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The Download: missions to Jupiter’s moon Europa, and Uruguay’s screwworm gene drive

Diane Davis

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A high-angle drone shot of Lustica bay resort with forested mountains in the background

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 search for extraterrestrial life is targeting Jupiter’s icy moon Europa

Europa, Jupiter’s fourth-largest moon, is nothing like ours. Its surface is a vast saltwater ocean, encased in a blanket of cracked ice, one that seems to occasionally break open and spew watery plumes into the moon’s thin atmosphere. 

For these reasons, Europa captivates planetary scientists. All that water and energy—and hints of elements essential for building organic molecules —point to another extraordinary possibility. Jupiter’s big, bright moon could host life. 

And they may eventually get some answers. Later this year, NASA plans to launch Europa Clipper, the largest-­ever craft designed to visit another planet. The $5 billion mission, scheduled to reach Jupiter in 2030, will spend four years analyzing this moon to determine whether it could support life. Read the full story.

—Stephen Ornes

This story is from the upcoming print issue of MIT technology Review, dedicated to exploring hidden worlds. Buy a subscription to get your hands on a copy when it publishes on February 28th! Deals start at just $8 a month.

Uruguay wants to use gene drives to eradicate devastating screwworms

The New World screwworm, a parasite common in parts of South America and the Caribbean, is a disaster for cattle. It burrows into their flesh, eventually killing them. In Uruguay alone, it costs farmers between $40 million and $154 million a year. However, work is underway to fight back.

A group of researchers in Montevideo Uruguay have used the gene-editing system CRISPR to develop what’s known as a gene drive: tweaks to the screwworms genes that, if they spread, will cause a population crash.

They are about to move into the next stage of caged trials in the lab, with a view to eventually using the genetic tool to decimate the screwworm fly population. Read the full story. 

—Abdullahi Tsanni

The must-reads

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

1 The White House will spend $1.5 billion on a new chip factory
The money will go to semiconductor giant GlobalFoundries to produce advanced chips not currently made in the US. (WP $)
But work to expand US chip manufacturing keeps being plagued with problems. (NYT $)
+ Can the massive infusions of money rebuild the US’s industrial base? (MIT technology Review)

2 Apple is facing its first EU fine
The EU says its music streaming services violate antitrust law. (FT $)

3 A judge ruled that Air Canada had to honor its chatbots’ discount error
This sets an important precedent as companies start to adopt AI tools. (WP $)
Judges, not politicians, are starting to dictate AI rules. (MIT technology Review)
Should you trust an AI chatbot to plan a trip for you? (The Atlantic $)
+ It’s surprisingly tricky to work out when and how we’ll use generative AI. (FT $)

4  Is AI going to change how we define videos? 
Systems like OpenAI’s Sora don’t make recordings. They render ideas. (New Yorker $)
Sora looks amazing—but the rest of us will have to wait to try it out. (MIT technology Review)

5 Don’t blindly trust Google search results 
AI-generated content, adverts, and ranking algorithms are really starting to spoil searches. (WSJ $)

6 The days of fast, free shipping may be coming to an end
Blame interest-rate hikes, and growing impatience from startup investors. (Insider $)

7 How New York’s legal weed revolution got derailed 
The state’s plans ended up in an unholy mess. (New Yorker $)
The feud between a weed influencer and scientist over puking stoners. (MIT technology Review)

8 A gun influencer’s conviction has done nothing to dent his popularity
In fact, YouTube is still running adverts on his channel. (NBC
+ Hated that video? YouTube’s algorithm might push you another just like it. (MIT technology Review)

9 Phone cases are getting jazzed up 
They can do so much more than just protect your phone—for example, holding your lip balm. (Wired $)
Sharp-cornered smartphone cases are all the rage too. (WSJ $)

10 3D-printed chocolate sounds delicious ????
It’s something to do with the ridges and textures. (The Verge)

Quote of the day

“Everyone is looking around, talking about when layoffs are coming next, at what company.”

—A tech worker tells Insider that no job in the industry feels safe right now. 

The big story

Longevity enthusiasts want to create their own independent state. They’re eyeing Rhode Island.

A high-angle drone shot of Lustica bay resort with forested mountains in the background

GETTY IMAGES

May 2023

—Jessica Hamzelou

Earlier this month, I traveled to Montenegro for a gathering of longevity enthusiasts, people interested in extending human life through various biotechnology approaches. All the attendees were super friendly, and the sense of optimism was palpable. They’re all confident we’ll be able to find a way to slow or reverse aging—and they have a bold plan to speed up progress.

Around 780 of these people have created a “pop-up city” that hopes to circumvent the traditional process of clinical trials. They want to create an independent state where like-minded innovators can work together in an all-new jurisdiction that gives them free rein to self-experiment with unproven drugs. Welcome to Zuzalu. Read the full story.

We can still have nice things

+ Finding this funny New Yorker piece almost painfully relatable. 

+ I don’t need another cat, I don’t need another cat…..oh. Hmm. Maybe I do

+ Let this clip of Weird Al Yankovic conducting an orchestra brighten up your day. 

+ When people say the English are eccentric, I guess this is the sort of thing they mean.


Technology & Innovation

Methane leaks in the US are worse than we thought

Diane Davis

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Methane leaks in the US are worse than we thought

Methane emissions are responsible for nearly a third of the total warming the planet has experienced so far. While there are natural sources of the greenhouse gas, including wetlands, human activities like agriculture and fossil-fuel production have dumped millions of metric tons of additional methane into the atmosphere. The concentration of methane has more than doubled over the past 200 years. But there are still large uncertainties about where, exactly, emissions are coming from.

Answering these questions is a challenging but crucial first step to cutting emissions and addressing climate change. To do so, researchers are using tools ranging from satellites like the recently launched MethaneSAT to ground and aerial surveys. 

The US Environmental Protection Agency estimates that roughly 1% of oil and gas produced winds up leaking into the atmosphere as methane pollution. But survey after survey has suggested that the official numbers underestimate the true extent of the methane problem.  

For the sites examined in the new study, “methane emissions appear to be higher than government estimates, on average,” says Evan Sherwin, a research scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, who conducted the analysis as a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University.  

The data Sherwin used comes from one of the largest surveys of US fossil-fuel production sites to date. Starting in 2018, Kairos Aerospace and the Carbon Mapper Project mapped six major oil- and gas-producing regions, which together account for about 50% of onshore oil production and about 30% of gas production. Planes flying overhead gathered nearly 1 million measurements of well sites using spectrometers, which can detect methane using specific wavelengths of light. 

Sherwin et al., Nature

Here’s where things get complicated. Methane sources in oil and gas production come in all shapes and sizes. Some small wells slowly leak the gas at a rate of roughly one kilogram of methane an hour. Other sources are significantly bigger, emitting hundreds or even thousands of kilograms per hour, but these leaks may last for only a short period.

The planes used in these surveys detect mostly the largest leaks, above roughly 100 kilograms per hour (though they catch smaller ones sometimes, down to around one-tenth that size, Sherwin says). Combining measurements of these large leak sites with modeling to estimate smaller sources, researchers estimated that the larger leaks account for an outsize proportion of emissions. In many cases, around 1% of well sites can make up over half the total methane emissions, Sherwin says.

But some scientists say that this and other studies are still limited by the measurement tools available. “This is an indication of the current technology limits,” says Ritesh Gautam, a lead senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund.

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Technology & Innovation

The Download: What social media can teach us about AI

Diane Davis

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The Download: What social media can teach us about AI

June 2023

Astronomy should, in principle, be a welcoming field for blind researchers. But across the board, science is full of charts, graphs, databases, and images that are designed to be seen.

So researcher Sarah Kane, who is legally blind, was thrilled three years ago when she encountered a technology known as sonification, designed to transform information into sound. Since then she’s been working with a project called Astronify, which presents astronomical information in audio form. 

For millions of blind and visually impaired people, sonification could be transformative—opening access to education, to once unimaginable careers, and even to the secrets of the universe. Read the full story.

—Corey S. Powell

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.)

+ It’s time to get into metal detecting (no really, it is!)
+ Meanwhile, over on Mars
+ A couple in the UK decided to get married on a moving train, because why not?
+ Even giant manta rays need a little TLC every now and again.


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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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