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The Download: OpenAI’s wild year, and tech’s cult of personality

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The Download: OpenAI’s wild year, and tech’s cult of personality


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.

Inside OpenAI’s wild year

Few companies can say they’ve had more of a rollercoaster year than OpenAI. At the beginning of 2023, the world’s hottest AI startup was riding high on the success of its ChatGPT chatbot. Now, it’s dusting itself off from an attempted coup which saw Sam Altman ousted and reinstated as the company’s CEO within a few short days.

Our AI experts have been following OpenAI’s every move throughout the year, often with exclusive access to the people building the revolutionary products and systems. Check out just some of the highlights from the past year—and what we think is coming next.

+ ChatGPT is everywhere. Here’s where it came from. While ChatGPT may have looked like an overnight sensation, it was actually built on decades of research.

+ Back in April, our senior AI editor Will Douglas Heaven had exclusive conversations with four OpenAI insiders to learn more about how they built the viral chatbot.

+ One of the year’s hottest topics was how ChatGPT was already changing education—from cutting corners for science homework, to writing entire theses. But some teachers believe that generative AI could actually make learning better. (Bonus: check out high school senior Rohan Mehta’s robust defense of ChatGPT in the classroom)

+ OpenAI’s hunger for data is coming back to bite it. The company’s AI services may be breaking data protection laws, and there is no resolution in sight. Read the full story.

+ Ilya Sutskever, OpenAI’s chief scientist, was one of the key executives to turn against and try to overthrow CEO Sam Altman in the recent OpenAI revolt. When Will Douglas Heaven met him earlier this year, Sutskever told him about his new priority—figuring out how to stop an artificial superintelligence from going rogue. Read the full story.

+ What’s next for OpenAI. Read our timeline of how the recent drama unfolded, and what it means for the AI industry at large. Read the full story.

The must-reads

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

1 X and OpenAI are cults of personality
While both companies claim to be reshaping the world, they each really answer to one man. (WP $)
+ We shouldn’t miss the chance to hold OpenAI accountable. (FT $)
+ Wall Street still sees an opportunity to make money, though. (Motherboard)
+ AI is a real capitalist’s game these days. (NYT $)

2 Pro-China foreign influencers are Beijing’s latest propaganda tool
Vloggers based in the US are doing the Chinese government’s job for them. (FT $)
+ China’s young workers are embracing the digital nomad dream. (Reuters)

3 No, AI isn’t human
It’s important to keep reminding ourselves that no matter how convincingly its systems mimic us, they aren’t rational beings. (Vox)
+ We’re living in the age of uncensored AI. (The Atlantic $)
+ AI just beat a human test for creativity. What does that even mean? (MIT Technology Review)

4 Australia doesn’t exist
That’s according to Microsoft’s Bing search results, fueled by conspiracy theories. (The Guardian)

5 India’s powerful influencers could sway its elections 
Marketing firms are racing to hire the social media personalities with the biggest followings. (Wired $)

6 Keep an eye on these retail bots this Black Friday
Some are a lot more helpful than others. (WSJ $)

7 Crypto pig butchering schemes are a billion-dollar industry 
But we still know next to nothing about the criminals orchestrating them. (Reuters)
+ Crypto’s biggest beasts are falling, one by one. (NY Mag $)
+ The involuntary criminals behind pig-butchering scams. (MIT Technology Review)

8 Social media these days is seriously depressing
Negative news doesn’t just affect us—it changes society, too. (Wired $)
+ It’s not just you—Zoom meetings really are exhausting. (IEEE Spectrum)
+ How to log off. (MIT Technology Review)

9 Your messy bedroom’s days are numbered
This laundry-grasping robot is ready to pick up the slack—and stinky socks. (New Scientist $)

10 It’s time to read Napoleon’s sprawling Wikipedia page
Because Ridley Scott, his latest biographer, certainly won’t have. (Slate $)
+ The new biopic is a surprising lol-fest. (The Atlantic $)

Quote of the day

“When Sam didn’t have a home, Microsoft gave him one without hesitation — and when the whole company didn’t have a home, Microsoft gave them one.”

—Barry Briggs, a former Microsoft executive, tells the Financial Times how Satya Nadella’s savvy handling of the OpenAI drama is likely to further cement the relationship between the two companies.

The big story

California’s coming offshore wind boom faces big engineering hurdles

December 2022

The state of California has an ambitious goal: building 25 gigawatts of offshore wind by 2045. That’s equivalent to nearly a third of the state’s total generating capacity today, or enough to power 25 million homes.

But the plans are facing a daunting geological challenge: the continental shelf drops steeply just a few miles off the California coast. They also face enormous engineering and regulatory obstacles. Read the full story.

—James Temple

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.)

+ I wish a tiny orchestra jogged after me playing the Rocky theme every time I go running.
+ What I wouldn’t give for a Mrs Doubtfire documentary.
+ Add some dramatic flair to your day with these suspense accents.
+ Take a relaxing vacation—from the comfort of your own home.
+ Here’s some smart ways to use up those Thanksgiving leftovers.



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

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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

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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

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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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