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The Download: AI is making robots more helpful, and the problem with cleaning up pollution

The Download: AI is making robots more helpful, and the problem with cleaning up pollution

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 robotics about to have its own ChatGPT moment?

Henry and Jane Evans are used to awkward houseguests. For more than a decade, the couple, who live in Los Altos Hills, California, have hosted a slew of robots in their home.

In 2002, at age 40, Henry had a massive stroke, which left him with quadriplegia and an inability to speak. While they’ve experimented with many advanced robotic prototypes in a bid to give Henry more autonomy, it’s one recent model that works in tandem with AI models that has made the biggest changes—helping to brush his hair, and opening up his relationship with his granddaughter.

A new generation of scientists and inventors believes that the previously missing ingredient of AI can give robots the ability to learn new skills and adapt to new environments faster than ever before. This new approach, just maybe, can finally bring robots out of the factory and into our homes. Read the full story.

—Melissa Heikkilä

Melissa’s story is from the next magazine issue of MIT Technology Review, set to go live on April 24, on the theme of Build. If you don’t subscribe already, sign up now to get a copy when it lands.

The inadvertent geoengineering experiment that the world is now shutting off

The news: When we talk about climate change, the focus is usually on the role that greenhouse-gas emissions play in driving up global temperatures, and rightly so. But another important, less-known phenomenon is also heating up the planet: reductions in other types of pollution.

In a nutshell: In particular, the world’s power plants, factories, and ships are pumping much less sulfur dioxide into the air, thanks to an increasingly strict set of global pollution regulations. Sulfur dioxide creates aerosol particles in the atmosphere that can directly reflect sunlight back into space or act as the “condensation nuclei” around which cloud droplets form. More or thicker clouds, in turn, also cast away more sunlight. So when we clean up pollution, we also ease this cooling effect.  

Why it matters: Cutting air pollution has unequivocally saved lives. But as the world rapidly warms, it’s critical to understand the impact of pollution-fighting regulations on the global thermostat as well. Read the full story.

—James Temple

This story is from The Spark, our weekly climate and energy newsletter. 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 Election workers are worried about AI 
Generative models could make it easier for election deniers to spam offices. (Wired $)
+ Eric Schmidt has a 6-point plan for fighting election misinformation. (MIT Technology Review)

2 Apple has warned users in 92 countries of mercenary spyware attacks
It said it had high confidence that the targets were at genuine risk. (TechCrunch)

3 The US is in desperate need of chip engineers
Without them, it can’t meet its lofty semiconductor production goals. (WSJ $)
+ Taiwanese chipmakers are looking to expand overseas. (FT $)
+ How ASML took over the chipmaking chessboard. (MIT Technology Review)

4 Meet the chatbot tutors
Tens of thousands of gig economy workers are training tomorrow’s models. (NYT $)
+ Adobe is paying photographers $120 per video to train its generator. (Bloomberg $)
+ The next wave of AI coding tools is emerging. (IEEE Spectrum)
+ The people paid to train AI are outsourcing their work… to AI. (MIT Technology Review)

5 The Middle East is rushing to build AI infrastructure
Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE see sprawling data centers as key to becoming the region’s AI superpower. (Bloomberg $)

6 Political content creators and activists are lobbying Meta
They claim the company’s decision to limit the reach of ‘political’ content is threatening their livelihoods. (WP $)

7 The European Space Agency is planning an artificial solar eclipse
The mission, due to launch later this year, should provide essential insight into the sun’s atmosphere. (IEEE Spectrum)

8 How AI is helping to recover Ireland’s marginalized voices
Starting with the dung queen of Dublin. (The Guardian)
+ How AI is helping historians better understand our past. (MIT Technology Review)

9 Video game history is vanishing before our eyes
As consoles fall out of use, their games are consigned to history too. (FT $)

10 Dating apps are struggling to make looking for love fun
Charging users seems counterintuitive, then. (The Atlantic $)
+ Here’s how the net’s newest matchmakers help you find love. (MIT Technology Review)

Quote of the day

“We’re women sharing cool things with each other directly. You want it to go back to men running QVC?”

—Micah Enriquez, a successful ‘cleanfluencer,’ who shares cleaning tips and processes with her followers, feels criticism leveled at such content creators has a sexist element, she tells New York Magazine.

The big story

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

November 2023

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

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.)

+ Intrepid archaeologists have uncovered beautiful new frescos in the ruins of Pompeii.
+ This doughy jellyfish sure looks tasty.
+ A short rumination on literary muses, from Zelda Fitzgerald to Neal Cassady.
+ Grammar rules are made to be broken.

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