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June 17, 2024

The Download: legitimizing longevity science, and Harvard’s geoengineering U-turn

The Download: legitimizing longevity science, and Harvard’s geoengineering U-turn

Plus: a row about social media freedom of speech is brewing in the US

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 quest to legitimize longevity medicine

On a bright chilly day last December, a crowd of doctors and scientists gathered at a research institute atop a hill in Novato, California. Their goal is to help people add years to their lifespans, and to live those extra years in good health. But the meeting’s participants had another goal as well: to be recognized as a credible medical field.

For too long, modern medicine has focused on treating disease rather than preventing it, they say. They believe that it’s time to move from reactive healthcare to proactive healthcare. And to do so in a credible way—by setting “gold standards” and medical guidelines for the field. These scientists and clinicians see themselves spearheading a revolution in medicine.

But proponents recognize the challenges ahead. Clinicians disagree on how they should assess and treat aging. And without standards and guidelines, there is a real risk that some clinics could end up not only failing to serve their clients, but potentially harming them. Read the full story.

—Jessica Hamzelou

Harvard halts its long-planned atmospheric geoengineering experiment

Harvard researchers have ceased a long-running effort to conduct a small geoengineering experiment in the stratosphere, following repeated delays and public criticism.

The basic concept behind solar geoengineering is that the world might be able to counteract global warming by spraying tiny particles in the atmosphere that could scatter sunlight. Proponents of solar geoengineering research argue we should investigate the concept because it may significantly reduce the dangers of climate change.

But critics argue that even studying the possibility of solar geoengineering eases the societal pressure to cut greenhouse gas emissions. They also fear such research could create a slippery slope that increases the odds that nations or rogue actors will one day deploy it, despite the possibility of dangerous side-effects. Read the full story.

—James Temple

This self-driving startup is using generative AI to predict traffic

The news: Self-driving company Waabi is using a generative AI model to help predict the movement of vehicles. The new system was trained on troves of data from lidar sensors, which use light to sense how far away objects are.

How it works: If you prompt the model with a situation, like a driver recklessly merging onto a highway at high speed, it predicts how the surrounding vehicles will move, then generates a lidar representation of 5 to 10 seconds into the future. 

Why it matters: While autonomous driving has long relied on machine learning to plan routes and detect objects, some companies and researchers are now betting that generative AI — models that take in data of their surroundings and generate predictions — will help bring autonomy to the next stage. Read the full story.

—James O’Donnell

The must-reads

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

1 The Biden administration’s social media battle has reached the Supreme Court
Justices will hear arguments over whether officials violated the First Amendment when they told platforms to remove alleged misinformation. (The Hill)
+ It highlights the difficulties in defining free speech in the internet age. (NYT $)
+ What constitutes censorship is in the eye of the beholder. (WP $)

2 SpaceX is building a spy satellite network for US intelligence
And China isn’t happy about it. (Reuters)
+ Chinese automakers are equipping electric cars with camera drones. (Wired $)

3 Apple is facing an AirTags stalking lawsuit
The company’s bid to have the claims overturned was dismissed. (Bloomberg $)+ Google is failing to enforce its own ban on ads for stalkerware. (MIT Technology Review)

4 How a county in South Carolina is waging a war to connect rural America
Broadband providers are reluctant to lay fiber optic cable in “unprofitable areas.” (The Guardian)

5 Ukraine is convinced that US satellite imagery is guiding Russian missiles
Its military believes Russia’s strikes are too precise to be random. (The Atlantic $)
+ It’s shockingly easy to buy sensitive data about US military personnel. (MIT Technology Review)

6 Sam Bankman-Fried is facing up to 110 years in prison
But a sentence between 40 and 50 years is more likely. (NYT $)

7 AI is getting uncannily good at creating pro-level songs
Startup Suno’s model works in tandem with ChatGPT to create songs indistinguishable from human creations. (Rolling Stone $)
+ Why is Slack’s hold music so darn catchy? (Wired $)
+ These impossible instruments could change the future of music. (MIT Technology Review)

8 An airplane’s Wi-Fi is generally pretty safe ✈️
But there are extra-cautious steps you can take. (WSJ $)

9 Gen Z is over quiet quitting
Younger workers are quitting their jobs loudly, and in front of an online audience. (FT $)
+ Keynes was wrong. Gen Z will have it worse. (MIT Technology Review)

10 Never trust AI’s assertion that a mushroom is safe to eat 🍄
Mushroom identification apps just aren’t reliable enough—so don’t risk finding out the hard way. (WP $)

Quote of the day

“I simply swiped right on individuals in the industry I aspire to join.”

—Jade Liang, a master’s student in Shanghai, tells NBC News why China’s increasingly tough labor market is driving the country’s young jobseekers to an unusual hiring avenue: dating apps.

The big story

After 25 years of hype, embryonic stem cells are still waiting for their moment​

August 2023

In 1998, researchers isolated powerful stem cells from human embryos. It was a breakthrough, since these cells are the starting point for human bodies and have the capacity to turn into any other type of cell—heart cells, neurons, you name it.

National Geographic would later summarize the incredible promise: “the dream is to launch a medical revolution in which ailing organs and tissues might be repaired” with living replacements. It was the dawn of a new era. A holy grail. Pick your favorite cliché—they all got airtime.

Yet today, more than two decades later, there are no treatments on the market based on these cells. Not one. Our biotech editor Antonio Regalado set out to investigate why, and when that might change. Here’s what he discovered.

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.)

+ I like the look of this humongous blueberry.
+ This Reddit community for submitting photos of yourself caught unawares by delivery drivers is very funny.
+ This beautifully detailed Mario cookie is a work of art.
+ Belgium’s new soccer away kit is a fitting tribute to the one and only Tintin.

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