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The Download: discovering proteins, and Pakistan’s climate crisis

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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.

An AI that can design new proteins could help unlock new cures and materials

What’s happened?: A new AI tool could help researchers discover previously unknown proteins and design entirely new ones. When harnessed, it could help unlock the development of more efficient vaccines, speed up research into cures for cancer, or lead to completely new materials.

How it works: ProteinMPNN, developed by a group of researchers from the University of Washington, offers scientists a tool that will complement DeepMind’s AlphaFold tool’s ability to predict the shapes of all proteins known to science. ProteinMPNN will help researchers with the inverse problem. If they already have an exact protein structure in mind, it will help them find the amino acid sequence that folds into that shape.

Why it matters: Proteins are fundamental to life, and understanding their shape is vital to working with them. Traditionally researchers engineer proteins by tweaking those that occur in nature, but ProteinMPNN will open an entire new universe of possible proteins for researchers to design from scratch. Read the full story.

—Melissa Heikkilä

Read more:

+ DeepMind has predicted the structure of almost every protein known to science. And it’s giving the data away for free, which could spur new scientific discoveries. Read the full story.

+ This is the reason Demis Hassabis started DeepMind. AlphaFold has changed how researchers work and set DeepMind on a new course. Read the full story.

“Fingerprints” of climate change are clear in Pakistan’s devastating floods

What we know: Climate change very likely intensified the South Asian monsoon that flooded Pakistan in recent weeks, killing more than 1,000 people and destroying nearly 2 million homes. That’s according to a new analysis by World Weather Attribution, a network of scientists who use climate models, weather observations, and other tools to determine whether global warming increased the likelihood or severity of recent extreme weather events.

What we don’t know: Precisely how big a role climate change played isn’t clear. Using climate models to pinpoint global warming’s role in amplifying the full monsoon season has proved tricky, due to some combination of the wide variability in heavy rainfall patterns over long periods, natural processes at work that the models may not fully capture, and the weather quirks of the territory. And the country’s weather is likely to become even more extreme. Read the full story.

—James Temple

The must-reads

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

1 Uber appears to have been hacked by a teenager
An 18-year old is claiming to be behind the cybersecurity breach, which compromised the company’s internal systems. (NYT $)
+ Meanwhile, its services are working normally for customers. (Bloomberg $)

2 An AI used medical notes to teach itself to spot disease on chest x-rays
Teaching AI models to read existing reports could save researchers from having to manually label the data. (MIT Technology Review)

3 The US government’s vast database of travelers’ data is growing rapidly
Data from phones and other devices is kept for 15 years. (WP $)

4 The White House wants Congress to drop social media’s immunity
Tech companies are protected by Section 230, which means they’re not held legally liable for content posts by their users. (Reuters)
+ Here’s why it’s worth saving. (MIT Technology Review)
+ We need clearer guidelines for what constitutes harmful online content. (The Information $)
+ Senators are asking Big Tech better questions these days. (Slate $)

5 Millions of people in India have geotagged their homes
The move, which was part of the country’s Independence Day celebrations, has privacy advocates rattled. (Rest of World)

6 Organic molecules have been found in rocks on Mars 
They could prove that life may have thrived there. (Wired $)
+ The microbes may have lived in briny lakes. (Motherboard)
+ The best places to find extraterrestrial life in our solar system. (MIT Technology Review)

7 The most sophisticated AI systems can baffle even their creators
Which is kind of the point of deep learning. (The Atlantic $)

8 Inside the wild world of leg lengthening
More and more men are willing to have their legs broken to make them appear taller—for a price. (GQ)
+ Bionic limbs could be more widely available within a decade, too. (Neo.Life)

9 TikTok is the new Google
Why trust a restaurant’s website when TikTok shows you what their food actually looks like? (NYT $)

10 The race to slow down aging 
Tinkering with a person’s epigenetic age is one place to start. (Neo.Life)
+ Aging clocks aim to predict how long you’ll live. (MIT Technology Review)

Quote of the day

“Facebook is kind of extinct.”

—Natasha Hunt Lee, 25, explains why Gen Z is embracing new digital ways of inviting friends to parties beyond the social network to the New York Times.

The big story

Two sick children and a $1.5 million bill: One family’s race for a gene therapy cure

October 2018

Jennie and Gary Landsman launched an online appeal to save their sons on Thanksgiving of 2017. In a moving video, the pair describe how their two sons, Benny, then 18 months, and Josh, four months—both have a fatal genetic brain disorder called Canavan disease. It’s ultra rare—so  rare, in fact, that there is no reliable understanding of how many children are born with it. Relatively few researchers study Canavan, and no drugs are approved to treat it.

The Landsmans refused to accept the doctors’ advice to make their sons comfortable until they died. Instead, they learned: there may be a way to fix the genetic error in the boys’ brains. But the family would have to pay for it themselves. And it would be expensive.

The Landsmans had discovered gene therapy, technology that uses viruses to add healthy genes to cells with defective ones. The technology’s medical logic is especially irresistible for parents of children with the rarest diseases on earth, because it suggests the ultimate bug fix. The problem is: who will pay? Read the full story.

—Antonio Regalado

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.)

+ If you enjoyed the smash TV hit The White Lotus, The Resort should be right up your alley.
+ Why following your gut isn’t necessarily the path to happiness.
+ Seeing as we’re heading into fall, here’s some of the best horror films on Netflix right now.
+ I didn’t know it was possible to make butter even more delicious, but turns out you can!
+ This Roman coins collection is pretty amazing.



Tech

The Download: Amazon’s home-guarding robot, and covid’s violent legacy

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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.

Amazon has a new plan for its home robot Astro: to guard your life

The news: Amazon announced yesterday that its home robot, Astro, will be getting a slew of major updates aimed at further embedding it in homes—and in our daily lives.

The details: The new features offer more home monitoring. Astro will be able to watch pets and send a video feed of their activities to users, for example. But the robot will also be able to wander around the house to keep an eye on rooms and entry points. Amazon also announced a new collaboration between Astro and the Ring home security camera system designed to protect areas outside the home from possible break-ins. 

Why it matters: Ring’s approach to surveillance hasn’t been without controversy. It’s reasonable to ask whether combining Astro’s ability to roam around a house with Ring’s established surveillance system might create even more problems than either product did in their previous iterations. Read the full story.

—Tanya Basu

The pandemic created a “perfect storm” for Black women at risk of domestic violence

Starr Davis was smitten when she met a handsome stranger with flawless skin and a wide smile in March 2020. He was charming and persistent; but their whirlwind romance took a major turn when she fell pregnant. His aggressive behavior started to make her uncomfortable, but he was the father of her child.

He became physically abusive a few weeks after she moved in with him. He forbade her from setting foot outside, saying it was to protect her and their unborn child from covid. With no friends or close family nearby for support, she suffered in silence.

Covid seems to have made things worse for many women experiencing violence at home. Anti-domestic-violence advocates point to dramatic increases in calls to shelters and support groups, and many care workers say this increase in domestic violence seems to have disproportionately affected Black women like Davis. Read the full story.

—Chandra Thomas Whitfield

Podcast: AI births digital humans

In the latest episode of our podcast, In Machines We Trust, we dig into the world of digital twins: AI-powered replicas designed to capture the physical look and expressions of real humans. But although the entertainment industry is embracing them, they raise familiar, thorny questions about ownership and digital rights. 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 Sweden has found a new leak in the Nord Stream pipeline
Russia is still denying any responsibility for attacking the gas pipeline, as the number of known leaks reaches four. (BBC)
+ Finding someone to blame is easier said than done. (Wired $)
+ The methane leak is likely to be the biggest ever, by far. (AP News)
+ The country’s tech imports have collapsed under sanctions. (Insider $)
+ Russia hasn’t been honest about the state of the pipeline for quite some time. (Slate $)

2 A bionic pancreas could solve one of the biggest challenges of diabetes
An algorithm takes over the arduous job of counting carbohydrates. (MIT Technology Review)

3 Crypto is still in crisis
Senior executives are still departing major firms, and investors are still wary. (Bloomberg $)
+ Do Kwon, the missing Terraform boss, has called the case against him ‘unfair.’ (Bloomberg $)
+ Crypto is weathering a bitter storm. Some still hold on for dear life. (MIT Technology Review)

4 A teenager died after a telehealth provider prescribed him antidepressants 
The company failed to obtain consent from the minor’s parents. (WSJ $)

5 China’s chipmakers are being investigated
Which is dealing the industry’s dreams of self-sufficiency a heavy blow. (FT $)
+ Corruption is sending shock waves through China’s chipmaking industry. (MIT Technology Review)
+ There are no chip reserves. (Vox)

6 What it’s like being trapped in a driverless car
The vehicles work pretty well—until they don’t. (NYT $)
+ The big new idea for making self-driving cars that can go anywhere. (MIT Technology Review)

7 How good bacteria can fight malnutrition
Food that rebalances malnourished microbiomes can help children to grow. (Economist $)
+ Choanoflagellates are tiny creatures that also harbor bacteria communities. (The Atlantic $)

8 Tech startups are helping to rebuild Bosnia
Its up-and-coming businesses want to reverse the war-scarred nation’s brain drain. (Rest of World)

9 TikTok is making it harder for record execs to discover new musicians
There’s plenty of chaff to separate from the wheat. (The Guardian)
+ A car-renting couple have been tracking their customers on the platform. (Motherboard)
+ Investors are growing tired of chasing TikTok-style social apps. (The Information $)

10 The CIA is investing in tech to resurrect mammoths 🦣
It uses CRISPR gene editing to create optimized genetic code. (Intercept)

Quote of the day

“Everything is possible if you’re brave.”

—Katherin Bestandig, a regular at the Bam Bam Beach Bitcoin Bar in Lagos, Portugal, describes her bold approach to investing in volatile cryptocurrency to the New York Times.

The big story

Why the balance of power in tech is shifting toward workers

February 2022

Something has changed for tech giants. Even as they continue to hold tremendous influence in our daily lives, a growing accountability movement has begun to check their power. Led in large part by tech workers themselves, a movement seeking reform of how these companies do business has taken on unprecedented momentum, particularly in the past year.

Concerns and anger over tech companies’ impact in the world is nothing new, of course. What’s changed is that workers are increasingly getting organized. Read the full story.

—Jane Lytvynenko

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.)

+ Ever feel like you’re being watched?
+ It’s up to you, New York!
+ Forget the gym, all the coolest cats are bouldering these days.
+ Lizzo visiting the Library of Congress to play a priceless flute is the serotonin boost I needed today.
+ A helpful reminder that all on LinkedIn is not as it seems (thanks Beth!)



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Tech

Meta’s new AI can turn text prompts into videos

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Meta’s new AI can turn text prompts into videos


Although the effect is rather crude, the system offers an early glimpse of what’s coming next for generative artificial intelligence, and it is the next obvious step from the text-to-image AI systems that have caused huge excitement this year. 

Meta’s announcement of Make-A-Video, which is not yet being made available to the public, will likely prompt other AI labs to release their own versions. It also raises some big ethical questions. 

In the last month alone, AI lab OpenAI has made its latest text-to-image AI system DALL-E available to everyone, and AI startup Stability.AI launched Stable Diffusion, an open-source text-to-image system.

But text-to-video AI comes with some even greater challenges. For one, these models need a vast amount of computing power. They are an even bigger computational lift than large text-to-image AI models, which use millions of images to train, because putting together just one short video requires hundreds of images. That means it’s really only large tech companies that can afford to build these systems for the foreseeable future. They’re also trickier to train, because there aren’t large-scale data sets of high-quality videos paired with text. 

To work around this, Meta combined data from three open-source image and video data sets to train its model. Standard text-image data sets of labeled still images helped the AI learn what objects are called and what they look like. And a database of videos helped it learn how those objects are supposed to move in the world. The combination of the two approaches helped Make-A-Video, which is described in a non-peer-reviewed paper published today, generate videos from text at scale.

Tanmay Gupta, a computer vision research scientist at the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, says Meta’s results are promising. The videos it’s shared show that the model can capture 3D shapes as the camera rotates. The model also has some notion of depth and understanding of lighting. Gupta says some details and movements are decently done and convincing. 

However, “there’s plenty of room for the research community to improve on, especially if these systems are to be used for video editing and professional content creation,” he adds. In particular, it’s still tough to model complex interactions between objects. 

In the video generated by the prompt “An artist’s brush painting on a canvas,” the brush moves over the canvas, but strokes on the canvas aren’t realistic. “I would love to see these models succeed at generating a sequence of interactions, such as ‘The man picks up a book from the shelf, puts on his glasses, and sits down to read it while drinking a cup of coffee,’” Gupta says. 

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How AI is helping birth digital humans that look and sound just like us

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How AI is helping birth digital humans that look and sound just like us


Jennifer: And the team has also been exploring how these digital twins can be useful beyond the 2D world of a video conference. 

Greg Cross: I guess the.. the big, you know, shift that’s coming right at the moment is the move from the 2D world of the internet, into the 3D world of the metaverse. So, I mean, and that, and that’s something we’ve always thought about and we’ve always been preparing for, I mean, Jack exists in full 3D, um, You know, Jack exists as a full body. So I mean, Jack can, you know, today we have, you know, we’re building augmented reality, prototypes of Jack walking around on a golf course. And, you know, we can go and ask Jack, how, how should we play this hole? Um, so these are some of the things that we are starting to imagine in terms of the way in which digital people, the way in which digital celebrities. Interact with us as we move into the 3D world.

Jennifer: And he thinks this technology can go a lot further.

Greg Cross: Healthcare and education are two amazing applications of this type of technology. And it’s amazing because we don’t have enough real people to deliver healthcare and education in the real world. So, I mean, so you can, you know, you can imagine how you can use a digital workforce to augment. And, and extend the skills and capability, not replace, but extend the skills and, and capabilities of real people. 

Jennifer: This episode was produced by Anthony Green with help from Emma Cillekens. It was edited by me and Mat Honan, mixed by Garret Lang… with original music from Jacob Gorski.   

If you have an idea for a story or something you’d like to hear, please drop a note to podcasts at technology review dot com.

Thanks for listening… I’m Jennifer Strong.

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