The Download: tech’s gender gap, and how Gen Z handles misinformation
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 can’t tech fix its gender problem?
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.
Much of the burden for changing the system has been placed on women themselves: they’re exhorted to learn to code, major in STEM, and become more self-assertive. But self-confidence and male-style swagger have not been enough to overcome structural hurdles, especially for tech workers who are also parents. Even the pandemic’s shift towards remote working hasn’t made workplaces more hospitable to women.
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.
Google examines how different generations handle misinformation
The news: Younger people are more likely than older generations to think they may have unintentionally shared false or misleading information online—often driven by the pressure to share emotional content quickly. However, they are also more adept at using advanced fact-checking techniques, a new study from Poynter, YouGov, and Google has found.
What they found: One-third of Gen Z respondents said they practice lateral reading (making multiple searches and cross-referencing their findings) always or most of the time when verifying information—more than double the percentage of boomers.
But, but: The study relies on participants reporting their own beliefs and habits, which is a notoriously unreliable method. And the optimistic figures about Gen Z’s actual habits contrast pretty starkly with other findings on how people verify information online. Read the full story.
I’ve combed the internet to find you today’s most fun/important/scary/fascinating stories about technology.
1 Amazon wants to start offering teletherapy
The e-commerce giant is rapidly expanding into healthcare. (Insider $)
+ And it’s expanding its palm print-reading payment system into dozens of Whole Foods stores. (Ars Technica)
2 The US has rejected Starlink’s broadband supply bid
The FCC said it had failed to demonstrate that it could deliver on its promise to supply rural America with broadband. (TechCrunch)
+ Who is Starlink really for? (MIT Technology Review)
3 Big Tech wants to build data centers on US battlefields
But Civil War preservationists are fighting back. (New Scientist $)
4 China’s economic crisis is birthing a new wave of tycoons
But they’re making their fortunes in sportswear and skincare, not tech. (Economist $)
5 Silicon Valley’s boy genius founders are joining the Great Resignation
Their money-losing businesses want experienced leadership during a tough time for the industry. (NYT $)
+ Why Steve Jobs was so fond of his turtleneck. (NYT $)
6 Air conditioning is terrible for the planet
Better building ventilation and greener units are just a few alternative solutions. (Vox)
+ The legacy of Europe’s heat waves will be more air conditioning. (MIT Technology Review)
+ Big Tech’s engineers are leaving legacy businesses for climate-focused startups. (Protocol)
7 Social media really wants shopping live streams to take off
Live ecommerce is already huge in China, but takeup has been slower elsewhere. (FT $)
+ China wants to control how its famous livestreamers act, speak, and even dress. (MIT Technology Review)
8 The rise and rise of the ebike
Amid rising gas prices, electric bikes are a cheaper alternative to cars. (WSJ $)
+ Lithium, which is essential for electric car batteries, is in short supply right now. (WSJ $)
9 Millennials are bonding with their kids over Pokémon
After 26 years, the franchise has mass-generational appeal. (WP $)
+ Fewer people are gaming now than at the height of the pandemic. (Reuters)
10 Jobhunters are paying $1,000 for the perfect LinkedIn headshot
In an image-obsessed world, they’re hoping it’ll give them the edge. (WSJ $)
Quote of the day
“Cyber criminals have been eating our lunch.”
—Chris Krebs, former director of the US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, thinks the government has been blinded to the threat of everyday ransomware attacks due to its focus on tracking sophisticated overseas attackers, reports PC Mag.
The big story
This is the reason Demis Hassabis started DeepMind
In March 2016 Demis Hassabis, CEO and cofounder of DeepMind, was in Seoul, South Korea, watching his company’s AI make history. AlphaGo, a computer program trained to master the ancient board game Go, played a five-game match against Korean pro Lee Sedol and beat him 4-1, in a victory that changed the world’s perception of what AI can do.
But while the DeepMind team was celebrating, Hassabis was already thinking about an even bigger challenge. He realized that his company’s technology was ready to take on one of the most important and complicated puzzles in biology, one that researchers had been trying to solve for 50 years: predicting the structure of proteins. Read the full story.
—Will Douglas Heaven
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.)
+ 8glitchorbit’s digital art is weirdly soothing.
+ Prey, the new Predator prequel, sounds like it might just absolve the franchise’s past few horrors.
+ All hail the rise and rise of the emo leading man.
+ This is interesting: investigators are using DNA to fight back against illegal tree loggers.
+ Turtles are returning to the Mississippi mainland for the first time in four years.
The Download: AI films, and the threat of microplastics
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.
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.
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.”