Words from the WWW #4

Updated: May 5, 2021

In this here fourth post on IMAGINEER's Words from the WWW, I bring you the economics of nature conservation efforts; the overall results from studies looking at content apprehension between digital and physical media; and considerations on aesthetics - what does it mean that an AI can create images perceived as pleasing simply out of a person's brainwaves?

PS: Click the header images to go through to the story source.


The Economics of Nature Conservation Efforts

A team of researchers from Cambridge University conducted the largest-scale ever study into economic returns from both exploiting the natural environment (for natural resources such as timber and coal) as opposed to the benefits that could be derived from conservation efforts (such as carbon storage and repurposing for flood protection, for instance).

The study - wide-reaching in that it analysed dozens of sites across six continents - projected both venues of exploitation 50 years into the future. The conclusion? That solely based on carbon sequestration, 100% of forests gave greater economic returns than if that area were exploited for its natural resources. Considering that each tonne of emitted carbon gasses (from cars, industry, and so on) costs some $31 yearly (in variables such as reduced respiratory health and the accompanying investment in healthcare, for example), one just has to extrapolate the cost of reducing biodiversity and protected areas for economical benefit at a worldwide scale.

The conclusion, when all is said and done, is scientific data (one might even consider it proof) that short-term economic gains from exploiting nature are offset, in the long-run, by actually exploring its natural resources in a sustainable way. As they put it, “Our results add to evidence that conserving and restoring key biodiversity areas makes sense not only to safeguard our natural heritage, but also by providing wider economic benefits to society.” How's that for economic benefit?


Is it Better to Read in a Physical or a Digital Medium?

Addison Rizer from Book Riot writes an interesting article summing up the current research around the eternal, bibliophile-consuming debate of choosing a physical or digital mediu. The result from the latest 30 years of studies seems to point towards the physical media being king: students reading physical books score higher than those using digital mediums; reading speed is higher in physical vs digital; and there's also the anecdotal evidence that a book smells extraordinarily good, hence, it's just better (now you know which side of the debate I'm on).

A Norwegian study concluded that “paper readers did report higher on measures having to do with empathy and transportation and immersion, and narrative coherence, than iPad readers.” This happens because we've grown accustomed - with digital media - to skim or dart around webpages or Instagram feeds - and consuming a book via an e-reader provides the same digital grounding for our actions. Other details, such as the physicality of a book - that you feel it interact with you, the pages resisting your turns, the risk (or action, if you're one of those perverts) of damaging a page, all call towards the concentration of various senses and a deeper level of attention - and thus immersion - than digital.

Rizer also touches upon Walter Benjamin's concept of "an aura" being associated with the physicality of both our presence and an object's in the same space; how the physical experience of being in the presence of something bypasses our rational brain and goes straight for the emotional response. This is why some people prefer second or even fiftieth-hand books that have their corners bent, yellowed pages, and the scribblings of previous humans. The knowledge that an object has a history - and the thought of how that history may have helped other people's lives - increases our immersion, adding other value propositions to it that aren't available in digital mediums. That's why the physical world is king - it's the real thing, without any "smoothing" abstractions given to us by technology.


AI Dives Deep Into the Aesthetics and Brain Response to Beauty

Anand Kumar with Sciencemint writes an article regarding the latest AI-powered studies on the brain processes behind humans' aesthetics considerations and perceptions. That there is a neurological reaction when we witness beauty is a given - scientists have long seen synapses firing when a subject looks at something he/she considers aesthetically pleasing. Trying to dive deeper into these processes, researchers from the Universities of Helsinki and Copenhagen made a study pairing a Tinder-esque presentation of human faces and a GAN (Generative Adversarial Network, one manifestation of what is currently called the AI field).

This is how it worked: the AI created hundreds of human faces that were then presented individually to the research subjects, which were hooked up to an EEG (Electroencephalography) machine which read their brain's response to the presented image. When the subject was presented with a face that they found attractive, all they had to do was sit still and appreciate it, instead of swiping to the next one (lessons could be learned for the Tinder world from here). That allowed the system to analyse their brain response, which in turn led the AI to then generate new faces based on the subject's aesthetic response - the objective was to increase the intensity of the brain response, which would indicate that aesthetic considerations were themselves increasing in intensity (going from "nice" to "beautiful" to "I can die happy now", so to speak).

This research proves that AIs can observe neurological manifestations of psychological features - abstractions of the human mind. It also suggests that a person's aesthetic taste can be predicted solely based on their brain activity, without the need for any physical manifestations to occur - dilating pupils, blushing, awkwardness, or the ultimate level: a Tinder Super Like.


And that's all for this week. If you enjoyed any of the articles and want to comment on anything related to them, feel free. Have a great weekend!

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