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.
South Africa’s private surveillance machine is fueling a digital apartheid
Johannesburg, the sprawling megacity once home to Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, is now birthing a uniquely South African surveillance model. In the last five years, the city has become host to a centralized, coordinated, entirely privatized mass surveillance operation. Vumacam, the company building the nationwide CCTV network, already has over 6,600 cameras and counting, more than 5,000 of which are concentrated in Johannesburg. The video footage it takes feeds into security rooms around the country, which then use all manner of AI tools like license plate recognition to track population movement and trace individuals. These tools have been enthusiastically adopted by the local security industry, grappling with the pressures of a high-crime environment.
Civil rights activists worry the new surveillance is fueling a digital apartheid and unraveling people’s democratic liberties, but a growing chorus of experts say the stakes are even higher. They argue that the impact of artificial intelligence is repeating the patterns of colonial history, and here in South Africa, where colonial legacies abound, the unfettered deployment of AI surveillance offers just one case study in how a technology that promised to bring societies into the future is threatening to send them back to the past. Read the full story.
—Karen Hao and Heidi Swart
This is the first part of our series on AI colonialism, digging into how the technology is impoverishing the communities and countries that don’t have a say in its development. Parts 2—4 are coming later in the week, and you can read Karen Hao’s introductory essay here.
How we can fix AI’s inequality problem
The economy is being transformed by digital technologies, especially in artificial intelligence, that are rapidly changing how we live and work. But this transformation poses a troubling puzzle: these technologies haven’t done much to grow the economy, and income inequality is worsening. Productivity growth, which economists consider essential to improving living standards, has largely been sluggish since at least the mid-2000s in many countries.
Why are these technologies failing to produce more economic growth? Why aren’t they fueling more widespread prosperity? To find an answer, some leading economists and policy experts are looking more closely at how we invent and deploy AI and automation—and identifying ways we can make better choices. Read the full story.
Aging clocks aim to predict how long you’ll live
Age is much more than the number of birthdays you’ve clocked. Stress, sleep, and diet all influence how our organs cope with the wear and tear of everyday life, which could make you age faster or slower than people born on the same day. That means your biological age could be quite different from your chronological age—the number of years you’ve been alive.
Your biological age is likely a better reflection of your physical health and even your own mortality than your chronological age. But calculating it isn’t nearly as straightforward, which is why scientists have spent the last decade developing tools called aging clocks that assess markers in your body to reveal your biological age and predict how many healthy years you have left. Proponents of aging clocks are already trying to use them to show that anti-aging interventions can make individuals biologically younger. But it’s unclear that they’re accurate or reliable enough to make such claims. Read the full story.
Aging clocks emerged as the clear winner for Tech Review’s 11th breakthrough technology of 2022. More than 10,000 readers voted—if you were one of them, thank you!
Quote of the day
“It’s like packing bikinis for Siberia, using chopsticks to eat steak, teaching an eagle how to swim.”
—An anonymous Shanghai resident details the frustrations of living in the city’s extreme zero-covid lockdown while cases continue to soar for The Guardian.
I’ve combed the internet to find you today’s most fun/important/scary/fascinating stories about technology.
1 Russian soldiers are attacking a 300-mile front in Ukraine
The aim is to take full control of the Donbas region in the country’s east. (NYT $)
+ Putin’s desire to conquer Donbas is symbolic. (BBC) + The State Department has condemned Russian airstrikes as a “campaign of terror.” (WP $)
+ The siege of Mariupol appears to be drawing to an end. (FT $)
2 Crypto hackers are stealing ever-larger sums
And it’s mainly down to vulnerable, poorly-managed open-source code.(TR)
+ Bitcoin mining has devastated the city of Plattsburgh in New York. (TR)
+ The case for keeping cash. (TR)
3 Even democracies use controversial spyware
NSO has paved the way for this sort of surveillance to become terrifyingly commonplace. (New Yorker $)
+ The UK prime minister’s office has allegedly been hit with an NSO spyware attack. (The Guardian)
+ The hacker-for-hire industry is now too big to fail. (TR)
4 Facebook investing in Nigerian internet infrastructure comes at a price
Yep, you guessed it. User data. (The Guardian)
+ It’s been accused of failing to moderate misinformation in Africa. (The Guardian)
5 Intel claims its AI can read students’ emotions
Plot spoiler: it can’t. Not accurately, anyway. (Protocol)
+ Emotion AI researchers say overblown claims give their work a bad name. (TR)
6 How serious is Elon Musk about owning Twitter, really?
And should we be worried? (The Atlantic $)
+ Twitter’s board is trying hard to avoid a scenario where he buys 100% of the company. (Bloomberg $)
+ Twitter’s edit button might show how the tweet originally appeared. (TechCrunch)
8 A former Dollar General worker is using TikTok to push for union representation
Instead of listening to her concerns, the company fired her. But she’s not going quietly. (NYT $)
+ Amazon’s warehouse in New Jersey is the latest to get a union vote. (WP $)
9 Online white supremacist communities are preying on teenagers
Even the anti-racist material to combat it has been weaponized. (The Atlantic $)
10 Here’s how you should be texting
Sorry, grammar sticklers! (WP $)
We can still have nice things
+ This video of Peter Mayhew (Chewbacca) speaking English on the Star Wars set to help Harrison Ford react to his lines is hilarious.
+ I have a grudging respect for this unpleasant-looking Is It Cake?
+ Yet another Wordle clone, Redactle forces you to guess the redacted words from Wikipedia articles.
+ The Terrible Maps Twitter account may not be terribly useful, but it is funny.
+ This profile of mob chef David Ruggerio is completely mind-boggling.
+ Read Molly and David’s sweet story of meeting in the pandemic while he was shielding.
+ Comedian Munya’s assessment of what it’s like in the UK the second the sun comes out is spot on.
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.
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.
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.
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.”