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December 1, 2023

The Download: attempting to read someone’s mind, and AI weather forecasting

The Download: attempting to read someone’s mind, and AI weather forecasting

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.

Is it possible to really understand someone else’s mind?

Technically speaking, neuroscientists have been able to read your mind for decades. It’s not easy, mind you. First, you must lie motionless within a hulking fMRI scanner, perhaps for hours, while you watch films or listen to audiobooks.

None of this, of course, can be done without your consent; for the foreseeable future, your thoughts will remain your own, if you so choose. But if you do elect to endure claustrophobic hours in the scanner, the software will learn to generate a bespoke reconstruction of what you were seeing or listening to, just by analyzing how blood moves through your brain. 

More recently, researchers have deployed generative AI tools, like Stable Diffusion and GPT, to create far more realistic, if not entirely accurate, reconstructions of films and podcasts based on neural activity.

But as exciting as the idea of extracting a movie from someone’s brain activity may be, it is a highly limited form of “mind reading.” To really experience the world through your eyes, scientists would have to be able to infer not just what film you are watching but also what you think about it, and how it makes you feel. And these interior thoughts and feelings are far more difficult to access. Read the full story.

—Grace Huckins

‘Is it possible to really understand someone else’s mind?’ is part of our new mini-series The Biggest Questions, which explores how technology is helping probe some of the deepest, most mind-bending mysteries of our existence.

Read more: 

+ How did life begin? AI is helping chemists unpick the mysteries around the origins of life and detect signs of it on other worlds. Read the full story.

+ Are we alone in the universe? Scientists are training machine-learning models and designing instruments to hunt for life on other worlds. Read the full story.

Google DeepMind’s weather AI can forecast extreme weather faster and more accurately

The news: A new AI model from Google DeepMind could make it easier to predict extreme weather events, helping us to prepare better for natural disasters and help save lives. The model, called GraphCast, was able to predict weather conditions up to 10 days in advance, more accurately and much faster than the current gold standard.

How it works: Traditionally, meteorologists use massive computer simulations to make weather predictions. They are very time consuming to run, because the simulations take into account many physics-based equations and different weather variables. Instead of using physics-based equations, GraphCast bases its predictions on four decades of historical weather data. Read the full story.

—Melissa Heikkilä

Huawei’s 5G chip breakthrough needs a reality check

Later today, Xi Jinping will make his first visit to the US in six years to discuss military issues, trade, and more with Joe Biden in San Francisco. Since that last trip in 2017, a harmonious era in US-China relations ended; we’ve seen a trade war, a pandemic, an ongoing technology rivalry, an off-course spy balloon, and many other tumultuous developments.

Telecom and technology firm Huawei was one of the first Chinese tech companies to receive intense scrutiny and become a target for sanctions driven by national security concerns. Huawei shocked the world in August when it started selling a new flagship phone, the Mate 60 Pro, complete with a new 5G chip, even though the company has been blocked from sourcing 5G chips or working with chip factories outside of China since 2020.

Regulators in DC panicked that the relatively advanced seven-nanometer chip proved the company had somehow circumvented sanctions. But had it really? Read the full story

—Zeyi Yang

This story first appeared in China Report, MIT Technology Review’s newsletter about technology in China. 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 Human smuggling cartels are recruiting over Snapchat
They offer would-be drivers large cash incentives to take men across the border. (Bloomberg $)

2 The US’s first small nuclear reactor has been axed
The project failed to attract enough paying subscribers. (IEEE Spectrum)
+ We were promised smaller nuclear reactors. Where are they? (MIT Technology Review)

3 It’s time to check on your bitcoin wallet
A mission to retrieve $600,000 worth of crypto uncovered a critical hacking vulnerability. (WP $)
+ Bitcoin believers are still keeping the faith. (Motherboard)

4 Hate Android’s green-bubble messages? There’s a solution 
A new app for Nothing phones won’t break iMessage threads like Android texts do. (Inverse)
+ This is a particularly big deal for text-lovers in the US. (WP $)

5 We’re entering the age of exascale computing
The world’s most powerful machines are slowly turning on to start operating next year. (WSJ $)
+ But there’s a problem—their imperfect clocks. (IEEE Spectrum)
+ What’s next for the world’s fastest supercomputers. (MIT Technology Review)

6 How a group of teenagers brought the internet to its knees
They masterminded the Mirai botnet attacks that crippled major web giants. (Wired $)
+ Intel is rapidly working to patch a wide-ranging bug. (Ars Technica)

7 Washington DC police officers are handing out free AirTags
In the hope the tracking devices will help combat a sharp spike in car thefts. (Motherboard)

8 Deinfluencing is a scam
Don’t believe for a second that influencers really want you to buy less stuff. (Vox)
+ Influencers should be careful about what they’re pushing. (Insider $)

9 Netflix is trying to make golf cool 🏌️

It’s dipping a tentative toe into live sports for the first time. (Economist $)
+ The first TikTok TV show is premiering this week, too. (Wired $)
+ Streaming is starting to look suspiciously like cable TV. (WP $)

10 Temu sells some seriously bizarre gadgets
Good luck guessing what they actually do. (Rest of World)
+ How to break up with fast fashion. (Vox)
+ This obscure shopping app is now America’s most downloaded. (MIT Technology Review)

Quote of the day

“The lowest price always wins.”

—Queenie Zhang, who runs a Shenzhen-based business selling products across various platforms, tells Rest of World about the pressures sellers face to adhere to the platforms’ staggeringly low prices.

The big story

The internet runs on free open-source software. Who pays to fix it?

December 2021

Volkan Yazici is a member of the Log4J project, an open-source tool used widely to record activity inside various types of software. It helps run huge swaths of the internet, including applications ranging from iCloud to Twitter, and he and his colleagues are desperately trying to deal with a massive vulnerability that has put billions of machines at risk.

The vulnerability in Log4J is extremely easy to exploit. After sending a malicious string of characters to a vulnerable machine, hackers can execute any code they want—and years later, there’s still no clear end in sight. Read the full story.

—Patrick Howell O’Neill

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.)

+ How is it even possible to carve a single grain of rice into a sculpture?
+ Germany’s mite cheese sounds…appetizing.
+ How to live a long, fulfilling life, according to 100-year old influencer Uncle Jack.
+ Want to beat that after-lunch energy slump? Reach for a coloring book.
+ Could you survive a real life Squid Games?

Read More