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June 17, 2024
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The Download: making surgery safer, and MDMA therapy has been dealt a blow

The Download: making surgery safer, and MDMA therapy has been dealt a blow

Plus: Silicon Valley isn’t happy about an AI safety bill

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.

This AI-powered “black box” could make surgery safer

The operating room has long been defined by its hush-hush nature because surgeons are notoriously bad at acknowledging their own mistakes.

These mistakes kill some 22,000 Americans each year. Many of the errors happen on the operating table, from leaving surgical sponges inside patients’ bodies to performing the wrong procedure altogether.

Now, Teodor Grantcharov, a surgeon and professor of surgery at Stanford, believes he’s created the technology to create and analyze recordings of operations to help improve safety and surgical efficiency. It’s the operating room equivalent of an airplane’s black box: recording everything in the operating room via panoramic cameras, microphones, and anesthesia monitors before using artificial intelligence to help surgeons make sense of the data.   

But the idea of recording everything could raise the threat of disciplinary action and legal exposure. Some surgeons have refused to operate when the black boxes are in place, and some of the systems have even been sabotaged. 

So are hospitals on the cusp of a new era of safety—or creating an environment of confusion and paranoia? Read the full story.

—Simar Bajaj

FDA advisors just said no to the use of MDMA as a therapy

On Tuesday, the FDA asked a panel of experts to weigh in on whether the evidence shows that MDMA, also known as ecstasy, is a safe and efficacious treatment for PTSD.

The answer was a resounding no. Just two out of 11 panel members agreed that MDMA-assisted therapy is effective. And only one panel member thought the benefits of the therapy outweighed the risks.

The outcome came as a surprise to many, given that trial results have been positive. And it is also a blow for advocates who have been working to bring psychedelic therapy into mainstream medicine for more than two decades.

This isn’t the final decision on MDMA. The FDA has until August 11 to make that ruling. But while the agency is under no obligation to follow the recommendations of its advisory committees, it rarely breaks with their decisions. 

So let’s unpack the advisory committee’s vote and talk about what it means for the approval of other recreational drugs as therapies. Read the full story.

—Cassandra Willyard

This story is from The Checkup, our weekly biotech and health 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 Silicon Valley is pushing back against an AI safety bill  
The legislation would force tech firms to create a ‘kill switch’ to shut down AI models. (FT $)
+ It’s not just Big Tech either—startups are resisting it too. (Bloomberg $)
+ Europe’s AI Act is done. Here’s what will (and won’t) change. (MIT Technology Review)

2 Boeing’s Starliner has docked with the International Space Station
It completed the first stage of its flight after several of its thrusters went offline. (The Guardian)
+ Boeing’s engineers are downplaying the issues it’s experienced. (WP $)

3 OpenAI has pulled back the curtain on ChatGPT 
It’s released a paper explaining how AI models’ workings can be reverse engineered. (Wired $)
+ Large language models can do jaw-dropping things. But nobody knows exactly why. (MIT Technology Review)

4 Why China is losing the chip war with the US
Despite its best efforts, its native firms can’t hold a candle to Nvidia. (Economist $)
+ What’s next in chips. (MIT Technology Review)

5 Deplatforming accounts that spread misinformation works
When X suspended 70,000 QAnon-linked accounts, the number of links to ‘low-credibility’ sites plummeted. (WP $)
+ Lies on the internet are still rife, though. (Vox)

6 An Indian startup once valued at $22 billion is now worthless
Its investors claim the company regularly ignored their advice. (TechCrunch)

7 Climate scientists are desperate to slow melting polar ice
And some of them are prepared to dabble with unusual methods to achieve it. (Economist $)
+ The radical intervention that might save the “doomsday” glacier. (MIT Technology Review)

8 Super cheap delivery meals are all the rage in China
Unfortunately, gig workers are bearing the brunt of the cost. (Rest of World)

9 A virtual gun has sold for more than $1 million
The digital Counter-Strike 2 accessory is one of the biggest video game purchases ever. (Bloomberg $)
+ A team of gaming enthusiasts have rebuilt the world’s first gaming computer. (The Guardian)

10 A decades-old Tamagotchi mystery has finally been solved
The online virtual pet fan community is going wild. (404 Media)

Quote of the day

“Nice to be attached to the big city in the sky.”

 —Barry “Butch” Wilmore, one of the veteran astronauts onboard Boeing’s Starliner, jokes with mission control after the spacecraft successfully docked with the International Space Station, Reuters reports.

The big story

Whatever happened to DNA computing?

October 2021

For more than five decades, engineers have shrunk silicon-­based transistors over and over again, creating progressively smaller, faster, and more energy-efficient computers in the process. But the long technological winning streak—and the miniaturization that has enabled it —can’t last forever.

What could this successor technology be? There has been no shortage of alternative computing approaches proposed over the last 50 years. Here are five of the more memorable ones. Read about five of the most memorable ones.

—Lakshmi Chandrasekaran

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.)

+ What inspired Gary Numan to write electronic smash-hit Cars? Well, you won’t believe this
+ Animals love magic too! 🪄
+ Nothing to see here—just Keanu Reeves having the time of his life playing a Cure song.
+ Friends just make everything better.

Read More