Meet the little-known group inside of Google that’s fighting terrorists and trolls all across the web (GOOG, GOOGL)

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Jigsaw, Patricia Georgiou

  • Google and its parent company Alphabet are well aware that the internet has been a boon to bad people who want to do bad things. 
  • Alphabet employs a little-known group called Jigsaw, with a mandate to create tech to combat terrorist recruitment, misinformation and hate speech on social media and beyond. 
  • Its tools attempt to do everything from protecting journalists to spreading facts.

On Patricia Georgiou’s first day at Google-parent company Alphabet, she went to the office, grabbed her employee badge, and ran right back out to the airport for a trip to Iraq to interview terrorists. 

She was thrilled.

"I spent one week in Kurdistan interviewing ISIS defectors: former ISIS fighters who went to the caliphate to become suicide bombers," she told Business Insider.

During that time, she and the other Alphabet staffers on her new team learned how and why the defectors initially became radicalized and the role technology played in recruiting them.

It was exactly the kind of work Georgiou dreamed of doing when she applied to Google in 2016, braving its infamous battery of job interviews to land a spot as Business Development & Strategic Partnerships at Jigsaw — the not-so-well-known team of security specialists at Alphabet, with a big, ambitious mission: Ensuring that technology is used for good.  

Fighting terrorists

Georgiou is an international law and business expert who speaks five languages, including Arabic and Armenian, and has lived all over the world.

isis pamphletShe first became aware of Jigsaw after it was born in 2010 as Google Ideas, under founder Jared Cohen. 

Cohen is a counter-terrorism expert who worked under both Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton. He came to Google as the tech giant began to realize that the internet was a double-edged sword, just as capable of helping spread information as it was of enabling bad people to do bad things. 

The group was originally trying to counter the rising wave of terrorists using social media and the web to radicalize people. 

Jigsaw’s work has since expanded to counter other misuse of the web, such as booting internet trolls from web forums. It is also working to protect news or political websites from distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks — a common technique where bad guys make a website inaccessible by overloading it with fake web traffic.

The Redirect Method

That first week on the job, when she flew to Iraq for her interviews, was "fascinating," Georgiou describes, but it was "also really useful" to talk to people who were recruited in that way.

"Thanks to these insights, we’ve developed something called the ‘Redirect Method,’" she says, now used by organizations across the globe. 

Rather than just removing that recruitment content, Jigsaw’s method advises education. Anyone searching for that content is shown videos and ads that debunk the propaganda, instead. 

This method is really important, she says, because of how many young people were getting drawn in by promises of honor and glory if they left their existing life behind and joined the fight. 

"You think of an ISIS terrorist as this old guy. But they were all like 20-21, they were kids," she says referring to the people she interviewed."They really thought they were going to Muslim Disneyland."

They were promised a "perfect religious world," but "instead they wind up in this place of war and terror and dictatorship where they take away your phone and burn your passport and you can’t even leave if you want to and you are tortured or you have to kill people," she says.

That research taught the Jigsaw team that the most powerful way to combat radicalism wasn’t to remove content, but to help would-be terrorists get a sense of the reality of what they’re signing up for.

Trolls and conspiracies

For Google, a lot of the problems that Jigsaw is tackling hit close to home. Its YouTube service, for instance, has come under broad criticism for how its algorithm can surface misinformation and conspiracy theories, in its endless and automated quest to show you more of what it thinks you’ll be interested in. It also means that someone who watches one conspiracy theory video will be served up way more of them, deepening the viewer inside an insular echo chamber.

YouTube moon landingBut YouTube has taken advantage of Jigsaw’s Redirect Method to fight these effects. 

It has begun to surround so-called misinformation and conspiracy videos with links and context in the hopes to inform the viewer, it said in July.

Some have argued that these tactics aren’t enough and that YouTube needs to do more to outright ban these people from its platform — much like it eventually banned conspiracy theorist Alex Jones earlier this month after days of controversy.

But Georgiou is encouraged by YouTube’s work to defend against misuse, she says, and by the investment Alphabet is making in Jigsaw. Its crew has grown from six people when she joined, to about 60 today.

"Obviously, it’s not an easy problem to solve because on YouTube alone there are 300 hours of videos that are uploaded every minute, and hundreds of millions of comments uploaded to Facebook and Twitter every minute," she said. "Even if you hired the entire humanity to review every single thing on the internet there would not be enough."

But, she says, she believes the internet companies really are taking their role seriously. "There are a lot of different initiatives being done in this area," she says.

For instance, there’s an industry effort called the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism, which includes YouTube, Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter and others. And there are other efforts, like Share the Facts, which helps fact-checkers work and share their results across the internet and is used by Google News.

SEE ALSO: How this woman went from a Pizza Hut employee to a founder of a $4 billion startup

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How to Learn to Swim as an Adult

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If you never learned to swim, it’s not too late. In this video, we follow Terry, 35, who never got around to learning to swim, and JR, 30, who’s been afraid of the water since nearly drowning as a child. They start by learning basic swimming safety in the shallow end of the pool, overcome fears of the water and of being in front of strangers in a bathing suit, and by the last day they’re swimming, for real, in the deep end. Jealous? Look for adult swimming classes at your local pool, Red Cross, or YMCA.

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A dominant shark lurks in the deep, dark ocean. Meet the sixgill.

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On a balmy Caribbean evening in August, crew members aboard the the 184-foot exploration vessel the Alucia tied dead fish to the front of a small yellow submarine. 

They tightly wound the fish to a metal pole extending out from the undersea craft to tempt whatever might be lurking, three thousand feet below.

But Dean Grubbs, one of the researchers preparing the bait, didn’t intend to catch anything. Grubbs, a shark scientist at Florida State University, only hoped to attract a little-seen creature that largely dwells in the lightless ocean depths: the sixgill shark.

“They’re one of the oldest lineages of living sharks. That, by itself, makes them cool,” Grubbs, who with his long black hair and dark beard looks like he would fit right in at an Iron Maiden concert, said.

Unlike the charismatic sharks often spotted near the surface — hammerheads, great whites, and tiger sharks — the sixgill spends most of its life in the deep ocean, some 700 feet to 3,200 feet (200 to 1,000 meters) below the surface. It’s not easy to understand the sixgills, though Grubbs has glimpsed the sharks’ mysterious existence by tagging their dorsal fins with GPS devices.

OceanX lead scientist Vince Pieribone and sub pilot Lee Frey accompany Mashable's Mark Kaufman on an earlier dive.

OceanX lead scientist Vince Pieribone and sub pilot Lee Frey accompany Mashable’s Mark Kaufman on an earlier dive.

Image: Bubby Pavlo/OceanX Media

Far under the sea, the sixgill has carved out a niche as the biggest, dominant predator of the deep tropical and temperate latitudes — a huge swath of ocean.

It’s mostly lightless down there, at least to humans. But the sixgills, and their creepy, vivid green eyes, are adapted to this black world. 

“It’s pitch dark to us, but to them, it’s daylight,” said Grubbs.

This species of shark is also ancient. At some 200 million years old the sixgill — so named for its sixth gill when most sharks have five — predates most dinosaurs.

Beyond their mystique, Grubbs has good reason to seek out these sharks. 

For years he’s been tracking where these ancient creatures go, why they go there, and the role they play in the deeps. But this requires catching the massive beasts, hauling them to the surface on a fishing line, and attaching a GPS tracker to their dorsal fin before releasing them back into the water. 

It rattles them, said Grubbs. 

So he’s come aboard the exploration vessel Alucia, operated by the deep sea exploration organization OceanX, to try a new idea. He’ll meet the sixgills where they live, thousands of feet beneath the surface. As the sharks swoop by to investigate the dead fish attached to the submersible, Grubbs will attempt to tag them with a GPS dart. 

Credit: Cape Eleuthera Island School/OceanX Media

On that evening at sea in August, Grubbs climbed through the hatch atop the Alucia and sat down inside the craft’s big bubble, which is sandwiched between two yellow slabs holding cameras and propellers. 

The bubble may initially appear vulnerable, but it’s built out of seven-inch thick plexiglass, designed to withstand the unrelenting weight of water pressing down on the craft, and the three occupants inside. 

Using a great hook dangling from the Alucia’s crane, submarine crew members raised the submersible into the air before gently plopping it into the Caribbean waters off of Eleuthera, a long, thin island in the eastern Bahamas. 

A wild-haired diver leapt off the Alucia’s nearby dinghy to unhitch the bobbing submersible from the crane, and then Grubbs, along with another scientist and submarine pilot, began to sink beneath the surface, and soon disappeared. 

Credit: OceanX Media

The submersible dropped down to the ocean floor like a space capsule parachuting down to Earth in slow motion. 

All is still in this forever wilderness, save the robotic sounds of the submersible. At first, an omnipresent blue glow pervades everything, dying human skin an alien, indigo color. Then, the light dims to dusk as the craft continues its descent. Eventually, there’s little to no light. Here, the sixgills dwell.

Down in the dark, one realizes why the sixgills evolved eons ago, but remain unchanged. They had no need to evolve.

“They’ve been living in a pretty constant environment for a very, very long time,” Chip Cotton, a marine scientist who also researches sixgills, but took no part in this expedition, said in an interview. 

On the surface, volcanoes rumble, continents collide, ice ages pass, and warfare ensues. But the sixgill shark, who holds dominion over this distant black realm, doesn’t flinch. 

A bluntnose sixgill's serrated teeth and vivid green eye. There are three known species of sixgills.

A bluntnose sixgill’s serrated teeth and vivid green eye. There are three known species of sixgills.

The shark has spent millions years passing lethargically through the deep sea, said Cotton. And for good reason. 

“If you think about energy expenditures, food is kind of a luxury down there,” explained Cotton, saying that the creatures don’t needlessly waste energy by zipping around the sea floor.

The sixgills are masters of eating the dead. Their teeth, which have remained mostly unaltered for some 200 million years, are uniquely designed for twisting and tearing off big chunks of fallen whales, or large dead fishes.

“It’s a good way to make a living,” said Cotton.

Down in the dark, Grubbs waited patiently for the sixgills to arrive at the submersible. 

The night before, a curious sixgill swam right in front of him, just beyond the glass bubble. But he couldn’t get off a safe shot to tag the shark on its cartilaginous fins. The shark only exposed its underbelly, an area Grubbs didn’t want to risk harming.

Still, when Grubbs returned to the surface, he considered the mission a success. It almost worked. 

Now, down in the depths again for five hours, Grubbs hoped other sixgills would be tempted by the easy meal perched directly in front of the submersible, and within sight of the dart guns. 

Credit: Cape Eleuthera Island School/OceanX Media

But on this night, no sixgills came to visit the bait. 

Grubbs mused they needed to bring a larger hunk of meat, perhaps a pig. 

Yet, the mission wasn’t a failure. It’s precisely the type of experiment that interests OceanX, which in 2012 captured the first and only footage of the legendary giant squid wrapping its tentacles around part of the very same submersible Grubbs sat in.

“We’re into trying unprecedented things out there,” Vincent Pieribone, a Yale neuroscientist who oversees OceanX’s science operations, said in an interview. “What’s interesting to us is the untested, high-risk, high-reward type stuff.”

Grubbs hopes to return to realm of the sixgills again, and give the mission another shot.

Protecting the sixgills

Sharks that live in deep waters are generally vulnerable to overfishing. They get caught in nets like other fish, and hauled to the surface.

But not the sixgill. These large sharks have been mostly safe in their dark realms. Here, they’re numerous, but hard to find.

“We don’t go to their house often looking for them, so they’re perceived as rare,” said Cotton. 

They’re generally too big to catch, and too strong for hooks and lines, said Grubbs.

But every once in a while, someone accidentally snags a sixgill, and they take the sharks’ valuable livers.

Credit: Edie Widder and Dean Grubbs

“They throw the rest overboard,” said Grubbs. “The rationalization was the sharks were going to die anyways,” due to the trauma of being caught and taken from their usual waters.

But Grubbs wondered, is that true?

In 2005, he decided to do something that had never been done in order to figure out an answer to that question. He wanted to catch the elusive sixgill sharks, to see if they could survive the trauma after being forced out of the water.

Grubbs was told that it simply could not be done. Capturing a large deep sea shark is a daunting task. Doing it many times is beyond reason.

“We took that as a challenge,” said Grubbs.

Grubbs set out at sea, and has since caught 23 sixgills in an ongoing project that continues today. 

After releasing them into the water with GPS tags, he found 90 percent of them survived, and continued roaming the depths. 

It seemed sixgills needn’t be slaughtered just because they were hauled to the surface.

“Lo and behold, that assumption was totally wrong,” said Cotton. 

Dean Grubbs in Hawaiian waters with a sixgill shark.

Dean Grubbs in Hawaiian waters with a sixgill shark.

In their dark ocean homes, the sixgills might be king, but it’s not as if other predators aren’t lurking in these waters.

Tiger sharks, large dominant predators near the coast, sometimes venture into the sixgills’ realm. It’s likely they chew up smaller sixgills said Cotton. 

“I would be surprised if they didn’t,” he said, emphasizing that it might be the sixgills’ territory, but there are no walls keeping other predators out. 

“None of these things exist in a vacuum,” said Cotton. “Everything is interconnected in some way.” 

And in the a cold, lightless world where food is scarce and one eats what is available, both Grubbs and Cotton said the sixgills also hunt each other.

Even a monstrous 17-foot long sixgill Grubbs once hauled aboard a research vessel needs to look over its shoulder.

“There’s always a bigger predator,” he said. 

 

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Enter the Deepest, Darkest Parts of the Mind with Al Mefer’s ‘Phantoms of the Brain’

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All images by Al Mefer. Used with Creative Commons permission.

It goes without saying that the brain is a powerful thing. Not only does it act as a big computer that controls our body, it sets us humans apart from other creatures as it lets us think and experience many different emotions. The brain lets us process our senses and feelings so we could come up with some of our most creative, possibly even game-changing ideas that could go as far as help the world one way or another.

But as we know, things are not always bright and sunny inside our heads. The brain, after all, is complex, too, and so sometimes everything gets jumbled in there. Conflicting thoughts and feelings could leave us struggling, confused, and overwhelmed – with some people experiencing worse than others.

If you have ever wondered how the brain of a tortured mind looks like, look no further than this photo series by Alicante, Spain-based visual artist Al Mefer titled Phantoms of the Brain.

With Phantoms of the Brain, Mefer, a neuroscientist himself, brings to light some of the darker thoughts and feelings usually spoken about in hushed voices – if not completely suppressed. He takes creative liberty in interpreting psychological disorders such as obsession, anxiety, and depression by combining trees, rays of light, fog, and color.

Using trees and light to symbolize these intangible states seemed a natural choice given that the most prominent part of a neuron is called the dendrite, from the Greek work déndron or tree, which transmits electrical signals to the cell body. Meanwhile, the fog that casts the photos acts as a perfect detail, a beautiful yet haunting visual metaphor for the dark and gloomy state that the mind goes into when it suffers turbulent thoughts.

 

The anatomist Wilhelm His coined the term “dendrites” (from Greek “déndron”, translated as “tree”) to describe the branch-like extensions of neurons, the basic units of the brain, that propagate electrochemical information towards other cells. Since then, neuroscientists employ the simile of the tree to describe neurons as of their structural resemblance. In this photography series called “Phantoms of the Brain” trees are depicted in turbulent landscapes full of fog and rays of light as imagery of a mind sickened by obsessions, anxiety, depression and despair.

Don’t forget to visit Al Mefer’s website or Behance portfolio to see more of his work.



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Medical breakthroughs we will see in the next 50 years

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How would you like to regrow limbs, or save babies born prematurely? What if a pig could help you with a replacement heart? The future of medicine may make all this possible, and more. Following is a transcript of the video.

In the last century, we’ve eradicated smallpox and learned how to transplant hearts from one human to another. But we still have a long way to go. Here are some medical breakthroughs we may see in the next 50 years.

First up: Saving premature babies10% of newborns in America are born too soon. Many die. And those who do survive usually face a lifetime of health issues. But researchers at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia are working on a solution.

In 2017, they created artificial wombs for premature lamb fetuses. After 4 weeks in the artificial womb, the fetuses had: More well-developed organs, started to grow a wool coat, and some even opened their eyes. In the future, a similar setup could help premature human babies fully develop after birth as well.

Next in line is to solve the organ shortage crisis. Thousands of Americans die each year waiting for a transplant. To end this, a team of researchers are trying to grow human organs inside of pigs. Turns out, pigs have organs that are similar in size to some human organs. And can mature faster — in just 9 months. For comparison, it takes years for those same organs to mature in humans. This would make it possible to grow more organs for transplants, more quickly. But it’s not easy for cells from one species to survive inside another.

Which is why it was a big deal when researchers successfully grew human stem cells inside a pig embryo in 2016. This human-pig hybrid was the first major step in the right direction. But harvesting organs from pigs may not be the only option for transplant candidates. Another group of researchers out of Massachusetts’s Worcester Polytechnic Institute have turned spinach leaves into this [show].

Which could become a way to heal damaged organs, instead of replacing them all together. You see, the spinach leaves have a network of veins that, ordinarily, transport water through the plant.  But here, researchers filled the veins with a red dye, similar to blood. And replaced the plant cells with muscle cells from a human heart, which, in the process, turned the plant translucent. The muscle cells then started pumping the red dye through the veins as if they were blood vessels in a real heart!

Now, this is just the beginning. But the researchers envision healing damaged organs and tissue with plant grafts using everything from spinach to broccoli.

Last but not least is perhaps the most ambitious mission of all: regeneration. An estimated 185,000 amputations happen each year in the US. And while prosthetics are growing increasingly advanced, they can’t replace the real thing. Which is why scientists have recently taken an interest in a special type of salamander, called the axolotl. Which can regrow just about anything including limbs, lungs, and even its eyes. And scientists are finally starting to unlock the axolotl’s secret by identifying the genes that are responsible for its regeneration superpowers.

Hoping that, maybe one day, we could genetically engineer a drug that emulates the same regrowth in humans. Whether it’s saving lives or improving them, modern medicine certainly has an interesting future ahead.

 

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