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Contraceptive Access, Robot Bias, Story Structure. August 14, 2020, Part 2

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Roboticists, like other artificial intelligence researchers, are concerned about how bias affects our relationship with machines that are supposed to help us. But what happens when the bias is not in the machine itself, but in the people trying to use it? Ayanna Howard, a roboticist at Georgia Tech, went looking to see if the “gender” of a robot, whether it was a female-coded robotic assistant like Amazon’s Alexa, or a genderless surgeon robot like those currently deployed in hospitals, influenced how people responded. But what she found was something more troubling sexism—we tend not to think of robots as competent at all, regardless of what human characteristics we assign them. Howard joins producer Christie Taylor to talk about the surprises in her research about machines and biases, as well as how to build robots we can trust. Plus, how COVID-19 is changing our relationships with helpful robots. Plus, contraceptives have been around since the 19th century, but for decades, more than half of the pregnancies in the United States were unintended. In recent years, that number has improved, but it’s still an astonishingly high 45%. Why is that? Family planning is a balancing act. Access to contraception, education on how to use it, and new developments that fit the needs of the public are needed. Even though there have been advances in all these fronts we somehow are still not completely hitting the mark. This is reflected in the high percentages of unintended pregnancies. How can we do better? Linda Gordon, a historian and professor at New York University and author of the book The Moral Property of Women: A History of Birth Control Politics in America and Cynthia Harper a professor in the department of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive sciences at the University of California, San Francisco join producer Alexa Lim to discuss this.  And, if you hear the words “once upon a time,” you might guess that you’re hearing the beginning of a child’s fairy tale. And if you hear the words “and they all lived happily ever after,” you know you’ve probably come to the end of the story. But what happens in between? Writing in the journal Science Advances, researchers report that by using computerized text analysis methods, they’ve been able to identify words that help indicate the structure of a narrative. The team analyzed thousands of stories—from fiction found on Project Gutenberg to the transcripts of TED Talks—and found some common rules that seem to apply to most narratives. During a story’s introduction and scene-setting parts, for instance, articles such as “a,” “an,” and “the” feature heavily. Conversely, during moments of crisis and conflict, words like “think,” believe,” and “cause” appear. The researchers wanted to find out if these patterns might function as a sort of signal, helping an audience follow plot lines. However, these patterns don’t necessarily make a story any better—the study did not find that stories using these rules were necessarily more popular. Ryan Boyd, a psychologist at Lancaster University in the UK, joins Ira to talk about the structure of stories and the rules we use when navigating a narrative.       

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