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The Download: cancer-detecting blood tests, and crypto’s big Merge

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The Download: cancer-detecting blood tests, and crypto’s big Merge


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.

The US is launching a trial for blood tests that promise to catch cancers earlier

The news: The US is launching a national trial to assess how effective tests designed to spot signs of multiple kinds of cancer in blood drawn from a patient’s arm really are. The goal is to help determine how blood test results for cancer should be interpreted, and it should provide a standard approach to launching cancer screening studies as companies flood the field with new tests.

Why it matters: Most cancers can’t be reliably screened for before symptoms begin—tools like mammograms and pap smears are exceptions, not the rule. Most of these multi-cancer early detection tests work by looking for remnants of tumor cells that explode after the immune system attacks them. Debris from dead tumors turns up in the bloodstream, where it can potentially be detected to warn of cancer before someone feels sick. If imaging confirms the finding, a biopsy follows.

What’s next: The trial, run by the National Cancer Institute, will begin enrolling participants in 2024 and test how effective various blood tests are at spotting cancer in 24,000 healthy patients over four years. If the findings seem promising, a clinical trial almost 10 times as large will commence. Read the full story.

—Hana Kiros

Why Ethereum is switching to proof of stake and how it will work

Later this week, one of the world’s biggest blockchains should move to a new way to approve transactions, and away from the energy-intensive “proof of work” system.

If successful, the process, known as The Merge, should reduce Ethereum’s energy consumption by around 99.95%, and potentially help it reach 100,000 transactions per second. If The Merge continues at its current rate, the process should complete on Thursday. Read our explainer on how it will work.

The must-reads

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

1 Russia’s government has been hit with its first climate change lawsuit 
A group of activists hopes to force the country’s authorities to adhere to the Paris climate accord. (The Guardian)
+ Russia forest biome is at severe risk from climate change. (FT $)
+ Europe’s increased demand for coal is undermining its climate credentials. (Reuters)

2 A new cancer drug appears to be more effective than chemotherapy
However, there’s no evidence it reduced the total number of deaths. (WSJ $)

3 Twitter’s whistleblower is appearing before the US Senate
Peiter Zatko’s testimony next week could change the course of Elon Musk’s legal battle with the platform. (CNN)
+ Here’s just some of the questions Zatko could face. (The Guardian)
+ Why China’s authorities buy adverts on Twitter, despite banning it. (Reuters)

4 A Blue Origin rocket suffered a booster failure during a launch 
No humans were on board, though. (WP $)
+ Maybe we need to widen our search for ‘intelligent life’. (The Atlantic $)

5 Why it’s so important to understand why some people don’t get covid
And why plenty of people think they’re immune when they’re not. (Wired $)
+ Long covid’s brain fog is disproportionately affecting women. (The Atlantic $)
+ A battle is raging over long covid in children. (MIT Technology Review)

6 CRISPR needs its smartphone moment 
A push into mainstream adoption could change how we treat genetic mutations. (The Atlantic $)
+ Protein factories could help us shine a light on life’s origins. (New Scientist $)
+ Edits to a cholesterol gene could stop the biggest killer on earth. (MIT Technology Review)

7 Why the Internet Archive’s legal suit could change digital history
It could lose a huge chunk of it in the process, too. (Slate $) 

8 Antarctica is in peril 
We’re still learning how vulnerable the East Antarctic ice sheet really is. (CNET)

9 How beauty AI repackaged physiognomy for selfie-lovers
Its claims to read personality traits from facial features aren’t supported by science. (The Information $)
+ The fight for “Instagram face” (MIT Technology Review)

10 WhatsApp groups are tricking us into a false sense of intimacy
But leaving them is easier said than done. (The Guardian)

Quote of the day

“Our main demand is not to get killed.”

—Camila, a student in Mexico City, tells Rest of World how her classmates track each other’s whereabouts using WhatsApp amid a dramatic rise in violence against women in Mexico.

The big story

The 50-year-old problem that eludes theoretical computer science

October 2021

In July 2021, a proof appeared online at the esteemed journal ACM Transactions on Computational Theory. The result purported to solve the problem of all problems—the Holy Grail of theoretical computer science, worth a $1 million prize and fame rivaling Aristotle’s.

This treasured problem—known as “P versus NP”—is considered at once the most important in theoretical computer science and mathematics and completely out of reach. It addresses questions central to the promise, limits, and ambitions of computation, asking: Why are some problems harder than others? Which problems can computers realistically solve? How much time will it take?

The million-dollar question posed by P vs. NP is this: Are these two classes of problems one and the same? Which is to say, could the problems that seem so difficult in fact be solved with an algorithm in a reasonable amount of time, if only the right, devilishly fast algorithm could be found? Because if all the tricky problems could be transformed with such algorithmic sleight of hand, the consequences for society—for humanity and our planet—would be enormous. Read the full story.

—Siobhan Roberts

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.)

+ Netflix’s new thriller Glass Onion, a Knives Out sequel, looks a lot of fun.
+ This Twitter account of a cat vibing over music is the best (thanks Melissa!)  
+ Whether you’re comfortable in water or not, we can all agree that waves are pretty majestic-looking.
+ Teen TV shows are surprisingly good at dealing with death. Here’s why.
+ TikTok is throwing its weight behind California’s striking farmworkers.



Tech

How do I know if egg freezing is for me?

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How do I know if egg freezing is for me?


The tool is currently being trialed in a group of research volunteers and is not yet widely available. But I’m hoping it represents a move toward more transparency and openness about the real costs and benefits of egg freezing. Yes, it is a remarkable technology that can help people become parents. But it might not be the best option for everyone.

Read more from Tech Review’s archive

Anna Louie Sussman had her eggs frozen in Italy and Spain because services in New York were too expensive. Luckily, there are specialized couriers ready to take frozen sex cells on international journeys, she wrote.

Michele Harrison was 41 when she froze 21 of her eggs. By the time she wanted to use them, two years later, only one was viable. Although she did have a baby, her case demonstrates that egg freezing is no guarantee of parenthood, wrote Bonnie Rochman.

What happens if someone dies with eggs in storage? Frozen eggs and sperm can still be used to create new life, but it’s tricky to work out who can make the decision, as I wrote in a previous edition of The Checkup.

Meanwhile, the race is on to create lab-made eggs and sperm. These cells, which might be made from a person’s blood or skin cells, could potentially solve a lot of fertility problems—should they ever prove safe, as I wrote in a feature for last year’s magazine issue on gender.

Researchers are also working on ways to mature eggs from transgender men in the lab, which could allow them to store and use their eggs without having to pause gender-affirming medical care or go through other potentially distressing procedures, as I wrote last year.

From around the web

The World Health Organization is set to decide whether covid still represents a “public health emergency of international concern.” It will probably decide to keep this status, because of the current outbreak in China. (STAT)  

Researchers want to study the brains, genes, and other biological features of incarcerated people to find ways to stop them from reoffending. Others warn that this approach is based on shoddy science and racist ideas. (Undark)

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A watermark for chatbots can expose text written by an AI

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The Download: watermarking AI text, and freezing eggs


For example, since OpenAI’s chatbot ChatGPT was launched in November, students have already started cheating by using it to write essays for them. News website CNET has used ChatGPT to write articles, only to have to issue corrections amid accusations of plagiarism. Building the watermarking approach into such systems before they’re released could help address such problems. 

In studies, these watermarks have already been used to identify AI-generated text with near certainty. Researchers at the University of Maryland, for example, were able to spot text created by Meta’s open-source language model, OPT-6.7B, using a detection algorithm they built. The work is described in a paper that’s yet to be peer-reviewed, and the code will be available for free around February 15. 

AI language models work by predicting and generating one word at a time. After each word, the watermarking algorithm randomly divides the language model’s vocabulary into words on a “greenlist” and a “redlist” and then prompts the model to choose words on the greenlist. 

The more greenlisted words in a passage, the more likely it is that the text was generated by a machine. Text written by a person tends to contain a more random mix of words. For example, for the word “beautiful,” the watermarking algorithm could classify the word “flower” as green and “orchid” as red. The AI model with the watermarking algorithm would be more likely to use the word “flower” than “orchid,” explains Tom Goldstein, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland, who was involved in the research. 

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The Download: watermarking AI text, and freezing eggs

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The Download: watermarking AI text, and freezing eggs


That’s why the team behind a new decision-making tool hope it will help to clear up some of the misconceptions around the procedure—and give would-be parents a much-needed insight into its real costs, benefits, and potential pitfalls. Read the full story.

—Jessica Hamzelou

This story is from The Checkup, MIT Technology Review’s weekly newsletter giving you the inside track on all things health and biotech. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Thursday.

The must-reads

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

1 Elon Musk held a surprise meeting with US political leaders 
Allegedly in the interest of ensuring Twitter is “fair to both parties.” (Insider $)
+ Kanye West’s presidential campaign advisors have been booted off Twitter. (Rolling Stone $)
+ Twitter’s trust and safety head is Musk’s biggest champion. (Bloomberg $) 

2 We’re treating covid like flu now
Annual covid shots are the next logical step. (The Atlantic $)

3 The worst thing about Sam Bankman-Fried’s spell in jail? 
Being cut off from the internet. (Forbes $)
+ Most crypto criminals use just five exchanges. (Wired $)
+ Collapsed crypto firmFTX has objected to a new investigation request. (Reuters)

4 Israel’s tech sector is rising up against its government
Tech workers fear its hardline policies will harm startups. (FT $)

5 It’s possible to power the world solely using renewable energy
At least, according to Stanford academic Mark Jacobson. (The Guardian)
+ Tech bros love the environment these days. (Slate $)
+ How new versions of solar, wind, and batteries could help the grid. (MIT Technology Review)

6 Generative AI is wildly expensive to run 
And that’s why promising startups like OpenAI need to hitch their wagons to the likes of Microsoft. (Bloomberg $)
+ How Microsoft benefits from the ChatGPT hype. (Vox)
+ BuzzFeed is planning to make quizzes supercharged by OpenAI. (WSJ $) 
+ Generative AI is changing everything. But what’s left when the hype is gone? (MIT Technology Review)

7 It’s hard not to blame self-driving cars for accidents
Even when it’s not technically their fault. (WSJ $)

8 What it’s like to swap Google for TikTok
It’s great for food suggestions and hacks, but hopeless for anything work-related. (Wired $)
+ The platform really wants to stay operational in the US. (Vox)
+ TikTok is mired in an eyelash controversy. (Rolling Stone $)

9 CRISPR gene editing kits are available to buy online
But there’s no guarantee these experiments will actually work. (Motherboard)
+ Next up for CRISPR: Gene editing for the masses? (MIT Technology Review)

10 Tech workers are livestreaming their layoffs
It’s a candid window into how these notoriously secretive companies treat their staff. (The Information $)

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