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.
Meet Europe’s surprising best-selling Chinese EV maker
China’s electric vehicle sector has been lavished with fame and attention. But its global ambitions hit a roadblock this month when the European Commission launched an investigation into whether Chinese-made EVs benefit from excessive government subsidies.
If the inquiry finds evidence for this claim, which experts say is very likely, it could result in increased import duties for Chinese-made EVs, which would likely make them less competitive in European markets.
Many of the Chinese brands that are causing concern are well-known names in China, like the established giant BYD and the promising startup Nio. But there’s one name in the mix you might not expect—former British luxury sports car maker MG. Read the full story.
Zeyi’s story is from China Report, MIT Technology Review’s weekly newsletter giving you the inside track on all things happening in tech in China. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Tuesday.
If you’re interested in reading more about China’s car sector, why not check out:
+ Europe is about to crack down on Chinese electric cars. The European Commission is set to launch an anti-subsidy investigation into Chinese automakers. Here’s what you need to know about the likely impact.
+ From generous government subsidies to support for lithium batteries, here’s how China managed to build a world-leading industry in electric vehicles.
+ China’s car companies are turning into tech companies. China has already won the race to electrify its vehicles. Now it’s pushing ahead and adding more features and services to attract new customers. Read the full story.
+ A race for autopilot dominance is giving China the edge in autonomous driving. Electric vehicle makers and AI companies are taking Tesla FSD-like systems to China, but it’s still out of reach for most consumers. Read the full story.
ClimateTech is coming
How can we build a sustainable, greener future? Next week, MIT Technology Review is holding our second annual ClimateTech conference to discuss the innovations accelerating the transition to a green economy.
ClimateTech is taking place at the MIT Media Lab on MIT’s campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on October 4-5. You can register for the event and either attend in-person or online, here—before it’s too late!
MIT Technology Review flash sale!
If you haven’t already, you can subscribe to MIT Technology Review to read more of our incisive reporting. We’re holding a flash sale for just 48 hours, allowing you to subscribe from just $8 a month.
Even better, you’ll receive a free print copy of our 10 Breakthrough Technologies of 2023 issue as well. Sign up today and save 17% off the full price.
I’ve combed the internet to find you today’s most fun/important/scary/fascinating stories about technology.
1 Amazon is being sued by the FTC in a landmark monopoly case
It’s accused of using illegal tactics to stifle online competition. (Wired $)
+ Head honcho Andy Jassy is facing an uphill climb. (NYT $)
+ The Federal Trade Commission avoided calling to break Amazon up. (Bloomberg $)
2 OpenAI is seeking a new valuation
To the tune of between $80 billion and $90 billion, to be exact. (WSJ $)
+ ChatGPT is about to revolutionize the economy. We need to decide what that looks like. (MIT Technology Review)
4 Linda Yaccarino’s first 100 days at X have been a wild ride
Forget pressure from advertisers: managing Elon Musk is her biggest challenge. (FT $)
+ X appears to have disabled an election misinformation reporting measure. (Reuters)
5 YouTube rewarded a creator who livestreamed attacks on Indian Muslims
Hindu nationalist Monu Manesar has been linked to multiple killings this year. (WP $)
6 Microsoft wants to use nuclear energy to power its AI data centers
It’s looking to nuclear fission to keep those expensive centers ticking over. (CNBC)
+ We were promised smaller nuclear reactors. Where are they? (MIT Technology Review)
7 Maybe we didn’t need to learn to code after all
Generative AI is making it easier than ever to write code, even if it’s far from perfect. (The Atlantic $)
+ Learning to code isn’t enough. (MIT Technology Review)
8 Inside China’s brave online feminist revolution
The country’s burgeoning women’s rights movement is fighting back against a conservative society. (Rest of World)
9 Attempting to reverse your age is the preserve of the ultra-rich
Now they’re competing to win the ‘Rejuvenation Olympics.’ (Vox)
+ Eating fewer calories could help. (Economist $)
+ I just met the founders of a would-be longevity state. (MIT Technology Review)
10 Japan’s female rickshaw pullers are online celebrities
Social media has helped to drive an influx of female recruits. (Reuters)
Quote of the day
“Sellers pay. Shoppers get lower-quality search results for higher-priced products. Only Amazon wins.”
—The US Federal Trade Commision spells out its case accusing the e-commerce giant of unfair shopping practices, 404 Media reports.
The big story
Novel lithium-metal batteries will drive the switch to electric cars
For all the hype and hope around electric vehicles, they still make up only about 2% of new car sales in the US, and just a little more globally.
For many buyers, they’re simply too expensive, their range is too limited, and charging them isn’t nearly as quick and convenient as refueling at the pump. All these limitations have to do with the lithium-ion batteries that power the vehicles.
But QuantumScape, a Silicon Valley startup is working on a new type of battery that could finally make electric cars as convenient and cheap as gas ones. Read the full story.
We can still have nice things
+ Are America’s distinctive accents really dying out? Better ask Dolly Parton.
+ Lenny Kravitz’s gigantic scarf is back!
+ Trying to find the perfect time for a bathroom break during a movie? There’s an app for that.
+ On this day in 1964, the Beach Boys appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show performing this absolute tune.
+ This particular kind of jellyfish may not have a brain, but that doesn’t stop it from learning.
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.