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The Download: combating covid, and the challenges of governing AI




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.

What to know about this autumn’s covid vaccines

Many people have started testing positive for covid recently. Hospitalizations for the disease in the US rose nearly 16% during the third week of August, and even Jill Biden tested positive this week.

Data suggest we’re at the beginning of a fall wave. It’s been a year since a covid booster was released, and while the latest wave isn’t likely to be as bad as the tsunami we experienced in 2021-2022, there’s a lot of uncertainty about what the next few months look like. 

So, where are the updated shots to help protect us? And how do they stack up against the challenging new variants? Read the full story.

—Cassandra Willyard

This story first appeared in The Checkup, MIT Technology Review’s weekly biotech newsletter. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Thursday.

My colleague Jessica Hamzelou recently wrote about how covid hasn’t gone away. Check it out here.

How should we regulate AI?

Deciding how to regulate AI is one of the biggest challenges facing politicians and experts alike. On September 12 we’re holding the second MIT Technology Review Roundtable: a 30-minute conversation with our writers and editors—and this one’s all about governing AI.

Melissa Heikkilä, our senior reporter for AI, will be chatting with news editor Charlotte Jee about what should be done to keep AI companies in line. Roundtables are free for MIT Technology Review subscribers, so if you’re not already, you can become one today from just $80 a year.

The must-reads

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

1 Elon Musk cut off Starlink internet to disrupt Ukrainian troops 
He scuppered a sneak attack Ukraine had planned on Russia’s naval fleet. (CNN
+ The news underscores the disproportionate power that SpaceX wields. (WP $)
+ Musk’s famously impulsive decisions often come back to bite him. (WSJ $)
+ Starlink signals can be reverse-engineered to work like GPS. (MIT Technology Review)

2 Huawei has unveiled another controversial smartphone
Officials are baffled how China appears to have sidestepped US chip sanctions. (Bloomberg $)
+ The new handset could be seriously bad news for Apple. (WSJ $)

3 US and UK authorities have sanctioned ransomware gang members
The notorious Trickbot group has evaded justice for years. (Wired $)

4 There are no drugs to reliably treat anorexia
Despite close to 50 years of research, researchers have had little success. (The Atlantic $)

5 Another FTX executive has pleaded guilty
Ryan Salame made political contributions to the Republican party under the guise of loans. (CoinDesk)
+ If he’s found guilty, he faces up to 10 years in prison. (NYT $)

6 Microsoft is working on the world’s largest cancer-detecting AI model
The system examines images of tissues and flags anomalies to human doctors. (CNBC)
+ A new blood test could diagnose diseases within 10 minutes. (FT $)
+ Doctors using AI catch breast cancer more often than either does alone. (MIT Technology Review)

7 ChatGPT convinced the Pentagon to invest in AI-powered weapons
That’s according to former VR CEO Palmer Luckey, who now builds military drones.  (Motherboard)
+ Inside the messy ethics of making war with machines. (MIT Technology Review)

8 Service staff have had enough of your TikTok gimmicks
They’re unwilling participants in thousands of tedious food skits. (WSJ $)

9 Australia is ditching handwritten signatures
Electronic signatures and video link witnessing will replace the need to sign on the dotted line in person. (The Guardian)

10 You probably don’t need to upgrade your iPhone
But Apple sure is good at convincing you that you should. (Vox)

Quote of the day

“People are starting to leave a trace. They’re forgetting the core principles of the burn.”

—Jeffrey Longoria, who attended this year’s mud-stricken Burning Man festival, laments how visitors are forgetting to clear up after themselves, Insider reports.

The big story

VR is as good as psychedelics at helping people reach transcendence

August 2022

After a near-death experience, artist and physicist David Glowacki tried to recapture the hallucinatory transcendence he felt. A VR experience called Isness-D is his latest effort.

On four key indicators used in studies of psychedelics, the program showed the same effect as a medium dose of LSD or psilocybin (the main psychoactive component of “magic” mushrooms).

That means it could potentially be used to alleviate the symptoms of mental health conditions, including obsessive-compulsive disorder, addiction, post-traumatic stress disorder, and depression. Read the full story.

—Hana Kiros

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.)

+ These drone shots of marine creatures are pretty cool.
+ If tracking murders in late medieval London, York, or Oxford is your thing, boy, do I have some maps for you.
+ These no-bake peanut butter bars sound like the perfect weekend treat.
+ Ethan Lee is doing the most: by porting our favorite indie PC games to Linux.
+ Alien is full of meticulously-designed semiotic standards. Check them out.


Climate tech is back—and this time, it can’t afford to fail



an embroidered patch based on the Valley of Death with the words "Valley of Death Survivor" at the bottom

Boston Metal’s strategy is to try to make the transition as digestible as possible for steelmakers. “We won’t own and operate steel plants,” says Adam Rauwerdink, who heads business development at the company. Instead, it plans to license the technology for electrochemical units that are designed to be a simple drop-in replacement for blast furnaces; the liquid iron that flows out of the electrochemical cells can be handled just as if it were coming out of a blast furnace, with the same equipment. 

Working with industrial investors including ArcelorMittal, says Rauwerdink, allows the startup to learn “how to integrate our technology into their plants—how to handle the raw materials coming in, the metal products coming out of our systems, and how to integrate downstream into their established processes.” 

The startup’s headquarters in a business park about 15 miles outside Boston is far from any steel manufacturing, but these days it’s drawing frequent visitors from the industry. There, the startup’s pilot-scale electrochemical unit, the size of a large furnace, is intentionally designed to be familiar to those potential customers. If you ignore the hordes of electrical cables running in and out of it, and the boxes of electric equipment surrounding it, it’s easy to forget that the unit is not just another part of the standard steelmaking process. And that’s exactly what Boston Metal is hoping for. 

The company expects to have an industrial-scale unit ready for use by 2025 or 2026. The deadline is key, because Boston Metal is counting on commitments that many large steelmakers have made to reach zero carbon emissions by 2050. Given that the life of an average blast furnace is around 20 years, that means having the technology ready to license before 2030, as steelmakers plan their long-term capital expenditures. But even now, says Rauwerdink, demand is growing for green steel, especially in Europe, where it’s selling for a few hundred dollars a metric ton more than the conventional product.

It’s that kind of blossoming market for clean technologies that many of today’s startups are depending on. The recent corporate commitments to decarbonize, and the IRA and other federal spending initiatives, are creating significant demand in markets “that previously didn’t exist,” says Michael Kearney, a partner at Engine Ventures.

One wild card, however, will be just how aggressively and faithfully corporations pursue ways to transform their core businesses and to meet their publicly stated goals. Funding a small pilot-scale project, says Kearney, “looks more like greenwashing if you have no intention of scaling those projects.” Watching which companies move from pilot plants to full-scale commercial facilities will tell you “who’s really serious,” he says. Putting aside the fears of greenwashing, Kearney says it’s essential to engage these large corporations in the transition to cleaner technologies. 

Susan Schofer, a partner at the venture firm SOSV, has some advice for those VCs and startups reluctant to work with existing companies in traditionally heavily polluting industries: Get over it. “We need to partner with them. These incumbents have important knowledge that we all need to get in order to effect change. So there needs to be healthy respect on both sides,” she says. Too often, she says, there is “an attitude that we don’t want to do that because it’s helping an incumbent industry.” But the reality, she says, is that finding ways for such industries to save energy or use cleaner technologies “can make the biggest difference in the near term.”

Getting lucky

It’s tempting to dismiss the history of cleantech 1.0. It was more than a decade ago, and there’s a new generation of startups and investors. Far more money is around today, along with a broader range of financing options. Surely we’re savvier these days.

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Making an image with generative AI uses as much energy as charging your phone



Making an image with generative AI uses as much energy as charging your phone

“If you’re doing a specific application, like searching through email … do you really need these big models that are capable of anything? I would say no,” Luccioni says. 

The energy consumption associated with using AI tools has been a missing piece in understanding their true carbon footprint, says Jesse Dodge, a research scientist at the Allen Institute for AI, who was not part of the study. 

Comparing the carbon emissions from newer, larger generative models and older AI models  is also important, Dodge adds. “It highlights this idea that the new wave of AI systems are much more carbon intensive than what we had even two or five years ago,” he says. 

Google once estimated that an average online search used 0.3 watt-hours of electricity, equivalent to driving 0.0003 miles in a car. Today, that number is likely much higher, because Google has integrated generative AI models into its search, says Vijay Gadepally, a research scientist at the MIT Lincoln lab, who did not participate in the research. 

Not only did the researchers find emissions for each task to be much higher than they expected, but they discovered that the day-to-day emissions associated with using AI far exceeded the emissions from training large models. Luccioni tested different versions of Hugging Face’s multilingual AI model BLOOM to see how many uses would be needed to overtake training costs. It took over 590 million uses to reach the carbon cost of training its biggest model. For very popular models, such as ChatGPT, it could take just a couple of weeks for such a model’s usage emissions to exceed its training emissions, Luccioni says. 

This is because large AI models get trained just once, but then they can be used billions of times. According to some estimates, popular models such as ChatGPT have up to 10 million users a day, many of whom prompt the model more than once. 

Studies like these make the energy consumption and emissions related to AI more tangible and help raise awareness that there is a carbon footprint associated with using AI, says Gadepally, adding, “I would love it if this became something that consumers started to ask about.”

Dodge says he hopes studies like this will help us to hold companies more accountable about their energy usage and emissions. 

“The responsibility here lies with a company that is creating the models and is earning a profit off of them,” he says. 

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The first CRISPR cure might kickstart the next big patent battle



The first CRISPR cure might kickstart the next big patent battle

And really, what’s the point of such a hard-won triumph unless it’s to enforce your rights? “Honestly, this train has been coming down the track since at least 2014, if not earlier. We’re at the collision point. I struggle to imagine there’s going to be a diversion,” says Sherkow. “Brace for impact.”

The Broad Institute didn’t answer any of my questions, and a spokesperson for MIT didn’t even reply to my email. That’s not a surprise. Private universities can be exceedingly obtuse when it comes to acknowledging their commercial activities. They are supposed to be centers of free inquiry and humanitarian intentions, so if employees get rich from biotechnology—and they do—they try to do it discreetly.

There are also strong reasons not to sue. Suing could make a nonprofit like the Broad Institute look bad. Really bad. That’s because it could get in the way of cures.

“It seems unlikely and undesirable, [as] legal challenges at this late date would delay saving patients,” says George Church, a Harvard professor and one of the original scientific founders of Editas, though he’s no longer closely involved with the company.  

If a patent infringement lawsuit does get filed, it will happen sometime after Vertex notifies regulators it’s starting to sell the treatment. “That’s the starting gun,” says Sherkow. “There are no hypothetical lawsuits in the patent system, so one must wait until it’s sufficiently clear that an act of infringement is about to occur.”

How much money is at stake? It remains unclear what the demand for the Vertex treatment will be, but it could eventually prove a blockbuster. There are about 20,000 people with severe sickle-cell in the US who might benefit. And assuming a price of $3 million (my educated guess), that’s a total potential market of around $60 billion. A patent holder could potentially demand 10% of the take, or more.

Vertex can certainly defend itself. It’s a big, rich company, and through its partnership with the Swiss firm CRISPR Therapeutics, a biotech co-founded by Charpentier, Vertex has access to the competing set of intellectual-property claims—including those of UC Berkeley, which (though bested by Broad in the US) hold force in Europe and could be used to throw up a thicket of counterarguments.

Vertex could also choose to pay royalties. To do that, it would have to approach Editas, the biotech cofounded by Zhang and Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which previously bought exclusive rights to the Broad patents on CRISPR in the arena of human treatments, including sickle-cell therapies.

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