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The Download: How AI capitalizes on catastrophe, and the Bitcoin cities of Central America

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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.

How the AI industry profits from catastrophe

It was meant to be a temporary side job—a way to earn some extra money. Oskarina Fuentes Anaya signed up for Appen, an AI data-labeling platform, when she was still in college studying to land a well-paid position in the oil industry.

But then the economy tanked in Venezuela. Inflation skyrocketed, and a stable job, once guaranteed, was no longer an option. Her side gig was now full time; the temporary now the foreseeable future.

Today Fuentes lives in Colombia, one of millions of Venezuelan migrants and refugees who have left their country in search of better opportunities. But she’s trapped at home—both by a chronic illness that developed after delayed access to health care and by opaque algorithms that dictate when she works and how much she earns.

Despite threats from Appen to retaliate against her, she chose to go on the record as a named source. She wants people to understand what her life is like to be a critical part of the global AI development pipeline yet for the beneficiaries of her work to also mistreat her and make her invisible. She wants the people who do this work to be seen. Read the full story

—Karen Hao and Andrea Paola Hernández

This is the second part of our series investigating AI colonialism, shining a light on how the technology is impoverishing the communities and countries that don’t have a say in its development. Parts 3 and 4 are coming later in the week, but you can read the first part here and Karen Hao’s introductory essay here.

Crypto millionaires are pouring money into Central America to build their own cities

El Salvador’s Conchagua Volcano, home to a lush ecotourism retreat amid its sun-dappled forest, is set to host a glittering new Bitcoin City, the country’s president announced in November 2021. A vast construction project to remodel virgin forest into a vibrant metropolis could soon be underway.

While some politicians and residents believe in crypto’s potential to jump-start the economy, others see history repeating itself. As El Salvador’s experiment takes shape in the form of Bitcoin City, a similar development is already underway in Honduras—but backlash from locals has put its future in jeopardy. Proponents hope to spawn a hundred more Bitcoin Cities, but others question who these projects are really for, and whether the countries serving as test beds will truly benefit. Read the full story.

—Laurie Clarke

Quote of the day

“Hugs for everyone!”

—A Disney employee celebrates costumed characters being able to hug Disneyland visitors after dropping its enforced no-hugs ban, according to The New York Times.

The must-reads

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

1 Ukraine’s ‘internet army’ is pressurizing Western brands to exit Russia
And their campaigns seem to be working. (WSJ $)
+ More than one in four people in Ukraine have left their homes. (WSJ $)
+ The US and its allies are sending more weapons to Ukraine. (BBC)

2 What has the zero-covid policy taught China?
It’s saved countless lives, but it is becoming harder and harder to enforce. (The Atlantic $)
+ Moderna is optimistic that its new vaccine will offer better protection against variants. (NYT $)

3 NASA wants to charter a mission to Uranus
We know surprisingly little about the distant planet. (The Atlantic $)
+ Why have we been so focused on sending humans to Mars? (Slate $)
+ Maybe we should be sending robots instead of astronauts. (Wired $)

4 People are canceling their Netflix subscriptions in their droves
And sneakily sharing passwords between households. (Variety $)
+ Netflix may start running ads, too. (Hollywood Reporter)

5 Twitter may be preparing to turn down Elon Musk’s offer to buy it
Which would force him to reconsider his position. (WSJ $)
+ Regardless of the outcome, Musk’s proposition could ultimately be good for the company. (FT $)
+ A crypto billionaire wants to get involved, too. (Bloomberg $)
+ Here’s what making Twitter’s algorithm public could entail. (CNN

6 Maybe the tech bubble really is impenetrable after all
Or maybe we’re just bored of hearing it’s about to burst. (NYT $)
+ There may be trouble ahead for the UK’s startups. (The Times $)

7 Unmasking the woman behind the Libs of TikTok Twitter account 
A Brooklyn real estate agent has played an outsized role pushing hateful anti-LGBTQ+ narratives in the US. (WP $)

8 Getting sober is about more than just stopping drinking
Sober influencers are reframing our thinking around alcohol. That’s not always a positive thing. (Wired $) 
+ Does paying people to stop drinking keep them sober in the long-term? (Boston Globe $)

9 Why it’s so hard to build unbiased AI
For starters, bias is in the eye of the beholder. (Vox)
+ AI might reduce the number of car crashes. (NYT $)
+ Motorists using self-driving cars in the UK might soon be allowed to watch TV behind the wheel. (The Times $)

10 This Twitter account spots writers’ tics
Because you can’t keep repeating yourself. Or can you? (New Yorker $)

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.)
+ Congratulations to TobyKeith, who at 21-years old has become the world’s oldest living dog.
+ Louis Theroux isn’t just an award-winning documentary maker. He also spits some sick bars (Thanks Tania!)
+ These easy recipes for sweet treats are speaking my language.
+ If you’re starting to worry about what to buy for Mother’s Day, this list is a great starting point.
+ The US government funded research into invisibility cloaks, which seems a worthwhile endeavor to me.
+ Would you consider talking your cat out on a leash?
+ The world’s oldest unopened Easter egg will make you grateful that Easter is over.

Tech

The Blue Technology Barometer 2022/23

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The Blue Technology Barometer 2022/23


Overall ranking

Pillars

Comparative

The overall rankings tab shows the performance of the examined
economies relative to each other and aggregates scores generated
across the following four pillars: ocean environment, marine activity,
technology innovation, and policy and regulation.

This pillar ranks each country according to its levels of
marine water contamination, its plastic recycling efforts, the
CO2 emissions of its marine activities (relative to the size
of its economy), and the recent change of total emissions.

This pillar ranks each country on the sustainability of its
marine activities, including shipping, fishing, and protected
areas.

This pillar ranks each country on its contribution to ocean
sustainable technology research and development, including
expenditure, patents, and startups.

This pillar ranks each country on its stance on ocean
sustainability-related policy and regulation, including
national-level policies, taxes, fees, and subsidies, and the
implementation of international marine law.

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Experts

MIT Technology Review Insights would like to thank the following
individuals for their time, perspective, and insights:

  • Valérie Amant, Director of Communications, The SeaCleaners
  • Charlotte de Fontaubert, Global Lead for the Blue Economy, World Bank Group
  • Ian Falconer, Founder, Fishy Filaments
  • Ben Fitzgerald, Managing Director, CoreMarine
  • Melissa Garvey, Global Director of Ocean Protection, The Nature Conservancy
  • Michael Hadfield, Emeritus Professor, Principal Investigator, Kewalo Marine Laboratory, University of Hawaii
    at Mānoa
  • Takeshi Kawano, Executive Director, Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology
  • Kathryn Matthews, Chief Scientist, Oceana
  • Alex Rogers, Science Director, REV Ocean
  • Ovais Sarmad, Deputy Executive Secretary, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change
  • Thierry Senechal, Managing Director, Finance for Impact
  • Jyotika Virmani, Executive Director, Schmidt Ocean Institute
  • Lucy Woodall, Associate Professor of Marine Biology, University of Oxford, and Principal Scientist at Nekton
Back

About

Methodology: The Blue Technology Barometer 2022/23

Now in its second year, the Blue Technology Barometer assesses and ranks how each of the world’s largest
maritime economies promotes and develops blue (marine-centered) technologies that help reverse the impact of
climate change on ocean ecosystems, and how they leverage ocean-based resources to reduce greenhouse gases and
other effects of climate change.

To build the index, MIT Technology Review Insights compiled 20 quantitative and qualitative data indicators
for 66 countries and territories with coastlines and maritime economies. This included analysis of select
datasets and primary research interviews with global blue technology innovators, policymakers, and
international ocean sustainability organizations. Through trend analysis, research, and a consultative
peer-review process with several subject matter experts, weighting assumptions were assigned to determine the
relative importance of each indicator’s influence on a country’s blue technology leadership.

These indicators measure how each country or territory’s economic and maritime industries have affected its
marine environment and how quickly they have developed and deployed technologies that help improve ocean
health outcomes. Policy and regulatory adherence factors were considered, particularly the observance of
international treaties on fishing and marine protection laws.

The indicators are organized into four pillars, which evaluate metrics around a sustainability theme. Each
indicator is scored from 1 to 10 (10 being the best performance) and is weighted for its contribution to its
respective pillar. Each pillar is weighted to determine its importance in the overall score. As these research
efforts center on countries developing blue technology to promote ocean health, the technology pillar is
ranked highest, at 50% of the overall score.

The four pillars of the Blue Technology Barometer are:

Carbon emissions resulting from maritime activities and their relative growth. Metrics in this pillar also
assess each country’s efforts to mitigate ocean pollution and enhance ocean ecosystem health.

Efforts to promote sustainable fishing activities and increase and maintain marine protected areas.

Progress in fostering the development of sustainable ocean technologies across several relevant fields:

  • Clean innovation scores from MIT Technology Review Insights’ Green Future Index 2022.
  • A tally of maritime-relevant patents and technology startups.
  • An assessment of each economy’s use of technologies and tech-enabled processes that facilitate ocean
    sustainability.

Commitment to signing and enforcing international treaties to promote ocean sustainability and enforce
sustainable fishing.

About Us

MIT Technology Review was founded at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1899. MIT Technology Review
Insights is the custom publishing division of MIT Technology Review. We conduct qualitative and quantitative
research and analysis worldwide and publish a wide variety of content, including articles, reports,
infographics, videos, and podcasts.

If you have any comments or queries, please
get in touch.

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What Shanghai protesters want and fear

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What Shanghai protesters want and fear


You may have seen that nearly three years after the pandemic started, protests have erupted across the country. In Beijing, Shanghai, Urumqi, Guangzhou, Wuhan, Chengdu, and more cities and towns, hundreds of people have taken to the streets to mourn the lives lost in an apartment fire in Urumqi and to demand that the government roll back its strict pandemic policies, which many blame for trapping those who died. 

It’s remarkable. It’s likely the largest grassroots protest in China in decades, and it’s happening at a time when the Chinese government is better than ever at monitoring and suppressing dissent.

Videos of these protests have been shared in real time on social media—on both Chinese and American platforms, even though the latter are technically blocked in the country—and they have quickly become international front-page news. However, discussions among foreigners have too often reduced the protests to the most sensational clips, particularly ones in which protesters directly criticize President Xi Jinping or the ruling party.

The reality is more complicated. As in any spontaneous protest, different people want different things. Some only want to abolish the zero-covid policies, while others have made direct calls for freedom of speech or a change of leadership. 

I talked to two Shanghai residents who attended the protests to understand what they experienced firsthand, why they went, and what’s making them anxious about the thought of going again. Both have requested we use only their surnames, to avoid political retribution.

Zhang, who went to the first protest in Shanghai after midnight on Saturday, told me he was motivated by a desire to let people know his discontent. “Not everyone can silently suffer from your actions,” he told me, referring to government officials. “No. People’s lives have been really rough, and you should reflect on yourself.”

In the hour that he was there, Zhang said, protesters were mostly chanting slogans that stayed close to opposing zero-covid policies—like the now-famous line “Say no to covid tests, yes to food. No to lockdowns, yes to freedom,” which came from a protest by one Chinese citizen, Peng Lifa, right before China’s heavily guarded party congress meeting last month. 

While Peng hasn’t been seen in public since, his slogans have been heard and seen everywhere in China over the past week. Relaxing China’s strict pandemic control measures, which often don’t reflect a scientific understanding of the virus, is the most essential—and most agreed-upon—demand. 

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Biotech labs are using AI inspired by DALL-E to invent new drugs

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Biotech labs are using AI inspired by DALL-E to invent new drugs


Today, two labs separately announced programs that use diffusion models to generate designs for novel proteins with more precision than ever before. Generate Biomedicines, a Boston-based startup, revealed a program called Chroma, which the company describes as the “DALL-E 2 of biology.”

At the same time, a team at the University of Washington led by biologist David Baker has built a similar program called RoseTTAFold Diffusion. In a preprint paper posted online today, Baker and his colleagues show that their model can generate precise designs for novel proteins that can then be brought to life in the lab. “We’re generating proteins with really no similarity to existing ones,” says Brian Trippe, one of the co-developers of RoseTTAFold.

These protein generators can be directed to produce designs for proteins with specific properties, such as shape or size or function. In effect, this makes it possible to come up with new proteins to do particular jobs on demand. Researchers hope that this will eventually lead to the development of new and more effective drugs. “We can discover in minutes what took evolution millions of years,” says Gevorg Grigoryan, CEO of Generate Biomedicines.

“What is notable about this work is the generation of proteins according to desired constraints,” says Ava Amini, a biophysicist at Microsoft Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts. 

Symmetrical protein structures generated by Chroma

GENERATE BIOMEDICINES

Proteins are the fundamental building blocks of living systems. In animals, they digest food, contract muscles, detect light, drive the immune system, and so much more. When people get sick, proteins play a part. 

Proteins are thus prime targets for drugs. And many of today’s newest drugs are protein based themselves. “Nature uses proteins for essentially everything,” says Grigoryan. “The promise that offers for therapeutic interventions is really immense.”

But drug designers currently have to draw on an ingredient list made up of natural proteins. The goal of protein generation is to extend that list with a nearly infinite pool of computer-designed ones.

Computational techniques for designing proteins are not new. But previous approaches have been slow and not great at designing large proteins or protein complexes—molecular machines made up of multiple proteins coupled together. And such proteins are often crucial for treating diseases.  

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