Following this week’s announcement, some experts think Apple will soon announce that iCloud will be encrypted. If iCloud is encrypted but the company can still identify child abuse material, pass evidence along to law enforcement, and suspend the offender, that may relieve some of the political pressure on Apple executives.
It wouldn’t relieve all the pressure: most of the same governments that want Apple to do more on child abuse also want more action on content related to terrorism and other crimes. But child abuse is a real and sizable problem where big tech companies have mostly failed to date.
“Apple’s approach preserves privacy better than any other I am aware of,” says David Forsyth, the chair of the computer science department at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, who reviewed Apple’s system. “In my judgement this system will likely significantly increase the likelihood that people who own or traffic in [CSAM] are found; this should help protect children. Harmless users should experience minimal to no loss of privacy, because visual derivatives are revealed only if there are enough matches to CSAM pictures, and only for the images that match known CSAM pictures. The accuracy of the matching system, combined with the threshold, makes it very unlikely that pictures that are not known CSAM pictures will be revealed.”
What about WhatsApp?
Every big tech company faces the horrifying reality of child abuse material on its platform. None have approached it like Apple.
Like iMessage, WhatsApp is an end-to-end encrypted messaging platform with billions of users. Like any platform that size, they face a big abuse problem.
“I read the information Apple put out yesterday and I’m concerned,” WhatsApp head Will Cathcart tweeted on Friday. “I think this is the wrong approach and a setback for people’s privacy all over the world. People have asked if we’ll adopt this system for WhatsApp. The answer is no.”
WhatsApp includes reporting capabilities so that any user can report abusive content to WhatsApp. While the capabilities are far from perfect, WhatsApp reported over 400,000 cases to NCMEC last year.
“This is an Apple built and operated surveillance system that could very easily be used to scan private content for anything they or a government decides it wants to control,” Cathcart said in his tweets. “Countries where iPhones are sold will have different definitions on what is acceptable. Will this system be used in China? What content will they consider illegal there and how will we ever know? How will they manage requests from governments all around the world to add other types of content to the list for scanning?”
In its briefing with journalists, Apple emphasized that this new scanning technology was releasing only in the United States so far. But the company went on to argue that it has a track record of fighting for privacy and expects to continue to do so. In that way, much of this comes down to trust in Apple.
The company argued that the new systems cannot be misappropriated easily by government action—and emphasized repeatedly that opting out was as easy as turning off iCloud backup.
Despite being one of the most popular messaging platforms on earth, iMessage has long been criticized for lacking the kind of reporting capabilities that are now commonplace across the social internet. As a result, Apple has historically reported a tiny fraction of the cases to NCMEC that companies like Facebook do.
Instead of adopting that solution, Apple has built something entirely different—and the final outcomes are an open and worrying question for privacy hawks. For others, it’s a welcome radical change.
“Apple’s expanded protection for children is a game changer,” John Clark, president of the NCMEC, said in a statement. “The reality is that privacy and child protection can coexist.”
An optimist would say that enabling full encryption of iCloud accounts while still detecting child abuse material is both an anti-abuse and privacy win—and perhaps even a deft political move that blunts anti-encryption rhetoric from American, European, Indian, and Chinese officials.
A realist would worry about what comes next from the world’s most powerful countries. It is a virtual guarantee that Apple will get—and probably already has received—calls from capital cities as government officials begin to imagine the surveillance possibilities of this scanning technology. Political pressure is one thing, regulation and authoritarian control are another. But that threat is not new nor is it specific to this system. As a company with a track record of quiet but profitable compromise with China, Apple has a lot of work to do to persuade users of its ability to resist draconian governments.
All of the above can be true. What comes next will ultimately define Apple’s new tech. If this feature is weaponized by governments for broadening surveillance, then the company is clearly failing to deliver on its privacy promises.
Climate tech is back—and this time, it can’t afford to fail
Boston Metal’s strategy is to try to make the transition as digestible as possible for steelmakers. “We won’t own and operate steel plants,” says Adam Rauwerdink, who heads business development at the company. Instead, it plans to license the technology for electrochemical units that are designed to be a simple drop-in replacement for blast furnaces; the liquid iron that flows out of the electrochemical cells can be handled just as if it were coming out of a blast furnace, with the same equipment.
Working with industrial investors including ArcelorMittal, says Rauwerdink, allows the startup to learn “how to integrate our technology into their plants—how to handle the raw materials coming in, the metal products coming out of our systems, and how to integrate downstream into their established processes.”
The startup’s headquarters in a business park about 15 miles outside Boston is far from any steel manufacturing, but these days it’s drawing frequent visitors from the industry. There, the startup’s pilot-scale electrochemical unit, the size of a large furnace, is intentionally designed to be familiar to those potential customers. If you ignore the hordes of electrical cables running in and out of it, and the boxes of electric equipment surrounding it, it’s easy to forget that the unit is not just another part of the standard steelmaking process. And that’s exactly what Boston Metal is hoping for.
The company expects to have an industrial-scale unit ready for use by 2025 or 2026. The deadline is key, because Boston Metal is counting on commitments that many large steelmakers have made to reach zero carbon emissions by 2050. Given that the life of an average blast furnace is around 20 years, that means having the technology ready to license before 2030, as steelmakers plan their long-term capital expenditures. But even now, says Rauwerdink, demand is growing for green steel, especially in Europe, where it’s selling for a few hundred dollars a metric ton more than the conventional product.
It’s that kind of blossoming market for clean technologies that many of today’s startups are depending on. The recent corporate commitments to decarbonize, and the IRA and other federal spending initiatives, are creating significant demand in markets “that previously didn’t exist,” says Michael Kearney, a partner at Engine Ventures.
One wild card, however, will be just how aggressively and faithfully corporations pursue ways to transform their core businesses and to meet their publicly stated goals. Funding a small pilot-scale project, says Kearney, “looks more like greenwashing if you have no intention of scaling those projects.” Watching which companies move from pilot plants to full-scale commercial facilities will tell you “who’s really serious,” he says. Putting aside the fears of greenwashing, Kearney says it’s essential to engage these large corporations in the transition to cleaner technologies.
Susan Schofer, a partner at the venture firm SOSV, has some advice for those VCs and startups reluctant to work with existing companies in traditionally heavily polluting industries: Get over it. “We need to partner with them. These incumbents have important knowledge that we all need to get in order to effect change. So there needs to be healthy respect on both sides,” she says. Too often, she says, there is “an attitude that we don’t want to do that because it’s helping an incumbent industry.” But the reality, she says, is that finding ways for such industries to save energy or use cleaner technologies “can make the biggest difference in the near term.”
It’s tempting to dismiss the history of cleantech 1.0. It was more than a decade ago, and there’s a new generation of startups and investors. Far more money is around today, along with a broader range of financing options. Surely we’re savvier these days.
Making an image with generative AI uses as much energy as charging your phone
“If you’re doing a specific application, like searching through email … do you really need these big models that are capable of anything? I would say no,” Luccioni says.
The energy consumption associated with using AI tools has been a missing piece in understanding their true carbon footprint, says Jesse Dodge, a research scientist at the Allen Institute for AI, who was not part of the study.
Comparing the carbon emissions from newer, larger generative models and older AI models is also important, Dodge adds. “It highlights this idea that the new wave of AI systems are much more carbon intensive than what we had even two or five years ago,” he says.
Google once estimated that an average online search used 0.3 watt-hours of electricity, equivalent to driving 0.0003 miles in a car. Today, that number is likely much higher, because Google has integrated generative AI models into its search, says Vijay Gadepally, a research scientist at the MIT Lincoln lab, who did not participate in the research.
Not only did the researchers find emissions for each task to be much higher than they expected, but they discovered that the day-to-day emissions associated with using AI far exceeded the emissions from training large models. Luccioni tested different versions of Hugging Face’s multilingual AI model BLOOM to see how many uses would be needed to overtake training costs. It took over 590 million uses to reach the carbon cost of training its biggest model. For very popular models, such as ChatGPT, it could take just a couple of weeks for such a model’s usage emissions to exceed its training emissions, Luccioni says.
This is because large AI models get trained just once, but then they can be used billions of times. According to some estimates, popular models such as ChatGPT have up to 10 million users a day, many of whom prompt the model more than once.
Studies like these make the energy consumption and emissions related to AI more tangible and help raise awareness that there is a carbon footprint associated with using AI, says Gadepally, adding, “I would love it if this became something that consumers started to ask about.”
Dodge says he hopes studies like this will help us to hold companies more accountable about their energy usage and emissions.
“The responsibility here lies with a company that is creating the models and is earning a profit off of them,” he says.
The first CRISPR cure might kickstart the next big patent battle
And really, what’s the point of such a hard-won triumph unless it’s to enforce your rights? “Honestly, this train has been coming down the track since at least 2014, if not earlier. We’re at the collision point. I struggle to imagine there’s going to be a diversion,” says Sherkow. “Brace for impact.”
The Broad Institute didn’t answer any of my questions, and a spokesperson for MIT didn’t even reply to my email. That’s not a surprise. Private universities can be exceedingly obtuse when it comes to acknowledging their commercial activities. They are supposed to be centers of free inquiry and humanitarian intentions, so if employees get rich from biotechnology—and they do—they try to do it discreetly.
There are also strong reasons not to sue. Suing could make a nonprofit like the Broad Institute look bad. Really bad. That’s because it could get in the way of cures.
“It seems unlikely and undesirable, [as] legal challenges at this late date would delay saving patients,” says George Church, a Harvard professor and one of the original scientific founders of Editas, though he’s no longer closely involved with the company.
If a patent infringement lawsuit does get filed, it will happen sometime after Vertex notifies regulators it’s starting to sell the treatment. “That’s the starting gun,” says Sherkow. “There are no hypothetical lawsuits in the patent system, so one must wait until it’s sufficiently clear that an act of infringement is about to occur.”
How much money is at stake? It remains unclear what the demand for the Vertex treatment will be, but it could eventually prove a blockbuster. There are about 20,000 people with severe sickle-cell in the US who might benefit. And assuming a price of $3 million (my educated guess), that’s a total potential market of around $60 billion. A patent holder could potentially demand 10% of the take, or more.
Vertex can certainly defend itself. It’s a big, rich company, and through its partnership with the Swiss firm CRISPR Therapeutics, a biotech co-founded by Charpentier, Vertex has access to the competing set of intellectual-property claims—including those of UC Berkeley, which (though bested by Broad in the US) hold force in Europe and could be used to throw up a thicket of counterarguments.
Vertex could also choose to pay royalties. To do that, it would have to approach Editas, the biotech cofounded by Zhang and Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which previously bought exclusive rights to the Broad patents on CRISPR in the arena of human treatments, including sickle-cell therapies.