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February 21, 2024

The Download: inside the first CRISPR treatment, and smarter robots

The Download: inside the first CRISPR treatment, and smarter robots

Plus: deepfake apps that undress women are on the rise

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 lucky break behind the first CRISPR treatmentThe world’s first commercial gene-editing treatment is set to start changing the lives of people with sickle-cell disease. It’s called Casgevy, and it was approved last month in the UK. US approval is pending this week.

The treatment, which will be sold in the US by Vertex Pharmaceuticals, employs CRISPR, which can be easily programmed by scientists to cut DNA at precise locations they choose.

But where do you aim CRISPR, and how did the researchers know what DNA to change? That’s the lesser-known story of the sickle-cell breakthrough, which doesn’t rely on fixing the genes responsible for the mutation that leaves patients’ hemoglobin molecules misshapen. Instead, it’s a kind of molecular bank shot—thankfully, one with a happy ending. Read the full story.

—Antonio Regalado

Read more about the sickle-cell breakthrough:

+ I received the new gene-editing drug for sickle cell disease. It changed my life. As a patient enrolled in a clinical trial for Vertex’s new exa-cel treatment, Jimi Olaghere was among the first to experience CRISPR’s transformative effects. Read the full story.

+ The first CRISPR cure might kick-start the next big patent battle. Vertex Pharmaceuticals plans to sell a gene-editing treatment for sickle-cell disease. A patent on CRISPR could stand in the way. Read the full story.

These robots know when to ask for help

The news: A new robot training model, dubbed “KnowNo,” aims to teach robots to ask for our help when orders are unclear. At the same time, it ensures they seek clarification only when necessary, minimizing needless back-and-forth. The result is a smart assistant that tries to make sure it understands what you want without bothering you too much.

Why it matters: While robots can be powerful in many specific scenarios, they are often bad at generalized tasks that require common sense. That’s something large language models could help to fix, because they have a lot of common-sense knowledge baked in. Read the full story.

—June Kim

Medical microrobots that travel inside the body are (still) on their way

The human body is a labyrinth of vessels and tubing, full of barriers that are difficult to break through. That poses a serious hurdle for doctors. Illness is often caused by problems that are hard to visualize and difficult to access. But imagine if we could deploy armies of tiny robots into the body to do the job for us. They could break up hard-to-reach clots, deliver drugs to even the most inaccessible tumors, and even help guide embryos toward implantation.

We’ve been hearing about the use of tiny robots in medicine for years, maybe even decades. And they’re still not here. But experts are adamant that medical microbots are finally coming, and that they could be a game changer for a number of serious diseases. 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 Use of deepfake pornography apps is soaring  
Links to the disturbing AI ‘nudifying’ services are rife on X and Reddit. (Bloomberg $)
+ The viral AI avatar app Lensa undressed me—without my consent. (MIT Technology Review)

2 TikTok is embarking on an anti-hate speech campaign
Spurred by the criticism the platform received over Israel-Hamas videos (The Information $)
+ TikTok’s algorithm means everyone’s feed is siloed, though. (The Verge)
+ The conflict has forced Meta’s oversight board to investigate two posts. (Wired $)
+ Republicans are repeating bogus claims to try and get TikTok banned. (Motherboard)

3 A major Abu Dhabi-based AI company is cutting ties with China
G42 is ditching its Chinese hardware contracts in favor of US suppliers. (FT $)

4 We’re learning more about how vaping affects us
It’s better than smoking. But that doesn’t mean it’s good for you, either. (New Scientist $)
+ Social media is full of posts promoting vaping to young users. (The Guardian)

5 The US wants to build the next revolutionary particle collider
But it could take years to get the project off the ground. (NYT $)

6 The Milky Way is likely to devour the galaxies surrounding it
It’s looking like dark matter could have something to do with it. (Ars Technica)

7 Our microbiomes aren’t diverse enough
And our sedentary lifetimes and antibiotics are to blame. (Proto.Life)
+ We’re learning a lot more about the vaginal microbiome. (Scientific American $)
+ How gene-edited microbiomes could improve our health. (MIT Technology Review)

8 Transparent wood is a promising plastic alternative
Smart windows and stronger phones are just a few applications. (Knowable Magazine)
+ Demand for rare-earth elements keeps growing and growing. (IEEE Spectrum)
+ Inside the quest to engineer climate-saving “super trees.” (MIT Technology Review)

9 A teenage girl’s rants turned her into a social media star
Evelyn hates people who don’t wash their hands, and the internet is riveted. (WP $)

10 China’s vertical videos are taking off in the US
A show about, err, billionaire werewolves in love is a major hit. (Rest of World)

Quote of the day

“If I was the government, I’d close it down.”

—Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase, tells US senators why he’s no fan of crypto during a hearing, CoinDesk reports.

The big story

A plan to redesign the internet could make apps that no one controls

July 2020

Back in the early days of the accessible internet, many of its pioneers championed a free and open internet controlled by its users. Fast-forward a quarter-century and that vision feels naïve.

It’s clear that a desire for revolution is brewing, led in part by Dfinity, a non-profit building what it calls the internet computer, a decentralized technology that allows software to run anywhere on the internet rather than in server farms controlled by large firms.

But this desire for a rewilding of the internet is not about nostalgia. It’s about fighting back against the dominance of Big Tech, and mitigating the harms it’s inflicting on society. Read the full story.

Read More