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This artist has made a six-figure salary selling NFTs. Here’s how

Diane Davis

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I can think of a lot of reasons to hate on NFTs—the digital art and collectibles that use the blockchain to prove ownership like a big, crowd-distributed receipt.

They have an atrocious environmental footprint. Most of the works look like they were scraped out of the gutters of DeviantArt circa 2010 (that’s not just a burn, people were actually stealing DeviantArt work to NFT it). The artwork can just disappear from the web after you buy it. And I can’t say with a straight face that NFTs are particularly meaningful to own. Sure, some people are reselling NFTs for profit, but if anyone can right-click to save that JPEG, you’re at least a bit of a sucker for spending millions of dollars on it, right? (Unless you really need a way to launder some money!)

But after hearing the experience that Lucas Zanotto has had with NFTs, I’ll admit to coming around on their merits. Zanotto is an Italian-born, multifaceted creative best known for cofounding the children’s app brand Yatatoy. In the last year, he’s earned six figures selling NFT loops of his impossibly charming, geometric characters. NFTs have let him crack the code on making a living as an artist doing what he loves.

“I’m kind of at the middle ground level of the whole NFT world,” says Zanotto with a laugh. In a way, he’s right. He appears to be one of many NFT upper middle-classers, who is successful but not nearly as successful as his friends who have made millions of dollars selling NFTs. But given that only 1% of NFTs sell for more than $1,500, he’s undoubtedly part of a relatively small pool of artists making a good living selling NFTs.

Zanotto has built a career directing commercials, creating animations, and running the aforementioned children’s app company Yatatoy. (Its apps Miximal, Drawnimal, and Bandimal have earned Yatatoy our own Most Innovative Company award and an Apple Design Award for the playful aesthetics and experience.) But like many artists, he’s always battled with consistently monetizing his own art as opposed to commercial projects.

About four years ago, Zanotto began posting his animations to Twitter and other social media platforms—short animated loops that he loved making, but didn’t otherwise have a home for.

“I got a nice following, and that’s rewarding, and I got a lot of jobs through that stuff,” says Zanotto. “But I was always struggling with the question of, ‘Can I monetize this somehow.’ At the end of the day, I’m putting lots of work into [those loops], and I’d love to just live on that.”

Like many creatives, Zanotto was sharing his art pro bono, a move that he hoped would get enough attention to land him more paid work down the line. All the while, he was also contributing to the gold mine of content that drives engagement (and profits) for social media companies, without reaping direct rewards for his efforts. (Twitter has actually since launched Tip Jar as a way to give back to these creators as it wrestles with a more equitable arrangement in the longer term.)

“I tried to open a poster shop and stuff like that, but to be honest, it’s just too much hassle to sell a couple of posters,” says Zanotto. “You pay to print them, and end up with a couple of bucks. It’s not a thing that works out long term for income.”

Then, around September of 2020, one of Zanotto’s friends mentioned NFTs. Zanotto had never really grasped what the whole blockchain thing was. But then he learned about its most promising quality for artists: If he sold a piece of art as an NFT, he could ostensibly sign his name to it with an option called a “creator share,” making revenue off not just the first sale, but a portion of all subsequent sales of the work as it gained value. That revelation convinced him it was time to pursue the medium.

On the cusp of the NFT boom, Zanotto was able to set up video calls with NFT markets including SuperRare and Nifty Gateway, because they were still looking for artists. (The timing was key. A year later, and these markets have been flooded with requests.)

When Zanotto put his first collection of loops up on Nifty Gateway, they sold for about $10,000 in 10 minutes.

“Nowadays, that doesn’t sound like a lot, but I was over the moon!” says Zanotto. “Finally, I found a way to sell a loop and get some money just from this loop, directly. It was mind-blowing for me. Just imagine how many bloody posters I’d have to sell to get $10,000.”

[Image: courtesy Lucas Zanotto]

The sale was cause for celebration, but it was also a heat check for Zanotto. He wondered if the association with NFTs might hurt his reputation as an artist, and whether the financial success of such specific digital art would mean people wouldn’t take him seriously when working in other mediums. After a month of thinking on it, he picked NFTs back up. And he’s been releasing them at a steady pace since.

While he’s certainly been successful, Zanotto is also a realist, who doesn’t claim to have made it on merit alone. He’s strategic in his releases, and has studied how the NFT market works on auction sites.

“It is a game, to be honest. The art in itself does not play that big of a role. It’s networking and name-dropping,” says Zanotto. “You find a collector who feels inspired, they buy a first work for cheap, and they buy the second for [a lot more]. With that big purchase, suddenly other collectors get interested and buy the next.”

His quick analysis may be enough to sour you on NFTs all over again, and that’s perfectly fair. However, this is “the exact same game” of the traditional art world, Zanotto points out. Much like in crypto art, it’s the millionaires and billionaires that drive up the prices on traditional art, not the rest of us. Damien Hirst—one of the wealthiest artists in the world—had his break when the British businessman Charles Saatchi took interest and actually bankrolled the production of his first formaldehyde statue. In the last year, COVID restrictions across the affluent China market have hurt the bottom line of the entire art world. The wealthy have always driven the market value of art.

[Image: courtesy Lucas Zanotto]

While you or I might find a lot of early NFTs to be aesthetically questionable, Zanotto notes they were catering to market demand. Crypto’s first wave of wealth was full of technology evangelists. This is a cohort that appreciates internet aesthetics, and the meme art it grew up seeing on message boards, as much as high art.

However, these days he’s seeing the bar being raised with a greater variety of aesthetics and sharper execution, due to countless new artists minting NFTs every day who are adding variety and nuance to the medium.

[Image: courtesy Lucas Zanotto]

Zanotto can recognize all of these constructs of the NFT market, but as an artist, he still finds himself unable to resist being sucked deeper into his craft, working harder on increasingly complicated work. When I mention that, if he were selling $10,000 oil paintings, he’d probably pay a lot more for his materials and make less of a profit per piece, Zanotto isn’t so sure.

“My render has been running for four days, and will need three more,” he says of the NFT he’s working on now, meaning that it takes his computer up to a week of continuous calculations to produce his newest pieces. Not all of his work takes this long to produce. Even still, however much Zanotto invests in new processors and graphics cards, he inevitably just craves more power to keep up with his creative appetites. “You [always] try to go to the limit, I think.”

As for where Zanotto plans to go next, he’s opted not to invest his time solely into NFTs, as kind as they’ve been to him financially. This December, Zanotto will host a solo art show in a cathedral in Shanghai. He’ll have screens filled with his digital loops throughout the chapel, but he’ll also have large, physical sculptures of his characters, and an augmented reality experience, adding another digital layer to the exhibition.

“It’s all the mediums together, and that represents what I’m working toward,” says Zanotto. “I don’t want digital and physical art divided. Together it’s a medium. I find it weird that it’s so distinct between digital art and traditional art.”


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Technology & Innovation

The Download: tracking animals, and biotech plants

Diane Davis

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dossier of journalist information concept

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.

How tracking animal movement may save the planet

Animals have long been able to offer unique insights about the natural world around us, acting as organic sensors picking up phenomena invisible to humans. Canaries warned of looming catastrophe in coal mines until the 1980s, for example.

These days, we have more insight into animal behavior than ever before thanks to technologies like sensor tags. But the data we gather from these animals still adds up to only a relatively narrow slice of the whole picture. Results are often confined to silos, and for many years tags were big and expensive, suitable only for a handful of animal species.

This is beginning to change. Researchers are asking: What will we find if we follow even the smallest animals? What if we could see how different species’ lives intersect? What could we learn from a system of animal movement, continuously monitoring how creatures big and small adapt to the world around us? It may be, some researchers believe, a vital tool in the effort to save our increasingly crisis-plagued planet. Read the full story.

—Matthew Ponsford 

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.

These are the biotech plants you can buy now

—Antonio Regalado

This spring I am looking forward to growing some biotech in my backyard for the first time. It’s possible because of startups that have started selling genetically engineered plants directly to consumers, including a bright-purple tomato and a petunia that glows in the dark.

This week, for $73, I ordered both by pressing a few buttons online.

Biotech seeds have been a huge business for a while. In fact, by sheer mass, GMOs are probably the single most significant product of genetic engineering ever. But the difference now is that people are able to plant and grow GMO houseplants in their homes. Read the full story. 

Watch this robot as it learns to stitch up wounds

The news: A new AI-trained surgical robot can make stitches on its own. A video taken by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, shows the two-armed robot completing stitches in a row on a simple wound in imitation skin. It managed to make six stitches before a human had to intervene. 

Why it matters: It’s common for surgeons today to get help from robots, but we’re a long way from them being able to fully replace many tasks. This new research marks progress toward robots that can operate more autonomously on very intricate, complicated tasks. Read the full story. 

—James O’Donnell

Three frequently asked questions about EVs, answered

Transportation is a critical part of the climate change puzzle: it accounts for something like a quarter of global emissions. And the vehicles that we use to shuttle around to work, school, and the grocery store in many parts of the world are a huge piece of the problem.

Last week, MIT technology Review hosted an event where we dug into the future of batteries and the materials that go into them. We got so many great questions, and we answered quite a few of them (subscribers should check out the recording of the full event). 

But there were still a lot of questions, particularly about EVs, that we didn’t get to. So let’s take a look at a few of those. 

—Casey Crownhart

This story is from The Spark, our weekly newsletter all about the technology that could combat the climate crisis. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Wednesday.

The must-reads

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

1 The first US moon landing for over 50 years is due today
If all goes to plan, Intuitive Machines’ Odysseus spacecraft will touch down at 5.30pm ET. (WP $)
Here’s how you can watch it. (NYT $)

2 ChatGPT had a meltdown yesterday
Which is not necessarily worrying in itself… but it isn’t great that we have no idea why. (technology%2F2024%2F02%2Fchatgpt-alarms-users-by-spitting-out-shakespearean-nonsense-and-rambling%2F%3Fmc_cid%3D8d2404be49%26mc_eid%3DUNIQID&data=05%7C02%7C%7C7a9f483188ae4387f99e08dc33a02068%7C961f23f8614c4756bafff1997766a273%7C1%7C0%7C638442010063983878%7CUnknown%7CTWFpbGZsb3d8eyJWIjoiMC4wLjAwMDAiLCJQIjoiV2luMzIiLCJBTiI6Ik1haWwiLCJXVCI6Mn0%3D%7C0%7C%7C%7C&sdata=duo%2BDx%2FppidnuHwo4iXqtn7l4NWMB6FN1qSQ4Yt%2Bkhk%3D&reserved=0″ target=”_blank” rel=”noreferrer noopener”>Ars Technica)
Gab’s racist chatbots have been trained to deny the Holocaust. (Wired $)
+ Soon, we might be using AI to do all sorts of tasks for us. (NPR)

3 You can buy Vision Pro headsets in Russia 
Two years after Apple quit the country. (NBC)

4 Google is racing to fix a new “overly woke” AI-powered tool 
It was returning women and people of color when asked to produce images of America’s founding fathers, for example. (BBC)
It’s pausing the ability for Gemini AI to generate images until it’s fixed the issue. (The Verge)
These new tools let you see for yourself how biased AI image models are. (MIT technology Review) 
How it feels to be sexually objectified by an AI. (MIT technology Review)

5 American winters are getting warm
They’re also getting shorter, and less predictable. (Insider $)

6 Instagram is a news site, whether it likes it or not
And that means it has a responsibility to do content moderation properly. (NYT $)

7 Inside the weird world of Instacart’s AI-generated recipes
It’s becoming harder and harder to work out what’s been made by a human versus a machine. (404 Media)
Why Big Tech’s watermarking plans are some welcome good news. (MIT technology Review)

8 We need protection from companies building tech to read our minds
It’s not such a concerning issue right now, but it could be sooner than you know. (Vox)
How your brain data could be used against you. (MIT technology Review)

9 Why AM radio lingers on 
A surprisingly diverse group of people still rely on it, even as it heads towards obsolescence. (The Atlantic $)

10 Writing by hand has a positive impact on memory and learning ✍
I knew it! (Scientific American $)

Quote of the day

“Happy listening! ???? Happy listening! ???? Happy listening! ???? Happy listening! ????

—An example of how ChatGPT went off the rails yesterday, screenshotted and shared by a user on X. 

The big story

Inside the app Minnesota police used to collect data on journalists at protests

<a href="https://www.technologyreview.com/2022/03/23/1047899/secret-police-app-minnesota-police-journalists-protests-data/?truid=<<%20Test%20Link%20ID%20>>&utm_source=the_download&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=the_download.unpaid.engagement&utm_term=<dossier of journalist information concept

MS TECH

March 2022

Photojournalist J.D. Duggan was covering a protest in Minnesota in April 2021 when police officers surrounded him and others, and told them to get on the ground.

Officers sorted the press from the protesters, walked them to a parking lot, and began photographing them, one by one, with cellphones, which they told Duggan would be stored in an app. 

An investigation by MIT technology Review found the data was collected using a tool called Intrepid Response, an easy way to almost instantly de-anonymize protest attendees and keep tabs on their movements. For some, the tool’s use is a dangerous step in the direction of authoritarianism. Read the full story.

—Sam Richards & Tate Ryan-Mosley

+ Fascinated by the stories in this grisly interactive map, which details murders committed in medieval London, York and Oxford. 
+ Terrible night’s sleep last night? Fear not, it’s possible to salvage your day. (NYT $) 
+ This athletic fluffy cat is bound to bring a smile to your face.
+ Some simple ways to make your diet healthier.


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Here are the biotech plants you can buy right now to grow at home

Diane Davis

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caprese salad in a bowl made with halved yellow, red and purple-fleshed cherry tomatoes

Biotech seeds have been a huge business for a while. In fact, by sheer mass, GMOs are probably the single most significant product of genetic engineering ever. Except most of us aren’t planting rows of cotton or corn that can resist worms or survive a spritz of RoundUp, the big gene-splicing innovations that companies like Monsanto and Pioneer Hi-Bred first introduced in the 1990s.

What makes these new plants different is that you can buy them directly from their creators and then plant them in the yard, on a balcony, or just in a pot. 

Purple tomatoes developed by Norfolk Health Produce.

NORFOLK HEALTHY PRODUCE

Purple tomato

Starting off my biotech shopping spree, I first spent $20 to order 10 tomato seeds from Norfolk Health Produce, a small company in Davis, California, that created what it calls the Purple Tomato. The seeds have a gene introduced from a snapdragon flower, which adds a nutrient, anthocyanin, that also gives the fruits their striking color.

According to Channa S. Prakash, a geneticist and dean at Tuskegee University, the tomato is the “the first-of-its kind GMO food crop marketed directly to home gardeners.”   

The CEO of the company, Nathan Pumplin, was packing seeds when I reached him by phone. He claimed that anthocyanin has health benefits—it’s an antioxidant—but he agreed that the color is a useful sales pitch.

“I don’t need to make a label that says this red tomato is better for you than the other red tomato,” says Pumplin. “We can simply put out the purple tomato, and people say, ‘Oh my gosh, this tomato is purple.’ Its beauty is a distinguishing characteristic that people can just immediately see and understand.”

There is a plan to mass-produce the purple tomatoes for sale in supermarkets. But Pumplin says the company couldn’t ignore thousands of requests from regular gardeners. “It’s not the main focus of our business, but we are very interested in having people grow these at home,” he says. And “if home gardeners want to save the seed and replant it in their gardens for their own use, that is okay.”

couple in their glowing garden of gmo petunias
A promotional video for Light Bio’s firefly petunia.

LIGHT BIO

Glowing flower

I next decided to shell out for the “firefly petunia,” so called because the plant is supposed to glow in the dark. It’s sold by Light Bio, a startup backed by the venture capital firm NFX .

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Technology & Innovation

The Download: deep diving, and virtual power plants in China

Diane Davis

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open and closed doors with a ribbon of text running around and through them

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.

Meet the divers trying to figure out how deep humans can go

Two hundred thirty meters into one of the deepest underwater caves on Earth, Richard “Harry” Harris knew that not far ahead of him was a 15-meter drop leading to a place no human being had seen before. 

Getting there had taken two helicopters, three weeks of test dives, two tons of equipment, and hard work to overcome an unexpected number of technical problems. But in the moment, Harris was hypnotized by what was before him: the vast, black, gaping unknown. 

Staring into it, he felt the familiar pull—maybe he could go just a little farther. Instead, he and his diving partner, Craig Challen, decided to turn back. They weren’t there to exceed 245 meters—a depth they’d reached three years earlier. Nor were they there to set a depth record—that would mean going past 308 meters. 

They were there to test what they saw as a possible key to unlocking depths beyond even 310 meters: breathing hydrogen. Read the full story. 

—Samantha Schuyler

This story is from the next print issue of MIT technology Review, all about exploring hidden worlds. Want to get your hands on a copy when it publishes next Wednesday? Subscribe now.

Why China’s EV ambitions need virtual power plants

Virtual power plants (VPPs) are an idea whose time has arrived. They’re basically a layer on top of resources like electric vehicle chargers, solar panels, and battery packs, which allow you to coordinate energy consumption and supply. This lets utility companies handle times of higher energy demand by adjusting the end use of electricity, for example reducing the efficiency of an EV charger so it takes longer to finish and thus puts less burden on the grid.

In China, which is adopting electric vehicles faster than any other country, VPPs could be transformational. The country has just started testing programs which incentivize EV owners to charge their vehicles late at night, when there’s less demand on the grid. 

It’s also piloting bidirectional charging stations, which would let EV owners not only use electricity, but even sell it back into the grid at times of peak demand, earning them a little extra cash. Read the full story.

—Zeyi Yang

This story is from China Report, our weekly newsletter giving you behind-the-scenes insights into China and its tech scene. 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 Alabama’s Supreme Court ruled that frozen embryos are ‘children’
It’s a worrying development, especially for people seeking infertility treatments. (CNN)
The first IVF babies conceived by a robot have been born. (MIT technology Review)

2 Inside AI startup Anthrophic’s funding spree 
Investors cannot hand money over to promising AI companies quickly enough right now, it seems. (NYT $)
OpenAI is now valued at a staggering $86 billion. (Bloomberg $)
Why the New York Times could win against OpenAI. (Ars Technica)

3 The EU is setting up rules for sucking CO2 out of the sky
It’s creating a first-of-its-kind certification framework for carbon removal technologies. (The Verge)
+ How carbon removal technology is like a time machine. (MIT technology Review)

4 Researchers are imbibing AI with human-like qualities
No one is immune from anthropomorphism, it seems. (New Scientist $)
If you’ve posted on Reddit, your words are probably being used to train AI. (technology%2F2024%2F02%2Fyour-reddit-posts-may-train-ai-models-following-new-60-million-agreement%2F%3Fmc_cid%3Deecfd57aad%26mc_eid%3DUNIQID&data=05%7C02%7C%7Cd1b49b76477142945b0508dc32d84365%7C961f23f8614c4756bafff1997766a273%7C1%7C0%7C638441151658419211%7CUnknown%7CTWFpbGZsb3d8eyJWIjoiMC4wLjAwMDAiLCJQIjoiV2luMzIiLCJBTiI6Ik1haWwiLCJXVCI6Mn0%3D%7C0%7C%7C%7C&sdata=yEmOuq3VhexDU0vVNasDICewGMS5cbdip0ZnnePNd8Y%3D&reserved=0″ target=”_blank” rel=”noreferrer noopener”>Ars Technica)

5 What mind-reading devices can teach us
They’re restoring functions like speech and movement. But they’re also shining a light on how the brain works. (Nature)
Elon Musk claims the first Neuralink patient can now control a computer mouse with their thoughts. (CNBC)

6 Fake funeral livestream scams are proliferating on Facebook
Beyond grim, and Meta’s doing almost nothing to prevent it. (404 Media)

7 A spacecraft is about to try to snag some space junk
If it works, it’ll be an important development for the effort to clear Earth’s orbit of debris. (Ars Technica

8 People are breeding pythons to have ‘emoji’ patterns 
But, as always amid a gold rush, some of them are doing some deeply unethical things in the process. (New Yorker $)

9 How scientists predicted Iceland’s vast volcanic eruption
And saved a lot of lives in the process. (Quanta)
How machine learning might unlock earthquake prediction. (MIT technology Review)

10 Older people are among VR’s most enthusiastic adopters
And studies suggest spending time in virtual reality can produce positive effects, too. (AP)
Virtual reality can be used as a painkiller. (MIT technology Review)

Quote of the day

“People say AI is overhyped, but I think it’s not hyped enough.”

—Puneet Chandok, who leads Microsoft India and South Asia, says we should get even more excited about AI, the Economic Times reports.

The big story

The open-source AI boom is built on Big Tech’s handouts. How long will it last?

open and closed doors with a ribbon of text running around and through them

STEPHANIE ARNETT/MITTR | ENVATO

May 2023

Last year a leaked memo written by a senior engineer at Google said out loud what many in Silicon Valley must have been whispering: an open-source free-for-all is threatening Big Tech’s grip on AI.

New open-source large language models—alternatives to Google’s Bard or OpenAI’s ChatGPT that researchers and developers can study, build on, and modify—are dropping like candy from a piñata. These are smaller, cheaper versions of the best-in-class AI models created by the big firms that (almost) match them in performance—and they’re shared for free.

In many ways, that’s a good thing. AI won’t thrive if just a few mega-rich companies get to gatekeep this technology or decide how it is used. But this open-source boom is precarious, and if Big Tech decides to shut up shop, a boomtown could become a backwater. Read the full story.

—Will Douglas Heaven

We can still have nice things

+ Paul McCartney has been reunited with a beloved bass guitar that was stolen 51 years ago. 
+ How to have a better relationship with money.
+ Obsessed with Nimbus and his marvelous piano skills. 
+ Cracking up at this game where you have to guess if a name refers to antidepressants or a character from Tolkien.

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