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The Download: heat pumps, and getting drugs to the brain

Diane Davis

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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.

Heat pumps: 10 Breakthrough Technologies 2024

We’ve entered the era of the heat pump. Heat pumps are appliances that can cool and heat spaces using electricity. Many buildings today are still heated with fossil fuels, specifically natural gas. Switching to electric heat pumps that run on renewable energy could help them to cut their emissions dramatically. 

While heat pumps have been used in buildings since the mid-20th century, the technology is breaking through in a new way. New approaches are enabling them to reach higher temperatures, which could allow the technology to help clean up industrial manufacturing. However, there are still big challenges ahead. Read the full story.

—Casey Crownhart

Heat pumps are one of MIT technology Review’s 10 Breakthrough Technologies for 2024. Check out the rest of the list and vote for the final 11th breakthrough—we’ll reveal the winner in April.

If you’re interested in heat pumps, why not check out these other pieces by Casey:

+ Everything you need to know about the wild world of heat pumps. They’re the hottest home appliance, shoved into the spotlight by the potential for cost savings and climate benefits, as well as by recent policy incentives. Read the full story.

+ The surprising truth about which homes have heat pumps. The appliances buck a common climate technology trend in the US—for now. Read the full story.

The innovation that gets an Alzheimer’s drug through the blood-brain barrier

Therapies to treat brain diseases share a common problem: they struggle to reach their target. The blood vessels that permeate the brain have a special lining so tightly packed with cells that only very tiny molecules can pass through. This blood-brain barrier acts like a seal, protecting the brain from toxins or other harmful substances. But it also keeps most medicines out. 

Researchers have been working on methods to sneak drugs past the blood-brain barrier for decades. And their hard work is finally beginning to pay off. Read the full story.

—Cassandra Willyard

This story is from The Checkup, our weekly biotech newsletter. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Thursday.

The must-reads

I’ve combed the internet to find you today’s most fun/important/scary/fascinating stories about technology.

1 Microsoft briefly usurped Apple as the world’s most valuable company
The AI boom has investors laughing all the way to the bank. (FT $)
+ Microsoft is growing more quickly than its old rival. (technology/microsoft-overtakes-apple-worlds-most-valuable-company-2024-01-11/”>Reuters)+ But Apple quickly regained its position—for now. (WSJ $)

2 The unlucky Peregrine moon lander is still collecting data
It didn’t make it to the moon, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t making itself useful. (The Verge)

3 US school shooter plans have been leaked online
The highly sensitive emergency documents were exposed in a database leak. (Wired $)

4 China’s cheap electric cars has the West rattled
They’re fast, they look good—and most importantly, they’re cheap. (Economist $)
+ Rental firm Hertz is selling off 20,000 EVs due to low demand. (Bloomberg $)
+ Europe’s best-selling Chinese EV maker has a surprising name. (MIT technology Review)

5 Duolingo is firing human translators in favor of AI
A former worker says errors are creeping into language courses as a result. (technology/2024/01/10/duolingo-ai-layoffs/https:/www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2024/01/10/duolingo-ai-layoffs/”>WP $)
+ Chatbots, chatbots, everywhere. (technology/2024/1/11/24033812/openai-gpt-chatbot-store-ai”>Vox)
+ This company is building AI for African languages. (MIT technology Review)

6 eBay has been fined for harassing a Massachusetts couple
The pair ran a newsletter for online merchants that rubbed eBay executives up the wrong way.(technology/2024/jan/11/ebay-fined-harassment-couple-spiders-cockroaches-newsletter-ecommercebytes”>The Guardian)

7 Even the blockchain is pivoting to AI
But whether the two technologies can really solve each other’s problems remains to be seen. (WSJ $)

8 Smart locks are a technical nightmare ????
I just want to get into my apartment! (NY Mag $)

9 The first text messages sent via Starlink satellite have been delivered
Referencing a decade-old meme, naturally. (Ars Technica)

10 The barcode is slowly dying
But its most probable replacement is already looking outdated. (technology/archive/2024/01/barcode-changing-stores-qr-code/677089/”>The Atlantic $)

Quote of the day

“I’ve seen better acting by hostages in direct to DVD movies.”

—An anonymous WebMD employee reacts to a cringe-inducing video the company’s parent firm made demanding employees return to the office, Motherboard reports.

The big story

The Atlantic’s vital currents could collapse. Scientists are racing to understand the dangers.

December 2021

Scientists are searching for clues about one of the most important forces in the planet’s climate system: a network of ocean currents known as the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation. They want to better understand how global warming is changing it, and how much more it could shift, or even collapse.

The problem is the Atlantic circulation seems to be weakening, transporting less water and heat. Because of climate change, melting ice sheets are pouring fresh water into the ocean at the higher latitudes, and the surface waters are retaining more of their heat. Warmer and fresher waters are less dense and thus not as prone to sink, which may be undermining one of the currents’ core driving forces. Read the full story.

—James Temple

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.)

+ There’s nothing Italians love more than imposing a food rule.
+ Maybe we should all move to Vienna.
+ These easy sheet pan recipes look both delicious and nutritious.
+ To capture birds in flight, you really have to put in the hours.
+ Is Amaro the drink of 2024 (already?)


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Technology & Innovation

The Download: introducing the Hidden Worlds issue

Diane Davis

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snaky dragon comes up behind a wizard with a malformed face. A glowing dragon-shaped fireball is in background, and something that looks like a cross between a sword and a pterodactyl is in the foreground.

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 Hidden Worlds issue 

A hidden world is fundamentally different from the undiscovered. We know the hidden world is there. We just can’t see it or reach it. 

Hidden worlds exist in the great depths of the ocean and high above us in the planets of the night sky. But they are also all around us in the form of waves and matter and microbes. 

technology has long played the spoiler to these worlds in hiding. We have used ships, airplanes, and rockets to shrink distances. Telescopes, cameras, satellites, drones, and radar help us peer into and map the places we cannot go ourselves. AI increasingly plays a role, too. 

If this all fascinates you as much as us, you’ll love the latest issue of MIT technology Review. It’s all about using technology to explore and expose those hidden worlds, whether they are in the ocean depths, in the far reaches of our galaxy, or swirling all around us, unseen. 

Check out these stories from the magazine:

+ Why Jupiter’s icy moon, Europa, is being investigated as a potential host for life. 

+ Meet the intrepid divers experimenting with breathing hydrogen as part of an effort to reach depths no diver has ever been before. 

+ Inside the hunt for new physics at the Large Hadron Collider, which hasn’t seen any new particles since the discovery of the Higgs boson in 2012.

+ As AI develops at breakneck speed, this comic explains what we can all learn from the Luddites. 

+ Here’s a job title you perhaps haven’t heard before, but will hear more in future: climate equity specialist. 

This is just a small selection of what’s on offer. I urge you to dive in and enjoy the whole thing, when you find the time. Enjoy!

The first-ever mission to pull a dead rocket out of space has just begun

More than 9,000 metric tons of human-made metal and machinery are orbiting Earth, including satellites, shrapnel, and the International Space Station. But a significant bulk of that mass comes from one source: the nearly a thousand dead rockets that have been discarded in space since the space age began.

Now, for the first time, a mission has begun to remove one of those dead rockets. Funded by the Japanese space agency JAXA, it was launched on Sunday, February 18, and is currently on its way to rendezvous with such a rocket in the coming weeks.

It’ll inspect it and then work out how a follow-up mission might be able to pull the dead rocket back into the atmosphere. If it succeeds, it could demonstrate how we could remove large, dangerous, and uncontrolled pieces of space junk from orbit—objects that could cause a monumental disaster if they collided with satellites or spacecraft. Read the full story. 

—Jonathan O’Callaghan

Why hydrogen is losing the race to power cleaner cars

Imagine a car that doesn’t emit any planet-warming gases—or any pollution at all, for that matter. Unlike the EVs on the roads today, it doesn’t take an hour or more to charge—just fuel up and go.

It sounds too good to be true, but it’s the reality of vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells. And almost nobody wants one. 

Don’t get me wrong: hydrogen vehicles are sold around the world. But they appear to be lurching toward something of a dead end, with fuel prices going up, vehicle sales stagnating, and fueling stations shutting down. Read our story to find out why that is, and what we’d need to get these cars on the road.

—Casey Crownhart

The story above is for subscribers-only. But subscriptions start from just $8 a month to get access to all of MIT technology Review’s award-winning journalismwhy not try it out

Why Chinese apps chose to film super-short soap operas in Southeast Asia

A handful of Chinese companies are betting that short videos can disrupt the movie and TV industry. These “soap operas for the TikTok age” have found a huge audience in China, creating a market worth $5 billion. Now, they’re betting that these shows, once adapted, can appeal to an American audience. 

But rather than just jumping straight into the US, many of these firms are using Southeast Asia as both a testing ground, and a production hub. And they’re treading a well-worn path for using that region as the first frontier for expansion outside China. Read the full story. 

—Zeyi Yang

This story is from China Report, our weekly newsletter about China’s tech scene and how it interacts with the world. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Tuesday.

The must-reads

I’ve combed the internet to find you today’s most fun/important/scary/fascinating stories about technology.

1 Apple is killing its electric car project
Execs say they’ll get the 2,000-odd employees working on it to focus on generative AI instead. (Bloomberg $)
+ This is why they axed it. (Wired $)
Despite never selling a single vehicle, Apple still managed to exert an impact on the car industry. (The Atlantic $)

2 Google’s big AI push is coming back to bite it
The problems with generative AI keep being laid bare for all to see, in real time. (WSJ $)
+ Apple’s shareholders are trying to force it to be more transparent about the risks associated with AI. (FT $)

3 How the Pentagon uses targeted ads to find its targets
Including Vladimir Putin. No, really. (Wired $)
Nowhere online is safe from ads these days. (The Atlantic $)

4 AI is coming for the porn industry 
But porn companies believe some people will pay a premium to interact with a real human being. (WP $)

5 An out-of-control fire is forcing mass evacuations in Texas 
It’s more than doubled in size since igniting on Monday afternoon. (CNN)
The quest to build wildfire-resistant homes. (MIT technology Review)

6 A pharma company posted positive results for another weight loss drug 
Viking Therapeutics, a smaller player from San Diego, has joined the goldrush. (Quartz $)
These drugs are wildly popular and effective. But their long-term health impacts are still unknown. (MIT technology Review)

7 Delivery drivers have to contend with off-the-charts air pollution 
It’s such a big problem in South Asia that some of them are forced to take sick days as a result. (Rest of World)

8 Crypto miners blocked legal efforts to reveal how much energy they use
A federal judge granted a temporary restraining order which will prevent the Department of Energy from collecting the data. (The Verge)
Bitcoin’s value hit a two-year high. (Quartz)

9 Some advice: don’t use ChatGPT for your taxes
Or, frankly, anything important. (CNET)

10 Want to feel sad? Ask TikTok how old you look 
I have… zero temptation to do this. (NYT $)

Quote of the day

“I feel so powerless in this state.”

—Lochrane Chase, a 36-year-old lifelong resident of Birmingham, Alabama, tells Wired how she’s having to put her plans to pursue IVF on hold due to the Alabama Supreme Court’s February 16 ruling, which stated that embryos are “unborn children.”

The big story

This artist is dominating AI-generated art. And he’s not happy about it.

MS TECH VIA STABLE DIFFUSION

September 2022

Greg Rutkowski is a Polish digital artist who uses classical painting styles to create dreamy fantasy landscapes. His distinctive illustration style has been used in some of the world’s most popular fantasy games, including Dungeons and Dragons and Magic: The Gathering. 

Now he’s become a hit in the new world of text-to-image AI generation, becoming one of the most commonly used prompts in the open-source AI art generator Stable Diffusion.

But this and other open-source programs are built by scraping images from the internet, often without permission and proper attribution to artists. As a result, they are raising tricky questions about ethics and copyright. And artists like Rutkowski have had enough. Read the full story.

—Melissa Heikkilä

We can still have nice things

A place for comfort, fun and distraction to brighten up your day. (Got any ideas? Drop me a line or tweet ’em at me.)

+  There are so many ways to say “drunk” in English. Drunkonyms, if you will. 
+ Some amazing close-up photographs on display here.
+ Look after your joints, and they’ll look after you. 
+ A philanthropist has donated $1 billion to ensure students at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx will get free tuition “in perpetuity.”


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Technology & Innovation

MIT Hobby Shop rebuilt | MIT Technology Review

Diane Davis

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wood desk shaped like a wavy lasagna noodle

Smidt says she loves the lathe but is also very fond of a small tool called a French curve scraper, which she used to sand the curves of the desk that was her ambitious first project in the shop. The piece, which Smidt calls her “noodle desk,” consists of a butcher block top that S-curves to the floor for support. It’s made of reclaimed maple from MIT’s basketball court renovation, which the shop had salvaged. “It’s always such a pleasure to use the perfect hand tool,” she says. (Find a link to photos and step-by-step instructions for building the desk here.)

BLONDEGEEK VIA INSTRUCTABLES

Although Smidt was an undergraduate at MIT, she didn’t discover the Hobby Shop until she joined the faculty in September 2021 (after earning her PhD from the University of California, Berkeley). “For that first year, the Hobby Shop was pretty instrumental in my maintaining sanity,” she says, noting that MIT had just begun to relax its early covid restrictions. “I think I’ve now used just about every machine.”

Novices and experts

More than a workspace, the Hobby Shop is also a community—one where people from all corners of MIT can come together to share camaraderie as well as tips and techniques. “I’ve met some of my favorite people from MIT at the Hobby Shop,” Smidt says.

Fischman even owes his marriage to the shop. Thanks to a referral from a contact there, he wound up with a 25-year part-time gig teaching two night classes in woodworking at the Boston Center for Adult Education—where he met his wife. “That was a connection the shop made possible,” he says. 

Novices are always welcome, and the shop’s staff—director Hayami Arakawa and technical instructor Coby Unger—are always willing to provide expert guidance. “It’s encouraged to ask questions,” Smidt says. Classes and workshops provide more formal training on complex machines or in unusual crafts, such as steam-bending wood.

Projects undertaken in the shop run the gamut from simple cutting boards to fine furniture. Fischman says the piece he’s most proud of is a curved-edge walnut console table with hand-planed, tapered octagonal legs. But not everyone makes furniture. “We had a guy who came in to build a machine to put the caps on his yogurt containers,” Fischman says. “We’ve had harpsichords built in the shop, canoes built in the shop. It goes on and on.”

Smidt adds, “It’s really inspiring to see what other people are making.”

Now, nearly 50 years after his bowl was spotlighted in Fine Woodworking, Fischman says he still finds joy at the Hobby Shop. “The shop is fun,” he says. “I think that’s an important aspect of it.”

Another, he says, is knowing that he has created pieces that will live on. “I’m 76. I think about legacy a bit,” he says. “The woodworking gifts that I gave to people that they cherish now are part of my legacy.” 

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The citizen scientists chronicling life at a neglected but vital Mexican river

Diane Davis

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Since the fall of 2021, Viaje al Microcosmos has organized walks on the river to encourage the general public to explore the space and make new connections with this misunderstood body of water. In the last few years, participants have created their own microscopes to study water samples they’ve collected; created an immersive art installation to showcase the species that live on the river; produced a podcast; developed a template to help people document water quality; contributed to the Río Santa Catarina’s Wikipedia page; and more. Each activity helps build a community of city dwellers who believe the river is a natural resource worth protecting. The effort seems only more urgent against the backdrop of a regional drought, rising temperatures, and a government that continues to place environmental issues on the back burner. 

A woman peeks into a microscope at Viaje al Microcosmos’s stand at the citizen science event.

LORENA RíOS

Viaje al Microcosmos’s goal is multifaceted and ambitious. The activists want to build a community of citizen scientists that pushes back against the belief that the river is for sale. They want to produce information about the river that can shape public policy and aid in its preservation. But perhaps most important, they want to instill the revolutionary thought that the Santa Catarina River can, in fact, be just that: a river. 

Lorena Ríos is a freelance journalist based in Monterrey, Mexico.

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