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The Download: AI movie soundtracks, and DeepMind’s disease prediction tool




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.

A Disney director tried—and failed—to use an AI Hans Zimmer to create a soundtrack

When Gareth Edwards, the director of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, was thinking about the soundtrack for his upcoming movie about artificial intelligence, The Creator, he decided to try composing it with AI—and was pretty impressed with the result.

Edwards asked an AI music company to use the tech to create a soundtrack in the style of Oscar-winning composer Hans Zimmer, he explained during a LinkedIn Live interview with MIT Technology Review.

Edwards’s experiment speaks to an issue at the heart of one of the biggest fights facing Hollywood today. Artists and creatives are up in arms over generative AI. But AI systems lack a fundamentally crucial skill for creating good art: taste. Read the full story.

—Melissa Heikkilä

DeepMind is using AI to pinpoint the causes of genetic disease

The news: Google DeepMind says it’s trained an artificial intelligence system that can predict which DNA variations in our genomes are likely to cause disease—predictions that could speed diagnosis of rare disorders and possibly yield clues for drug development.

The background: Back in 2021, DeepMind announced that its program AlphaFold was able to accurately predict the shape of proteins, a problem considered a “grand challenge” in biology. Now the company says it has fine-tuned that protein model to predict which misspellings found in human DNA are safe to ignore and which are likely to cause disease. 

Why it matters: Although not intended to directly make diagnoses, computer predictions are already used by doctors to help locate the genetic causes of mysterious syndromes. But critics say the real test of modern artificial intelligence is whether it can lead to new cures, something that still hasn’t happened. Read the full story.

—Antonio Regalado

The deepfake avatars who want to sell you everything

If you don’t live in China, it’s hard to comprehend just how massively popular livestream e-commerce is. Over 500 million Chinese people are watching these streams regularly and they brokered $4.6 trillion in sales last year—meaning more than one-quarter of all purchases made online in China were from livestreams.

The appetite for livestream shopping still doesn’t exist in the US or other countries, but AI could help to change that.

Developers are creating countless deepfake streamers on China’s e-commerce platforms for brands, requiring just one minute of video for training purposes and around $1,000. And these streams of AI-generated avatars that can speak and act (almost) like real humans are already everywhere. Read the full story.

—Zeyi Yang

This story is from China Report, our weekly newsletter covering the latest tech developments in China. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Tuesday.

The must-reads

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

1 Google’s Bard AI is everywhere now
In your Gmail, YouTube, and Google Docs accounts, at least. (NYT $)
+ It’s a practical demonstration of how AI can boost Google’s biggest products. (Bloomberg $)
+ Google says it’s the first time a language model has truly integrated with personal data. (The Verge)
+ Google is throwing generative AI at everything. (MIT Technology Review)

2 The US Space Force wants to get satellites into space more quickly
Pressure from China is forcing them to speed things up. (WP $)

3 Federal prosecutors are investigating Elon Musk’s Tesla perks
Specifically his plans to build a large glass house near its Texas HQ. (WSJ $)
+ One of Musk’s other ventures, Neuralink, is recruiting for its first human clinical trial. (Bloomberg $)

4 Europe is critically dependent on China for rare earth minerals 
They’re essential for the low-carbon technologies Europe needs to meet climate targets. (FT $)
+ A pro-China online influence campaign is targeting the rare-earths industry. (MIT Technology Review)

5 Huawei is shipping Chinese-made surveillance chips
It suggests the company has found new ways to dodge US sanctions. (Reuters)
+ The US doesn’t think China can make advanced chips at scale, though. (Bloomberg $)
+ Huawei’s new phone is powered by its own native chip. (FT $)
+ China just fought back in the semiconductor exports war. Here’s what you need to know. (MIT Technology Review)

6 Meet the world’s new arms dealers
North Korea’s arms industry has been boosted by the war in Ukraine. (Economist $)
+ How did a US fighter jet go missing for over a day, exactly? (NBC News)
+ Inside the messy ethics of making war with machines. (MIT Technology Review)

7 DNA fingerprinting is helping catch animal poachers red handed
The small but growing practice could interrupt organized crime rings. (Knowable Magazine)

8 Pakistan’s gig workers are risking their lives daily
Vulnerable drivers are at risk of armed robberies and assault. (Rest of World)

9 FTX is suing Sam Bankman-Fried’s parents
The disgraced founder lavished them with gifts that the company now wants back. (NY Mag $)
+ The legal case accuses the pair of siphoning off millions of dollars. (Ars Technica)

10 TikTok Shop is littered with fake products
Faux snail slime serums, anyone? (Wired $)

Quote of the day

“Swifties, the vault is jammed!”

—Google offers an explanation to enthusiastic Taylor Swift fans attempting to solve a new puzzle built into the search engine, which rapidly buckled under the influx of visitors.

The big story

What cities need now

April 2021

Urban technology projects have long sought to manage the city. Again and again, these initiatives promise novel “solutions” to urban “problems.” Smart city projects are no different. 

After a decade of pilots and flashy demonstrations, though, it’s still not clear whether smart city technologies can actually solve or even mitigate the challenges cities face. What is clear, however, is that technology companies are increasingly taking on administrative and infrastructure responsibilities that governments have long fulfilled.

If smart cities are to avoid exacerbating urban inequalities, we have to take a long, hard look at how cities have fared so far. Read the full story.

—Jennifer Clark

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.)

+ Glen the cocker spaniel is a world-class mountain climber.
+ Now, this guy knows how to have a good time.
+ Let these owls stare deep into your soul 🦉
+ If you’re a fan of Succession, and who isn’t, you really should check out Peep Show.
+ This archive of Lego instruction manuals is amazing.


Climate tech is back—and this time, it can’t afford to fail



an embroidered patch based on the Valley of Death with the words "Valley of Death Survivor" at the bottom

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.”

Getting lucky

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.

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Making an image with generative AI uses as much energy as charging your phone



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. 

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The first CRISPR cure might kickstart the next big patent battle



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.

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