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The Download April 14 2022: Kenya’s mobile gambling problem and earthquake algorithms




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.

How mobile money supercharged Kenya’s sports betting addiction

Mobile money has mostly been hugely beneficial for Kenyans. But it has also turbo-charged the country’s sports betting sector.

Since the middle of the last decade, experts and public figures across the African continent have been sounding the alarm over the rising popularity of sports betting. The practice has produced tales of riches, but it has also broken families, consumed college tuitions, and even driven some to suicide.

Nowhere, though, is the craze as acute as it is in Kenya, the country often dubbed Africa’s “Silicon Savannah” for its status as a regional tech powerhouse. But while Kenya’s mobile money revolution has played a well-documented role in encouraging savings and democratizing access to finance, today, it’s easier than ever for those in fragile economic circumstances to squander everything. Read the full story.

—Jonathan W. Rosen

A deep-learning algorithm could detect earthquakes by filtering out city noise

Cities are loud places. Traffic, trains, and machinery generate a lot of noise. While it’s a mere inconvenience much of the time, it can become a deadly problem when it comes to detecting earthquakes. That’s because it’s difficult to discern an approaching earthquake amid all the usual vibrations in bustling cities.

Researchers from Stanford have found a way to get a clearer signal. They’ve created an algorithm trained on tens of thousands of samples of seismic noise in cities. They claim it could improve the detection capacity of earthquake monitoring networks in cities. Places like South America, Mexico, the Mediterranean, Indonesia, and Japan could especially stand to benefit. Read the full story.

—Rhiannon Williams

The must-reads

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

1 TikTok has created a pro-war echo chamber in Russia
While anti-war hashtags and content has disappeared. (WSJ $)
+ Ukraine’s intelligence services are doxxing Russian soldiers. (Wired $)
+ Russians are hiding bombs and landmines across Ukraine. (NYT $)
+ The state of Russia’s trucks suggests its troops are struggling. (CNN

2 Millions are grieving loved ones lost to covid
And their mourning is made even tougher by the public’s desire to “return to normal.” (The Atlantic $)
+ Two omicron subvariants are sweeping across New York state. (NYT $)
+ Pfizer’s booster shot is effective in children aged between 5 and 11. (NYT $)
+ Robot dogs are patrolling Shanghai to ensure residents stick to its lockdown. (FT $)

3 Plastic batteries are cheaper and longer-lasting than lithium-ion
So it makes sense they could store renewable energy on the grid. (TR)

4 Elon Musk has offered to buy 100% of Twitter
He says if his offer is refused, he’s going to reconsider his position as a shareholder. (FT $)
+ It’s been a rollercoaster week for both Musk and the platform. (The Verge)
+ But he’s still being sued over claims he was too slow to disclose his shares in Twitter. (Sky News $)

5 How the joke conspiracy theory Birds Aren’t Real took flight  
Actual conspiracy theorists seem to really struggle to spot satire. (The Guardian)
+ A Capitol Hill rioter has blamed Trump for ordering him to storm Congress. (NYT $)

6 Mark Zuckerberg wants you to see the metaverse through his AR glasses
He thinks they’ll go on sale in 2024, but even that sounds wildly optimistic. (The Verge

7  A travel influencer wrongly claimed to be the first woman to visit every country
She was, however, the first to boast about it on social media. (WP $)

8 Endangered animals are still being trafficked through Facebook
That’s despite Meta’s promise to crack down on the practice years ago. (The Guardian)

9 At what age should we talk to kids about crypto?
What a question. What a time to be alive. (Vox)
+ The guy who bought an NFT of Jack Dorsey’s first tweet for $2.9 million is struggling to sell it for anything other than a giant loss. (Coindesk)
+ Wikipedia has voted against receiving cryptocurrency donations. (Ars Technica)
+ Soccer clubs and crypto are not a good mix. (FT $)

10 Vending machines may exist until the end of time
They’re mostly unloved, yet relied upon by millions of us every day around the world. (The Guardian)
+ No, please, not an NFT vending machine. (Axios)

Quote of the day

“I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t come. I had to. I couldn’t sleep.”

—An American man tells The Guardian about his decision to travel to Ukraine to fight the Russian invasion.

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.)

+ A fascinating look at what could be the world’s oldest dessert, though it won’t be to everyone’s tastes.
+ Whatever you do, watch out for these feisty geese.
+ This Smiths x Flo Rida mashup is living in my head rent-free.
+ If you hate shopping for jeans as much as I do, this guide is a must-read.
+ Wait, what—mushrooms speak to each other!?
+ This marine mammal livestream is healing my soul.+ May your weekend be as chilled as this capybara living its best life with some duck pals.


The hunter-gatherer groups at the heart of a microbiome gold rush



The hunter-gatherer groups at the heart of a microbiome gold rush

The first step to finding out is to catalogue what microbes we might have lost. To get as close to ancient microbiomes as possible, microbiologists have begun studying multiple Indigenous groups. Two have received the most attention: the Yanomami of the Amazon rainforest and the Hadza, in northern Tanzania. 

Researchers have made some startling discoveries already. A study by Sonnenburg and his colleagues, published in July, found that the gut microbiomes of the Hadza appear to include bugs that aren’t seen elsewhere—around 20% of the microbe genomes identified had not been recorded in a global catalogue of over 200,000 such genomes. The researchers found 8.4 million protein families in the guts of the 167 Hadza people they studied. Over half of them had not previously been identified in the human gut.

Plenty of other studies published in the last decade or so have helped build a picture of how the diets and lifestyles of hunter-gatherer societies influence the microbiome, and scientists have speculated on what this means for those living in more industrialized societies. But these revelations have come at a price.

A changing way of life

The Hadza people hunt wild animals and forage for fruit and honey. “We still live the ancient way of life, with arrows and old knives,” says Mangola, who works with the Olanakwe Community Fund to support education and economic projects for the Hadza. Hunters seek out food in the bush, which might include baboons, vervet monkeys, guinea fowl, kudu, porcupines, or dik-dik. Gatherers collect fruits, vegetables, and honey.

Mangola, who has met with multiple scientists over the years and participated in many research projects, has witnessed firsthand the impact of such research on his community. Much of it has been positive. But not all researchers act thoughtfully and ethically, he says, and some have exploited or harmed the community.

One enduring problem, says Mangola, is that scientists have tended to come and study the Hadza without properly explaining their research or their results. They arrive from Europe or the US, accompanied by guides, and collect feces, blood, hair, and other biological samples. Often, the people giving up these samples don’t know what they will be used for, says Mangola. Scientists get their results and publish them without returning to share them. “You tell the world [what you’ve discovered]—why can’t you come back to Tanzania to tell the Hadza?” asks Mangola. “It would bring meaning and excitement to the community,” he says.

Some scientists have talked about the Hadza as if they were living fossils, says Alyssa Crittenden, a nutritional anthropologist and biologist at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, who has been studying and working with the Hadza for the last two decades.

The Hadza have been described as being “locked in time,” she adds, but characterizations like that don’t reflect reality. She has made many trips to Tanzania and seen for herself how life has changed. Tourists flock to the region. Roads have been built. Charities have helped the Hadza secure land rights. Mangola went abroad for his education: he has a law degree and a master’s from the Indigenous Peoples Law and Policy program at the University of Arizona.

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The Download: a microbiome gold rush, and Eric Schmidt’s election misinformation plan



The Download: a microbiome gold rush, and Eric Schmidt’s election misinformation plan

Over the last couple of decades, scientists have come to realize just how important the microbes that crawl all over us are to our health. But some believe our microbiomes are in crisis—casualties of an increasingly sanitized way of life. Disturbances in the collections of microbes we host have been associated with a whole host of diseases, ranging from arthritis to Alzheimer’s.

Some might not be completely gone, though. Scientists believe many might still be hiding inside the intestines of people who don’t live in the polluted, processed environment that most of the rest of us share. They’ve been studying the feces of people like the Yanomami, an Indigenous group in the Amazon, who appear to still have some of the microbes that other people have lost. 

But there is a major catch: we don’t know whether those in hunter-gatherer societies really do have “healthier” microbiomes—and if they do, whether the benefits could be shared with others. At the same time, members of the communities being studied are concerned about the risk of what’s called biopiracy—taking natural resources from poorer countries for the benefit of wealthier ones. Read the full story.

—Jessica Hamzelou

Eric Schmidt has a 6-point plan for fighting election misinformation

—by Eric Schmidt, formerly the CEO of Google, and current cofounder of philanthropic initiative Schmidt Futures

The coming year will be one of seismic political shifts. Over 4 billion people will head to the polls in countries including the United States, Taiwan, India, and Indonesia, making 2024 the biggest election year in history.

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Navigating a shifting customer-engagement landscape with generative AI



Navigating a shifting customer-engagement landscape with generative AI

A strategic imperative

Generative AI’s ability to harness customer data in a highly sophisticated manner means enterprises are accelerating plans to invest in and leverage the technology’s capabilities. In a study titled “The Future of Enterprise Data & AI,” Corinium Intelligence and WNS Triange surveyed 100 global C-suite leaders and decision-makers specializing in AI, analytics, and data. Seventy-six percent of the respondents said that their organizations are already using or planning to use generative AI.

According to McKinsey, while generative AI will affect most business functions, “four of them will likely account for 75% of the total annual value it can deliver.” Among these are marketing and sales and customer operations. Yet, despite the technology’s benefits, many leaders are unsure about the right approach to take and mindful of the risks associated with large investments.

Mapping out a generative AI pathway

One of the first challenges organizations need to overcome is senior leadership alignment. “You need the necessary strategy; you need the ability to have the necessary buy-in of people,” says Ayer. “You need to make sure that you’ve got the right use case and business case for each one of them.” In other words, a clearly defined roadmap and precise business objectives are as crucial as understanding whether a process is amenable to the use of generative AI.

The implementation of a generative AI strategy can take time. According to Ayer, business leaders should maintain a realistic perspective on the duration required for formulating a strategy, conduct necessary training across various teams and functions, and identify the areas of value addition. And for any generative AI deployment to work seamlessly, the right data ecosystems must be in place.

Ayer cites WNS Triange’s collaboration with an insurer to create a claims process by leveraging generative AI. Thanks to the new technology, the insurer can immediately assess the severity of a vehicle’s damage from an accident and make a claims recommendation based on the unstructured data provided by the client. “Because this can be immediately assessed by a surveyor and they can reach a recommendation quickly, this instantly improves the insurer’s ability to satisfy their policyholders and reduce the claims processing time,” Ayer explains.

All that, however, would not be possible without data on past claims history, repair costs, transaction data, and other necessary data sets to extract clear value from generative AI analysis. “Be very clear about data sufficiency. Don’t jump into a program where eventually you realize you don’t have the necessary data,” Ayer says.

The benefits of third-party experience

Enterprises are increasingly aware that they must embrace generative AI, but knowing where to begin is another thing. “You start off wanting to make sure you don’t repeat mistakes other people have made,” says Ayer. An external provider can help organizations avoid those mistakes and leverage best practices and frameworks for testing and defining explainability and benchmarks for return on investment (ROI).

Using pre-built solutions by external partners can expedite time to market and increase a generative AI program’s value. These solutions can harness pre-built industry-specific generative AI platforms to accelerate deployment. “Generative AI programs can be extremely complicated,” Ayer points out. “There are a lot of infrastructure requirements, touch points with customers, and internal regulations. Organizations will also have to consider using pre-built solutions to accelerate speed to value. Third-party service providers bring the expertise of having an integrated approach to all these elements.”

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