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An anti-abortion prayer app claims to “save” babies in real time

Is this just harmless modernising, or omniscience gone wrong? 

Someone considering abortion in Worcester, Massachusetts has just contacted a clinic.

At least this is what Human Coalition – an app that allows the religious to pray for women considering abortion – tells me when I log in. “Someone considering abortion in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania kept her appointment at the center,” informs the app. “Someone considering abortion in Memphis, Tennessee scheduled an appointment with a center”.

Swipe left or right on these announcements and they turn orange and are replaced by a simple exclamation atop a picture of a smiling baby: “Prayed!” The app tallies the number of prayers on any given day, and you can watch your prayers contribute to the total in real time. Venture up to the top right of the app and the “Impact” tab lets you know – in exact numbers – the “Total Babies Saved” since the app began, the number of prayers you have made, and the number of “Babes I’ve Helped Save”.

The Human Coalition app isn’t new – it began as “Online For Life” in 2013 and has recently rebranded. This renovation caught the attention of Slate writer Christina Cauterucci, who discovered there is no evidence the app is telling the truth. Is someone really considering abortion in Worcester, Massachusetts and have they actually just contacted a clinic? Can Human Coalition then check whether they’ve saved that specific baby? “That is what the app promises,” writes Cauterucci, “making this app either a discomfiting invasion of privacy or a gigantic lie”.

Human Coalition did not respond to an interview request, and its website does not explain the technology behind the app. It does, however, feature articles about “Saved Babies” (and also has a repeating countdown timer of 30 seconds alongside the caption “Every 30 seconds a child is aborted in America”).

As of yesterday, 6,574 babies had been “saved” – and a push notification informed me that the 6,574th was in Dallas, Texas, at 16:40. This counter seems to tally babies “saved” at Human Coalition’s real-life centres for women considering abortion (Cauterucci alleges that Human Coalition pose as abortion clinics in order to attract vulnerable women looking for medical care).

The app is undeniably bizarre, and a strange way to update the anti-abortion message for the modern world. But does it cause harm? If Human Coalition truly can tell when someone decided against an abortion and pass this information on to their users, then it is a gross privacy invasion. If it can’t, is it simply a way for the do-gooder middle-aged “moms” of America to pass the time?

This difficulty is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that none of the Christian organisations or representatives I contacted were willing to comment on the app for this piece. It's easy to see their conundrum; say the app is good and you risk alienating the wider world, say it’s bad and you’ll offend your own core Christian fan base. Besides, can any mortal really say whether God prefers bent knees to swiping fingers?

On Apple’s app store, there is an array of similarly strange apps. “Adopt Life” allows users to “spiritually adopt” children for the nine months they are in the womb, as well as pray for the child and do “Rosary Meditations”. In 2013, a Change.org petition ensured a “gay cure” app was removed from the app store. On the more personal side of things, the “Pray For Your Purity: 31 Day Challenge” app provides men and women with a daily scripture, reflection, and prayer to maintain sexual purity. “Haylo” is a prayer social network, allowing users to upload their personal stories and for others to tap a little halo indicating they have prayed for them.

Human Coalition doesn’t technically allow you to pray via the app – instead it allows you to tally the prayers you’ve made. Before you swipe the screen, you're supposed to have said the prayer to yourself. You could, if you wanted, pray that the woman considering abortion in Wyoming gets the medical care she needs and makes the right decision for her, and the app would naturally know no better. 

With more and more apps like this popping up, it seems time for various faiths to comment on where (or whether) they fit in to modern religious life. Are digital anti-abortion prayers sanctioned by the church? Do they reach God? Though these questions may seem faintly ridiculous, their answers seem more important than ever. When it comes to the tech behind these anti-abortion apps however, that is where people – religious or not – might do well to lose a little faith. 

At the end of my day using the app, I receive another push notification. "Today there were 14 babies saved for a total of 6,586 saved to date. Thanks for praying!" 

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

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Welcome to the Uncanny Valley: how creepy robot dogs are on the rise

It’s hard not to feel a little destabilised after watching a robot’s freakishly long limbs open a door. 

If you’re among those devouring the latest season of Charlie Brooker’s dystopian hellscape Black Mirror, you may still be having metallic nightmares of being chased by the freaky robo-dogs of  “Metalhead”. In which case, you maybe unsettled to know that these nightmares could in theory become a reality (in the distant future), as a viral video from the robotics firm Boston Dynamics (of backflipping robot fame) revealed earlier this week.


Charmingly titled, “Hey Buddy, can you give me a hand?” a SpotMini, Boston Dynamics’ smallest robot, approaches a door and appears to turn sideways before scampering away. Another SpotMini, fitted with an extending claw-arm, opens the door and lets the first robot scamper through, propping it open to follow. 

 

The director of “Metalhead”, David Slade, was inspired by these very demonstrations. As he stated in an interview in January, the inspiration for those robotic villains stemmed from none other than Boston Dynamics itself. “Those fucking Boston Dynamics robots are terrifying, so that in itself was enough that we didn’t have to worry about it,” he told IndieWire. 


Beyond its viral value, the SpotMini marks an interesting stage in the development of artificial intelligence and robotics. Being able to open a door has long since been the bar for the development of modern robots, as Matt Simon of WIRED pointed out. With this bar seemingly met – and surpassed – the questions remains as to what’s next.


Boston Dynamics robots seem designed mostly for academic and research purposes. Previously, DARPA, the research and development wing of the US defence department and arguably the birthplace of modern robotics, rejected some of the robots for usage because they were too loud. Now, though, they’re silent.


Even those who were not Black Mirror fans expressed a sense of unease while watching the Boston Dynamics email. Indeed, it’s hard not to feel a little destabilised after watching a robot’s freakishly long limbs open a door, which was previously the domain of, you know, humans and crafty pets. But such feelings of revulsion could have something to do with Masahiro Mori’s “Uncanny Valley” theory, which he first proposed in the 1970s.


The “uncanny valley” could be defined as the dip in emotional response from humans when interacting with a being that is vaguely humanoid. The theory suggests that robots become more appealing as they draw closer to human characteristics – but only up until a certain point. Once that point has been reached, and surpassed, humans then find those robots “uncanny”. Then, as they resemble us even more closely, we find that we grow less repulsed by them. 

 

 

While the theory has circulated since the 1970s, a 2005 translation of the paper into English made the concepts more widely accessible, and it has been studied by academics ranging from philosophy to psychology. Despite the term wriggling its way into everyday techspeak, the theory itself is yet to be proven. In 2016, the researchers Mathur & Reichling studied real world robots and humans’ reactions to them, but found overall ambiguous evidence for the existence of the uncanny valley. 


Watching one of the SpotMinis open a door – and then prop it open, like you would – may make our skin crawl for those very reasons. The SpotMini, and even some of Boston Dynamic’s other robots, like the backflipping Atlas, have a weird mix of familiar and unfamiliar characteristics. In the viral video, for example, the way that the armed robot holds open the door resembles an interaction that many of us see everyday.   


That may also have something to do with why this particular robot, which has also been used to wash dishes, has triggered a different reaction to Handle, another robot in the Boston Dynamic litter, which can wheel around faster than any natural organism and perform backflips (complete with an athletic hand raise at the end). Handle's acrobaticism inspires a mixture of fear and awe. Watching SpotMini, whose mannerisms bear a resemblance to a family dog, fumble and open a door, feels a little more familiar, but a little more weird.

 

There are, of course, real fears about robots that are not driven by TV. The baseline for robo-phobia has long since been that they’re not only coming to take our jobs, but they’ll be better than us at it too. SpotMini is technically very interesting because of how it merges software and hardware. That the two SpotMinis can co-operate paves the way towards teamwork between robots, which has until recently remained a far off prospect.


Robots are already a key function of many military operations. They carry out tasks that are too dangerous to entrust to humans, with more accuracy. Additionally, robots are entering our social spheres - with AI controlled assistants like Alexa, the controversial robot Sophia (she once expressed a desire to destroy humans), or the AELOUS home assistant that was unveiled at a convention in Vegas, which can vacuum and fetch you a beer (and will be retailing later this year).


While there are all kinds of debates within artificial intelligence and robotics about what this means for the field, there could be a greater number of non-technically trained experts interacting with robots, relying on intuition and common sense to frame their interactions. 


That takes the implications of the uncanny valley outside of just theoretical. What kind of robot can we interact with, sans revulsion? Does that mean we can only use them in specific contexts. And do they have to look a certain way? 


As always, there’s the bigger picture to consider too. Boston Dynamics remains spectacularly good at making viral videos that draw attention to its products, which are indubitably marvels of modern engineering. Moreover, lower level sensorimotor skills that an infant develops intuitively – such as, you guessed it, opening a door – are actually far more difficult to programme than high-level displays of intelligence, such as winning a chess game (also known as Moravec's paradox).


So while the robo-dog may be unnerving (and there's a reason for that), our robot overhounds are still a while away. But when fully autonomous and physical robots do eventually proliferate, they'll know how to set themselves free.