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The Download: how to fight pandemics, and a top scientist turned-advisor




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 open-source drug discovery could help us in the next pandemic

When the covid pandemic hit, our antiviral coffers were bare. After all, developing drugs for diseases that don’t pose an immediate threat isn’t exactly lucrative. But what would happen if we took profit out of the equation and made drug discovery a collaborative process rather than a competitive one? 

The researchers behind the Covid Moonshot, an open-science initiative to develop antivirals that began back in March 2020, published their results this week. The effort produced 18,000 compound designs that led to the synthesis of 2,400 compounds. One of those became the basis for what is now the project’s lead candidate: a compound that targets the coronavirus’s main viral enzyme.

Maybe that doesn’t feel like a huge win. Even if the compound works, it will likely take many more years to develop it into a drug. But the need for another antiviral that’s ready for the next pandemic or next outbreak or the next variant is still very relevant. Read the full story.

—Cassandra Willyard

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

How this Turing Award–winning researcher became a legendary academic advisor

Every academic field has its superstars. But a rare few achieve superstardom not just by demonstrating individual excellence but also by consistently producing future superstars.

Computer science has its own such figure: Manuel Blum, who won the 1995 Turing Award—the Nobel Prize of computer science. He is the inventor of the captcha—a test designed to distinguish humans from bots online.

Three of Blum’s students have also won Turing Awards, and many have received other high honors in theoretical computer science, such as the Gödel Prize and the Knuth Prize. More than 20 hold professorships at top computer science departments. But is there some formula to his success? Read the full story.

—Sheon Han

This story is from our most recent print issue of MIT Technology Review, which is all about society’s hardest problems, and how we should tackle them. If you don’t already, subscribe now to get future issues when they land.

The must-reads

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

1 Humane wants to sell us a future of ‘ambient computing’ 
The company wants to liberate us from smartphones—via even more technology. (NYT $)
+ The voice and touch-only interface sounds pretty fiddly. (TechCrunch)
+ What are we supposed to use it for, exactly? (The Verge)

2 Google has launched a new anti-terrorism content tool
Altitude gives smaller platforms the ability to track, detect and remove terror content. (Wired $)
+ Google has a new tool to outsmart authoritarian internet censorship. (MIT Technology Review)

3 Apple’s €14.3 billion tax dispute is back on the agenda  
An EU court decision from 2020 has been called into question, and a new assessment could be on the horizon. (FT $)
+ It’s been ordered to pay $25 million in a hiring discrimination case, too. (The Verge)

4 Video chat site Omegle is no more
After a recent lawsuit found it gave sexual predators free rein online. (Fast Company $)
+ The site had a long, problematic history of sexual abuse issues. (Wired $)

5 Meta is staging a bold return to China
More than a decade after Facebook was blocked from operating there. (WSJ $)
+ The company needs China more than it’s willing to admit. (Rest of World)

6 Labcorp’s workers say they’re burnt out
The healthcare company’s rigid productivity targets are pushing them to the brink. (404 Media)

7 Amazon is officially a fashion flop
Its hopes of becoming a bricks and mortar clothing giant have been dashed. (The Information $)
+ The war over fast fashion is heating up. (MIT Technology Review)

8 For adult content creators, OnlyFans is the pathway to mainstream success
The platform dominates the industry, but its stars don’t care. (WP $)
+ Fame in the age of AI looks a little different these days. (Economist $)

9 Meet the disaster microbiologists
Catastrophes can alter the environment, and microbes that affect our health, forever. (Proto.Life)
+ Your microbiome ages as you do—and that’s a problem. (MIT Technology Review)

10 Hollywood’s old guard are unlikely TikTok sensations
Iconic directors are staring down entirely different lenses—and they like what they see. (The Guardian)

Quote of the day

“It was just freaking out. Broken needles. Chaos.”

—Amardeep Singh, a UX designer, describes the carnage caused when he tried to feed an old-school sewing machine a modern fabric to the Wall Street Journal.

The big story

How scientists want to make you young again

October 2022

A little over 15 years ago, scientists at Kyoto University in Japan made a remarkable discovery.

When they added just four proteins to a skin cell and waited about two weeks, some of the cells underwent an unexpected and astounding transformation: they became young again. They turned into stem cells almost identical to the kind found in a days-old embryo, just beginning life’s journey.

Now, after more than a decade of studying and tweaking so-called cellular reprogramming, a number of biotech companies and research labs say they have tantalizing hints that the process could be the gateway to an unprecedented new technology for age reversal. 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.)

+ Say hello to the Kenyan volcano toad: a newly-discovered amphibian with a penchant for chilling in high-risk locations.
+ Talking of volcanoes, scientist Jackie Caplan-Auerbach knows how to tune into their songs (yes really!)
+ David Lynch, Toto, and Dune: what a combo.
+ Kick back and relax with this list of the greatest debut albums—there’s some real bangers in there.
+ I’ll have my pizza with a side order of Pearl Jam, please.


The hunter-gatherer groups at the heart of a microbiome gold rush



The hunter-gatherer groups at the heart of a microbiome gold rush

The first step to finding out is to catalogue what microbes we might have lost. To get as close to ancient microbiomes as possible, microbiologists have begun studying multiple Indigenous groups. Two have received the most attention: the Yanomami of the Amazon rainforest and the Hadza, in northern Tanzania. 

Researchers have made some startling discoveries already. A study by Sonnenburg and his colleagues, published in July, found that the gut microbiomes of the Hadza appear to include bugs that aren’t seen elsewhere—around 20% of the microbe genomes identified had not been recorded in a global catalogue of over 200,000 such genomes. The researchers found 8.4 million protein families in the guts of the 167 Hadza people they studied. Over half of them had not previously been identified in the human gut.

Plenty of other studies published in the last decade or so have helped build a picture of how the diets and lifestyles of hunter-gatherer societies influence the microbiome, and scientists have speculated on what this means for those living in more industrialized societies. But these revelations have come at a price.

A changing way of life

The Hadza people hunt wild animals and forage for fruit and honey. “We still live the ancient way of life, with arrows and old knives,” says Mangola, who works with the Olanakwe Community Fund to support education and economic projects for the Hadza. Hunters seek out food in the bush, which might include baboons, vervet monkeys, guinea fowl, kudu, porcupines, or dik-dik. Gatherers collect fruits, vegetables, and honey.

Mangola, who has met with multiple scientists over the years and participated in many research projects, has witnessed firsthand the impact of such research on his community. Much of it has been positive. But not all researchers act thoughtfully and ethically, he says, and some have exploited or harmed the community.

One enduring problem, says Mangola, is that scientists have tended to come and study the Hadza without properly explaining their research or their results. They arrive from Europe or the US, accompanied by guides, and collect feces, blood, hair, and other biological samples. Often, the people giving up these samples don’t know what they will be used for, says Mangola. Scientists get their results and publish them without returning to share them. “You tell the world [what you’ve discovered]—why can’t you come back to Tanzania to tell the Hadza?” asks Mangola. “It would bring meaning and excitement to the community,” he says.

Some scientists have talked about the Hadza as if they were living fossils, says Alyssa Crittenden, a nutritional anthropologist and biologist at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, who has been studying and working with the Hadza for the last two decades.

The Hadza have been described as being “locked in time,” she adds, but characterizations like that don’t reflect reality. She has made many trips to Tanzania and seen for herself how life has changed. Tourists flock to the region. Roads have been built. Charities have helped the Hadza secure land rights. Mangola went abroad for his education: he has a law degree and a master’s from the Indigenous Peoples Law and Policy program at the University of Arizona.

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The Download: a microbiome gold rush, and Eric Schmidt’s election misinformation plan



The Download: a microbiome gold rush, and Eric Schmidt’s election misinformation plan

Over the last couple of decades, scientists have come to realize just how important the microbes that crawl all over us are to our health. But some believe our microbiomes are in crisis—casualties of an increasingly sanitized way of life. Disturbances in the collections of microbes we host have been associated with a whole host of diseases, ranging from arthritis to Alzheimer’s.

Some might not be completely gone, though. Scientists believe many might still be hiding inside the intestines of people who don’t live in the polluted, processed environment that most of the rest of us share. They’ve been studying the feces of people like the Yanomami, an Indigenous group in the Amazon, who appear to still have some of the microbes that other people have lost. 

But there is a major catch: we don’t know whether those in hunter-gatherer societies really do have “healthier” microbiomes—and if they do, whether the benefits could be shared with others. At the same time, members of the communities being studied are concerned about the risk of what’s called biopiracy—taking natural resources from poorer countries for the benefit of wealthier ones. Read the full story.

—Jessica Hamzelou

Eric Schmidt has a 6-point plan for fighting election misinformation

—by Eric Schmidt, formerly the CEO of Google, and current cofounder of philanthropic initiative Schmidt Futures

The coming year will be one of seismic political shifts. Over 4 billion people will head to the polls in countries including the United States, Taiwan, India, and Indonesia, making 2024 the biggest election year in history.

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Navigating a shifting customer-engagement landscape with generative AI



Navigating a shifting customer-engagement landscape with generative AI

A strategic imperative

Generative AI’s ability to harness customer data in a highly sophisticated manner means enterprises are accelerating plans to invest in and leverage the technology’s capabilities. In a study titled “The Future of Enterprise Data & AI,” Corinium Intelligence and WNS Triange surveyed 100 global C-suite leaders and decision-makers specializing in AI, analytics, and data. Seventy-six percent of the respondents said that their organizations are already using or planning to use generative AI.

According to McKinsey, while generative AI will affect most business functions, “four of them will likely account for 75% of the total annual value it can deliver.” Among these are marketing and sales and customer operations. Yet, despite the technology’s benefits, many leaders are unsure about the right approach to take and mindful of the risks associated with large investments.

Mapping out a generative AI pathway

One of the first challenges organizations need to overcome is senior leadership alignment. “You need the necessary strategy; you need the ability to have the necessary buy-in of people,” says Ayer. “You need to make sure that you’ve got the right use case and business case for each one of them.” In other words, a clearly defined roadmap and precise business objectives are as crucial as understanding whether a process is amenable to the use of generative AI.

The implementation of a generative AI strategy can take time. According to Ayer, business leaders should maintain a realistic perspective on the duration required for formulating a strategy, conduct necessary training across various teams and functions, and identify the areas of value addition. And for any generative AI deployment to work seamlessly, the right data ecosystems must be in place.

Ayer cites WNS Triange’s collaboration with an insurer to create a claims process by leveraging generative AI. Thanks to the new technology, the insurer can immediately assess the severity of a vehicle’s damage from an accident and make a claims recommendation based on the unstructured data provided by the client. “Because this can be immediately assessed by a surveyor and they can reach a recommendation quickly, this instantly improves the insurer’s ability to satisfy their policyholders and reduce the claims processing time,” Ayer explains.

All that, however, would not be possible without data on past claims history, repair costs, transaction data, and other necessary data sets to extract clear value from generative AI analysis. “Be very clear about data sufficiency. Don’t jump into a program where eventually you realize you don’t have the necessary data,” Ayer says.

The benefits of third-party experience

Enterprises are increasingly aware that they must embrace generative AI, but knowing where to begin is another thing. “You start off wanting to make sure you don’t repeat mistakes other people have made,” says Ayer. An external provider can help organizations avoid those mistakes and leverage best practices and frameworks for testing and defining explainability and benchmarks for return on investment (ROI).

Using pre-built solutions by external partners can expedite time to market and increase a generative AI program’s value. These solutions can harness pre-built industry-specific generative AI platforms to accelerate deployment. “Generative AI programs can be extremely complicated,” Ayer points out. “There are a lot of infrastructure requirements, touch points with customers, and internal regulations. Organizations will also have to consider using pre-built solutions to accelerate speed to value. Third-party service providers bring the expertise of having an integrated approach to all these elements.”

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