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The Download: American’s hydrogen train experiment, and why we need boring robots

The Download: American’s hydrogen train experiment, and why we need boring robots

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

Hydrogen trains could revolutionize how Americans get around

Like a mirage speeding across the dusty desert outside Pueblo, Colorado, the first hydrogen-fuel-cell passenger train in the United States is getting warmed up on its test track. It will soon be shipped to Southern California, where it is slated to carry riders on San Bernardino County’s Arrow commuter rail service before the end of the year.

The best way to decarbonize railroads is the subject of growing debate among regulators, industry, and activists. The debate is partly technological, revolving around whether hydrogen fuel cells, batteries, or overhead electric wires offer the best performance for different railroad situations. But it’s also political: a question of the extent to which decarbonization can, or should, usher in a broader transformation of rail transportation.

In the insular world of railroading, this hydrogen-powered train is a Rorschach test. To some, it represents the future of rail transportation. To others, it looks like a big, shiny distraction. Read the full story.

—Benjamin Schneider

This story is for subscribers only, and 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 already, sign up now to get a copy when it lands.

Researchers taught robots to run. Now they’re teaching them to walk

We’ve all seen videos over the past few years demonstrating how agile humanoid robots have become, running and jumping with ease. We’re no longer surprised by this kind of agility—in fact, we’ve grown to expect it.

The problem is, these shiny demos lack real-world applications. When it comes to creating robots that are useful and safe around humans, the fundamentals of movement are more important. 

As a result, researchers are using the same techniques to train humanoid robots to achieve much more modest goals. They believe it will lead to more robust, reliable two-legged machines capable of interacting with their surroundings more safely—as well as learning much more quickly. Read the full story.

—Rhiannon Williams

How to build a thermal battery

Thermal energy storage is a convenient way to stockpile energy for later. This could be crucial in connecting cheap but inconsistent renewable energy with industrial facilities, which often require a constant supply of heat. It’s so promising, MIT Technology Review’s readers chose it as an honorary 11th technology in our annual list of 10 Breakthrough Technologies.

Casey Crownhart, our climate reporter, wrote about why this technology is having a moment, and where it might wind up being used, in a story published earlier this week. Now, she’s dug into what it takes to make a thermal battery, and why there are so many different types.

Read the full story.

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 Amazon posed as a small retail business to snoop on its rivals
It used competitors’ payment and logistics data to inform its own operations. (WSJ $)+ The company insists its cashierless tech is powered by AI, not humans. (The Verge)

2 Landlords are asking prospective renters for 3D scans of their faces
And in many cases, if you don’t consent, you can’t tour the property alone. (The Markup)
+ The coming war on the hidden algorithms that trap people in poverty. (MIT Technology Review)

3 India’s elections will be a major test of AI literacy
AI-generated videos of Prime Minister Narendra Modi are addressing voters by name. (NYT $)
+ Three technology trends shaping 2024’s elections. (MIT Technology Review)

4 The US National Guard will use Google’s AI to analyze disaster zones
Just in time for the summer wildfire season. (WP $)
+ The quest to build wildfire-resistant homes. (MIT Technology Review)

5 OpenAI’s GPT-4 outperformed junior doctors in analyzing eye conditions
But a lot more work would be needed before deploying it in a clinical setting. (FT $)
+ Artificial intelligence is infiltrating health care. We shouldn’t let it make all the decisions. (MIT Technology Review)

6 Digitizing the real world is a long, tedious process
Engines originally developed for video games are bridging the uncanny valley. (New Yorker $)

7 AI is unlikely to improve the welfare of factory-farmed livestock 
While AI tools could make farming more efficient, it probably won’t make it humane. (Undark Magazine)
+ How CRISPR is making farmed animals bigger, stronger, and healthier. (MIT Technology Review)

8 What happens after you trade in your old iPhone
Spoiler: not all of them end up in industrial shredders. (Bloomberg $)

9 A Hollywood agency is dabbling with AI clones of its A-list talent
Crucially, the stars own their digital doubles. (The Information $)
+ How Meta and AI companies recruited striking actors to train AI. (MIT Technology Review)

10 The next Oprah will be crowned on TikTok 
Self-help book stars reach gigantic audiences hungry for self-actualization. (The Atlantic $)

Quote of the day

“We will be attacked.” 

—Franz Regul, head of cyberattack preparations for the 2024 Paris Olympics, is grimly prepared for what he sees as the inevitable, he tells the New York Times.

The big story

The race to produce rare earth materials

January 2024

Abandoning fossil fuels and adopting lower-­carbon technologies are our best options for warding off the accelerating threat of climate change. And access to rare earth elements, key ingredients in many of these technologies, will partly determine which countries will meet their goals for lowering emissions.

Some nations, including the US, are increasingly worried about whether the supply of those elements will remain stable. As a result, scientists and companies alike are intent on increasing access and improving sustainability by exploring secondary or unconventional sources. Read the full story.

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