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.
Google’s new AI can hear a snippet of song—and then keep on playing
A new AI system can create natural-sounding speech and music after being prompted with a few seconds of audio.
AudioLM, developed by Google researchers, generates audio that fits the style of the prompt, including complex sounds like piano music, or people speaking, in a way that is almost indistinguishable from the original recording. Crucially, it doesn’t require labor-intensive transcription or labeling unlike most other AI-generated audio. Find out more, and listen to the sounds it created, here.
I Was There When: AI mastered chess
I Was There When is an oral history project that’s part of our award-winning In Machines We Trust podcast. It features stories of how breakthroughs and watershed moments in artificial intelligence and computing happened, as told by the people who witnessed them.
In the latest episode we meet one of the world’s greatest chess players, Garry Kasparov, and hear why his loss against IBM’s Deep Blue computer 25 years ago still matters today. Listen to it on Apple Podcasts, or wherever you usually go for podcasts.
Is a covid and flu “twindemic” coming?
If you’re feeling a bit under the weather, rest assured, you’re not alone. For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, it’s just that time of year. That’s partly why health authorities on both sides of the Atlantic are urging people to get vaccinated—against both the flu and covid-19.
In recent months, we’ve heard warnings of a flu and covid “twindemic” on the horizon. Should we be worried? Let our senior biomedicine reporter Jessica Hamzelou walk you through the risks.
Jess’s story is from The Checkup, her new weekly newsletter giving you the inside track on all things health and tech-related. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Thursday.
I’ve combed the internet to find you today’s most fun/important/scary/fascinating stories about technology.
2 A winter covid wave looks likely
And this time, we’re doing next-to-nothing to stop it. (Ars Technica)
+ Long covid is still disabling millions of Americans. (Axios)
+ How the Chinese doctor who sounded the alarm over covid spent his final days. (NYT $)
3 Elon Musk has three weeks to buy Twitter
If he doesn’t go through with it in that timeframe, it’s back to the courtroom. (Quartz)
+ What happens now? (The Guardian)
+ Lost track of all the twists and turns? Here’s a handy timeline. (FT $)
+ Musk says he’ll turn Twitter into a ‘super app’. Here’s how these apps work. (BBC)
4 Self-driving cars still seem to be on the road to nowhere
Even after $100 billion has been poured into their development. (Bloomberg $)
+ Uber is still betting it can make robotaxis work. (The Verge)
+ The big new idea for making self-driving cars that can go anywhere. (MIT Technology Review)
5 Google has unveiled two text-to-video AI systems
The videos they produce are impressive, and vaguely unsettling. (The Verge)
+ This is what the next generation of AI looks like. (MIT Technology Review)
6 An influencer is suing TikTok over scam ads that use her videos
This sort of fraudulent marketing is rife online—and there’s a growing political consensus in favor of a crackdown. (WP $)
7 Crypto exchange Binance says hackers stole $100 million
This is yet another example of a ‘bridge’ attack between two blockchains. (WSJ $)
+ These commonplace hacks demonstrate how security is an afterthought in the crypto industry. (MIT Technology Review)
8 Boston Dynamics has pledged not to weaponize its robots
Great, but the next question is: how do they stop customers from doing it? (Axios)
9 This is why you can’t tickle yourself
Your brain knows what’s coming. (Wired $)
10 It’s cool to hate on candy corn online
If you live in the US, it’s simply impossible to avoid at this time of year. (The Atlantic $)
Quote of the day
“I sent it to the whole team. We did that—look at that.”
—Elena Adams, the lead engineer for NASA’s asteroid-smashing DART spacecraft, tells the New Yorker what she did with the telescope images of the aftermath of the collision last week.
The big story
India’s water crisis is already here. Climate change will compound it.
Severe droughts have drained rivers, reservoirs, and aquifers across vast parts of India in recent years, pushing the nation’s leaky, polluted water systems to the brink.
More than 600 million Indians face acute water shortages. Seventy percent of the nation’s water supply is contaminated, causing an estimated 200,000 deaths a year, and some 21 cities could run out of groundwater as early as next year.
Climate change will surely make the problem worse. It’s uncertain what role higher temperatures have played in recent droughts, as the climate models have mainly predicted increasingly intense Indian monsoons. But the longer-term forecast is that the extremes will become more extreme, threatening more frequent flooding and longer droughts. Read the full story.
We can still have nice things
+ This list of the world’s 50 best bars is guaranteed to be hotly contested. Only one way to check, I suppose… I’d better pack my bags!
+ The moustache is officially back in fashion.
+ Don’t even think about visiting somewhere new without doing a vibe check on Google Maps.
+ Here’s how long it takes to paint an enormous (and seriously impressive) mural.
+ Stephen King—of comedy.
Human creators stand to benefit as AI rewrites the rules of content creation
A game-changer for content creation
Among the AI-related technologies to have emerged in the past several years is generative AI—deep-learning algorithms that allow computers to generate original content, such as text, images, video, audio, and code. And demand for such content will likely jump in the coming years—Gartner predicts that by 2025, generative AI will account for 10% of all data created, compared with 1% in 2022.
“Théâtre D’opéra Spatial” is an example of AI-generated content (AIGC), created with the Midjourney text-to-art generator program. Several other AI-driven art-generating programs have also emerged in 2022, capable of creating paintings from single-line text prompts. The diversity of technologies reflects a wide range of artistic styles and different user demands. DALL-E 2 and Stable Diffusion, for instance, are focused mainly on western-style artwork, while Baidu’s ERNIE-ViLG and Wenxin Yige produce images influenced by Chinese aesthetics. At Baidu’s deep learning developer conference Wave Summit+ 2022, the company announced that Wenxin Yige has been updated with new features, including turning photos into AI-generated art, image editing, and one-click video production.
Meanwhile, AIGC can also include articles, videos, and various other media offerings such as voice synthesis. A technology that generates audible speech indistinguishable from the voice of the original speaker, voice synthesis can be applied in many scenarios, including voice navigation for digital maps. Baidu Maps, for example, allows users to customize its voice navigation to their own voice just by recording nine sentences.
Recent advances in AI technologies have also created generative language models that can fluently compose texts with just one click. They can be used for generating marketing copy, processing documents, extracting summaries, and other text tasks, unlocking creativity that other technologies such as voice synthesis have failed to tap. One of the leading generative language models is Baidu’s ERNIE 3.0, which has been widely applied in various industries such as health care, education, technology, and entertainment.
“In the past year, artificial intelligence has made a great leap and changed its technological direction,” says Robin Li, CEO of Baidu. “Artificial intelligence has gone from understanding pictures and text to generating content.” Going one step further, Baidu App, a popular search and newsfeed app with over 600 million monthly users, including five million content creators, recently released a video editing feature that can produce a short video accompanied by a voiceover created from data provided in an article.
Improving efficiency and growth
As AIGC becomes increasingly common, it could make content creation more efficient by getting rid of repetitive, time-intensive tasks for creators such as sorting out source assets and voice recordings and rendering images. Aspiring filmmakers, for instance, have long had to pay their dues by spending countless hours mastering the complex and tedious process of video editing. AIGC may soon make that unnecessary.
Besides boosting efficiency, AIGC could also increase business growth in content creation amid rising demand for personalized digital content that users can interact with dynamically. InsightSLICE forecasts that the global digital creation market will on average grow 12% annually between 2020 and 2030 and hit $38.2 billion. With content consumption fast outpacing production, traditional development methods will likely struggle to meet such increasing demand, creating a gap that could be filled by AIGC. “AI has the potential to meet this massive demand for content at a tenth of the cost and a hundred times or thousands of times faster in the next decade,” Li says.
AI with humanity as its foundation
AIGC can also serve as an educational tool by helping children develop their creativity. StoryDrawer, for instance, is an AI-driven program designed to boost children’s creative thinking, which often declines as the focus in their education shifts to rote learning.
The Download: the West’s AI myth, and Musk v Apple
While the US and the EU may differ on how to regulate tech, their lawmakers seem to agree on one thing: the West needs to ban AI-powered social scoring.
As they understand it, social scoring is a practice in which authoritarian governments—specifically China—rank people’s trustworthiness and punish them for undesirable behaviors, such as stealing or not paying back loans. Essentially, it’s seen as a dystopian superscore assigned to each citizen.
The reality? While there have been some contentious local experiments with social credit scores in China, there is no countrywide, all-seeing social credit system with algorithms that rank people.
The irony is that while US and European politicians try to ban systems that don’t really exist, systems that do rank and penalize people are already in place in the West—and are denying people housing and jobs in the process. Read the full story.
Melissa’s story is from The Algorithm, her weekly AI newsletter covering all of the industry’s most interesting developments. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Monday.
I’ve combed the internet to find you today’s most fun/important/scary/fascinating stories about technology.
1 Apple has reportedly threatened to pull Twitter from the App Store
According to Elon Musk. (NYT $)
+ Musk has threatened to “go to war” with the company after it decided to stop advertising on Twitter. (WP $)
+ Apple’s reluctance to advertise on Twitter right now isn’t exactly unique. (Motherboard)
+ Twitter’s child protection team in Asia has been gutted. (Wired $)
2 Another crypto firm has collapsed
Lender BlockFi has filed for bankruptcy, and is (partly) blaming FTX. (WSJ $)
+ The company is suing FTX founder Sam Bankman-Fried. (FT $)
+ It looks like the much-feared “crypto contagion” is spreading. (NYT $)
3 AI is rapidly becoming more powerful—and dangerous
That’s particularly worrying when its growth is too much for safety teams to handle. (Vox)
+ Do AI systems need to come with safety warnings? (MIT Technology Review)
+ This AI chat-room game is gaining a legion of fans. (The Guardian)
4 A Pegasus spyware investigation is in danger of being compromised
It’s the target of a disinformation campaign, security experts have warned. (The Guardian)
+ Cyber insurance won’t protect you from theft of your data. (The Guardian)
5 Google gave the FBI geofence data for its January 6 investigation
Google identified more than 5,000 devices near the US Capitol during the riot. (Wired $)
6 Monkeypox isn’t going anywhere
But it’s not on the rise, either. (The Atlantic $)
+ The World Health Organization says it will now be known as mpox. (BBC)
+ Everything you need to know about the monkeypox vaccines. (MIT Technology Review)
7 What it’s like to be the unwitting face of a romance scam
James Scott Geras’ pictures have been used to catfish countless women. (Motherboard)
What’s next in cybersecurity
One of the reasons cyber hasn’t played a bigger role in the war, according to Carhart, is because “in the whole conflict, we saw Russia being underprepared for things and not having a good game plan. So it’s not really surprising that we see that as well in the cyber domain.”
Moreover, Ukraine, under the leadership of Zhora and his cybersecurity agency, has been working on its cyber defenses for years, and it has received support from the international community since the war started, according to experts. Finally, an interesting twist in the conflict on the internet between Russia and Ukraine was the rise of the decentralized, international cyber coalition known as the IT Army, which scored some significant hacks, showing that war in the future can also be fought by hacktivists.
Ransomware runs rampant again
This year, other than the usual corporations, hospitals, and schools, government agencies in Costa Rica, Montenegro, and Albania all suffered damaging ransomware attacks too. In Costa Rica, the government declared a national emergency, a first after a ransomware attack. And in Albania, the government expelled Iranian diplomats from the country—a first in the history of cybersecurity—following a destructive cyberattack.
These types of attacks were at an all-time high in 2022, a trend that will likely continue next year, according to Allan Liska, a researcher who focuses on ransomware at cybersecurity firm Recorded Future.
“[Ransomware is] not just a technical problem like an information stealer or other commodity malware. There are real-world, geopolitical implications,” he says. In the past, for example, a North Korean ransomware called WannaCry caused severe disruption to the UK’s National Health System and hit an estimated 230,000 computers worldwide.
Luckily, it’s not all bad news on the ransomware front. According to Liska, there are some early signs that point to “the death of the ransomware-as-a-service model,” in which ransomware gangs lease out hacking tools. The main reason, he said, is that whenever a gang gets too big, “something bad happens to them.”
For example, the ransomware groups REvil and DarkSide/BlackMatter were hit by governments; Conti, a Russian ransomware gang, unraveled internally when a Ukrainian researcher appalled by Conti’s public support of the war leaked internal chats; and the LockBit crew also suffered the leak of its code.
“We are seeing a lot of the affiliates deciding that maybe I don’t want to be part of a big ransomware group, because they all have targets on their back, which means that I might have a target on my back, and I just want to carry out my cybercrime,” Liska says.