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The Download: Sam Altman’s big longevity bet, and how CRISPR is changing lives




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.

Sam Altman invested $180 million into a company trying to delay death

When a startup called Retro Biosciences eased out of stealth mode in mid-2022, it announced it had secured $180 million to bankroll an audacious mission: to add 10 years to the average human lifespan. 

The business has always been vague about where its money had come from. Now MIT Technology Reveal can reveal that the entire sum was put up by Sam Altman, the 37-year-old startup guru and investor who is CEO of OpenAI. 

The amount is among the largest ever invested by an individual into a startup pursuing human longevity, and will fund Retro’s “aggressive mission” to stall aging, or even reverse it. Read the full story.

—Antonio Regalado

If you’d like to read more about OpenAI:

+ Read the inside story of how ChatGPT was built from the people who made it.
+ Sam Altman: This is what I learned from DALL-E 2. 

Forget designer babies. Here’s how CRISPR is really changing lives

Gene editing is a technology many people tend to associate with its ethically-fraught ability to create designer babies. But that’s also a distraction from the real story of how the technology is changing people’s lives through treatments used on adults with serious diseases. 

There are now more than 50 experimental studies underway that use gene editing in human volunteers to treat everything from cancer to HIV and blood diseases, according to a tally shared with MIT Technology Review.

But these first generation of treatments will be hugely expensive and tricky to implement—and they could be quickly superseded by a next generation of improved editing drugs. Read the full story.

—Antonio Regalado

How China takes extreme measures to keep teens off TikTok

The American people and the Chinese people have much more in common than either side likes to admit. Take the shared concern about how much time children and teenagers are spending on TikTok (or its Chinese domestic version, Douyin).

Several US senators have pushed for bills that would restrict underage users’ access to apps like TikTok. But ByteDance, the parent company of TikTok, is no stranger to those requests. In fact, it has been dealing with similar government pressures in China since at least 2018. Read the full story.

—Zeyi Yang

Zeyi’s story is from China Report, his weekly newsletter covering China. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Tuesday.

The must-reads

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

1 Google developed a powerful chatbot years before ChatGPT
However, it got spooked that the system didn’t meet safety and fairness standards.(WSJ $)+ How tech’s AI obsession masks abuses of power. (Bloomberg $)
+ In theory, copyright law could derail generative AI. (Insider $)
+ ChatGPT is everywhere. Here’s where it came from. (MIT Technology Review)

2 A pro-Ukrainian group may have orchestrated the Nord Stream pipeline attack
But there’s no evidence that Ukrainian officials were involved. (NYT $)
+ Ukraine has denied any involvement in the attack last year. (BBC)
+ Here’s how the Nord Stream gas pipelines could be fixed. (MIT Technology Review)

3 How the FBI pushed for more powerful facial recognition
It could be used to fuel a vast surveillance network. (WP $)
+ Faked CCTV footage is on the rise, too. (Wired $)
+ South Africa’s private surveillance machine is fueling a digital apartheid. (MIT Technology Review)

4 Crypto startups are scrambling for funding 
Times are tougher than ever since things went south for the industry’s favorite bank. (The Information $)

5 Meta’s large language model been leaked on 4Chan
It’s the first model from a major company to leak. (Motherboard)
+ Why Meta’s latest large language model survived only three days online. (MIT Technology Review)

6 Japan was forced to blow up its own rocket
The vehicle’s second engine failed to ignite during takeoff. (Ars Technica)
+ What’s next in space. (MIT Technology Review)

7 YouTube just can’t get rid of Andrew Tate
His misogynistic videos keep being re-uploaded, despite an existing ban. (The Atlantic $)

8 The hidden risks of the share economy
When almost anything can be rented out to strangers, not everyone is well-meaning. (The Guardian)

9 TikTok’s viral drinks leave a bad taste in the mouth
Users are making increasingly outlandish concoctions in a bid for views. (FT $)
+ The porcelain challenge didn’t need to be real to get views. (MIT Technology Review)

10 The work phone is making a comeback
Partly because of companies cracking down on TikTok. (Bloomberg $)

Quote of the day

“I independently made my money, as opposed to say, inherited an emerald mine.”

—Halli, a recently laid-off Twitter worker, fires back at his former boss Elon Musk, who accused Halli of shirking his work responsibilities.

The big story

Why can’t tech fix its gender problem?

August 2022

Despite the tech sector’s great wealth and loudly self-proclaimed corporate commitments to the rights of women, LGBTQ+ people, and racial minorities, the industry remains mostly a straight, white man’s world.

It wasn’t always this way. Software programming once was an almost entirely female profession. As recently as 1980, women held 70% of the programming jobs in Silicon Valley, but the ratio has since flipped entirely. While many things contributed to the shift, from the educational pipeline to the tiresomely persistent fiction of tech as a gender-blind “meritocracy,” none explain it entirely. What really lies at the core of tech’s gender problem is money. Read the full story.

—Margaret O’Mara

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.)

+ Aww, Dave Grohl has cemented his status as the nicest man in rock.
+ These photos of a cheetah cub and a puppy are the cutest thing you’ll see today.
+ If you enjoy nosing through tech executives’ emails, this Twitter account is the one for you.
+ The 10 things that actor Jeremy Strong can’t live without are typically unhinged.
+ This story sent a shiver down my spine.


The Download: AI films, and the threat of microplastics



Welcome to the new surreal. How AI-generated video is changing film.

The Frost nails its uncanny, disconcerting vibe in its first few shots. Vast icy mountains, a makeshift camp of military-style tents, a group of people huddled around a fire, barking dogs. It’s familiar stuff, yet weird enough to plant a growing seed of dread. There’s something wrong here.

Welcome to the unsettling world of AI moviemaking. The Frost is a 12-minute movie from Detroit-based video creation company Waymark in which every shot is generated by an image-making AI. It’s one of the most impressive—and bizarre—examples yet of this strange new genre. Read the full story, and take an exclusive look at the movie.

—Will Douglas Heaven

Microplastics are everywhere. What does that mean for our immune systems?

Microplastics are pretty much everywhere you look. These tiny pieces of plastic pollution, less than five millimeters across, have been found in human blood, breast milk, and placentas. They’re even in our drinking water and the air we breathe.

Given their ubiquity, it’s worth considering what we know about microplastics. What are they doing to us? 

The short answer is: we don’t really know. But scientists have begun to build a picture of their potential effects from early studies in animals and clumps of cells, and new research suggests that they could affect not only the health of our body tissues, but our immune systems more generally. Read the full story.

—Jessica Hamzelou

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Microplastics are everywhere. What does that mean for our immune systems?



Microplastics are everywhere. What does that mean for our immune systems?

Here, bits of plastic can end up collecting various types of bacteria, which cling to their surfaces. Seabirds that ingest them not only end up with a stomach full of plastic—which can end up starving them—but also get introduced to types of bacteria that they wouldn’t encounter otherwise. It seems to disturb their gut microbiomes.

There are similar concerns for humans. These tiny bits of plastic, floating and flying all over the world, could act as a “Trojan horse,” introducing harmful drug-resistant bacteria and their genes, as some researchers put it.

It’s a deeply unsettling thought. As research plows on, hopefully we’ll learn not only what microplastics are doing to us, but how we might tackle the problem.

Read more from Tech Review’s archive

It is too simplistic to say we should ban all plastic. But we could do with revolutionizing the way we recycle it, as my colleague Casey Crownhart pointed out in an article published last year. 

We can use sewage to track the rise of antimicrobial-resistant bacteria, as I wrote in a previous edition of the Checkup. At this point, we need all the help we can get …

… which is partly why scientists are also exploring the possibility of using tiny viruses to treat drug-resistant bacterial infections. Phages were discovered around 100 years ago and are due a comeback!

Our immune systems are incredibly complicated. And sex matters: there are important differences between the immune systems of men and women, as Sandeep Ravindran wrote in this feature, which ran in our magazine issue on gender.

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Welcome to the new surreal. How AI-generated video is changing film.



Welcome to the new surreal. How AI-generated video is changing film.

Fast and cheap

Artists are often the first to experiment with new technology. But the immediate future of generative video is being shaped by the advertising industry. Waymark made The Frost to explore how generative AI could be built into its products. The company makes video creation tools for businesses looking for a fast and cheap way to make commercials. Waymark is one of several startups, alongside firms such as Softcube and Vedia AI, that offer bespoke video ads for clients with just a few clicks.

Waymark’s current tech, launched at the start of the year, pulls together several different AI techniques, including large language models, image recognition, and speech synthesis, to generate a video ad on the fly. Waymark also drew on its large data set of non-AI-generated commercials created for previous customers. “We have hundreds of thousands of videos,” says CEO Alex Persky-Stern. “We’ve pulled the best of those and trained it on what a good video looks like.”

To use Waymark’s tool, which it offers as part of a tiered subscription service starting at $25 a month, users supply the web address or social media accounts for their business, and it goes off and gathers all the text and images it can find. It then uses that data to generate a commercial, using OpenAI’s GPT-3 to write a script that is read aloud by a synthesized voice over selected images that highlight the business. A slick minute-long commercial can be generated in seconds. Users can edit the result if they wish, tweaking the script, editing images, choosing a different voice, and so on. Waymark says that more than 100,000 people have used its tool so far.

The trouble is that not every business has a website or images to draw from, says Parker. “An accountant or a therapist might have no assets at all,” he says. 

Waymark’s next idea is to use generative AI to create images and video for businesses that don’t yet have any—or don’t want to use the ones they have. “That’s the thrust behind making The Frost,” says Parker. “Create a world, a vibe.”

The Frost has a vibe, for sure. But it is also janky. “It’s not a perfect medium yet by any means,” says Rubin. “It was a bit of a struggle to get certain things from DALL-E, like emotional responses in faces. But at other times, it delighted us. We’d be like, ‘Oh my God, this is magic happening before our eyes.’”

This hit-and-miss process will improve as the technology gets better. DALL-E 2, which Waymark used to make The Frost, was released just a year ago. Video generation tools that generate short clips have only been around for a few months.  

The most revolutionary aspect of the technology is being able to generate new shots whenever you want them, says Rubin: “With 15 minutes of trial and error, you get that shot you wanted that fits perfectly into a sequence.” He remembers cutting the film together and needing particular shots, like a close-up of a boot on a mountainside. With DALL-E, he could just call it up. “It’s mind-blowing,” he says. “That’s when it started to be a real eye-opening experience as a filmmaker.”

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