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.
The porcelain challenge didn’t need to be real to get views
Despite what you may have heard, teens are not stealing their family’s fine dinnerware, tossing it in a blender, and snorting the resulting dust for the “porcelain challenge.”
That’s just what Sebastian Durfee, a 23-year-old actor and TikTok creator, hoped you might believe when he spread the word on social media of the latest dangerous teen challenge. Never mind that it was all fake from the start.
Last week, Durfee posted a call to action to his followers: to work together to get “boomers to freak out about a fake TikTok challenge.” His account was banned just a few days later, but his goal wasn’t just to rack up views. It was also to examine how attention and outrage work online, and, in a new twist, to trick the very people who were in on the joke in the first place. Read the full story.
DeepMind’s game-playing AI has beaten a 50-year-old record in computer science
What’s happened: DeepMind has used its board game-playing AI AlphaZero to discover a faster way to solve a fundamental math problem in computer science, beating a record that has stood for more than 50 years.
Why it matters: The problem, matrix multiplication, is a crucial type of calculation at the heart of many different applications, from displaying images on a screen to simulating complex physics. It is also fundamental to machine learning itself. Speeding up this calculation could have a big impact on thousands of everyday computer tasks, cutting costs and saving energy. Read the full story.
—Will Douglas Heaven
Inside a battery recycling facility
A massive new battery recycling facility from Redwood Materials is being built in the mountains just outside Reno, Nevada. My colleague Casey Crownhart, our climate reporter, took a look around to see how the construction’s going, including on the hydrometallurgical building, where valuable metals—lithium, nickel, cobalt, and copper—will be isolated from crushed battery materials. Read the full story.
Casey’s story is from The Spark, her new weekly newsletter giving you the inside track on all things climate and energy. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Wednesday.
I’ve combed the internet to find you today’s most fun/important/scary/fascinating stories about technology.
1 Hurricane Ian is likely to be Florida’s deadliest in 87 years
The majority of the 100+ casualties are believed to have drowned. (WP $)
+ Areas that embrace solar power fare better in extreme weather. (Slate $)
+ Bangkok’s flooding problem is steadily worsening. (New Yorker $)
2 It’s not too late to avoid a winter of extreme illness
Accepting flu and covid shots can help to lessen the blow. (The Atlantic $)
+ Covid vaccines don’t harm menstrual cycles, a new study says. (Economist $)
+ This nanoparticle could be the key to a universal covid vaccine. (MIT Technology Review)
3 You shouldn’t worry about the US election getting hacked
At least, that’s what the DBI and CISA are saying. (Motherboard)
+The alt-right’s tech tactics have evolved since the Capitol riots. (Slate $)
+ Election misinformation is still thriving in non-English languages. (CNET)
4 Pollution particles can reach babies in the womb
Depending on how much pollution the mother is exposed to, soot particles can cross the placenta. (Bloomberg $)
5 Big Tech destroys millions of data storage devices a year
Even though they could wipe and resell them, companies are scared stiff of confidential data falling into the wrong hands. (FT $)
6 Inside the race to end HIV—using CRISPR
In theory, the technology could return cells to a near-standard state. (Wired $)
+ The scientist who co-created CRISPR isn’t ruling out engineered babies someday. (MIT Technology Review)
7 Chinese apps are still thriving in India
Despite the Indian government’s efforts to push users toward native apps. (Rest of World)
+ Censorship-evading apps are being stamped out in China. (TechCrunch)
8 The rise and rise of facial recognition in US airports
Self-check in kiosks are being phased out in favor of the controversial technology. (NYT $)
+ If you get your face scanned the next time you fly, here’s what you should know. (MIT Technology Review)
9 What it’s like to visit an Instagram tourist trap
It sounds like a whole lot more trouble than it’s worth. (Vox)
10 It’s time to embrace robot dolphins
They’re an ethical alternative to the real thing in captivity. (Hakai Magazine)
Quote of the day
“The spam finds its way into my inbox, too.”
—Commissioner Ellen L. Weintraub of the Federal Election Commission, who helps police US political campaigns, tells the Washington Post that even she can’t escape the deluge of political spam emails.
The big story
Gene editing has made pigs immune to a deadly epidemic
When covid-19 began to spread, countries closed businesses and told people to stay home. Many thought that would be enough to stop the coronavirus. If we had paid more attention to pigs, we might have known better.
To prevent their animals contracting diseases, pig farmers employ measures familiar to anyone who has been avoiding covid-19, including requiring human workers to change clothes before entering a secure barn, answering questions about their last pig contact and dousing supplies in disinfectant.
Now the Pig Improvement Company, in Hendersonville, Tennessee, is trying something different. Instead of trying to seal animals off from the environment, it’s changing the pigs themselves. At a secret experimental facility in the US, the company has a swine IVF center and a lab where pig eggs are being genetically edited using CRISPR, the revolutionary gene scissors, to make piglets immune to deadly diseases. Read the full story.
We can still have nice things
+ The pitfalls of making movies about making movies.
+ Chic is dead, long live chic.
+ Ada Lovelace telling Charles Babbage she wished he was as accurate as she was is just amazing (thanks Will!)
+ Notorious rock magazine Creem is making a comeback.
+ It’s time to choose the best songs and albums of the 90s—but how iconoclastic are your opinions?
The Blue Technology Barometer 2022/23
The overall rankings tab shows the performance of the examined
economies relative to each other and aggregates scores generated
across the following four pillars: ocean environment, marine activity,
technology innovation, and policy and regulation.
This pillar ranks each country according to its levels of
marine water contamination, its plastic recycling efforts, the
CO2 emissions of its marine activities (relative to the size
of its economy), and the recent change of total emissions.
This pillar ranks each country on the sustainability of its
marine activities, including shipping, fishing, and protected
This pillar ranks each country on its contribution to ocean
sustainable technology research and development, including
expenditure, patents, and startups.
This pillar ranks each country on its stance on ocean
sustainability-related policy and regulation, including
national-level policies, taxes, fees, and subsidies, and the
implementation of international marine law.
Get access to technology journalism that matters.
MIT Technology Review offers in-depth reporting on today’s most MIT
Technology Review offers in-depth reporting on today’s most
important technologies to prepare you for what’s coming next.
MIT Technology Review Insights would like to thank the following
individuals for their time, perspective, and insights:
- Valérie Amant, Director of Communications, The SeaCleaners
- Charlotte de Fontaubert, Global Lead for the Blue Economy, World Bank Group
- Ian Falconer, Founder, Fishy Filaments
- Ben Fitzgerald, Managing Director, CoreMarine
- Melissa Garvey, Global Director of Ocean Protection, The Nature Conservancy
Michael Hadfield, Emeritus Professor, Principal Investigator, Kewalo Marine Laboratory, University of Hawaii
- Takeshi Kawano, Executive Director, Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology
- Kathryn Matthews, Chief Scientist, Oceana
- Alex Rogers, Science Director, REV Ocean
- Ovais Sarmad, Deputy Executive Secretary, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change
- Thierry Senechal, Managing Director, Finance for Impact
- Jyotika Virmani, Executive Director, Schmidt Ocean Institute
- Lucy Woodall, Associate Professor of Marine Biology, University of Oxford, and Principal Scientist at Nekton
Methodology: The Blue Technology Barometer 2022/23
Now in its second year, the Blue Technology Barometer assesses and ranks how each of the world’s largest
maritime economies promotes and develops blue (marine-centered) technologies that help reverse the impact of
climate change on ocean ecosystems, and how they leverage ocean-based resources to reduce greenhouse gases and
other effects of climate change.
To build the index, MIT Technology Review Insights compiled 20 quantitative and qualitative data indicators
for 66 countries and territories with coastlines and maritime economies. This included analysis of select
datasets and primary research interviews with global blue technology innovators, policymakers, and
international ocean sustainability organizations. Through trend analysis, research, and a consultative
peer-review process with several subject matter experts, weighting assumptions were assigned to determine the
relative importance of each indicator’s influence on a country’s blue technology leadership.
These indicators measure how each country or territory’s economic and maritime industries have affected its
marine environment and how quickly they have developed and deployed technologies that help improve ocean
health outcomes. Policy and regulatory adherence factors were considered, particularly the observance of
international treaties on fishing and marine protection laws.
The indicators are organized into four pillars, which evaluate metrics around a sustainability theme. Each
indicator is scored from 1 to 10 (10 being the best performance) and is weighted for its contribution to its
respective pillar. Each pillar is weighted to determine its importance in the overall score. As these research
efforts center on countries developing blue technology to promote ocean health, the technology pillar is
ranked highest, at 50% of the overall score.
The four pillars of the Blue Technology Barometer are:
Carbon emissions resulting from maritime activities and their relative growth. Metrics in this pillar also
assess each country’s efforts to mitigate ocean pollution and enhance ocean ecosystem health.
Efforts to promote sustainable fishing activities and increase and maintain marine protected areas.
Progress in fostering the development of sustainable ocean technologies across several relevant fields:
- Clean innovation scores from MIT Technology Review Insights’ Green Future Index 2022.
- A tally of maritime-relevant patents and technology startups.
- An assessment of each economy’s use of technologies and tech-enabled processes that facilitate ocean
Commitment to signing and enforcing international treaties to promote ocean sustainability and enforce
MIT Technology Review was founded at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1899. MIT Technology Review
Insights is the custom publishing division of MIT Technology Review. We conduct qualitative and quantitative
research and analysis worldwide and publish a wide variety of content, including articles, reports,
infographics, videos, and podcasts.
If you have any comments or queries, please
get in touch.
What Shanghai protesters want and fear
You may have seen that nearly three years after the pandemic started, protests have erupted across the country. In Beijing, Shanghai, Urumqi, Guangzhou, Wuhan, Chengdu, and more cities and towns, hundreds of people have taken to the streets to mourn the lives lost in an apartment fire in Urumqi and to demand that the government roll back its strict pandemic policies, which many blame for trapping those who died.
It’s remarkable. It’s likely the largest grassroots protest in China in decades, and it’s happening at a time when the Chinese government is better than ever at monitoring and suppressing dissent.
Videos of these protests have been shared in real time on social media—on both Chinese and American platforms, even though the latter are technically blocked in the country—and they have quickly become international front-page news. However, discussions among foreigners have too often reduced the protests to the most sensational clips, particularly ones in which protesters directly criticize President Xi Jinping or the ruling party.
The reality is more complicated. As in any spontaneous protest, different people want different things. Some only want to abolish the zero-covid policies, while others have made direct calls for freedom of speech or a change of leadership.
I talked to two Shanghai residents who attended the protests to understand what they experienced firsthand, why they went, and what’s making them anxious about the thought of going again. Both have requested we use only their surnames, to avoid political retribution.
Zhang, who went to the first protest in Shanghai after midnight on Saturday, told me he was motivated by a desire to let people know his discontent. “Not everyone can silently suffer from your actions,” he told me, referring to government officials. “No. People’s lives have been really rough, and you should reflect on yourself.”
In the hour that he was there, Zhang said, protesters were mostly chanting slogans that stayed close to opposing zero-covid policies—like the now-famous line “Say no to covid tests, yes to food. No to lockdowns, yes to freedom,” which came from a protest by one Chinese citizen, Peng Lifa, right before China’s heavily guarded party congress meeting last month.
While Peng hasn’t been seen in public since, his slogans have been heard and seen everywhere in China over the past week. Relaxing China’s strict pandemic control measures, which often don’t reflect a scientific understanding of the virus, is the most essential—and most agreed-upon—demand.
Biotech labs are using AI inspired by DALL-E to invent new drugs
Today, two labs separately announced programs that use diffusion models to generate designs for novel proteins with more precision than ever before. Generate Biomedicines, a Boston-based startup, revealed a program called Chroma, which the company describes as the “DALL-E 2 of biology.”
At the same time, a team at the University of Washington led by biologist David Baker has built a similar program called RoseTTAFold Diffusion. In a preprint paper posted online today, Baker and his colleagues show that their model can generate precise designs for novel proteins that can then be brought to life in the lab. “We’re generating proteins with really no similarity to existing ones,” says Brian Trippe, one of the co-developers of RoseTTAFold.
These protein generators can be directed to produce designs for proteins with specific properties, such as shape or size or function. In effect, this makes it possible to come up with new proteins to do particular jobs on demand. Researchers hope that this will eventually lead to the development of new and more effective drugs. “We can discover in minutes what took evolution millions of years,” says Gevorg Grigoryan, CEO of Generate Biomedicines.
“What is notable about this work is the generation of proteins according to desired constraints,” says Ava Amini, a biophysicist at Microsoft Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Proteins are the fundamental building blocks of living systems. In animals, they digest food, contract muscles, detect light, drive the immune system, and so much more. When people get sick, proteins play a part.
Proteins are thus prime targets for drugs. And many of today’s newest drugs are protein based themselves. “Nature uses proteins for essentially everything,” says Grigoryan. “The promise that offers for therapeutic interventions is really immense.”
But drug designers currently have to draw on an ingredient list made up of natural proteins. The goal of protein generation is to extend that list with a nearly infinite pool of computer-designed ones.
Computational techniques for designing proteins are not new. But previous approaches have been slow and not great at designing large proteins or protein complexes—molecular machines made up of multiple proteins coupled together. And such proteins are often crucial for treating diseases.