Connect with us





comic panel 1

Secreted beneath MIT’s Killian Court and accessible only through a subterranean labyrinth of tunnels, a clandestine lab conducts boundary-pushing research, fed by money siphoned from a Department of Defense grant. In these shadowed, high-tech halls, astrophysicist and astronaut Valentina Resnick-Baker, who is experiencing strange phenomena after an encounter with a planet-threatening asteroid, discovers she has the power of plasma fusion. 

Resnick-Baker is the buff and brainy heroine of Summit, a 15-issue comic series created and written by Amy Chu ’91. The situations may be fictional, but the science is—broadly—real. (Chu did background research on plasma physics for the series, and when writing about the Batman villain Poison Ivy, she learned the basics of CRISPR so Ivy could deploy it to develop her own plant “kids.”) “The thing that has bothered me for a long time is that a lot of superhero stories are based on complete nonsense,” says Chu, 54. “Every story I do I try to ground in science.” 

That a graduate of MIT prefers scientific plausibility to Kryptonite and radioactive spider bites may be the least surprising thing about Chu. At age 42, after a successful career spent largely in conference rooms, this erstwhile management consultant entered her own alternate universe as a comic book writer. First through her publishing startup, Alpha Girl Comics, and now through work for heavyweights like Marvel and DC, Chu is reimagining a traditionally white male medium for girls, Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders, and others who rarely see themselves in its color-saturated panels.

“A lot of superhero stories are based on complete nonsense. Every story I do I try to ground in science.”

Amy Chu

With comics, Chu is pursuing both a market opportunity and a social agenda, the latter familiar to the battle-scarred women of gaming. “All these people are screaming and hollering about comics: that they are dying because girls and women are killing them,” says Chu, referring to well-publicized misogyny directed at female creators and fans. “The future of comics hinges on the ability to get girls as readers.” 

comic panel 2

comic panel 3
comic panel 4

Making the team

Chu’s advocacy for women and girls began as advocacy for herself. Her parents, who immigrated from Hong Kong in 1968, moved the family around the country for her father’s positions in nuclear and, later, medical physics. In 1980 they ended up in Iowa City, where Chu balanced nerdy predilections (chess team, Dungeons & Dragons, text-based computer games) with a love of soccer. Her school had only a boys’ team, which she made—but the coach wouldn’t let her play. Chu’s family sued the school district and won. 

In 1985 Chu moved to Massachusetts and embarked on a dual-degree program that required her to divide her time between MIT, where she studied architectural design, and Wellesley, where she pursued East Asian studies. But it was at MIT’s Phi Beta Epsilon fraternity that she met her destiny. Chu’s boyfriend at the time was a member there, and the girlfriend of one of his friends had been storing a large box stuffed with comics at the frat. Many were from First Comics, an alternative publisher specializing in spies, adventurers, and science fiction. “I read almost the entire box that summer,” says Chu, who previously had equated comics with superheroes. “It was a revelation.” 

That’s the origin story. But Chu’s career in comics was a long way off. At Wellesley she did dabble in publishing, launching a cultural journal to prod the creation of a class in Asian-American studies. And after graduating from Wellesley in 1989, she moved to New York to cofound A. Magazine, a general-interest publication for Asian-American readers. But Chu knew that a startup magazine was unlikely to make enough money to survive, so after about a year she returned to Cambridge to finish her MIT degree. (A. lasted another eight years.) 

After senior jobs at several Asian-American nonprofits in New York, Chu spent two and a half years in Hong Kong and Macau. While overseas she worked for billionaire businesswoman Pansy Ho, who owned a PR firm that produced events for luxury brands, and also worked with her family’s business developing tourism in Macau. Ho became a mentor. 

Chu returned to the US to attend Harvard Business School and in 1999, MBA in hand, boarded the management-consulting train. Two years at the strategic consultancy Marakon helped her retire some Brobdingnagian student loans. Then Ho asked Chu to assist a few of her biotech investments in the US. That touched off close to a decade of business trips and PowerPoints, with Chu working as an independent consultant for Ho and others. “There was a great need at that time for biotech Red Sonjas,” she says, referring to the flame-haired mercenary about whom she also has written.

By 2010, Chu was burnt out. Not only was her work intense, but she was raising two young children and exhausted from treatment for breast cancer. At the first Harvard Asian-American Alumni Summit, she connected with Georgia Lee, a friend who had engineered a 180-degree turn from consulting to writing and filmmaking. Lee laid out her new vision for a comics publisher targeting girls and women. Back then, female characters in established comics were reduced largely to cleavage and catsuits for the eyes of a presumed male readership.

The paucity of comics created by and for women awoke the sense of unfairness that had driven Chu back in Iowa. “I made the team in soccer,” she says. “I would make the team in comics.”

 Becoming a writer

Chu and Lee’s startup, Alpha Girl Comics, debuted with a sci-fi Western by Lee called Meridien City. The founders planned to release work by other women later. As Chu prepared to take on the role of publisher, Lee urged her to learn every aspect of the business. So Chu signed up for a comic writing and editing program created by a former Marvel editor. “That’s where I got hooked,” she says.

Shortly after Alpha Girl released its first title, Lee couldn’t pass up the opportunity to direct a film in Hong Kong. By that time, Chu had written some stories of her own. “The whole thing shifted over to me,” she says. “So I said, I guess I will publish my stuff, with a bunch of artists.” (Like many comic writers, Chu crafts stories and collaborates with artists who draw the panels.)

Though her background doesn’t scream “comics creator,” it actually prepared her well for the work, she says. From the soulless labor of PowerPoint generation during her consulting career, she mastered economy of storytelling. And architectural design, her major at MIT, taught her to optimize space within constraints. (Chu compares fitting a full-blown fight scene into a 10-page comic to fitting a grand piano into a studio apartment: “You have to sacrifice things or it will be a bad experience.”) 

For Alpha Girl, Chu wrote and produced two titles. Girls Night Out is a three-volume series that follows the adventures of a woman with dementia and her friends, who abscond from a nursing home. VIP Room is a one-off horror tale about five strangers imprisoned in a mysterious place. But hustling sales at conventions—Alpha Girl’s chief form of distribution—did not pave a path to prosperity. To raise her industry profile and make a little more money, Chu became a pen-for-hire, spinning new adventures for pop-culture icons developed by Marvel, DC Comics, and other publishers.

Girls Night Out comic cover
Sea Sirens comic cover
Wonderwoman comic cover

Chu’s decade-long career in comics has included a venture in independent publishing, graphic novels for young readers, and contemporary re-imaginings of the industry’s most iconic characters.

One notable creation was the story arc she developed in 2016 for Poison Ivy, a Batman villain who’d debuted in 1966 as a plant-obsessed eco-terrorist. Chu rethought the character as she produced Ivy’s first solo series, taking a sympathetic approach to her complicated morality. After getting feedback during a Wonder Con panel about the scarcity of Asian-Americans in comics, she added a South Asian male lead, partly inspired by a Jain classmate from MIT. (“Jains are extreme vegetarians, which of course was very interesting to Ivy,” she says.) Comics, says Chu, give her “a platform to increase representation and diversity.”

Comics also provide her with opportunities to get a little silly. In 2016, Chu began writing about the popular character Red Sonja, transplanting the sword-wielding barbarian from a fictional country and epoch to modern-day New York City. A few years later, Dynamite Entertainment and Archie Comics asked her to create a limited-series crossover between Sonja and Riverdale’s favorite female teen frenemies. “I thought, that is so ridiculous I am just going to say no,” says Chu of what ultimately became Red Sonja & Vampirella Meet Betty & Veronica. “Then I thought, if I can do it and make it good, that is a testament to my ability.”  

 MIT inspiration

Chu soon became a sought-after writer and is often asked to provide a fresh perspective on characters that may have been conceived decades ago. Ideas come from all over, including MIT Technology Review, which Chu calls “grounded in science and forward-thinking.” 

The Institute has proffered inspiration in other ways. At a Baltimore Comic Con where she was on a panel, Chu reconnected with Wisdom Coleman ’91. Coleman talked about his experiences as a combat pilot in Afghanistan and the women who served alongside him there. The lives of those women became the basis for Chu’s first Wonder Woman story, about a female pilot who wonders whether her own heroics are in fact the work of the Lady of the Golden Lariat. (They’re not.)

Characters like that female pilot and Resnick-Baker, the astrophysicist-­astronaut at the heart of the Summit series, dress as Chu conceived them: like real women doing real work. Characters that Chu did not create, by contrast, often are rendered in the hypersexualized style she detests. There’s not much she can do about it. “A lot is dependent on the editor and the editor’s selection of the artist,” she says. One sign of progress, she observes, is the less exploitative approach of comic books targeting young audiences or produced by a growing cadre of female editors. 

Chu sometimes will push back, as when an artist working on one of her books depicted Poison Ivy in a thong. “I literally was on a call where I walked them through the Victoria’s Secret catalogue and told them what would be appropriate,” she says. “Somewhere between bikini and boy shorts is what I was imagining.” (The artist made the change.)

Today Chu gets so much work from mainstream publishers that she lacks time for Alpha Girl, which has not released a new title in several years. (Lee went on to write for television, notably for the Syfy and Amazon Prime Video series The Expanse.) She wants to revisit Alpha Girl, but “I keep getting stuff where I am like, I have got to write that because it is pretty cool,” she says. “Green Hornet? Yeah, I want to write Green Hornet! Wonder Woman? Of course!”

Chu also has ventured into more traditional publishing. In 2019 and 2020 Viking released two volumes of Sea Sirens, a graphic novel for middle graders created by Chu and her friend Janet K. Lee, the Eisner Award–winning illustrator. Adapted from a 1911 underwater fantasy by Wizard of Oz author L. Frank Baum, Chu and Lee’s updated version reimagines the heroine, Trot, as a Vietnamese-American girl in Southern California. Her adult male companion is now a talking cat. “The idea of a young girl wandering around with a strange older man having adventures raises a lot of questions these days,” says Chu.

There are other demands on Chu’s time. Three years ago, she was recruited to write two episodes for the Netflix series DOTA: Dragon’s Blood, based on the popular video game. (A second, undisclosed Netflix program is in the works.) She’s also starting work on a comic series based on the Borderlands video games. On a different track, another MIT friend, Norman Chen ’88, who now runs the Asian American Foundation, recruited Chu to produce an overview of Asian-American history for grade-school students. 

If Chu eventually does revive Alpha Girl, she may enjoy a new generation of readers and contributors. About 10 years ago the Girl Scouts created a Comic Artist badge, and Chu was flooded with requests to address the troops. “In a few years, a lot more women will have had this exposure,” she says. “If they are anything like me, they will get hooked.”

Continue Reading


The AI myth Western lawmakers get wrong



China just announced a new social credit law. Here’s what it means.

This story originally appeared in The Algorithm, our weekly newsletter on AI. To get stories like this in your inbox first, sign up here.

While the US and the EU may differ on how to regulate tech, their lawmakers seem to agree on one thing: the West needs to ban AI-powered social scoring.

As they understand it, social scoring is a practice in which authoritarian governments—specifically China—rank people’s trustworthiness and punish them for undesirable behaviors, such as stealing or not paying back loans. Essentially, it’s seen as a dystopian superscore assigned to each citizen. 

The EU is currently negotiating a new law called the AI Act, which will ban member states, and maybe even private companies, from implementing such a system.

The trouble is, it’s “essentially banning thin air,” says Vincent Brussee, an analyst at the Mercator Institute for China Studies, a German think tank.

Back in 2014, China announced a six-year plan to build a system rewarding actions that build trust in society and penalizing the opposite. Eight years on, it’s only just released a draft law that tries to codify past social credit pilots and guide future implementation. 

There have been some contentious local experiments, such as one in the small city of Rongcheng in 2013, which gave every resident a starting personal credit score of 1,000 that can be increased or decreased by how their actions are judged. People are now able to opt out, and the local government has removed some controversial criteria. 

But these have not gained wider traction elsewhere and do not apply to the entire Chinese population. There is no countrywide, all-seeing social credit system with algorithms that rank people.

As my colleague Zeyi Yang explains, “the reality is, that terrifying system doesn’t exist, and the central government doesn’t seem to have much appetite to build it, either.” 

What has been implemented is mostly pretty low-tech. It’s a “mix of attempts to regulate the financial credit industry, enable government agencies to share data with each other, and promote state-sanctioned moral values,” Zeyi writes. 

Kendra Schaefer, a partner at Trivium China, a Beijing-based research consultancy, who compiled a report on the subject for the US government, couldn’t find a single case in which data collection in China led to automated sanctions without human intervention. The South China Morning Post found that in Rongcheng, human “information gatherers” would walk around town and write down people’s misbehavior using a pen and paper. 

The myth originates from a pilot program called Sesame Credit, developed by Chinese tech company Alibaba. This was an attempt to assess people’s creditworthiness using customer data at a time when the majority of Chinese people didn’t have a credit card, says Brussee. The effort became conflated with the social credit system as a whole in what Brussee describes as a “game of Chinese whispers.” And the misunderstanding took on a life of its own. 

The irony is that while US and European politicians depict this as a problem stemming from authoritarian regimes, systems that rank and penalize people are already in place in the West. Algorithms designed to automate decisions are being rolled out en masse and used to deny people housing, jobs, and basic services. 

For example in Amsterdam, authorities have used an algorithm to rank young people from disadvantaged neighborhoods according to their likelihood of becoming a criminal. They claim the aim is to prevent crime and help offer better, more targeted support.  

But in reality, human rights groups argue, it has increased stigmatization and discrimination. The young people who end up on this list face more stops from police, home visits from authorities, and more stringent supervision from school and social workers.

It’s easy to take a stand against a dystopian algorithm that doesn’t really exist. But as lawmakers in both the EU and the US strive to build a shared understanding of AI governance, they would do better to look closer to home. Americans do not even have a federal privacy law that would offer some basic protections against algorithmic decision making. 

There is also a dire need for governments to conduct honest, thorough audits of the way authorities and companies use AI to make decisions about our lives. They might not like what they find—but that makes it all the more crucial for them to look.   

Deeper Learning

A bot that watched 70,000 hours of Minecraft could unlock AI’s next big thing

Research company OpenAI has built an AI that binged on 70,000 hours of videos of people playing Minecraft in order to play the game better than any AI before. It’s a breakthrough for a powerful new technique, called imitation learning, that could be used to train machines to carry out a wide range of tasks by watching humans do them first. It also raises the potential that sites like YouTube could be a vast and untapped source of training data. 

Why it’s a big deal: Imitation learning can be used to train AI to control robot arms, drive cars, or navigate websites. Some people, such as Meta’s chief AI scientist, Yann LeCun, think that watching videos will eventually help us train an AI with human-level intelligence. Read Will Douglas Heaven’s story here.

Bits and Bytes

Meta’s game-playing AI can make and break alliances like a human

Diplomacy is a popular strategy game in which seven players compete for control of Europe by moving pieces around on a map. The game requires players to talk to each other and spot when others are bluffing. Meta’s new AI, called Cicero, managed to trick humans to win. 

It’s a big step forward toward AI that can help with complex problems, such as planning routes around busy traffic and negotiating contracts. But I’m not going to lie—it’s also an unnerving thought that an AI can so successfully deceive humans. (MIT Technology Review) 

We could run out of data to train AI language programs 

The trend of creating ever bigger AI models means we need even bigger data sets to train them. The trouble is, we might run out of suitable data by 2026, according to a paper by researchers from Epoch, an AI research and forecasting organization. This should prompt the AI community to come up with ways to do more with existing resources. (MIT Technology Review)

Stable Diffusion 2.0 is out

The open-source text-to-image AI Stable Diffusion has been given a big facelift, and its outputs are looking a lot sleeker and more realistic than before. It can even do hands. The pace of Stable Diffusion’s development is breathtaking. Its first version only launched in August. We are likely going to see even more progress in generative AI well into next year. 

Continue Reading


Human creators stand to benefit as AI rewrites the rules of content creation



Human creators stand to benefit as AI rewrites the rules of content creation

A game-changer for content creation

Among the AI-related technologies to have emerged in the past several years is generative AI—deep-learning algorithms that allow computers to generate original content, such as text, images, video, audio, and code. And demand for such content will likely jump in the coming years—Gartner predicts that by 2025, generative AI will account for 10% of all data created, compared with 1% in 2022. 

Screenshot of Jason Allen’s work “Théâtre D’opéra Spatial,” Discord 

“Théâtre D’opéra Spatial” is an example of AI-generated content (AIGC), created with the Midjourney text-to-art generator program. Several other AI-driven art-generating programs have also emerged in 2022, capable of creating paintings from single-line text prompts. The diversity of technologies reflects a wide range of artistic styles and different user demands. DALL-E 2 and Stable Diffusion, for instance, are focused mainly on western-style artwork, while Baidu’s ERNIE-ViLG and Wenxin Yige produce images influenced by Chinese aesthetics. At Baidu’s deep learning developer conference Wave Summit+ 2022, the company announced that Wenxin Yige has been updated with new features, including turning photos into AI-generated art, image editing, and one-click video production.

Meanwhile, AIGC can also include articles, videos, and various other media offerings such as voice synthesis. A technology that generates audible speech indistinguishable from the voice of the original speaker, voice synthesis can be applied in many scenarios, including voice navigation for digital maps. Baidu Maps, for example, allows users to customize its voice navigation to their own voice just by recording nine sentences.

Recent advances in AI technologies have also created generative language models that can fluently compose texts with just one click. They can be used for generating marketing copy, processing documents, extracting summaries, and other text tasks, unlocking creativity that other technologies such as voice synthesis have failed to tap. One of the leading generative language models is Baidu’s ERNIE 3.0, which has been widely applied in various industries such as health care, education, technology, and entertainment.

“In the past year, artificial intelligence has made a great leap and changed its technological direction,” says Robin Li, CEO of Baidu. “Artificial intelligence has gone from understanding pictures and text to generating content.” Going one step further, Baidu App, a popular search and newsfeed app with over 600 million monthly users, including five million content creators, recently released a video editing feature that can produce a short video accompanied by a voiceover created from data provided in an article.

Improving efficiency and growth

As AIGC becomes increasingly common, it could make content creation more efficient by getting rid of repetitive, time-intensive tasks for creators such as sorting out source assets and voice recordings and rendering images. Aspiring filmmakers, for instance, have long had to pay their dues by spending countless hours mastering the complex and tedious process of video editing. AIGC may soon make that unnecessary. 

Besides boosting efficiency, AIGC could also increase business growth in content creation amid rising demand for personalized digital content that users can interact with dynamically. InsightSLICE forecasts that the global digital creation market will on average grow 12% annually between 2020 and 2030 and hit $38.2 billion. With content consumption fast outpacing production, traditional development methods will likely struggle to meet such increasing demand, creating a gap that could be filled by AIGC. “AI has the potential to meet this massive demand for content at a tenth of the cost and a hundred times or thousands of times faster in the next decade,” Li says.

AI with humanity as its foundation

AIGC can also serve as an educational tool by helping children develop their creativity. StoryDrawer, for instance, is an AI-driven program designed to boost children’s creative thinking, which often declines as the focus in their education shifts to rote learning. 

Continue Reading


The Download: the West’s AI myth, and Musk v Apple



The Download: the West’s AI myth, and Musk v Apple

While the US and the EU may differ on how to regulate tech, their lawmakers seem to agree on one thing: the West needs to ban AI-powered social scoring.

As they understand it, social scoring is a practice in which authoritarian governments—specifically China—rank people’s trustworthiness and punish them for undesirable behaviors, such as stealing or not paying back loans. Essentially, it’s seen as a dystopian superscore assigned to each citizen.

The reality? While there have been some contentious local experiments with social credit scores in China, there is no countrywide, all-seeing social credit system with algorithms that rank people.

The irony is that while US and European politicians try to ban systems that don’t really exist, systems that do rank and penalize people are already in place in the West—and are denying people housing and jobs in the process. Read the full story.

—Melissa Heikkilä

Melissa’s story is from The Algorithm, her weekly AI newsletter covering all of the industry’s most interesting developments. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Monday.

The must-reads

I’ve combed the internet to find you today’s most fun/important/scary/fascinating stories about technology.

1 Apple has reportedly threatened to pull Twitter from the App Store
According to Elon Musk. (NYT $)
+ Musk has threatened to “go to war” with the company after it decided to stop advertising on Twitter. (WP $)
+ Apple’s reluctance to advertise on Twitter right now isn’t exactly unique. (Motherboard)
+ Twitter’s child protection team in Asia has been gutted. (Wired $)

2 Another crypto firm has collapsed
Lender BlockFi has filed for bankruptcy, and is (partly) blaming FTX. (WSJ $)
+ The company is suing FTX founder Sam Bankman-Fried. (FT $)
+ It looks like the much-feared “crypto contagion” is spreading. (NYT $)

3 AI is rapidly becoming more powerful—and dangerous
That’s particularly worrying when its growth is too much for safety teams to handle. (Vox)
+ Do AI systems need to come with safety warnings? (MIT Technology Review)
+ This AI chat-room game is gaining a legion of fans. (The Guardian)

4 A Pegasus spyware investigation is in danger of being compromised 
It’s the target of a disinformation campaign, security experts have warned. (The Guardian)
+ Cyber insurance won’t protect you from theft of your data. (The Guardian)

5 Google gave the FBI geofence data for its January 6 investigation 
Google identified more than 5,000 devices near the US Capitol during the riot. (Wired $)

6 Monkeypox isn’t going anywhere
But it’s not on the rise, either. (The Atlantic $)
+ The World Health Organization says it will now be known as mpox. (BBC)
+ Everything you need to know about the monkeypox vaccines. (MIT Technology Review)

7 What it’s like to be the unwitting face of a romance scam
James Scott Geras’ pictures have been used to catfish countless women. (Motherboard)

Continue Reading

Copyright © 2021 Seminole Press.