cautionary dating tale and urges consideration of intersectionality when developing new dating models; and, at Ireland's Lisdoonvarna matchmaking festival we meet Willie Daly, who hails from a long line of matchmakers, providing reassurance to nervous singletons, initiating gentle introductions and adding a dash of magic with his ‘lucky love book’. Could these raw ingredients be distilled to enhance our online interactions: boosting self-esteem and social confidence or simply introducing more fun into what has become a laboured process? Producer: Lynsey Moyes Researcher: Anna Miles


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With the rush of generative AI, we have the capacity to create synthetic companions that seem more human than ever before. They can talk in real time, and with enough user input can be moulded into a perfect friend - sharing your interests, build with a custom personality that you enjoy, and always available to talk for a brief chat, or to unleash some 3am anxiety upon, without burdening a real human friend. They have the potential to provide some psychological benefit to people. But, there are concerns. What if the company behind such an AI companion suddenly changed the terms of service, what if your carefully crafted Synthetic Companion wasn't themselves anymore, or stopped responding in a way that met the users needs? This happened in early 2023, when Replika, one of the biggest AI Companion apps decided to ban all adult content, without informing their users. The Big Change, as it came to be known, set the Replika community on fire, and showed how issues of control, expectations and the human propensity to project human attributes onto our machines can come back to bite us. Yet, we should have already known this. Tech developers trying to sell their new shiny product will tell you that it's never been seen before. But we've been using technology to create fake humans to interact with for more than a century. In this episode, Aleks looks to some Synthetic Humans of the past, to understand why people bond so readily with them, and how going forward into a future where we are likely going to have AI Humans all around us, we can insure that they serve our needs and do no harm to the end user.


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Aleks Krotoski looks into the digital world. In this episode, we explore why people are rejecting a traditional relationship with tech, jobs and societal pressures. In addition to the post-pandemic 'Great Resignation', where millions of people quit their jobs to either take early-retirement, or to tackle something less stressful and demanding, we're seeing a broader international pushback to the traditional 'cult of work'. In China, the 'lying flat' movement offered another version of 'quiet quitting'. Essentially, both trends saw people place greater value on their lives than their career. 'Bai Lan' is an extension of that, and means 'let it rot', or 'bed rotting' as it's also known. This means rejecting gruelling competiton for a low-desire life, and being happy with that decision. Elsewhere, others are opting out of tech. Whether this means ditching a smartphone for a 'simple phone' or disconnecting from the web altogether, there's a definite movement towards re-writing the rules of engagement in terms of contemporary life and work.


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Our tech future will supposedly be defined by megaprojects. The most attention grabbing ideas include physical Megacities like ‘The Line’ in Saudi Arabia, or Telosa in the United States, and on the digital side of things, we have the Metaverse. These are both supposed to be the new places we will work, play, love and create - sweeping aside past cities and online communities to become a utopian place for everyone to gather, and live a better way. But even as the foundations are laid… we seem to have moved on. The Metaverse has been roundly mocked and dismissed, with people deriding VR zoom meetings and legless avatars. While the very feasibility, and morality, of megacity projects has been questioned from their inception - comparisons to all manner of sci-fi dystopias abound. Aleks explores if promised tech utopias will inevitably become crumbling follies, why we get swept up in the narrative of a single tech genius who carves out the future for us all, and if the cycle of hype we have all been swept up in is disrupting our ability to indulge in slower iterations, which could actually lead us to a brighter tech future for us all.


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We’ve all seen those TV programmes (and perhaps shed a tear) when long lost family members are reunited. Who doesn’t love a fairytale ending? Making those connections nowadays is simpler and faster than ever, thanks to a combination of DNA testing, digital records and the ease of gathering information and communicating online. But do these huge leaps forward we’ve experienced in science and technology mean that, sometimes, things can move a bit too quickly for us to process. Reunions don’t always involve a happy ending and can be complicated emotionally. So just because we can track someone down, does that always mean that we should? Aleks Krotoski meets five adoptees navigating aspects of reunion. Producer: Lynsey Moyes Researcher: Anna Miles


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They were ubiquitous - taped onto magazines covers, bursting out of overstuffed office cabinet drawers, used to hold everything from secret family recipes, to photo albums, to legal documents, operating systems; anything you could cram on 1.4mb of storage was contained on floppy disks. After a 40 year career as the go to storage method of, even gateway to, the digital world, they were declared effectively obsolete. But are they? Aleks discovers some of the last people to be trading in, and experimenting with, floppy disks. She finds out which industries still depend on them, how artists are repurposing them, and how they birthed a new niche genre of music - despite never having been a means for storing or creating music in their heyday. Why is it only when a technology falls into obscurity that we test its boundaries, and how can floppy disks guide us in our relationship with technology in a future world of unbridled, unlimited, data.


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The Orbital Human

Now the fanfare of billionaires space adventures has died down we're left with the question of are we witnessing a new democratisation of space not unlike the revolution that brought us the modern digital world? Aleks Krotoski asks if the legions of amateurs and innovators working out of bedrooms and garages are about to fundamentally change our relationship with space. And will that be a continuation of the idealism of early pioneers or a repeat of the unregulated, disruptive free-for-all that the internet has largely become. From the NASA retirees who reactivated a space probe from an abandoned MacDonalds to the kids building operational satellites in their after school clubs the face of space is about to change forever. Producer: Peter McManus Researcher: Anna Miles Sound Engineer: Gav Murchie


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We have been in an odd dialogue with algorithms from the very inception of the internet. They have been trained to spot offensive words, with the goal of allowing civilized conversation while avoiding trolls, spam adverts and hate speech. But, many of our online spaces now moderate content to suit the needs of advertisers. This can mean a lot of people, especially those from marginalized communities, those with alternative or dissident views, or even a-typically creative people, are silenced - and so valuable voices, and conversations could be lost. But humans are very good with language, better than any algorithm developed until now, and we have always found ways to hack around constraints. The latest instrument in this linguistic arms race? Algospeak. Aleks explores the rise of this new form of social media language, discovers how and why black and queer communities are disproportionately silenced by ‘Ad-safe’ algorithms, and finds out that some of the most effective techniques that could allow us to circumvent AI censorship are rooted in the language of people that had to communicate, and mask themselves, with code, long before the digital world existed.


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"Right now, and I mean this instant, delete every digital trace of any menstrual tracking. Please." This is a tweet that went viral in the wake of the repeal of Roe V Wade in the United States. Fearing a clamp down on reproductive rights, suddenly people were looking at their online data in a very new way. What does my fitness app say about the state of my body? What could be divined from the details of what I bought? What about the data of the people around me? This is not the first time a sudden social or political change has thrown up potential problems of big data. But now we live in a world of data brokers, thousands of companies collecting, collating and sharing data around the world - and the data related to pregnancy is the most valuable of the lot. Which means, if there is a sudden change in reproductive rights, there’s a lot of data that could be mined for information if a broker sells it on. Aleks explores what happens when freely given data suddenly becomes dangerous, if it’s possible to keep any secrets in an online maelstrom of information, and why we keep coming up against this problem again, and again, and again…


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When the world feels as overwhelming as it has in recent years, it can be hard to fully disengage. Aleks Krotoski discovers the value of retreat, both on and offline. We take a trip to the the Highlands of Scotland, visiting a tiny, powerless bothy on the Inschriach Estate. Writer Dan Richards found that this isolated retreat allowed him to process a traumatic near-death experience when nothing else helped. Artist Laurel Schwulst invites us into the 'Firefly Sanctuary' in Brooklyn, New York. It's her apartment, so it's a personal sanctuary, but it's also a sanctuary for strangers. She shares it online via an appropriately relaxing lo-fi website. It's a sanctuary in a URL. Author and memoirist Katherine May defined her own personal retreat from the world as, 'wintering'. A series of difficult life events pushed her into retreat from the world. At first, she felt overwhelmed by the feeling of the world continuing without her, until she learned to surrender to her own personal 'winter' and saw the value in disconnecting for a while. In East Lothian, a twice-weekly trip to the Macmerry Men's Shed provides a consistent, revitalising sense of retreat. The largely elderly members derive enormous benefits from being seen and seeing others, and their visits allow them to escape from their day-to-day lives and worries, if only for a few hours at a time. Producer: Victoria McArthur Presenter: Aleks Krotoski Researcher: Emily Esson


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Online and offline, our world is a hugely complex tangle of modern creations and the legacy of the past. As we build upon the shoulders of times gone by, we are in a constant process of assessing what is still useful, what needs to be adapted and what no longer serves us. Aleks looks at the process of salvaging value from the world around us, looking at the pleasure and pain of sifting through the past, the pressures to preserve, how value can evolve over time, the allure of creating from scratch in the face of complex legacy systems and structures, and how treasure is often in the eye of the beholder. Michael Feathers is a software architect and author of Working Effectively with Legacy Code. Over the years, he advised many different companies on the strategic reuse and modernisation of their legacy code and systems. He is currently the Chief Architect for Globant, a global organisation helping companies transform their businesses. Dr James Hunter is a maritime archeologist and curator at the Australian National Maritime Museum. He is also an avid diver. James has excavated sixteenth century Spanish galleons, wrecks from the US civil war and many vessels sunk in World wars. Kate Macdonald is the director of Handheld Press, which republishes texts from the 1920s, 30s and 40s. She has a particular interest in uncovering works that explore lives lived by women, LGBTQ+ and people with physical impairments. Founder of the urban planning consultancy Zvidsky Agency in Ukraine, Alexander Shevchenko has a background in civil engineering and spatial and urban planning. Since 2022, he has set up the non-governmental organisation Restart Ukraine, which supports Ukrainian municipalities with recovery from the impact of 2014 and 2022 conflicts and with tackling urban regeneration fit for modern society’s needs.


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Ever had that gnawing feeling that there’s some unfinished business you have an itch to resolve? Maybe it’s a friendship you’ve let drift or a task at work left incomplete. Maybe it’s that sense of having too many tabs open at once on your computer. Our hyper-connected modern lives facilitate multi-tasking and the expansion of our social circles, and it could be argued a by-product of this is that we have more unfinished business than we had in the past. In this episode of the Digital Human, Aleks Krotoski asks how might we adapt to this - and whether it always a bad thing. Producer: Lynsey Moyes


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In recent months anxiety around what algorithms will do to the arts has become a hot topic. Art, Literature, Music, all are being generated by AI systems. Even we explored what these algorithms may do to how art is created - just one episode ago. But, we missed something. Algorithms are not just changing how we create art, they’ve been curating everything we see and hear online for years. But they don't explain why. How have these bits of code reshaped our relationship with culture? In this episode Aleks discovers the very different values and meanings in what a human, or an algorithm chooses to present to us. Unpacks the anxiety of what our raw data tells us about our desires, compared to what we believe about ourselves. Finds out how gaming the algorithm to succeed may result in creative stagnation, and a narrowed view of the world. But also how some algorithms could break us free of the boxes we have been slotted into, if things could be done a little differently.


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Art has, since time immemorial, been viewed as something quintessentially human. Many utopian visions of a technological future are based on the idea that machines will automate all the mundane, monotonous tasks of life, allowing humanity to fully indulge itself in creative expression. Certainly, artists would not be made obsolete by number crunching machines. But in the past few years, AI Art Generators, specifically Text-to-Art Generators such as MidJourney and Dall-E, have taken the world by storm. Users simply write a prompt, and the Algorithm takes knowledge amassed from images all over the internet, to create beautiful images. A mermaid basking on the shore of Loch, on a moonlit night, in the style of Van Gogh? Done. Cubist Unicorn? Have four. With a little practice, anything you want you can get with the right text? But what does this mean for human artists? We’ve already seen push back from artists worried about their livelihoods, existential worries about human creativity and self-expression, and concerns about the moral and legal issues around masses of artwork being used without consent in order to train AI Generators. In this episode, Aleks explores why art is so core to some people’s existence, why these Generators have such wide appeal, uncovers the story of a pioneer who grappled with the place of human and machine in art making for decades, and finds out why wonky AI may offer the most opportunity for human imagination to bloom.


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What’s going on when we scroll through our social feeds finding momentary happiness in the mishaps of celebrities or politicians whose views we dislike? Or delight in the stupidity of everyday people on 'epic fail' sites? Aleks Krotoski explores whether our digital habits, alongside increasingly polarised attitudes, have ushered in a new age of schadenfreude... and asks if this is always a bad thing? Aleks hears from author Tiffany Watt Smith who suggests that, whilst schadenfreude is not a new emotion, online platorms may create the perfect conditions for it to flourish; Dr Lea Boecker suggests schadenfreude may have an important role in boosting self-esteem and encouraging group cohesion; fail video aficionado Olly Browning confesses the particular frisson of schadenfreude he feels when justice is served; whilst researcher Emily Cross shares the results of her recent experiments measuring levels of schadenfreude felt towards robots; and Dr Sa-Kiera Hudson invites us to consider whether schadenfreude is always a passive emotion or whether its addictive qualities might sometimes lead to harmful behaviours towards marginalised groups. Producer: Lynsey Moyes Researcher: Juliet Conway