Connect with us


The Download: China’s covid pop-up, and resolving Twitter’s ownership row




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 the covid pop-up window is wreaking havoc on daily life in China

In 2020, China rolled out a contact tracing program that assigns a QR code to everyone in the country. It shows your covid status and allows you to enter public venues or take public transportation. Part of China’s stringent zero-covid policy, the system has persisted, and some of the once-lauded features that kept deaths comparatively low in the country now feel more burdensome than beneficial to its citizens.
For example, the more than 20 million people who live in or visit Beijing are now being plagued by a pop-up window that can randomly show up on your phone to disrupt all your plans. The persistent pop-up is designed to mask the QR code, preventing access to just about everywhere in China, and won’t go away unless the user immediately takes a PCR test.
The problem is, despite being touted as a high-tech pandemic solution, the app’s risk-identifying mechanism tends to cast a wider-than-necessary net, meaning no one knows why they are receiving the pop-up window or when they will get it, and there’s no way to prepare for it. Read the full story.

—Zeyi Yang

This story is from China Report, our new weekly newsletter getting you up to speed on everything that’s happening in China. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Tuesday.

Podcast: I Was There When AI Mastered Chess

In the late 90s, IBM’s Deep Blue computer beat Garry Kasparov—the reigning world champion of chess. It paved the way for a revolution in automation. In the latest episode of MIT Technology Review’s In Machines We Trust podcast, we meet Kasparov and hear the battle with Deep Blue told from his side of the chessboard. Listen to it on Apple Podcasts, or wherever else you usually listen.

The must-reads

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

1 Elon Musk’s deal to buy Twitter appears to be back on
The billionaire has offered to complete the deal at the originally proposed price, potentially as soon as this week. (NYT $)
+ A successful deal would make Musk’s to-do list even longer. (WSJ $)
+ It’s probably no coincidence this happened days before the court case. (FT $)
+ Twitter could end up folded into a superapp called ‘X’. (Bloomberg $)

2 It’s not looking good for financial markets
Inflation in the US appears to be on track to slowing, but at what price? (Economist $)
+ The UN has accused rich nations of risking a developing world-harming recession. (The Guardian

3 The dearth of Uber drivers is over
It follows two years of global driver shortages. (FT $)

4 There’s a whole new set of blood groups 
The new ‘Er’ grouping is the 44th to be confirmed. (Wired $)
+ Elizabeth Holmes, former CEO of blood testing firm Theranos, has requested a new trial. (BBC)

5 Adderall users are considering switching drugs
Pharmacies can’t keep up with the steep demand for it, and patients are suffering. (Motherboard)

6 How Ukraine’s tech workers built a new normal
Many displaced employees carried on working from other countries. Now, they’re returning home. (Rest of World)
+ It’s tough for displaced Ukrainians to prove they own their homes. (Slate $)
+ Russia is increasingly relying on its private army of mercenaries. (LA Times

7 The dream of a decentralized web
Advocates for DWeb are resigned to fighting an uphill battle when there’s not vast amounts of money to be made. (The Atlantic $)
+ A big tech company is working to free the internet from big tech companies. (MIT Technology Review)

8 Here’s what quantum computing could do for us
But putting the theory into practice is the biggest challenge. (Vox)
+ What are quantum-resistant algorithms—and why do we need them? (MIT Technology Review)

9 YouTube was never neutral
Its powerful recommendation algorithm shaped the attention economy as we know it. (New Yorker $)
+ Hated that video? YouTube’s algorithm might push you another just like it. (MIT Technology Review)

10 America’s chess grandmaster may have cheated over 100 times
The plot thickens! (WSJ $)

Quote of the day

“Games tell us about the stories we want to tell about conflict.”

—Ian Kikuchi, co-curator at a new exhibition exploring war in video games, tells the Financial Times how games can rewrite the history of war by exaggerating the role of the individual.

The big story

The Atlantic’s vital currents could collapse. Scientists are racing to understand the dangers.

December 2021

Scientists and technicians are searching for clues about one of the most important forces in the planet’s climate system: a network of ocean currents known as the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC). Critically, they want to better understand how global warming is changing it, and how much more it could shift in the coming decades—even whether it could collapse.

The problem is the Atlantic circulation seems to be weakening, transporting less water and heat. Because of climate change, melting ice sheets are pouring fresh water into the ocean at the higher latitudes, and the surface waters are retaining more of their heat. Warmer and fresher waters are less dense and thus not as prone to sink, which may be undermining one of the currents’ core driving forces. Read the full story.

—James Temple

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.)

+ Is there anything more iconic than The Matrix’s green code? I don’t think so.
+ How big is infinity, really? Answers on a postcard.
+ These Pokemon town cardboard models are super cute.
+ Optical illusions are guaranteed to get your head in a spin.
+ There’s some real domestic falcon drama going down in Melbourne (thanks Kirsten!)


The Download: AI films, and the threat of microplastics



Welcome to the new surreal. How AI-generated video is changing film.

The Frost nails its uncanny, disconcerting vibe in its first few shots. Vast icy mountains, a makeshift camp of military-style tents, a group of people huddled around a fire, barking dogs. It’s familiar stuff, yet weird enough to plant a growing seed of dread. There’s something wrong here.

Welcome to the unsettling world of AI moviemaking. The Frost is a 12-minute movie from Detroit-based video creation company Waymark in which every shot is generated by an image-making AI. It’s one of the most impressive—and bizarre—examples yet of this strange new genre. Read the full story, and take an exclusive look at the movie.

—Will Douglas Heaven

Microplastics are everywhere. What does that mean for our immune systems?

Microplastics are pretty much everywhere you look. These tiny pieces of plastic pollution, less than five millimeters across, have been found in human blood, breast milk, and placentas. They’re even in our drinking water and the air we breathe.

Given their ubiquity, it’s worth considering what we know about microplastics. What are they doing to us? 

The short answer is: we don’t really know. But scientists have begun to build a picture of their potential effects from early studies in animals and clumps of cells, and new research suggests that they could affect not only the health of our body tissues, but our immune systems more generally. Read the full story.

—Jessica Hamzelou

Continue Reading


Microplastics are everywhere. What does that mean for our immune systems?



Microplastics are everywhere. What does that mean for our immune systems?

Here, bits of plastic can end up collecting various types of bacteria, which cling to their surfaces. Seabirds that ingest them not only end up with a stomach full of plastic—which can end up starving them—but also get introduced to types of bacteria that they wouldn’t encounter otherwise. It seems to disturb their gut microbiomes.

There are similar concerns for humans. These tiny bits of plastic, floating and flying all over the world, could act as a “Trojan horse,” introducing harmful drug-resistant bacteria and their genes, as some researchers put it.

It’s a deeply unsettling thought. As research plows on, hopefully we’ll learn not only what microplastics are doing to us, but how we might tackle the problem.

Read more from Tech Review’s archive

It is too simplistic to say we should ban all plastic. But we could do with revolutionizing the way we recycle it, as my colleague Casey Crownhart pointed out in an article published last year. 

We can use sewage to track the rise of antimicrobial-resistant bacteria, as I wrote in a previous edition of the Checkup. At this point, we need all the help we can get …

… which is partly why scientists are also exploring the possibility of using tiny viruses to treat drug-resistant bacterial infections. Phages were discovered around 100 years ago and are due a comeback!

Our immune systems are incredibly complicated. And sex matters: there are important differences between the immune systems of men and women, as Sandeep Ravindran wrote in this feature, which ran in our magazine issue on gender.

Continue Reading


Welcome to the new surreal. How AI-generated video is changing film.



Welcome to the new surreal. How AI-generated video is changing film.

Fast and cheap

Artists are often the first to experiment with new technology. But the immediate future of generative video is being shaped by the advertising industry. Waymark made The Frost to explore how generative AI could be built into its products. The company makes video creation tools for businesses looking for a fast and cheap way to make commercials. Waymark is one of several startups, alongside firms such as Softcube and Vedia AI, that offer bespoke video ads for clients with just a few clicks.

Waymark’s current tech, launched at the start of the year, pulls together several different AI techniques, including large language models, image recognition, and speech synthesis, to generate a video ad on the fly. Waymark also drew on its large data set of non-AI-generated commercials created for previous customers. “We have hundreds of thousands of videos,” says CEO Alex Persky-Stern. “We’ve pulled the best of those and trained it on what a good video looks like.”

To use Waymark’s tool, which it offers as part of a tiered subscription service starting at $25 a month, users supply the web address or social media accounts for their business, and it goes off and gathers all the text and images it can find. It then uses that data to generate a commercial, using OpenAI’s GPT-3 to write a script that is read aloud by a synthesized voice over selected images that highlight the business. A slick minute-long commercial can be generated in seconds. Users can edit the result if they wish, tweaking the script, editing images, choosing a different voice, and so on. Waymark says that more than 100,000 people have used its tool so far.

The trouble is that not every business has a website or images to draw from, says Parker. “An accountant or a therapist might have no assets at all,” he says. 

Waymark’s next idea is to use generative AI to create images and video for businesses that don’t yet have any—or don’t want to use the ones they have. “That’s the thrust behind making The Frost,” says Parker. “Create a world, a vibe.”

The Frost has a vibe, for sure. But it is also janky. “It’s not a perfect medium yet by any means,” says Rubin. “It was a bit of a struggle to get certain things from DALL-E, like emotional responses in faces. But at other times, it delighted us. We’d be like, ‘Oh my God, this is magic happening before our eyes.’”

This hit-and-miss process will improve as the technology gets better. DALL-E 2, which Waymark used to make The Frost, was released just a year ago. Video generation tools that generate short clips have only been around for a few months.  

The most revolutionary aspect of the technology is being able to generate new shots whenever you want them, says Rubin: “With 15 minutes of trial and error, you get that shot you wanted that fits perfectly into a sequence.” He remembers cutting the film together and needing particular shots, like a close-up of a boot on a mountainside. With DALL-E, he could just call it up. “It’s mind-blowing,” he says. “That’s when it started to be a real eye-opening experience as a filmmaker.”

Continue Reading

Copyright © 2021 Seminole Press.