Week in Review

by by Caroline Soussloff, Alex Ronan & Erica Schwiegershausen

illustration by by Becca Levinson

Bad Ro(bo)mance

For a generation taught responsibility with Furbys and Tomagatchis, whose dating rituals are facilitated and structured by websites and devices, fulfilling our emotional needs with a robot lover is perhaps the logical next step.  Seizing upon this possibility, Hooman Samani, an Artificial Intelligence researcher affiliated with the National University of Singapore and Keio University of Japan, has recently introduced the world to the interdisciplinary study of “LOVOTICS = Love + Robotics,” as his website puts it.  At present, Lovotics is restricted academia; Samani’s robots are not commercially available, and thus, I regret to inform you, do not make feasible Valentine’s Day gifts.

So far, the Lovotics team has created three robots. The first is the Kissenger, a tiny plastic orb with the stylized features of a pig. When attached to your computer via a USB cable, it can be used to transmit kisses to another Kissenger device. According to Samani’s infomercial, the lover cups the orb in the palm of his hands and presses his lips against the snout of their Kissenger. This activates the snout of the beloved’s Kissenger, plugged in at a remote desktop, which in response emits outward pressure and a snorting sound effect.

Kamani’s second invention is the Mini-Surrogate, a robotized doll customized to resemble one’s long-distance love. It essentially performs the functions of a speakerphone, with a few additional mechanical gestures.  The Lovotics website describes Mini-Surrogates as “small, cute, believable, and acceptable surrogates of humans for telecommunication” designed to create “the illusion of presence.” The dolls are intended to provide comfort and companionship during a lover’s absence, but in the event of romantic turmoil, it is easy to imagine them being appropriate for use as voodoo dolls.

Thirdly, Kamani has been developing a robot that, rather than transmitting the inputs of another human being, will generate its own responses to human affection. The robot is programmed to cultivate romantic relationships with live subjects over time. Indeed, Kamani’s researchers are working with artificial intelligence to replicate the cocktail of hormones—including dopamine, endorphin and oxytocin—that combine within the human system to create the feeling of being in love. Although similar in appearance and movement to a Roomba® vacuum cleaner outfitted in white fur, it engages in many of the well-worn behaviors of human flirtation, such as mirroring, and it can read and respond to affirming or discouraging social cues. It introduces some new romantic rituals as well, including a mating dance where it twirls and flashes its neon underbelly lights. As for the language of love, the robot conveys its feelings through permutations of six basic movements. It may look like the decapitated head of a Yeti, but love is blind, right? —CS

Go Ask Alice, She’s Completely Sober
“Sex, Drugs, and Rock ‘n Roll,” the trite signifier of teen angst, might require a change. Apparently “Sexting, Moderate Indulgence, and iTunes” paints a more accurate picture of current teenage behavior. According to the University of Michigan’s Monitoring the Future (MTF) 2011 survey data released last week, today’s teens are significantly more traditional than generations past and indulge in less risky behavior. Polling 46,700 teenagers in 400 public and private schools across the nation, MTF reported declining rates of alcohol consumption, use of inhalants, cocaine, crack, Vicodin, Adderall, sedatives, tranquilizers, and over-the-counter cough and cold medicines teens purchase to “get high.”

Despite overall decreases in drug and alcohol consumption, marijuana is the primary exception, with use rising for the fourth year in a row. Nonetheless, according to multiple measures, today’s teens drink and smoke less than earlier generations. “There is a lot more media hype around the kids who are raising hell,” Dr. John Santelli, president-elect of the Society for Adolescent Health and Medicine told the New York Times. Most kids, by contrast, “are pretty responsible,” he said. According to the latest statistics from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, today’s teens are also less likely to get caught “doing it,” since they’re hardly doing it at all. In 1988, 50 percent of boys between the age of 15 and 17 had engaged in sex, by 2010 that number was down to 28 percent. Rates also fell among girls from 37.2 percent in 1988 to 27 percent today.

If today’s teens are models of moderation, their parents and grandparents could probably use a lesson or two. Rates of syphilis amongst 45- to 64-year-olds have more than doubled in the past decade and rates of chlamydia have tripled. Eli Coleman, director of the Program in Human Sexuality at the University of Minnesota Medical School, told ABC News that older people are often less informed than youth when it comes to safe sex. According to Coleman, adults reentering the dating world may not have used condoms “when they started out many years ago.” If frisky senior citizens still conceive of “their grandmother’s old-fashioned condoms,” as Coleman suggests, widespread reluctance is less of a surprise. A 2010 study of sexual health from Indiana University found the lowest rates of condom use were among people ages 45 and older. “There’s a sense of invulnerability and ignorance among older adults,” Coleman said. If today’s parents are going to talk to their teens about safe sex, it seems that instead of offering advice, they may just want to listen. —AR

The People Have A Right to Know
What do Namibia, Lithuania, Tanzania, Jamaica, Uruguay, and El Salvador have in common? Along with forty other countries, they enjoy greater freedom of press than the United States, according to the 2011-2012 World Press Freedom Index released last week by Reporters Without Borders. The Paris-based watchdog determined that the US has the world’s 47th most free press, a ranking that takes into account media censorship as well as the number of journalists arrested, threatened, physically attacked or killed during 2011. As The Atlantic’s Max Fisher points out, “we are still ranked ahead of Latvia and Haiti,” but not by much.

According to the index, the US’s ranking dropped 27 spots from 20th in 2010, a decline attributed to a nationwide police crackdown on journalists covering mass gatherings, especially those associated with the Occupy movement. The RWB report states: “Crackdown was the word of the year in 2011. Never has freedom of information been so closely associated with democracy…Never have acts of censorship and physical attacks on journalists seemed so numerous.” This year’s index has Finland and Norway at the top of the charts for the second year in a row, while China, Iran, North Korea, and Eritrea continue to make up the bottom of the list. Niger showed the most marked improvement, jumping 75 places from last year to 29th under a new administration.

The index, which uses a complex point system to track and compare journalistic freedom in countries around the world, revealed a somewhat simultaneous decline of press freedom in the US and much of the Middle East, a correlation the report attributes to the Occupy movement and the Arab Spring, respectively. Syria, Bahrain, and Yemen received worst ever rankings due to relentless crackdown on pro-democracy movements, and the RWB report cites the arrests and occasional beatings of over 25 US journalists covering Occupy movements as the reason for the US’s drop, describing the police as “quick to issue indictments for inappropriate behavior, public nuisance, or even lack of accreditation.”

However, Politico’s Dylan Byers points out that “the United States ranking can appear somewhat fickle—and even extreme—when compared to countries like Canada and the United Kingdom.” Despite a questionable year for the British media with the News of the World scandal and the government’s proposal for social media bans and shutdowns in response to the London riots, the UK was ranked 28th. In 2010, Britain stood at 19th, followed immediately by the US and Canada; this year, Canada rose to number 10 on the list.

New York Times Opinion columnist Andrew Rosenthal points out that this year’s report ranks Hungary (40th) ahead of the United States despite the country’s adoption of a law “giving the ruling party direct control over the media” last December. Rosenthal says that while he believes Reporters Without Borders does important work, the annual Press Freedom Index “gets a little ridiculous,” comparing the annual report to the US News & World Report college rankings. —ES