Sound and vision: Kraftwerk perform in New York, 2012. (Photo: Getty)
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Having trouble with your vision? There’s an app for that

EyeMusic will allow you to hear shapes and colours

Having trouble with your vision? There’s an app for that. It’s called EyeMusic, and it’s the result of remarkable research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. It will allow you to hear shapes and colours, training your brain to process sensory information in a completely different way – and it’s rewriting what we thought we knew about how the brain works.

A report published in the 17 March edition of the journal Current Biology has surprised researchers by demonstrating that people who have been blind from birth can be trained to recognise silhouettes of the human body in various postures. The training involves around ten hours of listening to sounds. Once trained, the research subjects’ brains used sound – employing the same area as sighted people use – to recognise body postures.

This is surprising, because researchers have always assumed that the neurons used for visual processing will be reassigned in someone whose brain isn’t getting visual inputs. Received wisdom had it that they might, for instance, be used by the auditory system to enhance processing of sound signals. The idea is related to the frequent (but wrong) assertion that if you lose one sense, others become more sensitive. Studies suggest that the sense of smell is no more acute in blind people. Neither are they sharper of ear; they are perhaps marginally better at making use of auditory information, but they don’t actually hear better.

Not that making better use of sounds is to be sniffed at. There are visually impaired people who use bat-like echolocation to navigate their way through busy streets, for example. Perhaps most extraordinary is the Californian Daniel Kish. Thanks to an aggressive childhood cancer, Kish has no eyes. At the age of two he began to train himself to use the echoes of his tongue-clicks as a guide to his surroundings.

Kish can go out for a bike ride safely and hike alone through mountainous terrain. He has refined his skill to the point where his clicks and their echoes provide him with a 3D mental image of his environment. He teaches his craft to other blind people, liberating them from the severe restrictions that are so common for those without sight.

Amir Amedi’s lab in Jerusalem has a similar goal. With training, Amedi says, visual areas of the brain can process sound and touch just as successfully as they would visual inputs.

This month’s paper makes that case forcefully. Written
by Amedi’s student Ella Striem-Amit, it focuses on a region of the brain known as the extrastriate body area, which is devoted to recognising body shapes. In Striem-Amit’s adult, fully blind subjects, this area had had no training whatsoever. However, their extrastriate body area still functioned perfectly – it just needed a few hours of priming.

Amedi’s EyeMusic iPhone app runs the user through a library of sounds associated with visual patterns and shapes. Once the training is complete, sound combinations begin to suggest visual scenes.

It will take a while before you become as competent as the trainee who can play a sonic version of Guess Who? by associating sounds with facial characteristics such as hair colour, beardedness or spectacles. But it won’t take long to appreciate that your brain is a marvellously flexible organ that, with the right training, can give you the next best thing to superpowers. The app also collects performance data that will help Amedi develop his research.

Why play Candy Crush when you can idle away your time helping science give sight to the blind? 

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 03 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, NEW COLD WAR

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Don’t shoot the messenger: are social media giants really “consciously failing” to tackle extremism?

MPs today accused social media companies of failing to combat terrorism, but just how accurate is this claim? 

Today’s home affairs committee report, which said that internet giants such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat extremism, was criticised by terrorism experts almost immediately.

“Blaming Facebook, Google or Twitter for this phenomenon is quite simplistic, and I'd even say misleading,” Professor Peter Neumann, an expert on radicalisation from Kings College London, told the BBC.

“Social media companies are doing a lot more now than they used to - no doubt because of public pressure,” he went on. The report, however, labels the 14 million videos Google have removed in the last two years, and the 125,000 accounts Twitter has suspended in the last one, a “drop in the ocean”.

It didn’t take long for the sites involved to refute the claims, which follow a 12-month inquiry on radicalisation. A Facebook spokesperson said they deal “swiftly and robustly with reports of terrorism-related content”, whilst YouTube said they take their role in combating the spread of extremism “very seriously”. This time last week, Twitter announced that they’d suspended 235,000 accounts for promoting terrorism in the last six months, which is incidentally after the committee stopped counting in February.

When it comes to numbers, it’s difficult to determine what is and isn’t enough. There is no magical number of Terrorists On The Internet that experts can compare the number of deletions to. But it’s also important to judge the companies’ efforts within the realm of what is actually possible.

“The argument is that because Facebook and Twitter are very good at taking down copyright claims they should be better at tackling extremism,” says Jamie Bartlett, Director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos.

“But in those cases you are given a hashed file by the copyright holder and they say: ‘Find this file on your database and remove it please’. This is very different from extremism. You’re talking about complicated nuanced linguistic patterns each of which are usually unique, and are very hard for an algorithm to determine.”

Bartlett explains that a large team of people would have to work on building this algorithm by trawling through cases of extremist language, which, as Thangam Debonnaire learned this month, even humans can struggle to identify.  

“The problem is when you’re dealing with linguistic patterns even the best algorithms work at 70 per cent accuracy. You’d have so many false positives, and you’d end up needing to have another huge team of people that would be checking all of it. It’s such a much harder task than people think.”

Finding and deleting terrorist content is also only half of the battle. When it comes to videos and images, thousands of people could have downloaded them before they were deleted. During his research, Bartlett has also discovered that when one extremist account is deleted, another inevitably pops up in its place.

“Censorship is close to impossible,” he wrote in a Medium post in February. “I’ve been taking a look at how ISIL are using Twitter. I found one user name, @xcxcx162, who had no less than twenty-one versions of his name, all lined up and ready to use (@xcxcx1627; @xcxcx1628, @xcxcx1629, and so on).”

Beneath all this, there might be another, fundamental flaw in the report’s assumptions. Demos argue that there is no firm evidence that online material actually radicalises people, and that much of the material extremists view and share is often from mainstream news outlets.

But even if total censorship was possible, that doesn’t necessarily make it desirable. Bartlett argues that deleting extreme content would diminish our critical faculties, and that exposing people to it allows them to see for themselves that terrorists are “narcissistic, murderous, thuggish, irreligious brutes.” Complete censorship would also ruin social media for innocent people.

“All the big social media platforms operate on a very important principal, which is that they are not responsible for the content that is placed on their platforms,” he says. “It rests with the user because if they were legally responsible for everything that’s on their platform – and this is a legal ruling in the US – they would have to check every single thing before it was posted. Given that Facebook deals with billions of posts a day that would be the end of the entire social media infrastructure.

“That’s the kind of trade off we’d be talking about here. The benefits of those platforms are considerable and you’d be punishing a lot of innocent people.”

No one is denying that social media companies should do as much as they can to tackle terrorism. Bartlett thinks that platforms can do more to remove information under warrant or hand over data when the police require it, and making online policing 24/7 is an important development “because terrorists do not work 9 to 5”. At the end of the day, however, it’s important for the government to accept technological limitations.

“Censorship of the internet is only going to get harder and harder,” he says. “Our best hope is that people are critical and discerning and that is where I would like the effort to be.” 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.