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 new tick-borne disease is killing cattle in the US
In the spring of 2021, Cynthia and John Grano, who own a cattle operation in Culpeper County, Virginia, started noticing some of their cows slowing down and acting “spacey.” They figured the animals were suffering from a common infectious disease that causes anemia in cattle. But their veterinarian had warned them that another disease carried by a parasite was spreading rapidly in the area.
After a third cow died, the Granos decided to test its blood. Sure enough, the test came back positive for the disease: theileria. And with no treatment available, the cows kept dying.
Cattle owners like the Granos are not alone. Livestock producers around the US are confronting this new and unfamiliar disease without much information. Researchers still don’t know how theileria will unfold, even as it quickly spreads west across the country. If states can’t get the disease under control, then nationwide production losses from sick cows could significantly damage both individual operations and the entire industry. Read the full story.
Super-hot salt could be coming to a battery near you
The world is building more capacity for renewables, especially solar and wind power that come and go with the weather. But for renewables to make a real difference, we need better options for storing energy. That’s where batteries come in. And handily, there’s a wave of alternative chemistries slowly percolating into the growing energy storage market.
Some of these new players could eventually be cheaper (and in various ways, better) than the industry-standard lithium-ion batteries. Among the most promising is molten salt technology, which Ambri, a Boston-area startup, is convinced could be up to 50% cheaper over its lifetime than an equivalent lithium-ion system.
But, like its rivals experimenting with other forms of energy storage, Ambri is facing real barriers to adoption, with scaling presenting the main, ever-present hurdle. Read the full story.
Casey’s story is from The Spark, her weekly newsletter covering battery breakthroughs and other climate news. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Wednesday.
I’ve combed the internet to find you today’s most fun/important/scary/fascinating stories about technology.
1 What comes after Twitter?
Whatever the answer, downloading data and contacts is a smart move. (NYT $)
+ It’s unlikely, however, that you’ll be able to save everything. (Wired $)
+ A load of fired contractors aren’t planning on going quietly. (Bloomberg $)
+ One of its former data scientists is extremely worried. (Rest of World)
+ Twitter’s potential collapse could wipe out vast records of recent human history. (MIT Technology Review)
2 The ripple effects of FTX’s collapse
The crypto exchange’s poor practices are triggering fears about the industry’s future—and its employees are furious. (WSJ $)
+ Sam Bankman-Fried had an ill-advised chat with a journalist over Twitter. (Vox)
+ A class action has been filed against FTX in the US. (The Guardian)
3 The US’s bioweapon detection system is unreliable
20 years after its introduction, it still costs $80 million a year. (The Verge)
4 Telehealth sites are riddled with data trackers
They could reveal sensitive addiction information that’s ripe for abuse. (Wired $)
5 Activision Blizzard’s games are being pulled offline in China
It’s been unable to strike a deal with its Chinese distributor. (FT $)
6 Intel thinks it can catch deepfakes with 96% accuracy
By tracking the “blood flow” of video pixels to detect living humans. (VentureBeat)
+ A horrifying AI app swaps women into porn videos with a click. (MIT Technology Review)
7 We’ve ignored concrete’s carbon footprint for too long
It’s not as big a polluter as transport or energy, but it’s in urgent need of a greener overhaul. (Knowable Magazine)
+ How Joe Biden got away with passing the IRA. (The Atlantic $)
+ How hydrogen and electricity can clean up heavy industry. (MIT Technology Review)
8 Lab-grown meat is safe to eat
The FDA has green lit lab-grown chicken—but it needs to pass other tests before it can be sold. (NBC News)
+ Will lab-grown meat reach our plates? (MIT Technology Review)
9 Why NASA’s astronauts aren’t allowed to TikTok from space
Even though their European counterparts are. (Vox)
+ NASA’s Artemis 1 launch was an oddly muted affair. (The Atlantic $)
+ Here’s everything the mission is taking with it to the moon. (IEEE Spectrum)
10 We could hitch a ride on a flying taxi one day
By the end of the decade, apparently. Let’s see. (Economist $)
Quote of the day
“Ireland really bet the farm on the future of tech . . . almost at the expense of everything else.”
—Mark O’Connell, executive chair and founder of OCO Global, a trade and investment focused advisory firm, tells the Financial Times why the tech sector’s mass job cuts will hit Ireland particularly hard.
The big story
Bright LEDs could spell the end of dark skies
Scientists have known for years that light pollution is growing and can harm both humans and wildlife. In people, increased exposure to light at night disrupts sleep cycles and has been linked to cancer and cardiovascular disease, while wildlife suffers from interruption to their reproductive patterns, increased danger and loss of stealth.
Astronomers, policymakers, and lighting professionals are all working to find ways to reduce light pollution. Many of them advocate installing light-emitting diodes, or LEDs, in outdoor fixtures such as city streetlights, mainly for their ability to direct light to a targeted area. But the high initial investment and durability of modern LEDs mean cities need to get the transition right the first time or potentially face decades of consequences. Read the full story.
We can still have nice things
+ A luxurious train journey looks like the perfect way to unwind to me.
+ Nothing can replace the joy of picking out a great read from a bookstore.
+ It’s never too early to start planning for your next great adventure.
+ Olive oil? Good. Cake? Good. An olive oil cake?! GOOD!
+ The oldest known sentence written in the first alphabet is entertainingly domestic.
These robots know when to ask for help
A new training model, dubbed “KnowNo,” aims to address this problem by teaching robots to ask for our help when orders are unclear. At the same time, it ensures they seek clarification only when necessary, minimizing needless back-and-forth. The result is a smart assistant that tries to make sure it understands what you want without bothering you too much.
Andy Zeng, a research scientist at Google DeepMind who helped develop the new technique, says that while robots can be powerful in many specific scenarios, they are often bad at generalized tasks that require common sense.
For example, when asked to bring you a Coke, the robot needs to first understand that it needs to go into the kitchen, look for the refrigerator, and open the fridge door. Conventionally, these smaller substeps had to be manually programmed, because otherwise the robot would not know that people usually keep their drinks in the kitchen.
That’s something large language models (LLMs) could help to fix, because they have a lot of common-sense knowledge baked in, says Zeng.
Now when the robot is asked to bring a Coke, an LLM, which has a generalized understanding of the world, can generate a step-by-step guide for the robot to follow.
The problem with LLMs, though, is that there’s no way to guarantee that their instructions are possible for the robot to execute. Maybe the person doesn’t have a refrigerator in the kitchen, or the fridge door handle is broken. In these situations, robots need to ask humans for help.
KnowNo makes that possible by combining large language models with statistical tools that quantify confidence levels.
When given an ambiguous instruction like “Put the bowl in the microwave,” KnowNo first generates multiple possible next actions using the language model. Then it creates a confidence score predicting the likelihood that each potential choice is the best one.
The Download: inside the first CRISPR treatment, and smarter robots
The news: A new robot training model, dubbed “KnowNo,” aims to teach robots to ask for our help when orders are unclear. At the same time, it ensures they seek clarification only when necessary, minimizing needless back-and-forth. The result is a smart assistant that tries to make sure it understands what you want without bothering you too much.
Why it matters: While robots can be powerful in many specific scenarios, they are often bad at generalized tasks that require common sense. That’s something large language models could help to fix, because they have a lot of common-sense knowledge baked in. Read the full story.
Medical microrobots that travel inside the body are (still) on their way
The human body is a labyrinth of vessels and tubing, full of barriers that are difficult to break through. That poses a serious hurdle for doctors. Illness is often caused by problems that are hard to visualize and difficult to access. But imagine if we could deploy armies of tiny robots into the body to do the job for us. They could break up hard-to-reach clots, deliver drugs to even the most inaccessible tumors, and even help guide embryos toward implantation.
We’ve been hearing about the use of tiny robots in medicine for years, maybe even decades. And they’re still not here. But experts are adamant that medical microbots are finally coming, and that they could be a game changer for a number of serious diseases. Read the full story.
5 things we didn’t put on our 2024 list of 10 Breakthrough Technologies
We haven’t always been right (RIP, Baxter), but we’ve often been early to spot important areas of progress (we put natural-language processing on our very first list in 2001; today this technology underpins large language models and generative AI tools like ChatGPT).
Every year, our reporters and editors nominate technologies that they think deserve a spot, and we spend weeks debating which ones should make the cut. Here are some of the technologies we didn’t pick this time—and why we’ve left them off, for now.
New drugs for Alzheimer’s disease
Alzmeiher’s patients have long lacked treatment options. Several new drugs have now been proved to slow cognitive decline, albeit modestly, by clearing out harmful plaques in the brain. In July, the FDA approved Leqembi by Eisai and Biogen, and Eli Lilly’s donanemab could soon be next. But the drugs come with serious side effects, including brain swelling and bleeding, which can be fatal in some cases. Plus, they’re hard to administer—patients receive doses via an IV and must receive regular MRIs to check for brain swelling. These drawbacks gave us pause.
Sustainable aviation fuel
Alternative jet fuels made from cooking oil, leftover animal fats, or agricultural waste could reduce emissions from flying. They have been in development for years, and scientists are making steady progress, with several recent demonstration flights. But production and use will need to ramp up significantly for these fuels to make a meaningful climate impact. While they do look promising, there wasn’t a key moment or “breakthrough” that merited a spot for sustainable aviation fuels on this year’s list.
One way to counteract global warming could be to release particles into the stratosphere that reflect the sun’s energy and cool the planet. That idea is highly controversial within the scientific community, but a few researchers and companies have begun exploring whether it’s possible by launching a series of small-scale high-flying tests. One such launch prompted Mexico to ban solar geoengineering experiments earlier this year. It’s not really clear where geoengineering will go from here or whether these early efforts will stall out. Amid that uncertainty, we decided to hold off for now.