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The Download: Neuralink’s biggest rivals, and the case for phasing out the term “user”

The Download: Neuralink’s biggest rivals, and the case for phasing out the term “user”

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.

Beyond Neuralink: Meet the other companies developing brain-computer interfaces

In the world of brain-computer interfaces, it can seem as if one company sucks up all the oxygen in the room. Last month, Neuralink posted a video to X showing the first human subject to receive its brain implant, which will be named Telepathy. The recipient, a 29-year-old man who is paralyzed from the shoulders down, played computer chess, moving the cursor around with his mind.

Neuralink’s announcement of a first-in-human trial made a big splash not because of what the man was able to accomplish—scientists demonstrated using a brain implant to move a cursor in 2006—but because the technology is so advanced.

But Neuralink isn’t the only company developing brain-computer interfaces to help people who have lost the ability to move or speak. Read on to take a look at some of the companies developing brain chips, their progress, and their different approaches to the technology.

—Cassandra Willyard

This story is from The Checkup, our weekly health and biotech newsletter. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Thursday.

It’s time to retire the term “user”

People have been called “users” for a long time; it’s a practical shorthand enforced by executives, founders, operators, engineers, and investors ad infinitum.

Often, it is the right word to describe people who use software: a user is more than just a customer or a consumer. Sometimes a user isn’t even a person; corporate bots are known to run accounts on Instagram and other social media platforms, for example.

But “users” is also unspecific enough to refer to just about everyone. It can accommodate almost any big idea or long-term vision. We use—and are used by—computers and platforms and companies. Though “user” seems to describe a relationship that is deeply transactional, many of the technological relationships in which a person would be considered a user are actually quite personal. That being the case, is “user” still relevant? Read the full story.

—Taylor Majewski

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

Three ways the US could help universities compete with tech companies on AI innovation

—Ylli Bajraktari, CEO of nonprofit the Special Competitive Studies Project, Tom Mitchell, the Founders University Professor at Carnegie Mellon University, and Daniela Rus,  a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT

The ongoing revolution in artificial intelligence has the potential to dramatically improve our lives. Yet ensuring that America and other democracies can help shape the trajectory of this technology requires going beyond the tech development taking place at private companies.

Research at universities drove the AI advances that laid the groundwork for the commercial boom we are experiencing today. But large AI models require such vast computational power and such extensive data sets that private companies have replaced academia at the frontier of AI. Here’s a few ideas for how the US could empower its universities to remain alongside them at the forefront of AI research.

The must-reads

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

1 Bitcoin investors are eagerly awaiting the ‘halving’ 
The scheduled reduction in the number of newly produced bitcoin could mean their current holdings are worth even more. (FT $)
+ The halving is due to start in the early hours of Saturday morning. (NYT $)
+ The event is the crypto equivalent of the Super Bowl. (Reuters)

2 Meta is integrating its AI into its social media apps
But LLMs and social platforms are dangerous bedfellows. (WP $)
+ Case in point: X’s Grok bot offers up fake news based on users’ jokes. (Ars Technica)
+ Meta launched its newest model, Llama 3, too. (WSJ $)
+ Big Tech is scrambling to make its AI as easy to use as possible. (The Information $)

3 The World Health Organization’s AI avatar struggles with health questions
The bot has been trained on outdated data, and it shows. (Bloomberg $)
+ Artificial intelligence is infiltrating health care. We shouldn’t let it make all the decisions. (MIT Technology Review)

4 China ordered Apple to pull Meta-owned apps from its App Store
Beijing is reportedly unhappy with ‘inflammatory’ Threads and WhatsApp content. (WSJ $)
+ The move is likely to worsen the already-tense relations between the US and China. (FT $)

5 University students are turning to cyber crime to make money
A major phishing site recruited fraudsters to scam tens of thousands of victims. (The Guardian)

6 Your brainwaves are a hot commodity 🧠
Tech firms are hungry for neural data, and legislators in Colorado are concerned. (Vox)
+ Data doesn’t get much more personal than this. (NYT $)

7 Deepfakes are making romance scams even more convincing
In the past, a video call confirmed you were speaking to a human. Not anymore. (Wired $)
+ Bans on deepfakes take us only so far—here’s what we really need. (MIT Technology Review)

8 A Netflix true crime documentary contained AI images of an alleged murderer
The AI-generated pictures seek to portray the accused as a fun-loving teen. (404 Media)
+
It looks like Netflix’s crackdown on password sharing worked. (FT $)

9 Product recommendations ruined the internet
Google thinks it can fix it with, err, more product recommendations. (NY Mag $)
+ How to fix the internet. (MIT Technology Review)

10 How tech can help us fight back against locusts 🦗
The insects are serious pests. (Economist $)
+ How robotic honeybees and hives could help the species fight back. (MIT Technology Review)

Quote of the day

“What in the Black Mirror is this?!”

—An anonymous member of a Facebook parenting group reacts to Meta’s AI chatbot claiming it has a child who is both gifted and challenged academically, 404 Media reports.

The big story

The humble oyster could hold the key to restoring coastal waters. Developers hate it.

October 2023

Carol Friend has taken on a difficult job. She is one of the 10 people in Delaware currently trying to make it as a cultivated oyster farmer.

Her Salty Witch Oyster Company holds a lease to grow the mollusks as part of the state’s new program for aquaculture, launched in 2017. It has sputtered despite its obvious promise.

Five years after the first farmed oysters went into the Inland Bays, the aquaculture industry remains in a larval stage. Oysters themselves are almost mythical in their ability to clean and filter water. But human willpower, investment, and flexibility are all required to allow the oysters to simply do their thing—particularly when developers start to object. Read the full story.

—Anna Kramer

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 think we’ve all felt these heightened emotions in these locations at least once.
+ Hold onto your jackets, there are thieves about!
+ As any dog owner will tell you, our furry friends are even smarter than we think.
+ Chickpeas are just so versatile.

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