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Journalist Theo Padnos Recounts Years as Syrian Prisoner in Documentary “Theo Who Lived”

Director David Schisgall says Padnos' story is a rare eyewitness account of life inside a jihadi group by an outsider with a deep understanding of the region's language and culture

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In this photo taken Tuesday Aug. 30, 2016, Theo Padnos poses at the family's house in remote Reading, Vt. In 2012, journalist, Padnos slipped into Syria to cover its unfolding civil war and was promptly kidnapped by members of an al-Qaida branch. Image source: VOA
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reelance journalist Theo Padnos in 2012 slipped into Syria to cover its unfolding civil war and was promptly kidnapped by members of an al-Qaida branch.

The group held the Massachusetts native for nearly two years before releasing him in August 2014 as they were convinced he was a CIA agent because he spoke Arabic.

Now, Padnos is retracing his journey in “Theo Who Lived,” a documentary being screened Sept. 30 in Cambridge. Its theatrical premiere is in New York City on Oct. 7, followed by a wider release.

Padnos, 47, who has been living in Paris and Vermont, tells the Associated Press he’s grateful to have survived.

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The ordeal not only changed his outlook on life but also gave him perspective on the Syrian conflict that he feels is important to share.

Padnos is working on a nonfiction book, a play and a novel drawing on his experience. He wrote about his captivity for the New York Times Magazine shortly after his release and is trying to continue writing about the region as a journalist.

” I had a real spiritual voyage, which was terrifying for me and my family at the time,” Padnos said from his family’s vacation home in Vermont. ” But looking back, this is what life gave me and I’d like to take what I learned and turn it into some positive benefit.”

The film follows Padnos as he returns to places in Turkey and Israel that figured prominently in his 22-month capture. The film crew never set foot in Syria. Padnos reflects on his captivity on sets emulating his tiny prison cell and the room where he was subjected to torture and beatings.

Along the Turkey-Syria border, he recalls the moment when his traveling companions instruct him to dash across the field and hop the razor wire fence separating them from Syria.

It’s a moment Padnos says he’d replay in his mind for months after.

The trio of men had claimed they were providing supplies to the Free Syrian Army and offered to take him across the border with them. But they were actually affiliated with al-Qaida. They staged a fake interview, beat him and took him hostage shortly after crossing the border.

” This is where I threw my life away. It’s like a precipice that I walked up to and I actually jumped,” Padnos says in the film. ” Now I’m back in a safe place and I’m thinking why did I ever jump?”

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Padnos also details a series of failed escapes, including one in which cellmate and American photojournalist Matthew Schrier managed to sneak out through a narrow prison window but Padnos could not.

Padnos’ mother, Nancy Curtis, who is interviewed in the documentary, says she still has mixed emotions about her son’s release. During the ordeal, she became close to the parents of other Americans kidnapped by extremists overseas. Many of them were not as fortunate as her family, she says.

Curtis and other family members, working with the U.S. and Qatari governments, successfully arranged for Padnos’ release just days after the Islamic State beheaded New Hampshire journalist James Foley in a video. The family maintains that no ransom was paid.

” I always clung to the hope that he’d come home,” Curtis said. ” But I also don’t feel great joy and happiness. Probably anyone who has had a solider in the war who came home but knows others that didn’t have similar emotions.”

Director David Schisgall says Padnos’ story is a rare eyewitness account of life inside a jihadi group by an outsider with a deep understanding of the region’s language and culture.

Having spent years prior studying Arabic and Islam in Yemen and Syria, Padnos was able to build trust and friendships with some of his captors.

Near the end of his captivity, he was given greater freedoms and even traveled personally with the then-high commander of al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaida affiliate in Syria.

“The real intimacy he developed with his captors was remarkable,” Schisgall said. ” It’s a very important message for Americans to see these people fighting as complicated individuals who are both very dangerous but also very human.” (VOA)

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Thanks To Artificial Intelligence, Radio Journalist Regains His Voice

The AI system slices each word read out by an individual into 100 tiny pieces

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AI scenarios present ethical issues ranging from privacy, human rights, employment or other social issues.
The AI-based system named "Philyra" can learn about perfume formulas, raw materials, historical success data and industry trends. Pixabay

A US radio journalist who had lost his voice two years ago due to a rare neurological condition has regained the ability to speak, thanks to artificial intelligence (AI), the media reported.

Jamie Dupree, 54, a political radio journalist with Cox Media Group, got a new voice that trained a neural network to predict how he would talk, using samples from his old voice recordings, the BBC reported.

With his new voice, Dupree can now write a script and then use a free text-to-speech software programme called Balabolka on his laptop to turn it into an audio recording.

If a word or turn of phrase does not sound quite right in the recording, he can slow certain consonants or vowels down, or swap a word to one that does work, or change the pitch, and he can have a full radio story ready to go live in just seven minutes.

“This has saved my job and saved my family from a terrible financial unknown,” Dupree was quoted as saying to the BBC.

In 2016, Dupree was diagnosed with tongue protrusion dystonia — a rare neurological condition where the tongue pushes forward out of his mouth and his throat tightens whenever he wants to speak, making it impossible for him to say more than two or three words at a time.

artificial intelligence, brain
artificial intelligence, brain, Pixabay

Thanks to the new computer-generated voice, created for him by Scottish technology company CereProc, Dupree is set to come back on air, the report said.

The AI system slices each word read out by an individual into 100 tiny pieces, and does this with lots of common words until eventually it understands how basic phonetics work in that person’s voice and has an ordered sequence for all the pieces in each word.

Then, the neural network can create its own sounds and predict what the person would sound like if they were to say a series of words in conversation.

Also read: This Way China Can Help India In The Terms of Artificial Intelligence

“AI techniques work quite well on small constrained problems, and learning to model speech is something deep neural nets can do really well,” Chris Pidcock, CereProc’s chief technical officer and co-founder, told the BBC. (IANS)