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The Download: climate responsibility, and AI training data shortages

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The Download: climate responsibility, and AI training data shortages


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 and China are pointing fingers at each other over climate change

The UN climate conference wrapped up over the weekend after marathon negotiations that ran way over. The most notable outcome was the establishment of a fund to help poor countries pay for climate damages, which was hailed as a win. Beyond that, some leaders are concerned there wasn’t enough progress at this year’s talks.

Consequently, everyone is pointing fingers, blaming others for not taking action fast enough on climate funding. Activists are calling the US the ‘colossal fossil,’ while US leaders complain about being blamed while China is the current leading emitter.

But when it comes to working out who should be paying what in accepting liability for climate damages, we need to look beyond current emissions. When you add up historic emissions, it’s super clear: the US is by far the greatest total emitter, responsible for about a quarter. Read the full story.

—Casey Crownhart

Casey’s story is from the Spark, her weekly newsletter delving into the tricky science of climate change. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Wednesday.

We could run out of data to train AI language programs 

What’s happening? Large language models are one of the hottest areas of AI research right now, with companies racing to release programs like GPT-3 that can write impressively coherent articles and even computer code. But there’s a problem looming on the horizon, according to a team of AI forecasters: we might run out of data to train them on.

How long have we got? As researchers build more powerful models with greater capabilities, they have to find ever more texts to train them on. The types of data typically used for these models may be used up in the near future—as early as 2026, according to a paper by researchers from Epoch, an AI research and forecasting organization. Read the full story.

—Tammy Xu

Podcast: Want a job? The AI will see you now.

In the past, hiring decisions were made by people. Today, some key decisions that lead to whether someone gets a job or not are made by algorithms. In this episode of our award-winning podcast, In Machines We Trust, we meet some of the big players making this technology including the CEOs of HireVue and myInterview—and test some of these tools ourselves.

Listen to it on Apple Podcasts, or wherever 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 FTX’s collapse should be a major cautionary tale for the crypto industry 
Unfortunately, it won’t necessarily result in better regulations. (New Yorker $)
+ Crypto isn’t known for heeding bad omens, after all. (Vox)
+ FTX has invested millions into, err, a tiny bank. (NYT $) 
+ Sam Bankman-Fried’s favorite “longtermism” ideology sounds bogus. (Motherboard)
+ He hasn’t done the effective altruism movement any favors, either. (The Atlantic $)

2 Elon Musk probably won’t declare bankruptcy
That doesn’t mean his financial backers can rest easy, though. (The Atlantic $) 
+ Here’s who’s paying for Twitter right now. (NYT $)
+ Former Twitter employees fear the platform might only last weeks. (MIT Technology Review)

3 Measles is a growing global threat
Vaccination rates are down, and it’s incredibly contagious. (Axios)

4 Maybe it’s time we stopped automatically trusting billionaires
Exercising healthy cynicism isn’t the same as being a hater. (Vox)
+ A lot of big tech bosses wrongly assumed their covid-highs would last forever. (Slate $)

5 The true cost of America’s war on China’s chips
The pricier the components, the more expensive the final product will be. (FT $)
+ Workers at the world’s biggest iPhone factory are rioting. (Bloomberg $)
+ Inside the software that will become the next battle front in the US-China chip war. (MIT Technology Review)

6 Rocks on Mars suggest it could once have been habitable  
Organic molecules found in the rocks may have supported forms of life. (WP $)
+ A UK-made Mars rover is heading back to the red planet. (BBC)

7 Why future concrete may contain bacteria 
Bioconcrete is strong, and—crucially—greener. (Economist $)
+ These living bricks use bacteria to build themselves. (MIT Technology Review)

8 The experience of shopping on Amazon really sucks these days
And it’s because everything is an advert. (WP $)

9 What it’s like to love the tech the world’s left behind
From walkmans to BlackBerrys, these ardent fans aren’t letting go. (The Guardian)
+ Smartphones have survived all the attempts to replace them. (The Verge)

10 The comments on YouTube’s videos are works of art
Literally—an artist has made them into actual art. (New Yorker $)

Quote of the day

“He’s always trying to get a laugh, that’s why he makes all his cars suicidal.”

—Dril, one of the seminal personalities of the humorous corner of “weird Twitter,” reflects on Elon Musk’s surreal leadership to the Washington Post.

The big story

What does breaking up Big Tech really mean?

June 2021

For Apple, Amazon, Facebook, and Alphabet, covid-19 was an economic blessing. Even as the pandemic sent the global economy into a deep recession and cratered most companies’ profits, these companies—often referred to as the “Big Four” of technology—not only survived but thrived.

Yet at the same time, they have come under unprecedented attack from politicians and government regulators in the US and Europe, in the form of  new lawsuits, proposed bills, and regulations. There’s no denying that the pressure is building to rein in Big Tech’s power. But what would that entail? Read the full story.

—James Surowiecki

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.)

+ This kitten’s goalkeeping is just extraordinary.
+ I really enjoy the color combos this Twitter bot comes up with (thanks Niall!)
+ Atarah Ben-Tovim sounded like an amazingly inspiring music teacher.
+ How to expand your movie-watching horizons and delve into something new.
+ After the recent chess cheating scandal, I can’t trust anyone anymore. Here’s how to spot a dodgy opponent.



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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Tech

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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Tech

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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