The situation could prove to be a false alarm. Sometimes virus variants appear to seem to spread more easily but in fact are being propelled by luck, like a superspreader event.
British teams, and some abroad, are now racing to carry out the lab experiments necessary to demonstrate whether the new variant really infects human cells more easily, and whether vaccines will stop it; those studies will involve exposing the new strain to blood plasma from covid-19 survivors or vaccinated people, to see if their antibodies can block it.
Viruses frequently mutate or develop small changes in their genetic code. Since the start of the pandemic, scientists sequencing samples of the coronavirus have been tracking those changes to gain insight into how, and where, the pathogen has been spreading.
One reason the mutated virus was spotted in the UK might be that the country has pursued such “genomic epidemiology” aggressively. For example, British labs contributed fully 45% of the 275,000 coronavirus sequences deposited to the global GISAID database, according to a threat assessment brief from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.
According to the COVID-19 Genomics Consortium UK, the coalition of labs that’s been sequencing viruses, the variant’s earliest appearance is in a sample collected September 20 in Kent and one a day later in London.
While mutations in the coronavirus are seen all the time, the new variant raised alarms because it appeared at the same time as a sharp increase in cases in the southeast of England, where the infection rate has recently quadrupled. About half those cases were found to be caused by the new variant.
The genetic code of the variant also caught scientists’ attention because of how much it differed from the original version. According to a preliminary characterizations posted to the website virological.org by the COVID-19 Genomics Consortium UK, the variant possesses a “distinct” genetic signature featuring “an unusually large number of genetic changes,” particularly in its spike protein, which are more likely to alter its function.
The mutations seen in the new variant have all been spotted previously, according to comments posted online by Francois Balloux, a computational biologist at the University of College London, but apparently not in this combination. They include one that causes the spike protein to bind more effectively to human cells, another linked to escape from human immune responses, and a third adjacent to a biologically critical component of the pathogen.
During this pandemic, spreading variants of the virus have tended to pick up one or two new mutations a month. The UK scientists say they were surprised to find a variant that has accumulated a unique pattern of more than a dozen changes to important genes, which they suggested were clues the strain might be the result of evolutionary adaptation.
Dodging the immune response?
In the UK’s group preliminary report, Andrew Rambaut, a biologist at the University of Edinburgh, and his colleagues say they think the variant might have evolved inside a person who is immunocompromised and who became chronically infected with the coronavirus. Such people, in some cases, have been given multiple rounds of treatment with antibody and antiviral drugs. That could select for viruses that survive such treatment.
If the changed virus is able to “evade” the usual immune response, that may also explain why it’s spreading faster, since it would also affect some covid-19 survivors and therefore have more hosts to infect. According to the British scientific reports, four of about 1,000 people infected by the new variant previously had covid-19, although the scientists were not able to say if that figure was out of the ordinary.
It would not come as a total surprise to learn the covid-19 virus is evolving enough to infect people a second time, despite immunity to the original germ. Other coronaviruses, like those that cause the common cold, are known to reinfect people frequently, possibly because of such shape-shifting.
Another way viruses can change significantly is if they establish themselves in another species—even zoo tigers can catch covid—and then jump back to people. That was seen in Denmark, which this fall reported transmission of the covid virus between humans and mink and back again, a situation deemed so dangerous that the country ordered all the mink on commercial fur farms to be culled.
Now the world will learn if it’s possible to stop the new variant from spreading. That won’t be easy. The existing forms of covid-19 are already transmitting quickly despite social distancing and masks. If the new variant is really 70% more easily spread, it could soon become the dominant form of the disease.
British authorities over the weekend faced some criticism that they were raising alarms over the new strain to justify strict lockdown measures before Christmas, including stay-at-home orders for millions of people. But officials took to the air to encourage people to abide by the restrictions. “The new variant is out of control and we need to bring it under control,” Matt Hancock, the health secretary, told the BBC. He urged his countrymen to “act like you have the virus.”
Human creators stand to benefit as AI rewrites the rules of content creation
A game-changer for content creation
Among the AI-related technologies to have emerged in the past several years is generative AI—deep-learning algorithms that allow computers to generate original content, such as text, images, video, audio, and code. And demand for such content will likely jump in the coming years—Gartner predicts that by 2025, generative AI will account for 10% of all data created, compared with 1% in 2022.
“Théâtre D’opéra Spatial” is an example of AI-generated content (AIGC), created with the Midjourney text-to-art generator program. Several other AI-driven art-generating programs have also emerged in 2022, capable of creating paintings from single-line text prompts. The diversity of technologies reflects a wide range of artistic styles and different user demands. DALL-E 2 and Stable Diffusion, for instance, are focused mainly on western-style artwork, while Baidu’s ERNIE-ViLG and Wenxin Yige produce images influenced by Chinese aesthetics. At Baidu’s deep learning developer conference Wave Summit+ 2022, the company announced that Wenxin Yige has been updated with new features, including turning photos into AI-generated art, image editing, and one-click video production.
Meanwhile, AIGC can also include articles, videos, and various other media offerings such as voice synthesis. A technology that generates audible speech indistinguishable from the voice of the original speaker, voice synthesis can be applied in many scenarios, including voice navigation for digital maps. Baidu Maps, for example, allows users to customize its voice navigation to their own voice just by recording nine sentences.
Recent advances in AI technologies have also created generative language models that can fluently compose texts with just one click. They can be used for generating marketing copy, processing documents, extracting summaries, and other text tasks, unlocking creativity that other technologies such as voice synthesis have failed to tap. One of the leading generative language models is Baidu’s ERNIE 3.0, which has been widely applied in various industries such as health care, education, technology, and entertainment.
“In the past year, artificial intelligence has made a great leap and changed its technological direction,” says Robin Li, CEO of Baidu. “Artificial intelligence has gone from understanding pictures and text to generating content.” Going one step further, Baidu App, a popular search and newsfeed app with over 600 million monthly users, including five million content creators, recently released a video editing feature that can produce a short video accompanied by a voiceover created from data provided in an article.
Improving efficiency and growth
As AIGC becomes increasingly common, it could make content creation more efficient by getting rid of repetitive, time-intensive tasks for creators such as sorting out source assets and voice recordings and rendering images. Aspiring filmmakers, for instance, have long had to pay their dues by spending countless hours mastering the complex and tedious process of video editing. AIGC may soon make that unnecessary.
Besides boosting efficiency, AIGC could also increase business growth in content creation amid rising demand for personalized digital content that users can interact with dynamically. InsightSLICE forecasts that the global digital creation market will on average grow 12% annually between 2020 and 2030 and hit $38.2 billion. With content consumption fast outpacing production, traditional development methods will likely struggle to meet such increasing demand, creating a gap that could be filled by AIGC. “AI has the potential to meet this massive demand for content at a tenth of the cost and a hundred times or thousands of times faster in the next decade,” Li says.
AI with humanity as its foundation
AIGC can also serve as an educational tool by helping children develop their creativity. StoryDrawer, for instance, is an AI-driven program designed to boost children’s creative thinking, which often declines as the focus in their education shifts to rote learning.
The Download: the West’s AI myth, and Musk v Apple
While the US and the EU may differ on how to regulate tech, their lawmakers seem to agree on one thing: the West needs to ban AI-powered social scoring.
As they understand it, social scoring is a practice in which authoritarian governments—specifically China—rank people’s trustworthiness and punish them for undesirable behaviors, such as stealing or not paying back loans. Essentially, it’s seen as a dystopian superscore assigned to each citizen.
The reality? While there have been some contentious local experiments with social credit scores in China, there is no countrywide, all-seeing social credit system with algorithms that rank people.
The irony is that while US and European politicians try to ban systems that don’t really exist, systems that do rank and penalize people are already in place in the West—and are denying people housing and jobs in the process. Read the full story.
Melissa’s story is from The Algorithm, her weekly AI newsletter covering all of the industry’s most interesting developments. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Monday.
I’ve combed the internet to find you today’s most fun/important/scary/fascinating stories about technology.
1 Apple has reportedly threatened to pull Twitter from the App Store
According to Elon Musk. (NYT $)
+ Musk has threatened to “go to war” with the company after it decided to stop advertising on Twitter. (WP $)
+ Apple’s reluctance to advertise on Twitter right now isn’t exactly unique. (Motherboard)
+ Twitter’s child protection team in Asia has been gutted. (Wired $)
2 Another crypto firm has collapsed
Lender BlockFi has filed for bankruptcy, and is (partly) blaming FTX. (WSJ $)
+ The company is suing FTX founder Sam Bankman-Fried. (FT $)
+ It looks like the much-feared “crypto contagion” is spreading. (NYT $)
3 AI is rapidly becoming more powerful—and dangerous
That’s particularly worrying when its growth is too much for safety teams to handle. (Vox)
+ Do AI systems need to come with safety warnings? (MIT Technology Review)
+ This AI chat-room game is gaining a legion of fans. (The Guardian)
4 A Pegasus spyware investigation is in danger of being compromised
It’s the target of a disinformation campaign, security experts have warned. (The Guardian)
+ Cyber insurance won’t protect you from theft of your data. (The Guardian)
5 Google gave the FBI geofence data for its January 6 investigation
Google identified more than 5,000 devices near the US Capitol during the riot. (Wired $)
6 Monkeypox isn’t going anywhere
But it’s not on the rise, either. (The Atlantic $)
+ The World Health Organization says it will now be known as mpox. (BBC)
+ Everything you need to know about the monkeypox vaccines. (MIT Technology Review)
7 What it’s like to be the unwitting face of a romance scam
James Scott Geras’ pictures have been used to catfish countless women. (Motherboard)
What’s next in cybersecurity
One of the reasons cyber hasn’t played a bigger role in the war, according to Carhart, is because “in the whole conflict, we saw Russia being underprepared for things and not having a good game plan. So it’s not really surprising that we see that as well in the cyber domain.”
Moreover, Ukraine, under the leadership of Zhora and his cybersecurity agency, has been working on its cyber defenses for years, and it has received support from the international community since the war started, according to experts. Finally, an interesting twist in the conflict on the internet between Russia and Ukraine was the rise of the decentralized, international cyber coalition known as the IT Army, which scored some significant hacks, showing that war in the future can also be fought by hacktivists.
Ransomware runs rampant again
This year, other than the usual corporations, hospitals, and schools, government agencies in Costa Rica, Montenegro, and Albania all suffered damaging ransomware attacks too. In Costa Rica, the government declared a national emergency, a first after a ransomware attack. And in Albania, the government expelled Iranian diplomats from the country—a first in the history of cybersecurity—following a destructive cyberattack.
These types of attacks were at an all-time high in 2022, a trend that will likely continue next year, according to Allan Liska, a researcher who focuses on ransomware at cybersecurity firm Recorded Future.
“[Ransomware is] not just a technical problem like an information stealer or other commodity malware. There are real-world, geopolitical implications,” he says. In the past, for example, a North Korean ransomware called WannaCry caused severe disruption to the UK’s National Health System and hit an estimated 230,000 computers worldwide.
Luckily, it’s not all bad news on the ransomware front. According to Liska, there are some early signs that point to “the death of the ransomware-as-a-service model,” in which ransomware gangs lease out hacking tools. The main reason, he said, is that whenever a gang gets too big, “something bad happens to them.”
For example, the ransomware groups REvil and DarkSide/BlackMatter were hit by governments; Conti, a Russian ransomware gang, unraveled internally when a Ukrainian researcher appalled by Conti’s public support of the war leaked internal chats; and the LockBit crew also suffered the leak of its code.
“We are seeing a lot of the affiliates deciding that maybe I don’t want to be part of a big ransomware group, because they all have targets on their back, which means that I might have a target on my back, and I just want to carry out my cybercrime,” Liska says.