The Download: the mortality issue, and America’s new favorite shopping app
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.
Introducing: The Mortality Issue
From the moment you’re born, the one thing you can be completely certain of is that you will die. But what if aging isn’t inevitable, after all? And if you could slow, or even turn back the clock, would you?
The latest issue of MIT Technology Review examines what death means to us in 2022, digging into why some people are still dedicating their lives to kicking against it, while others are developing their own coping mechanisms for grief. Here’s a selection of some of the new stories in the edition, guaranteed to get you thinking about what comes next.
- My colleague Charlotte wrote a beautiful piece about making digital clones of her (living) parents, for a glimpse into what it could be like to talk to the dead. Would you be prepared to do the same for your loved ones?
- If you’ve ever wondered about what happens to your body when you donate it to science, wonder no more.
- Just because AI can make life-and-death decisions, doesn’t necessarily mean we should allow it to.
- Why the impossible-seeming dream of reviving frozen human bodies using cryonics refuses to die.
- Should we believe in—or even want—immortality?
- In an age when everything is being recorded, even knowledge has a lifespan.
- Are electric vehicles really the solution to the climate crisis they’re being touted as?
- Technology used to be something to get excited about. When did it become something to dread?
Read the full magazine, and if you haven’t already, you can subscribe to MIT Technology Review for as little as $80 a year.
The biggest shopping app in America that you’ve never heard of
There’s a new Chinese e-commerce app that is quietly but quickly growing. It’s called Temu. And on October 17, it became the most downloaded shopping app in the United States, beating off competition from Amazon, Walmart, and its Chinese competitor Shein.
If your immediate response is What? I’ve never even heard of Temu!, you’re in good company. The app remains obscure among most people, though it marks another high-profile attempt by yet another Chinese tech giant to try its luck in the American e-commerce market. So how did Temu rise to the top of the iOS App Store’s shopping chart? Read the full story.
Zeyi’s story is from China Report, his new weekly newsletter filling you in on all the latest happenings in China. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Tuesday.
I’ve combed the internet to find you today’s most fun/important/scary/fascinating stories about technology.
1 Conspiracy theorists have seized upon Russia’s “dirty bomb” claims
Despite there being no evidence for its existence. (NYT $)
+ Russia’s presentation on the so-called dirty bomb contained 9/11 footage. (Motherboard)
+ The war in Ukraine is dragging us back to a bloodier age. (Economist $)
2 Celebrity deepfakes are advertising’s next frontier
The companies behind them think the guaranteed attention is worth the potential legal repercussions. (WSJ $)
+ Inside the strange new world of being a deepfake actor. (MIT Technology Review)
3 Twitter’s most active users are turning their back on it
And its staff aren’t entirely sure why. (Reuters)
+ Twitter has been ever madder than usual over the past week. (Motherboard)
+ Elon Musk is optimistic he can close his deal by Friday. (Reuters)
+ Why Twitter still has those terrible Trends. (MIT Technology Review)
4 US election officials are swamped with public records requests
It’s all thanks to one man in Florida. (Bloomberg $)
5 Climate activists are suing governments
They claim that authorities’ inaction to protect nature has harmed their constitutional rights. (Hakai Magazine)
+ Nature-based solutions can help to mitigate the climate crisis’ effects. (CNET)
+ Climate action is gaining momentum. So are the disasters. (MIT Technology Review)
6 Tech’s unicorns are becoming rarer again
Investors aren’t giving up hope, though. (WP $)
+ Some venture capital funds are going after narwhals instead. (Bloomberg $)
7 Sexually transmitted infections are rising in the US
Doctors are holding off prescribing a pill specifically designed to combat them, though. (Vox)
8 The pandemic proved it was possible to conduct good science quickly
Greater transparency around research could help to carry it on. (Wired $)
+ Is a covid and flu “twindemic” on the horizon? (MIT Technology Review)
9 NASA’s major UFO investigation has begun
Maybe the truth really is out there. (Motherboard)
+ Radiation-resistant bacteria could survive on Mars for millions of years. (New Scientist $)
10 Singapore’s politicians are TikTok superstars
Their clips are met with almost unprecedented positivity. (Rest of World)
Quote of the day
“It’s not good, it’s not fun.”
—Palmer Luckey, who founded Oculus VR, is not a fan of Meta’s VR social app Horizon Worlds, Insider reports.
The big story
This is how AI bias really happens—and why it’s so hard to fix
If we want to be able to fix bias in AI, we need to understand the mechanics of how it arises in the first place.
We often shorthand our explanation of AI bias by blaming it on biased training data, but the reality is more nuanced. Bias can creep in long before the data is collected as well as at many other stages of the deep-learning process—and can be incredibly hard to fix. 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.)
+ Animals really do do the funniest things (thanks Charlotte!)
+ Men, would you dare to bare in a backless suit?
+ Well, this small wooden ball rolling down a colossal xylophone in a Japanese forest has made everything better.
+ I had no idea a magnified ant face would be such nightmare fodder.
+ Dare you visit this spooky Italian ghost town?
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.”