Thursday, September 21, 2023

The download: TikTok moral panic and DeepMind’s record-breaking AI

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Shreya Christina
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This is today’s edition The download, our weekday newsletter that gives a daily dose of what’s going on in the world of technology.

The porcelain challenge didn’t have to be real to get views

Despite what you may have heard, teenagers don’t steal their family’s fine tableware, throw it in a blender and sniff the resulting dust for the “porcelain challenge.”

That’s exactly what Sebastian Durfee, a 23-year-old actor and creator of TikTok, hoped you’d believe when he spread the word on social media about 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 “make boomers 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 explore how attention and outrage works online, and, in a new twist, to mislead the people who were into the joke in the first place. Read the full story.

—Abby Ohlheiser

DeepMind’s game-playing AI has broken a 50-year-old record in computer science

What happened: DeepMind has used its board game AI AlphaZero to discover a faster way to solve a fundamental math problem in computer science, a record that has stood for more than 50 years.

Why it matters: The problem, matrix multiplication, is a crucial type of computation that is central to 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 can have a major impact on thousands of daily computing tasks, cutting costs and saving energy. Read the full story.

—Will Douglas Heaven

In a battery recycling facility

A massive new battery recycling facility from Redwood Materials is being built in the mountains just outside of Reno, Nevada. My colleague Casey Crownhart, our climate reporter, looked around to see how construction is progressing, including in the hydrometallurgical building, where valuable metals — lithium, nickel, cobalt and copper — will be isolated from fractured battery materials. Read the full story.

Casey’s story comes from The Spark, her new weekly newsletter that gives you the inside track on all things climate and energy. Sign Up to get it in your inbox every Wednesday.

The must reads

I’ve scoured the internet to find today’s funniest/important/scary/fascinating stories about technology.

Hurricane Ian is likely deadliest in Florida in 87 years
The majority of the 100+ victims would have drowned. (WP $)
+ Areas that embrace solar power do better in extreme weather. (Slate $)
+ Bangkok’s flooding problem is getting worse. (New Yorker $)

2 It’s Not Too Late To Avoid A Winter Of Extreme Illness
Accepting flu and covid injections can help lessen the blow. (The Atlantic Ocean $)
+ Covid vaccines do not harm menstrual cycles, new study says. (Economist $)
+ This nanoparticle could hold the key to a universal covid vaccine. (MIT Technology Review)

3 You Don’t Have To Worry About US Elections Being Hacked
At least that’s what the DBI and CISA say. (Motherboard)
+The alt-right’s technical tactics have evolved since the Capitol riots. (Slate $)
+ Misinformation about elections still thrives in non-English languages. (CNET)

4 Pollution Particles Can Reach Babies In The Womb
Depending on the pollution to which the mother is exposed, sooty particles can cross the placenta. (Bloomberg $)

5 Big Tech Destroys Millions of Data Storage Devices Every Year
Even though they could delete and resell them, companies fear that confidential data will fall into the wrong hands. (FT $)

6 In the race to end HIV – using CRISPR
In theory, the technology could bring cells to a near-standard state. (wired $)
+ The scientist who co-created CRISPR doesn’t rule out one day. (MIT Technology Review)

7 Chinese apps are still thriving in India
Despite the Indian government’s efforts to push users to native apps. (Rest of the world)
+ In China, apps that evade censorship are being eradicated. (TechCrunch)

8 The Rise And Rise Of Facial Recognition At US Airports
Self-check-in kiosks are being phased out in favor of the controversial technology. (NYT $)
+ If you’re having your face scanned the next time you fly, here’s what you need to know. (MIT Technology Review)

9 What It’s Like to Visit a Tourist Trap on Instagram
It sounds like a lot more effort than it’s worth. (Vox)

10 It’s Time To Embrace Robot Dolphins
They are an ethical alternative to the real thing in captivity. (Hakai Magazine)

Quote of the day

“The spam also finds its way into my inbox.”

—Commissioner Ellen L. Weintraub of the Federal Elections Commission, who helps police U.S. political campaigns, tells the Washington Post that even she cannot escape the deluge of political spam emails.

The big story

Gene editing has made pigs immune to a deadly epidemic

crispr pig concept

Dec 2020

As Covid-19 started to spread, countries closed businesses and told people to stay at 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 from contracting disease, pig farmers are applying measures known to anyone who has avoided covid-19, including requiring human workers to change clothes before entering a secure barn, answering questions about their last contact with the pig and pouring over stocks of disinfectant.

Now the Pig Improvement Company, in Hendersonville, Tennessee, is trying something different. Instead of trying to cut off animals from the environment, it changes the pigs themselves. In a secret experimental facility in the US, the company has a pig IVF center and a lab where pig eggs are genetically edited with CRISPR, the revolutionary gene scissors, to make piglets immune to deadly diseases. Read the full story.

—Antonio Regalado

We can still have nice things

A place for comfort, fun and distraction in these weird times. (Do you have an idea?Give me a callortweet them to me.)

+ The pitfalls of making movies about making movies.
+ Chic is deadlong live chic.
+ Ada Lovelace tells Charles Babbage that she wished he was as accurate as she is is just awesome (thanks Will!)
+ Notorious rock magazine cream is making a comeback.
+ It’s time to choose the best songs and albums of the 90s-but how iconoclastic are your opinions?

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