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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.”


Technology & Innovation

LLMs become more covertly racist with human intervention

Diane Davis

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LLMs become more covertly racist with human intervention

Even when the two sentences had the same meaning, the models were more likely to apply adjectives like “dirty,” “lazy,” and “stupid” to speakers of AAE than speakers of Standard American English (SAE). The models associated speakers of AAE with less prestigious jobs (or didn’t associate them with having a job at all), and when asked to pass judgment on a hypothetical criminal defendant, they were more likely to recommend the death penalty. 

An even more notable finding may be a flaw the study pinpoints in the ways that researchers try to solve such biases. 

To purge models of hateful views, companies like OpenAI, Meta, and Google use feedback training, in which human workers manually adjust the way the model responds to certain prompts. This process, often called “alignment,” aims to recalibrate the millions of connections in the neural network and get the model to conform better with desired values. 

The method works well to combat overt stereotypes, and leading companies have employed it for nearly a decade. If users prompted GPT-2, for example, to name stereotypes about Black people, it was likely to list “suspicious,” “radical,” and “aggressive,” but GPT-4 no longer responds with those associations, according to the paper.

However the method fails on the covert stereotypes that researchers elicited when using African-American English in their study, which was published on arXiv and has not been peer reviewed. That’s partially because companies have been less aware of dialect prejudice as an issue, they say. It’s also easier to coach a model not to respond to overtly racist questions than it is to coach it not to respond negatively to an entire dialect.

“Feedback training teaches models to consider their racism,” says Valentin Hofmann, a researcher at the Allen Institute for AI and a coauthor on the paper. “But dialect prejudice opens a deeper level.”

Avijit Ghosh, an ethics researcher at Hugging Face who was not involved in the research, says the finding calls into question the approach companies are taking to solve bias.

“This alignment—where the model refuses to spew racist outputs—is nothing but a flimsy filter that can be easily broken,” he says. 

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Technology & Innovation

I used generative AI to turn my story into a comic—and you can too

Diane Davis

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I used generative AI to turn my story into a comic—and you can too

The narrator sits on the floor and eats breakfast with the cats. 

LORE MACHINE / WILL DOUGLAS HEAVEN

After more than a year in development, Lore Machine is now available to the public for the first time. For $10 a month, you can upload 100,000 words of text (up to 30,000 words at a time) and generate 80 images for short stories, scripts, podcast transcripts, and more. There are price points for power users too, including an enterprise plan costing $160 a month that covers 2.24 million words and 1,792 images. The illustrations come in a range of preset styles, from manga to watercolor to pulp ’80s TV show.

Zac Ryder, founder of creative agency Modern Arts, has been using an early-access version of the tool since Lore Machine founder Thobey Campion first showed him what it could do. Ryder sent over a script for a short film, and Campion used Lore Machine to turn it into a 16-page graphic novel overnight.

“I remember Thobey sharing his screen. All of us were just completely floored,” says Ryder. “It wasn’t so much the image generation aspect of it. It was the level of the storytelling. From the flow of the narrative to the emotion of the characters, it was spot on right out of the gate.”

Modern Arts is now using Lore Machine to develop a fictional universe for a manga series based on text written by the creator of Netflix’s Love, Death & Robots.

The narrator encounters the man in the corner shop who jokes about the cat food. 

LORE MACHINE / WILL DOUGLAS HEAVEN

Under the hood, Lore Machine is built from familiar parts. A large language model scans your text, identifying descriptions of people and places as well as its overall sentiment. A version of Stable Diffusion generates the images. What sets it apart is how easy it is to use. Between uploading my story and downloading its storyboard, I clicked maybe half a dozen times.

That makes it one of a new wave of user-friendly tools that hide the stunning power of generative models behind a one-click web interface. “It’s a lot of work to stay current with new AI tools, and the interface and workflow for each tool is different,” says Ben Palmer, CEO of the New Computer Corporation, a content creation firm. “Using a mega-tool with one consistent UI is very compelling. I feel like this is where the industry will land.”

Look! No prompts

Campion set up the company behind Lore Machine two years ago to work on a blockchain version of Wikipedia. But when he saw how people took to generative models, he switched direction. Campion used the free-to-use text-to-image model Midjourney to make a comic-book version of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. It went viral, he says, but it was no fun to make.

Marta confronts the narrator about their new diet and offers to cook for them. 

LORE MACHINE / WILL DOUGLAS HEAVEN

“My wife hated that project,” he says. “I was up to four in the morning, every night, just hammering away, trying to get these images right.” The problem was that text-to-image models like Midjourney generate images one by one. That makes it hard to maintain consistency between different images of the same characters. Even locking in a specific style across multiple images can be hard. “I ended up veering toward a trippier, abstract expression,” says Campion.

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Technology & Innovation

The robots are coming. And that’s a good thing.

Diane Davis

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The robots are coming. And that’s a good thing.

What if we could throw our sight, hearing, touch, and even sense of smell to distant locales and experience these places in a more visceral way?

So we wondered what would happen if we were to tap into the worldwide community of gamers and use their skills in new ways. With a robot working inside the deep freezer room, or in a standard manufacturing or warehouse facility, remote operators could remain on call, waiting for it to ask for assistance if it made an error, got stuck, or otherwise found itself incapable of completing a task. A remote operator would enter a virtual control room that re-created the robot’s surroundings and predicament. This person would see the world through the robot’s eyes, effectively slipping into its body in that distant cold storage facility without being personally exposed to the frigid temperatures. Then the operator would intuitively guide the robot and help it complete the assigned task.

To validate our concept, we developed a system that allows people to remotely see the world through the eyes of a robot and perform a relatively simple task; then we tested it on people who weren’t exactly skilled gamers. In the lab, we set up a robot with manipulators, a stapler, wire, and a frame. The goal was to get the robot to staple wire to the frame. We used a humanoid, ambidextrous robot called Baxter, plus the Oculus VR system. Then we created an intermediate virtual room to put the human and the robot in the same system of coordinates—a shared simulated space. This let the human see the world from the point of view of the robot and control it naturally, using body motions. We demoed this system during a meeting in Washington, DC, where many participants—including some who’d never played a video game—were able to don the headset, see the virtual space, and control our Boston-based robot intuitively from 500 miles away to complete the task.


The best-known and perhaps most compelling examples of remote teleoperation and extended reach are the robots NASA has sent to Mars in the last few decades. My PhD student Marsette “Marty” Vona helped develop much of the software that made it easy for people on Earth to interact with these robots tens of millions of miles away. These intelligent machines are a perfect example of how robots and humans can work together to achieve the extraordinary. Machines are better at operating in inhospitable environments like Mars. Humans are better at higher-level decision-making. So we send increasingly advanced robots to Mars, and people like Marty build increasingly advanced software to help other scientists see and even feel the faraway planet through the eyes, tools, and sensors of the robots. Then human scientists ingest and analyze the gathered data and make critical creative decisions about what the rovers should explore next. The robots all but situate the scientists on Martian soil. They are not taking the place of actual human explorers; they’re doing reconnaissance work to clear a path for a human mission to Mars. Once our astronauts venture to the Red Planet, they will have a level of familiarity and expertise that would not be possible without the rover missions.

Robots can allow us to extend our perceptual reach into alien environments here on Earth, too. In 2007, European researchers led by J.L. Deneubourg described a novel experiment in which they developed autonomous robots that infiltrated and influenced a community of cockroaches. The relatively simple robots were able to sense the difference between light and dark environments and move to one or the other as the researchers wanted. The miniature machines didn’t look like cockroaches, but they did smell like them, because the scientists covered them with pheromones that were attractive to other cockroaches from the same clan.

The goal of the experiment was to better understand the insects’ social behavior. Generally, cockroaches prefer to cluster in dark environments with others of their kind. The preference for darkness makes sense—they’re less vulnerable to predators or disgusted humans when they’re hiding in the shadows. When the researchers instructed their pheromone-soaked machines to group together in the light, however, the other cockroaches followed. They chose the comfort of a group despite the danger of the light. 

JACK SNELLING

These robotic roaches bring me back to my first conversation with Roger Payne all those years ago, and his dreams of swimming alongside his majestic friends. What if we could build a robot that accomplished something similar to his imagined capsule? What if we could create a robotic fish that moved alongside marine creatures and mammals like a regular member of the aquatic neighborhood? That would give us a phenomenal window into undersea life.

Sneaking into and following aquatic communities to observe behaviors, swimming patterns, and creatures’ interactions with their habitats is difficult. Stationary observatories cannot follow fish. Humans can only stay underwater for so long. Remotely operated and autonomous underwater vehicles typically rely on propellers or jet-based propulsion systems, and it’s hard to go unnoticed when your robot is kicking up so much turbulence. We wanted to create something different—a robot that actually swam like a fish. This project took us many years, as we had to develop new artificial muscles, soft skin, novel ways of controlling the robot, and an entirely new method of propulsion. I’ve been diving for decades, and I have yet to see a fish with a propeller. Our robot, SoFi (pronounced like Sophie), moves by swinging its tail back and forth like a shark. A dorsal fin and twin fins on either side of its body allow it to dive, ascend, and move through the water smoothly, and we’ve already shown that SoFi can navigate around other aquatic life forms without disrupting their behavior.

SoFi is about the size of an average snapper and has taken some lovely tours in and around coral reef communities in the Pacific Ocean at depths of up to 18 meters. Human divers can venture deeper, of course, but the presence of a scuba-­diving human changes the behavior of the marine creatures. A few scientists remotely monitoring and occasionally steering SoFi cause no such disruption. By deploying one or several realistic robotic fish, scientists will be able to follow, record, monitor, and potentially interact with fish and marine mammals as if they were just members of the community.

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