The Download: Sensory cities and carbon trapping-crops
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.
Why sounds and smells are as vital to cities as the sights
When David Howes thinks of his home city of Montreal, he thinks of the harmonious tones of carillon bells and the smell of bagels being cooked over wood fires. But when he stopped in at his local tourism office to ask where they recommend that visitors go to smell, taste, and listen to the city, he just received blank stares.
“They only know about things to see, not about the city’s other sensory attractions, its soundmarks and smellmarks,” says Howes, director of Concordia University’s Center for Sensory Studies, a hub for the growing field often referred to as “sensory urbanism.”
Around the world, researchers like Howes are investigating how nonvisual information defines the character of a city and affects its livability. Using methods ranging from low-tech sound walks and smell maps to data scraping, wearables, and virtual reality, they’re fighting what they see as a limiting visual bias in urban planning. Read the full story.
These scientists want to capture more carbon with CRISPR crops
The news: Plants are the original carbon capture factories—and a new research program aims to make them more effective by using gene editing. The Innovative Genomics Institute, a research group founded by CRISPR co-inventor Jennifer Doudna, has announced a new program to use the revolutionary gene-editing tool on agricultural crops to boost their aptitude for carbon storage.
How it’d work: One of the primary goals will be to tweak photosynthesis so plants can grow more quickly. By altering the enzymes involved, researchers could cut out energy-sapping side reactions, including some that release carbon dioxide. The researchers also hope they can find ways to store more carbon in the soil, for example by encouraging larger, deeper root systems.
Bigger picture: It’ll be a significant challenge to make these techniques work, but the research is part of a growing effort by scientists to find ways to vacuum up the carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere in order to slow climate change. Read the full story.
I’ve combed the internet to find you today’s most fun/important/scary/fascinating stories about technology.
1 The crypto market is in freefall
With colossal amounts of money at stake, crypto’s volatility now looks less thrilling and more worrying. (New York Mag)
+ The price of Bitcoin has plunged to its lowest in 18 months. (Bloomberg $)
+ Even the most bullish investors are freaking out. (Motherboard)
+ Crypto companies are making major layoffs, too. (The Verge)
+ El Salvador has lost around half its Bitcoin investment. (Mashable)
+ It’s okay to opt out of the crypto revolution. (MIT Technology Review)
2 Big Tech has agreed to disclose more about disinformation
On a country-by-country basis, something tech companies have previously resisted. (FT $)
+ The EU is threatening to fine them for failing to deal with deepfakes. (Reuters)
3 What studying strokes teaches us about addiction
A particular neural network in the brain could hold the key to quitting smoking. (NYT $)
4 The long fight to get illegal, nonconsensual videos taken offline
Survivors have struggled to get footage removed from Pornhub. (New Yorker $)
+ Deepfake porn is ruining women’s lives. (MIT Technology Review)
5 SpaceX has gained approval to launch its Starship rocket from Texas
But it has to meet stringent measures to protect the environment. (WP $)
+ This newborn star has a sibling. (Phys)
+ Our maps of the Milky Way have just received a major upgrade. (Nature)
6 India’s officials are big fans of facial recognition
Privacy advocates disagree with police claims it’s only being used to surveil criminals. (Motherboard)
+ Here’s how to stop AI from recognizing your face in selfies. (MIT Technology Review)
7 We need to change how we warn beachgoers about deadly currents
Static warning signs aren’t working. Systems that warn of changing conditions might. (Hakai Magazine)
+ There’s a global movement dedicated to raising awareness of rip currents. (The Guardian)
8 People are increasingly terrified of being canceled
Psychiatrists wonder if it’s a new manifestation of OCD centered around fear of social ruin. (Slate)
9 Electric car designs are getting more creative
While some are becoming more luxurious, others seat only two passengers. (The Guardian)
+ This startup wants to pack more energy into electric vehicle batteries. (MIT Technology Review)
10 What’s the point of drinking alcohol in the metaverse?
Drinks brands are building virtual bars—but there’s not a drop to drink. (WSJ $)
Quote of the day
“Older people go on the internet for a couple of things. For the younger generation the internet is ‘the things.’”
— Payton Iheme, head of public policy for dating app Bumble, explains to the New York Times how different generations use technology, and what that means for potential risks.
The big story
Lunik: Inside the CIA’s audacious plot to steal a Soviet satellite
In late October 1959, a Mexican spy named Eduardo Diaz Silveti slipped into the US Embassy in Mexico City. Tall and well-spoken with slicked-back hair, Silveti, 30, had learned spycraft in Mexico’s secret police. During the Cold War, the capital had become so overrun by Communist spies that the CIA had enlisted the help of the Mexican secret services in their fight against the Soviet Union.
Winston Scott, 49, was the first secretary of the US Embassy. That was his cover; he was also the CIA’s most revered spymaster in Latin America. Secrets were a stock-in-trade for the silver-haired Alabaman: he had arrived in Mexico City in 1956 and turned the CIA station into one of the most successful counterespionage operations in the world.
He had called Silveti to his office, according to the Mexican, to offer him a top-secret mission that was “tremendously necessary for the United States.” If they got things wrong, Scott warned that “World War III could begin.” They were going to hatch a plot to steal a Soviet satellite for a few hours so American experts could study it. Read the full story.
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.)
+ This rumination on 40 years of ET is thought-provoking.
+ Love it or hate it, the texture of bouncy foods is a whole lotta fun (thanks Charlotte!)
+ An excellent joke for all the feline feeders out there.
+ A heartening tale of how beekeeping is helping psychiatric patients in Greece.
+ This photo of Mars’ landscape taken by Perseverance is amazing.
The Download: sleeping in VR, and promising clean energy projects
People are gathering in virtual spaces to relax, and even sleep, with their headsets on. VR sleep rooms are becoming popular among people who suffer from insomnia or loneliness, offering cozy enclaves where strangers can safely find relaxation and company—most of the time.
Each VR sleep room is created to induce calm. Some imitate beaches and campsites with bonfires, while others re-create hotel rooms or cabins. Soundtracks vary from relaxing beats to nature sounds to absolute silence, while lighting can range from neon disco balls to pitch-black darkness.
The opportunity to sleep in groups can be particularly appealing to isolated or lonely people who want to feel less alone, and safe enough to fall asleep. The trouble is, what if the experience doesn’t make you feel that way? Read the full story.
Inside the conference where researchers are solving the clean-energy puzzle
There are plenty of tried-and-true solutions that can begin to address climate change right now: wind and solar power are being deployed at massive scales, electric vehicles are coming to the mainstream, and new technologies are helping companies make even fossil-fuel production less polluting.
But as we knock out the easy climate wins, we’ll also need to get creative to tackle harder-to-solve sectors and reach net-zero emissions.
Inside the conference where researchers are solving the clean-energy puzzle
The Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy (ARPA-E) funds high-risk, high-reward energy research projects, and each year the agency hosts a summit where funding recipients and other researchers and companies in energy can gather to talk about what’s new in the field.
As I listened to presentations, met with researchers, and—especially—wandered around the showcase, I often had a vague feeling of whiplash. Standing at one booth trying to wrap my head around how we might measure carbon stored by plants, I would look over and see another group focused on making nuclear fusion a more practical way to power the world.
There are plenty of tried-and-true solutions that can begin to address climate change right now: wind and solar power are being deployed at massive scales, electric vehicles are coming to the mainstream, and new technologies are helping companies make even fossil-fuel production less polluting. But as we knock out the easy wins, we’ll also need to get creative to tackle harder-to-solve sectors and reach net-zero emissions. Here are a few intriguing projects from the ARPA-E showcase that caught my eye.
“I heard you have rocks here!” I exclaimed as I approached the Quaise Energy station.
Quaise’s booth featured a screen flashing through some fast facts and demonstration videos. And sure enough, laid out on the table were two slabs of rock. They looked a bit worse for wear, each sporting a hole about the size of a quarter in the middle, singed around the edges.
These rocks earned their scorch marks in service of a big goal: making geothermal power possible anywhere. Today, the high temperatures needed to generate electricity using heat from the Earth are only accessible close to the surface in certain places on the planet, like Iceland or the western US.
Geothermal power could in theory be deployed anywhere, if we could drill deep enough. Getting there won’t be easy, though, and could require drilling 20 kilometers (12 miles) beneath the surface. That’s deeper than any oil and gas drilling done today.
Rather than grinding through layers of granite with conventional drilling technology, Quaise plans to get through the more obstinate parts of the Earth’s crust by using high-powered millimeter waves to vaporize rock. (It’s sort of like lasers, but not quite.)
The emergent industrial metaverse
Annika Hauptvogel, head of technology and innovation management at Siemens, describes the industrial metaverse as “immersive, making users feel as if they’re in a real environment; collaborative in real time; open enough for different applications to seamlessly interact; and trusted by the individuals and businesses that participate”—far more than simply a digital world.
The industrial metaverse will revolutionize the way work is done, but it will also unlock significant new value for business and societies. By allowing businesses to model, prototype, and test dozens, hundreds, or millions of design iterations in real time and in an immersive, physics-based environment before committing physical and human resources to a project, industrial metaverse tools will usher in a new era of solving real-world problems digitally.
“The real world is very messy, noisy, and sometimes hard to really understand,” says Danny Lange, senior vice president of artificial intelligence at Unity Technologies, a leading platform for creating and growing real-time 3-D content. “The idea of the industrial metaverse is to create a cleaner connection between the real world and the virtual world, because the virtual world is so much easier and cheaper to work with.”
While real-life applications of the consumer metaverse are still developing, industrial metaverse use cases are purpose-driven, well aligned with real-world problems and business imperatives. The resource efficiencies enabled by industrial metaverse solutions may increase business competitiveness while also continually driving progress toward the sustainability, resilience, decarbonization, and dematerialization goals that are essential to human flourishing.
This report explores what it will take to create the industrial metaverse, its potential impacts on business and society, the challenges ahead, and innovative use cases that will shape the future. Its key findings are as follows:
• The industrial metaverse will bring together the digital and real worlds. It will enable a constant exchange of information, data, and decisions and empower industries to solve extraordinarily complex real-world problems digitally, changing how organizations operate and unlocking significant societal benefits.
• The digital twin is a core metaverse building block. These virtual models simulate real-world objects in detail. The next generation of digital twins will be photorealistic, physics-based, AI-enabled, and linked in metaverse ecosystems.
• The industrial metaverse will transform every industry. Currently existing digital twins illustrate the power and potential of the industrial metaverse to revolutionize design and engineering, testing, operations, and training.