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Inside the quest to engineer climate-saving “super trees”



looking up at a tree that is poking up through clouds

Fifty-three million years ago, the Earth was much warmer than it is today. Even the Arctic Ocean was a balmy 50 °F—an almost-tropical environment that looked something like Florida, complete with swaying palm trees and roving crocodiles. 

Then the world seemed to pivot. The amount of carbon in the atmosphere plummeted, and things began to cool toward today’s “icehouse” conditions, meaning that glaciers can persist well beyond the poles. 

What caused the change was, for decades, unclear. Eventually, scientists drilling into Arctic mud discovered a potential clue: a layer of fossilized freshwater ferns up to 20 meters thick. The site suggested that the Arctic Ocean may have been covered for a time in vast mats of small-leaved aquatic Azolla ferns. Azollas are among the fastest-growing plants on the planet, and the scientists theorized that if such ferns coated the ocean, they could have consumed huge quantities of carbon, helping scrub the atmosphere of greenhouse gasses and thereby cooling the planet.

Patrick Mellor, paleobiologist and chief technology officer of the biotech startup Living Carbon, sees a lesson in the story about these diminutive ferns: photosynthesis can save the world. Certain fluke conditions seem to have helped the Azollas along, though. The arrangement of continental plates at the time meant the Arctic Ocean was mostly enclosed, like a massive lake, which allowed a thin layer of fresh river water to collect atop it, creating the kind of conditions the ferns needed. And crucially, when each generation of ferns died, they settled into saltier water that helped inhibit decay, keeping microbes from releasing the ferns’ stored carbon back into the atmosphere.

Mellor says we can’t wait millions of years for the right conditions to return. If we want plants to save the climate again, we have to prod them along. “How do we engineer an anthropogenic Azolla event?” he says. “That’s what I wanted to do.”

At Living Carbon, Mellor is trying to design trees that grow faster and grab more carbon than their natural peers, as well as trees that resist rot, keeping that carbon out of the atmosphere. In February, less than four years after he co-founded it, the company made headlines by planting its first “photosynthesis-enhanced” poplar trees in a strip of bottomland forests in Georgia. 

This is a breakthrough, clearly: it’s the first forest in the United States that contains genetically engineered trees. But there’s still much we don’t know. How will these trees affect the rest of the forest? How far will their genes spread? And how good are they, really, at pulling more carbon from the atmosphere?

Living Carbon has already sold carbon credits for its new forest to individual consumers interested in paying to offset some of their own greenhouse gas emissions. They’re working with larger companies, to which they plan to deliver credits in the coming years. But academics who study forest health and tree photosynthesis question whether the trees will be able to absorb as much carbon as advertised. 

Even Steve Strauss, a prominent tree geneticist at Oregon State University who briefly served on Living Carbon’s scientific advisory board and is conducting field trials for the company, told me in the days before the first planting that the trees might not grow as well as natural poplars. “I’m kind of a little conflicted,” he said, “that they’re going ahead with this—all the public relations and the financing—on something that we don’t know if it works.”

Roots of an idea

In photosynthesis, plants pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and use the energy from sunlight to turn it into sugars. They burn some sugars for energy and use some to build more plant matter—a store of carbon.

A research group based at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign supercharged this process, publishing their results in early 2019. They solved a problem presented by RuBisCO, an enzyme many plants use to grab atmospheric carbon. Sometimes the enzyme accidentally bonds with oxygen, a mistake that yields something akin to a toxin. As the plant processes this material, it must burn some of its sugars, thereby releasing carbon back to the sky. A quarter or more of the carbon absorbed by plants can be wasted through this process, known as photorespiration.

The researchers inserted genes into tobacco plants that helped them turn the toxin-like material into more sugar. These genetically tweaked plants grew 25% larger than controls.

The breakthrough offered good news for the world’s natural landscapes: if this genetic pathway yields more productive crops, we’ll need less farmland, sparing forests and grasslands that otherwise would have to be cleared. As for the plants’ ability to remove atmospheric carbon over the long term, the new trick doesn’t help much. Each year, much of the carbon in a crop plant’s biomass gets returned to the atmosphere after it’s consumed, whether by microbes or fungi or human beings. 

Still, the result caught the attention of Maddie Hall, a veteran of several Silicon Valley startups who was interested in launching her own carbon-capture venture. Hall reached out to Donald Ort, the biologist who’d led the project, and learned that the same tweaks might work in trees—which stay in the ground long enough to serve as a potential climate solution.

Late in 2019, Hall settled on the name for her startup: Living Carbon. Not long afterward, she met Mellor at a climate conference. Mellor was then serving as a fellow with the Foresight Institute, a think tank focused on ambitious future technologies, and had become interested in plants like Pycnandra acuminata. This tree, native to the South Pacific islands of New Caledonia, pulls huge quantities of nickel out of the soil. That’s likely a defense against insects, but as nickel has natural antifungal properties, the resulting wood is less prone to decay. Mellor figured if he could transfer the correct gene into more species, he could engineer his Azolla event.

When Mellor and Hall met, they realized their projects were complementary: put the genes together and you’d get a truly super tree, faster-growing and capable of more permanent carbon storage. Hall tapped various contacts in Silicon Valley to collect $15 million in seed money, and a company was born.

In some ways, Living Carbon’s goal was simple, at least when it came to photosynthesis: take known genetic pathways and place them in new species, a process that’s been conducted with plants for nearly 40 years. “There’s a lot of mystification of this stuff, but really it’s just a set of laboratory techniques,” Mellor says. 

Since neither Mellor nor Hall had substantial experience with genetic transformation, they enlisted outside scientists to do some of the early work. The company focused on replicating Ort’s enhanced-photosynthesis pathway in trees, targeting two species: poplars, which are popular with researchers because of their well-studied genome, and loblolly pines, a common timber species. By 2020, the tweaked trees had been planted in a grow room, a converted recording studio in San Francisco. The enhanced poplars quickly showed results even more promising than Ort’s tobacco plants. In early 2022, Living Carbon’s team posted a paper on the preprint server bioRxiv claiming that the best-performing tree showed 53% more above-ground biomass than controls after five months. (A peer-reviewed version of the paper appeared in the journal Forests in April.) 

Through the loophole

Plant genetics research can be a long scientific slog. What works in a greenhouse, where conditions can be carefully controlled, may not work as well in outdoor settings, where the amounts of light and nutrients a plant receives vary. The standard next step after a successful greenhouse result is a field trial, which allows scientists to observe how genetically engineered (GE) plants might fare outside without actually setting them fully loose.

US Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulations for GE field trials aim to minimize “gene drift,” in which the novel genes might spread into the wild. Permits require that biotech trees be planted far from species with which they could potentially reproduce, and in some cases the rules dictate that any flowers be removed. Researchers must check the field site after the study to ensure no trace of the GE plants remain.

Before planting trees in Georgia, Living Carbon launched its own field trials. The company hired Oregon State’s Strauss, who had given Living Carbon the poplar clone it had used in its gene transfer experiments. In the summer of 2021, Strauss planted the redesigned trees in a section of the university’s property in Oregon.

Strauss has been conducting such field trials for decades, often for commercial companies trying to create better timber technologies. It’s a process that requires patience, he says: most companies want to wait until a “half rotation,” or midway to harvest age, before determining whether a field trial’s results are promising enough to move forward with a commercial planting. Living Carbon’s trees may never be harvested, which makes setting a cutoff date difficult. But when we spoke in February, less than two years into the field trial and just before Living Carbon’s initial planting, Strauss said it was too early to determine whether the company’s trees would perform as they had in the greenhouse. “There could be a negative,” he said. “We don’t know.” 


Strauss has been critical of the US regulatory requirements for field trials, which he sees as costly, a barrier that scares off many academics. The framework behind its rules emerged in the 1980s when, rather than wait on the slow grind of the legislative process, the Reagan administration adapted existing laws to fit new genetic technologies. For the USDA, the chosen tool was its broad authority over “plant pests,” a term meant to describe anything that might injure a plant—whether an overly hungry animal, a parasitic bacterium, or a weed that might outcompete a crop.

At the time, gene transfer in plants was almost entirely accomplished with the help of Agrobacterium tumefaciens. This microbe attacks plants by inserting its own genes, much like a virus. But scientists found they could convince the bacterium to deliver whatever snippets of code they desired. Since Agrobacterium itself is considered a plant pest, the USDA decided it had the authority to regulate the interstate movement and environmental release of any plant that had had its genes transformed by the microbe. This meant nearly comprehensive regulation of GE plants. 

In 1987, just one year after the USDA established its policy, a team of Cornell researchers announced the successful use of what’s become known as a “gene gun”—or, less colorfully, “biolistics”—in which bits of DNA are literally blasted into a plant cell, carried by high-velocity particles. No plant pest was involved. This created a loophole in the system, a way to produce GE plants that the current laws did not cover.

Since then, more than 100 GE plants, mostly modified crop plants, have thus escaped the USDA’s regulatory scrutiny.

Agrobacterium remains a common method of gene transfer, and it’s how Living Carbon produced the trees discussed in its paper. But Mellor knew going to market with trees considered potential plant pests “would be a long and depressing path,” he says, one with tests and studies and pauses to collect public comment. “It would take years, and we just wouldn’t survive.”

Once Living Carbon saw that its trees had promise, it dove through the loophole, creating new versions of its enhanced trees via biolistics. In formal letters to the USDA the company explained what it was doing; the agency replied that, because the resulting trees had not been exposed to and did not contain genes from a plant pest, they were not subject to regulations.

Other federal agencies also have authority over biotechnology. The Environmental Protection Agency regulates biotech plants that produce their own pesticides, and the Food and Drug Administration examines anything humans might consume. Living Carbon’s trees do not fit into either of these categories, so they could be planted without any further formal studies.

A year after Living Carbon announced its greenhouse results—before the data from the field trial had any meaning, according to Strauss—the company sent a team to Georgia to plant the first batch of seedlings outside strictly controlled fields. Mellor indicated that this would double as one more study site, where the trees would be measured to estimate the rate of biomass accumulation. The company could make an effort to start soaking up carbon even as it was verifying the efficacy of its trees.

Out in the wild

Experiments with genetically modified trees have historically evoked a strong response from anti-GE activists. In 2001, around 800 specimens growing in Strauss’s test plots at Oregon State University were chopped down or otherwise mutilated. 

In 2015, in response to the news that the biotech firm ArborGen had created a loblolly pine with “increased wood density,” protesters descended on the company’s South Carolina headquarters. (The company had taken advantage of the same loophole as Living Carbon; ArborGen has said the pine was never commercially planted.) But after the New York Times wrote about Living Carbon’s first planting in February, there were no notable protests.

One reason could be that the risk is far from clear-cut. Several forest ecologists I spoke to indicated that trees that grow substantially faster than other species could outcompete rivals, potentially making Living Carbon’s “super tree” a weed. None of these scientists, though, seemed particularly worried about that happening.

“I think it’d be difficult to on purpose make a tree that was a weed—that was able to invade and take over a forest,” said Sean McMahon, a forest ecologist with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. “I think it’d be impossible by accident to do it. I’m really not worried about a tree that takes over the world. I just think you’re going to break [the tree].” 

He pointed out that the timber industry has been working with scientists for decades, hoping to engineer fast-growing trees. “This is a billion-dollar industry, and if they could make trees grow to harvest in five years, they would,” he said. But there tend to be tradeoffs. A faster-growing tree, for example, might be more vulnerable to pests. 

The other reason for the quiet reception of these trees may be climate change: in a ravaged world, people may be more willing to tolerate risk. Keolu Fox, a geneticist at the University of California San Diego, is a co-director of science at Lab to Land, a nonprofit that is studying the potential for biotechnology to accelerate conservation goals on threatened lands, particularly in California. “We’re now talking about editing natural lands—that’s desperation,” Fox says. He thinks this desperation is appropriate, given the state of the climate crisis, though he’s not entirely convinced by Living Carbon’s approach.

Mellor suggests that gene drift should not be a problem: Living Carbon is planting only female trees, so the poplars don’t produce any pollen. That will not prevent wild-growing male trees from fertilizing the transgenic poplars, though the amount of resulting gene drift will likely be small and easily contained, Living Carbon says, especially given the company’s ability to avoid planting its trees near species that could fertilize them. But Mellor says he prefers to focus on other issues. Yes, some companies, like Monsanto, have used transgenic crops in exploitative ways, but that doesn’t mean transgenic technologies are inherently bad, he says. “Purity” is a silly standard, he says, and by trying to keep plants pure we’re missing the chance for needed innovations.

Living Carbon’s poplars seem to grow faster and survive droughts better than their natural counterparts, Mellor says. The rest of their genes match. “So, if, say, that competitively replaces the non-photosynthesis-enhanced version, is that a problem?” he asks. “And what kind of a problem is that? That’s the question now.” 

Plant or pest?

In 2019, before Living Carbon was formed, the USDA announced its intention to update its regulatory approach to transgenic plants. The new rules went into effect in August 2020, just after Living Carbon submitted letters seeking exemption for its trees; the letters were reviewed and the trees were grandfathered in under the old rules.

Any further biotechnology the company develops will be analyzed using the new approach, which focuses on what traits are inserted into plants rather than how they get there. There are still ways to avoid scrutiny: products whose genetic modification could be accomplished through conventional breeding, for example, are not subject to regulation—a loophole watchdog groups find problematic. But according to USDA spokespeople, Living Carbon’s core technology—fast-growing trees, produced through genetic insertion—does not appear to qualify for such exemptions. If Living Carbon wants to make even a slight genetic tweak to its trees, the new product will require further examination.

The USDA’s first step is to determine whether there is “a plausible pathway to increased plant pest risk.” If the answer is yes, the company will need permits to move or plant such trees until the USDA can complete a full regulatory review. 

Because the agency has not yet reviewed a tree with enhanced photosynthesis, officials declined to comment on whether the trait might constitute a pest risk. Even if it does not, the process might miss other risks: a 2019 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine pointed out that pest risk is a narrow metric that does not capture all of the potential threats to forest health. 

Nor does the USDA process offer a seal of approval suggesting the trees will actually work.

“One of the things that concerns me is [Living Carbon is] just focusing on carbon acquisition,” says Marjorie Lundgren, a researcher at Lancaster University in the UK who has studied tree species with natural adaptations leading to increased photosynthetic efficiency. She notes that trees need more than just carbon and sunlight to grow; they need water and nitrogen, too. “The reason they have such a high growth rate is because in the lab, you can just super-baby them—you can give them lots of water and fertilizer and everything they need,” she says. “Unless you put resources in, which is time and money, and not great for the environment, either, then you’re not going to have those same outcomes.” 

Living Carbon’s paper acknowledges as much, citing nitrogen as a potential challenge and noting that how the trees move carbon may become a limiting factor. The extra sugars produced through what the company calls “enhanced photosynthesis” must be transported to the right places, something trees haven’t typically evolved to do. 

The final, peer-reviewed version of the paper was amended to note the need to compare the grow-room results with field trials. And, as it happened, in April—the month the paper was published—Strauss sent Living Carbon an annual report with exciting news. He had noted statistically significant differences in height and drought tolerance between Living Carbon’s trees and the controls. He also found “nearly” significant differences in volume and diameter for some lines of engineered trees. 

Capturing the carbon

Living Carbon seems aware of the general public distrust of genetic technologies. Hall, the CEO, has said the company does not want to be “the Monsanto of trees” and is registered as a public benefit corporation. That allows it to decline ethically dubious projects without worrying about being sued by shareholders for passing up profits.

The company advertises its focus on “restoring land that has been degraded or is underperforming.” On its website, the pitch to potential carbon-credit buyers emphasizes that the tree-planting projects serve to restore ecosystems. 

One hope is that Mellor’s metal-accumulating trees will be able to restore soils at abandoned mining sites. Brenda Jo McManama, a campaign organizer with the Indigenous Environmental Network, lives amid such landscapes in West Virginia. She has been fighting GE trees for almost a decade and remains opposed to the technology, but she understands the appeal of such remediating trees. One key problem: they remain experimental. 

McManama notes, too, that landowners are allowed to harvest the wood from Living Carbon’s trees. This is not a problem for the climate—lumber still stores carbon—but it undercuts the idea that this is all about ecosystems. “Under their breath, it’s like, ‘Yeah, this will be a tree plantation,’” she says.

The initial planting site in Georgia, for example, belongs to Vince Stanley, whose family owns tens of thousands of acres of timber in the area. Stanley told the New York Times that the appeal of the trees was that he would be able to harvest them sooner than traditional trees.

Living Carbon contests the idea that it is creating “plantations,” which by definition would mean monocultures. But it has planted 12 different species on Stanley’s land. The company indicated that it is “interested” in partnering with timber companies; as Hall has noted, the top 10 in the US each own at least 1 million acres. But the Stanley site in Georgia is currently the only project that is technically classified as “improved forestry management.” (And even there, the company notes, the existing forest was regenerating very slowly due to wet conditions.)

Living Carbon funds its plantings—and makes its profits—by selling credits for the extra carbon the trees absorb. Currently, the company is offering “pre-purchases,” in which companies make a commitment to buy a future credit, paying a small portion of the fee up front to help Living Carbon survive long enough to deliver results.

The company has found that these buyers are more interested in projects with ecosystem benefits, which is why the first project, in Georgia, has become an outlier. There has been a subsequent planting in Ohio; this and all currently planned plantings are not near sawmills or in active timber harvesting regions. Thus, the company does not expect those trees to be harvested.

Wherever they plant trees—whether atop an old minefield or in a timber-producing forest—Living Carbon will pay the landowner an annual per-acre fee and cover the cost of plant site preparation and planting. At the end of the contract, after 30 or 40 years, the landowner can do whatever they want with the trees. If the trees grow as well as is hoped, Living Carbon assumes that even on timber land, their size would mean they’d be turned into “long-duration wood products,” like lumber for construction, rather than shredded to make pulp or paper.

Until recently, Living Carbon was also selling small-scale credits to individual consumers. When we spoke in February, Mellor pointed me toward Patch, a software company with a carbon-credit sales platform. The Georgia project was marketed there as “biotech-enhanced reforestation.” The credits were offered as a monthly subscription, at a price of $40 per metric ton of carbon removed. 

When I pressed Mellor for details about how the company calculated this price, given the lack of any solid data on the trees’ performance, he told me something the company had not  acknowledged in any public-facing documentation: 95% of the saplings at the Georgia site were not photosynthesis-enhanced. The GE poplar trees were planted in randomized experimental plots, with controls for comparison, and contribute only a small amount to the site’s projected carbon savings. Despite the advertising, then, customers were really paying for a traditional reforestation project with a small experiment tucked inside. 

A spokesperson for Living Carbon clarified that this planting makeup was dictated by the standards of the American Carbon Registry, the organization that independently certified the resulting credits, and that subsequent plantings have included a higher proportion of enhanced trees. By partnering with a new credit registry, Living Carbon hopes its 2024 plantings will be closer to 50% photosynthesis-enhanced.

That carbon credits can be offered for the Georgia site at all serves as a reminder: old-fashioned trees, without any new genes, already serve as a viable carbon drawdown technology. “There’s 80,000 species of trees in the world. Maybe you don’t have to throw nickel in them and CRISPR them,” said McMahon, of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. “Maybe just find the ones that actually grow fast [and] store carbon a long time.” Or, he added, pass regulation to protect existing forests, which he said could help the climate more than even a massive adoption of high-tech trees. 

Grayson Badgley, an ecologist at the nonprofit CarbonPlan, notes that the cost of the credits on Patch was on the high side for a reforestation project. CarbonPlan examines the efficacy of various carbon removal strategies, a necessary intervention given that carbon markets are ripe for abuse. Several recent investigations have shown that offset projects can dramatically inflate their benefits. One major regulatory group, the Integrity Council for the Voluntary Carbon Market, recently announced a new set of rules, and Verra, a US nonprofit that certifies offset projects, also plans to phase out its old approach to forestry projects.

Given the increasingly shaky reputation of carbon markets, Badgley finds Living Carbon’s lack of transparency troubling. “People should know exactly what they’re buying when they plug in their credit card number,” he says. 

Living Carbon says it began phasing out direct-to-consumer sales in late 2022, and that the final transaction was made late February, not long after the Georgia planting. (In total, subscribers funded 600 trees—a small portion of the 8,900 transgenic trees Living Carbon had planted as of late May.) I purchased a credit for research purposes in early February; as of March 1, when I canceled the subscription, I had received no details clarifying the makeup of the Georgia planting, nor any updates noting that the program was ending. I was also struck by the fact that in February, before Strauss delivered his data, Living Carbon was already touting field trial results on its website, ones that were even more impressive than its grow-room results. After I inquired about the source of these figures, the company removed them from the website.

The company says it’s fully transparent with the large-scale buyers who make up the core of its business strategy. What seemed to me like problematic embellishments and elisions were, according to spokespeople, the growing pains of a young startup with an evolving approach that is still learning how to communicate about its work. 

They also pointed out that many of the problems with forestry carbon credits come from the projects meant to protect forests against logging. Such credits are granted based on a counterfactual: how many trees would be destroyed in the absence of protection? That’s impossible to know with any precision. How much extra carbon Living Carbon’s trees absorb will be measured much more clearly. And if the trees don’t work, Living Carbon won’t be able to deliver its promised credits or get paid for them. “The risk that in the end [the trees] won’t deliver the amount of carbon that’s expected is on us—it’s not on the climate,” a company spokesperson said.

Pines and pollen

Living Carbon has bigger plans in the works (which will likely need to undergo USDA scrutiny). Mellor hopes the photosynthesis-enhanced loblolly pines will be ready for deployment within two years, which would open opportunities for more collaboration with timber companies. Experiments with metal-accumulating trees are underway, with funding from the US Department of Energy. Last year, the company launched a longer-term project that aims to engineer algae to produce sporopollenin, a biopolymer that coats spores and pollen and can last 100 times longer than other biological materials—and maybe longer than that, the company says. This could create a secure, long-term way to store carbon.

Living Carbon is not alone in this field. Lab to Land, the nonprofit targeting California ecosystems, is considering how carbon markets might drive demand for deep-rooted grasses that store carbon. But Lab to Land is moving far more slowly than Living Carbon—it’s at least a decade away from the deployment of any biotechnology, one of the co-directors of science told me—and, as it progresses, it is building multiple councils to consider the ethics of biotechnology.

A Living Carbon spokesperson suggested that “every scientist is in a way a bioethicist,” and that the company operates with careful morals. As a startup, Living Carbon can’t afford to dither—it needs to make a profit—and Hall says the planet can’t afford to dither, either. To solve climate change, we have to start trying potential technology now. She sees the current plantings as further studies that will help the company and the world understand these trees. 

Even with the new data, Steve Strauss remained circumspect about the trees’ long-term prospects. Living Carbon has only provided enough funding for the Oregon field tests to extend just beyond the current growing season; Strauss indicated that were this his company, he’d “want more time.”

Still, Strauss was the one academic scientist I spoke to who seemed enthused about Living Carbon’s plantings. He said they’d made a breakthrough, though one that is less scientific than social—a first step beyond the confines of test-plot fields. As a longtime proponent of genetic engineering, he thinks research into biotechnical solutions to climate change has been stalled for too long. The climate crisis is growing worse. Now someone is pushing forward. “Maybe this isn’t the ideal thing,” he told me when we first spoke in February. “And maybe they’re pushing this one product too hard, too fast. But I’m sort of glad it’s happening.”

Boyce Upholt is a writer based in New Orleans.


Optimizing platforms offers customers and stakeholders a better way to bank



Optimizing platforms offers customers and stakeholders a better way to bank

And so, they’ve started to see the benefits of doing things themselves. So, culture change I think has been one of the biggest things that we’ve achieved in the past few years since I joined. Second, we built a whole set of capabilities, we call them common capabilities. Things like how do you configure new workflows? How do you make decisions using spreadsheets and decision models versus coding it into systems? So,  you can configure it, you can modify it, and you can do things more effectively. And then tools like checklists, which can be again put into systems and automated in a few minutes, in many cases. Today, we have millions of tasks and millions of decisions being executed through these capabilities, which has suddenly game-changed our ability to provide automation at scale.

And last but not least, AI and machine learning, it now plays an important role in the underpinnings of everything that we do in operations and client services. For example, we do a lot of process analytics. We do load balancing. So, when a client calls, which agent or which group of people do we direct that client call to so that they can actually service the client most effectively. In the space of payments, we do a lot with machine learning. Fraud detection is another, and I will say that I’m so glad we’ve had the time to invest and think through all of these foundational capabilities. So, we are now poised and ready to take on the next big leap of changes that are right now at our fingertips, especially in the evolving world of AI and machine learning and of course the public cloud.

Laurel: Excellent. Yeah, you’ve certainly outlined the diversity of the firm’s offerings. So, when building new technologies and platforms, what are some of the working methodologies and practices that you employ to build at scale and then optimize those workflows?

Vrinda: Yeah, as I said before, the private bank has a lot of offerings, but then amplify that with all the other offerings that JPMorgan Chase, the franchise has, a commercial bank, a corporate and investment bank, a consumer and community bank, and many of our clients cross all of these lines of business. It brings a lot of benefits, but it also has complexities. And one of the things that I obsess personally over is how do we simplify things, not add to the complexity? Second is a mantra of reuse. Don’t reinvent because it’s easy for technologists to look at a piece of software and say, “That’s great, but I can build something better.” Instead, the three things that I ask people to focus on and our organization collectively with our partners focus on is first of all, look at the business outcome. We coach our teams that success and innovation does not come from rebuilding something that somebody has already built, but instead from leveraging it and taking the next leap with additional features upon it to create high impact business outcomes.

So, focusing on outcome number one. Second, if you are given a problem, try and look at it from a bigger picture to see whether you can solve the pattern instead of that specific problem. So, I’ll give you an example. We built a chatbot called Casey. It’s one of the most loved products in our private bank right now. And Casey doesn’t do anything really complex, but what it does is solves a very common pattern, which is ask a few simple questions, get the inputs, join this with data services and join this with execution services and complete the task. And we have hundreds of thousands of tasks that Casey performs every single day. And one of them, especially a very simple functionality, the client wants a bank reference letter. Casey is called upon to do that thousands of times a month. And what used to take three or four hours to produce now takes like a few seconds.

So, it suddenly changes the outcome, changes productivity, and changes the happiness of people who are doing things that you know they themselves felt was mundane. So, solving the pattern, again, important. And last but not least, focusing on data is the other thing that’s helped us. Nothing can be improved if you don’t measure it. So, to give you an example of processes, the first thing we did was pick the most complex processes and mapped them out. We understood each step in the process, we understood the purpose of each step in the process, the time taken in each step, we started to question, do you really need this approval from this person? We observed that for the past six months, not one single thing has been rejected. So, is that even a meaningful approval to begin with?

Questioning if that process could be enhanced with AI, could AI automatically say, “Yes, please approve,” or “There’s a risk in this do not approve,” or “It’s okay, it needs a human review.” And then making those changes in our systems and flows and then obsessively measuring the impact of those changes. All of these have given us a lot of benefits. And I would say we’ve made significant progress just with these three principles of focus on outcome, focus on solving the pattern and focus on data and measurements in areas like client onboarding, in areas like maintaining client data, et cetera. So, this has been very helpful for us because in a bank like ours, scale is super important.

Laurel: Yeah, that’s a really great explanation. So, when new challenges do come along, like moving to the public cloud, how do you balance the opportunities of that scale, but also computing power and resources within the cost of the actual investment? How do you ensure that the shifts to the cloud are actually both financially and operationally efficient?

Vrinda: Great question. So obviously every technologist in the world is super excited with the advent of the public cloud. It gives us the powers of agility, economies of scale. We at JPMorgan Chase are able to leverage world class evolving capabilities at our fingertips. We have the ability also to partner with talented technologies at the cloud providers and many service providers that we work with that have advanced solutions that are available first on the public cloud. We are eager to get our hands on those. But with that comes a lot of responsibility because as a bank, we have to worry about security, client data, privacy, resilience, how are we going to operate in a multi-cloud environment because some data has to remain on-prem in our private cloud. So, there’s a lot of complexity, and we have engineers across the board who think a lot about this, and their day and night jobs are to try and figure this out.

As we think about moving to the public cloud in my area, I personally spend time thinking in depth about how we could build architectures that are financially efficient. And the reason I bring that up is because traditionally as we think about data centers where our hardware and software has been hosted, developers and architects haven’t had to worry about costs because you start with sizing the infrastructure, you order that infrastructure, it’s captive, it remains in the data center, and you can expand it, but it’s a one-time cost each time that you upgrade. With the cloud, that situation changes dramatically. It’s both an opportunity but also a risk. So, a financial lens then becomes super important right at the outset. Let me give you a couple of examples of what I mean. Developers in the public cloud have a lot of power, and with that power comes responsibility.

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The Download: China’s EV success in Europe, and ClimateTech is coming



The Download: China’s EV success in Europe, and ClimateTech is coming

This is today’s edition of The Download, our weekday newsletter that provides a daily dose of what’s going on in the world of technology.

Meet Europe’s surprising best-selling Chinese EV maker

China’s electric vehicle sector has been lavished with fame and attention. But its global ambitions hit a roadblock this month when the European Commission launched an investigation into whether Chinese-made EVs benefit from excessive government subsidies. 

If the inquiry finds evidence for this claim, which experts say is very likely, it could result in increased import duties for Chinese-made EVs, which would likely make them less competitive in European markets. 

Many of the Chinese brands that are causing concern are well-known names in China, like the established giant BYD and the promising startup Nio. But there’s one name in the mix you might not expect—former British luxury sports car maker MG. Read the full story.

—Zeyi Yang

Zeyi’s story is from China Report, MIT Technology Review’s weekly newsletter giving you the inside track on all things happening in tech in China. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Tuesday.

If you’re interested in reading more about China’s car sector, why not check out:

+ Europe is about to crack down on Chinese electric cars. The European Commission is set to launch an anti-subsidy investigation into Chinese automakers. Here’s what you need to know about the likely impact.

+ From generous government subsidies to support for lithium batteries, here’s how China managed to build a world-leading industry in electric vehicles.

+ China’s car companies are turning into tech companies. China has already won the race to electrify its vehicles. Now it’s pushing ahead and adding more features and services to attract new customers. Read the full story.

+ A race for autopilot dominance is giving China the edge in autonomous driving. Electric vehicle makers and AI companies are taking Tesla FSD-like systems to China, but it’s still out of reach for most consumers. Read the full story.

ClimateTech is coming

How can we build a sustainable, greener future? Next week, MIT Technology Review is holding our second annual ClimateTech conference to discuss the innovations accelerating the transition to a green economy.

ClimateTech is taking place at the MIT Media Lab on MIT’s campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on October 4-5. You can register for the event and either attend in-person or online, here—before it’s too late!

MIT Technology Review flash sale!

If you haven’t already, you can subscribe to MIT Technology Review to read more of our incisive reporting. We’re holding a flash sale for just 48 hours, allowing you to subscribe from just $8 a month.

Even better, you’ll receive a free print copy of our 10 Breakthrough Technologies of 2023 issue as well. Sign up today and save 17% off the full price.

The must-reads

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

1 Amazon is being sued by the FTC in a landmark monopoly case
It’s accused of using illegal tactics to stifle online competition. (Wired $)
+ Head honcho Andy Jassy is facing an uphill climb. (NYT $)
+ The Federal Trade Commission avoided calling to break Amazon up. (Bloomberg $)

2 OpenAI is seeking a new valuation
To the tune of between $80 billion and $90 billion, to be exact. (WSJ $)
+ ChatGPT is about to revolutionize the economy. We need to decide what that looks like. (MIT Technology Review)

3 An astronaut has touched down on Earth after 371 days in space
That’s a new US record. (CBS News)
+ Traveling to space should teach us how to better accommodate disabled people. (Wired $)

4 Linda Yaccarino’s first 100 days at X have been a wild ride
Forget pressure from advertisers: managing Elon Musk is her biggest challenge. (FT $)
+ X appears to have disabled an election misinformation reporting measure. (Reuters)

5 YouTube rewarded a creator who livestreamed attacks on Indian Muslims
Hindu nationalist Monu Manesar has been linked to multiple killings this year. (WP $)

6 Microsoft wants to use nuclear energy to power its AI data centers
It’s looking to nuclear fission to keep those expensive centers ticking over. (CNBC)
+ We were promised smaller nuclear reactors. Where are they? (MIT Technology Review)

7 Maybe we didn’t need to learn to code after all
Generative AI is making it easier than ever to write code, even if it’s far from perfect. (The Atlantic $)
+ Learning to code isn’t enough. (MIT Technology Review)

8 Inside China’s brave online feminist revolution
The country’s burgeoning women’s rights movement is fighting back against a conservative society. (Rest of World)

9 Attempting to reverse your age is the preserve of the ultra-rich
Now they’re competing to win the ‘Rejuvenation Olympics.’ (Vox)
+ Eating fewer calories could help. (Economist $)
+ I just met the founders of a would-be longevity state. (MIT Technology Review)

10 Japan’s female rickshaw pullers are online celebrities 
Social media has helped to drive an influx of female recruits. (Reuters)

Quote of the day

“Sellers pay. Shoppers get lower-quality search results for higher-priced products. Only Amazon wins.”

—The US Federal Trade Commision spells out its case accusing the e-commerce giant of unfair shopping practices, 404 Media reports.

The big story

Novel lithium-metal batteries will drive the switch to electric cars

February 2021

For all the hype and hope around electric vehicles, they still make up only about 2% of new car sales in the US, and just a little more globally. 

For many buyers, they’re simply too expensive, their range is too limited, and charging them isn’t nearly as quick and convenient as refueling at the pump. All these limitations have to do with the lithium-ion batteries that power the vehicles. 

But QuantumScape, a Silicon Valley startup is working on a new type of battery that could finally make electric cars as convenient and cheap as gas ones. Read the full story.

—James Temple

We can still have nice things

A place for comfort, fun and distraction in these weird times. (Got any ideas? Drop me a line or tweet ’em at me.)

+ Are America’s distinctive accents really dying out? Better ask Dolly Parton.
+ Lenny Kravitz’s gigantic scarf is back! 🧣
+ Trying to find the perfect time for a bathroom break during a movie? There’s an app for that.
+ On this day in 1964, the Beach Boys appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show performing this absolute tune.
+ This particular kind of jellyfish may not have a brain, but that doesn’t stop it from learning.

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An inside look at Congress’s first AI regulation forum



An inside look at Congress’s first AI regulation forum

It was leaked that you had an exchange with Elon Musk regarding the risks posed by AI. [Ed note: Musk said he had told the Chinese government that AI might eventually be able to overtake it, and Raji responded by questioning the safety of today’s driverless cars, like the autopilot feature in a Tesla.] Can you tell me more about that?

You know, it wasn’t just Elon. That was the one that got out. There was another CEO that was talking about curing cancer with AI, saying we have to make sure that it’s Americans that do that, and just narratives like that. 

But first of all, we have medical AI technology that is hurting people and not working well for Black and brown patients. It’s disproportionately underprioritizing them in terms of getting a bed at a hospital; it’s disproportionately misdiagnosing them, and misinterpreting lab tests for them. 

I also hope that one day AI will lead to cancer cures, but we need to understand the limitations of the systems that we have today. 

What was it that you really wanted to achieve in the forum, and do you think you had the chance to do that? 

I think we all had substantial opportunities to say what we needed to say. In terms of whether we were all equally heard or equally understood, I think that’s something that I’m still processing. 

My main position coming in was to debunk a lot of the myths that were coming out of these companies around how well these systems are working, especially on marginalized folks. And then also to debunk some of the myths around solving bias and fairness. 

Bias concerns and explainability concerns are just really difficult technical and social challenges. I came in being like, I don’t want people to underestimate the challenge.

So did I get that across? I’m not sure, because the senators loved saying that AI is gonna cure cancer. 

It’s so easy to get caught up in the marketing terms and the sci-fi narratives and completely ignore what’s happening on the ground. I’m coming back from all of this more committed than ever to articulating and demonstrating the reality, because it just seems like there is this huge gap of knowledge between what’s actually happening and the stories that these senators are hearing from these companies.

What else I’m reading

  • I just loved this story from Jessica Bennett at the New York Times about what it’s like to be a teen girl with a cell phone today. Bennett kept in touch with three 13-year-olds over the course of a year to learn about the ins and outs of their digital lives. Highly recommend! 
  • This social reflection on privacy by Charlie Warzel in the Atlantic has stuck with me for a few days. The story gets at the overwhelming questions we—certainly I—have about what we can do to preserve our privacy online. 
  • The United Nations General Assembly convened in New York this past week, and one big topic of discussion was, of course, AI. Will Henshall at Time did a deep dive into what we might expect from the body on AI regulation.

What I learned this week

A Disney director tried to use AI to create a soundtrack reminiscent of the work of symphonist Hans Zimmer—and came up disappointed. Gareth Edwards, director of Rogue One: A Star Wars Storytold my colleague Melissa Heikkilä that he was hoping to use AI to create a soundtrack for his forthcoming movie about … AI, of course! Well, the soundtrack fell flat, and Edwards even shared it with the famous composer, who he says found it amusing. 

Melissa wrote, “Edwards said AI systems lack a fundamentally crucial skill for creating good art: taste. They still don’t understand what humans deem good or bad.”

In the end, the real Zimmer wrote the melodies for Edwards’s upcoming movie, The Creator

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