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The Download: Language-preserving AI, and hackers showed it’s frighteningly easy to breach critical infrastructure

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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.

A new vision of artificial intelligence for the people

In the back room of an old building in New Zealand, one of the most advanced computers for artificial intelligence is helping to redefine the technology’s future.

Te Hiku Media, a nonprofit Māori radio station run by Peter-Lucas Jones and Keoni Mahelona, bought the machine to train its own algorithms for natural-language processing. It’s now a central part of the pair’s dream to revitalize the Māori language while keeping control of their community’s data.

The project is a radical departure from the way the AI industry typically operates. Over the last decade, AI researchers have pushed the field to new limits with the dogma “more is more,” relentlessly mining people for their faces, voices, and behaviors to enrich bottom lines. But projects like Te Hiku could point the way to a new generation of AI—one that does not treat marginalized people as mere data subjects but reestablishes them as co-creators of a shared future. Read the full story.

—Karen Hao

This is the fourth and final part of our series on AI colonialism, the idea that artificial intelligence is creating a new colonial world order. You can read the previous articles in the series here.

These hackers showed just how easy it is to target critical infrastructure

Expert skills: Earlier this week, two Dutch researchers took home $90,000 as a reward for hacking the software that helps run the world’s critical infrastructure.

Frightening ease: Daan Keuper and his colleague Thijs Alkemade are well practiced. Having hacked a car in 2018, they started infiltrating video conferencing software and coronavirus apps last year. Their latest challenge was their easiest yet. The targets were all industrial control systems that run critical facilities, including power grids, gas pipelines, and more. It’s the same software that can be found in the real world.

Security vulnerabilities: The pair managed to successfully bypass the trusted-application check for a communications protocol called OPC UA, which allows different parts of a critical-operations system to talk to each other in industrial settings. “In industrial control systems, there is still so much low-hanging fruit,” Keuper says. “The security is lagging behind badly.” Read the full story.

—Patrick Howell O’Neill

Spilling Silicon Valley’s secrets, one tweet at a time

Shortly after midnight on May 4, 2018, Jane Manchun Wong tweeted her first “finding” ever. “Twitter is working on End-to-End Encrypted Secret DM!” she wrote.

That tweet was the first of many that Wong would send out. By going into public source code for companies like Twitter and Facebook, she has been able to find out what features and projects are secretly working on before they announce it.

A young woman of color exposing the plans of a Big Tech firm without any tools apart from her own ability to reverse-engineer code was (and is) pretty radical—and it’s changed the way tech companies work. Read the full story.

—Tanya Basu

Quote of the day

“We think we are fighting fascism, but there isn’t fascism there. There isn’t.” 

—Sergei Klokov, a driver at Moscow’s police headquarters, criticized Russia’s activities in Ukraine during a phone call to a friend shortly before he was arrested, according to the Wall Street Journal.

The must-reads

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

1 We need to prepare for the war in Ukraine to last indefinitely

It’s been eight weeks since the invasion, with no sign of a conclusion to the conflict. (Foreign Affairs)
+ Ukraine is concerned that Chinese-made drones are sabotaging its defenses. (WSJ $)
+ Russia has banned Kamala Harris and other US officials from entering the country. (Reuters)
+ Russian troops are blockading a steel mill with 2,000 Ukrainian fighters inside. (NYT $)
+ The World Bank is anticipating a catastrophic global food crisis. (BBC)
+ Russia plans to “falsify” an independence referendum in southern Ukraine, says Zelensky. (The Guardian)

2 Elon Musk says he’s lined up $46.5 billion to buy Twitter
Which is an awful lot of money, even for someone as wealthy as him. (WSJ $)
+ He says he wants free speech on the platform, but he’s spent years trying to silence his own critics is pretty thin-skinned to criticism. (Bloomberg $)
+ Musk also appears dead-set on turning back time to when tweets had fewer consequences. (New Yorker $)

3 Zero-day hacks are the rich cybercriminal’s weapon of choice
They’re eye-wateringly expensive, but incredibly effective. (TR)
+ Google is fixing more zero-day flaws targeting Chrome. (ZDNet)

4 Microbial jet fuel could help cut carbon emissions from flying
If (a big if) it can be proven to work at scale. (TR)
+ Another way to lower greenhouse emissions? Sue the producers. (The Economist $)

5 The EU is set to announce a new law forcing Big Tech to police illegal content
If it goes through, it means they’ll no longer be allowed to mark their own homework. (FT $)
+ It could leave the biggest companies vulnerable to fines of billions of dollars. (Bloomberg $)
+ As ever, the biggest companies are less than thrilled by the prospect. (Bloomberg $)
+ And marketers won’t be happy either. (The Drum $)

6 Regulation alone can’t combat disinformation
Disinformation is dangerous, but flawed methods to tackle it can be terrible too. (The Atlantic $)
+ YouTube is more likely to reinforce extreme views than to introduce you to them. (NYT $)
+ Big Tech has made democracy more vulnerable, Obama says. (WP $)

7 Sheryl Sandberg reportedly persuaded journalists not to write about her then-boyfriend
Partly because it would have harmed her reputation as a champion of women. (WSJ $)

8 Someone in the UK has had covid for more than a year
Doctors say we need better treatments for people battling persistent infections. (The Guardian)
+ New global covid cases were down by nearly a quarter last week. (The Guardian)

9 Installing smart home tech in rental properties is a thorny privacy issue
On one hand, it’s convenient. On the other: it’s a web-enabled surveillance network. (WSJ $)
+ Amazon thinks home tech is a safer bet than expanding into the metaverse. (FT $)

10 What it’s like to receive an email from your past self 📧
It’s a lovely way to reflect on your achievements, and the future. (The Guardian)

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’re lucky, you can catch warthog piglets having a mud bath on this livestream of a Namibian waterhole (thanks Michael!)
+ Forget It, I reckon this is Stephen King’s scariest work to date.
+ NASA’s Perseverance Rover witnessed a rare solar eclipse on Mars.
+ Today would have been Glen Campbell’s 86th birthday. Enjoy this rendition of the enduring classic, Wichita Lineman.
+ I’m sure New Zealand’s prime minister Jacinda Ardern was touched by this beautiful dance from two people dressed as kiwi fruits welcoming her to Japan.
+ This collection of album covers makes me want to listen to some Grace Jones immediately.
+ Remember Honda’s ASIMO robot? It’s retiring. 😢



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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Technology Review offers in-depth reporting on today’s most
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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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