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The Download, Feb 8, 2017: Tesla’s Big Battery Spend, Feature Phones Are Back, and Pruitt’s EPA

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February 8, 2017

Three Things You Need to Know Today

What Scott Pruitt’s Confirmation As EPA Chief Will Mean

America has ambitious goals for cutting its greenhouse gas emissions—for the moment, anyway. As our own James Temple writes today, if the Senate confirms Scott Pruitt as head of the Environmental Protection Agency this week as expected, a slew of Obama-era initiatives could go up in smoke. Largest among those is the hotly contested Clean Power Plan. Currently held up awaiting Supreme Court review, the plan’s regulations could reduce the country’s emissions by the equivalent of 267 million tons of carbon dioxide by 2025. If the plan is scrapped, the odds would be long that America would meet its commitment made at the Paris accord of cutting emissions to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, or the equivalent of 2.1 billion tons of carbon dioxide.

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Twitter’s Dance Around Online Abuse

Twitter has made a fresh set of headlines for saying it will roll out a trio of new measures designed to curb abuse on its platform. But despite similar efforts in the past, hate speech and abusive tweets have continued to flourish. The problem appears to be that Twitter finds itself stuck between championing what they call “freedom of expression” and taking action against trolls. So far they’ve leaned hard towards the former. What’s a social network to do? The Wikimedia foundation, the nonprofit behind Wikipedia, may have an answer. The organization has released a dataset of nearly 115,000 editor comments, including thousands that were manually flagged as personal attacks. It’s part of a joint effort with Alphabet’s Jigsaw team to build machine learning software that automatically detects online abuse. It’s the biggest dataset of its kind ever released, lending hope that an automated approach to hunting down trolls is within reach.

Biotech Comes Out Against Trump’s Immigration Ban

In an echo of the larger tech industry’s opposition to the Trump administration’s immigration ban, more than 160 Biotech executives have now come out against the ban. They arguing that the measure, along with potential changes to the country’s H-1B visa program, will damage the culture of innovation that propels the industry toward life-saving drugs, therapies, and cures. “A study found that in 2014, 52% of the 69,000 biomedical researchers in the United States were foreign-born,” the group wrote in a letter published in Nature Biotechnology. It is the diversity of this community, they say, that has made the U.S. the world’s leader in drug discovery—and now that is under threat. Notably lacking from the letter, however, were the names of CEOs from some of pharma’s biggest firms, many of which stand to gain handsomely if proposed federal tax reforms go their way.

Ten Fascinating Things

If the EPA does start throwing out regulations that govern carbon emissions, what will they be replaced with? One possibility: a carbon tax. A group of Republican elder statesmen will pitch the Trump administration today on a plan (what they call “a conservative climate solution”) that they say could lower emissions while generating $200-$300 billion in annual tax revenue that would then be passed back to American families.

Next week, the startup Planet is expected to launch 88 tiny satellites into orbit. If all goes well, the company will add to their existing fleet of orbiting cameras and be the proud owners of the largest constellation of satellites ever flown. They will also be taking a picture of every place on Earth every day.

At last! An artificial neural network developed by Google can take a highly pixelated image and sharpen it up, using educated guesswork to turn unrecognizable eight-by-eight pixel images into 32-by-32 pixel images of things like living rooms and people’s faces. The “enhance image” trope popular in TV crime shows, once laughably fake, could become reality.

Tesla is making progress on its Gigafactory, the complex in Nevada that is to become the world’s largest producer of lithium-ion batteries. According to dozens of building permits issued by Storey Country, the site of the nascent facility, Tesla is taking an iterative approach to construction, so far spending nearly $1 billion on design tweaks.

A group of Russian scammers figured out a way to crack the pseudorandom number generators that power slot machines. Then they went on a global tour of slot parlors, raking in money using a method of cheating so brilliant it was almost impossible for authorities to catch them. Almost.

Apple is pinning its hopes for continued growth on its ability to sell smartphones in emerging markets like India. But it may be in for a fight. Outside of the richest nations, smartphones are meeting stiff competition from a rise in sales of feature phones, a piece of personal technology that was long ago left for dead.

Compared to the global wind energy industry as a whole, turbines built offshore represent a relatively small business. But that business is growing fast, especially in Europe. It’s more than just a good sign for the environment—increasingly, big banks like Goldman Sachs are seeing offshore wind as a great way to get rich.

Snap, the company behind Snapchat, has a lot to lose if the Trump administration ditches federal net neutrality rules. Internet providers could start charging for the privilege of delivering content from some companies faster than others. That in turn could be a disaster for Snap, which may not be able afford to pay as much as, say, Instagram, to ensure its streaming video is the quickest.

A lab-on-a-chip that costs just a penny and can be assembled using a regular inkjet printer could revolutionize the diagnosis of diseases in the developing world, ranging from tuberculosis to AIDS to cancer. The device requires little expertise to operate, but loading a sample onto the chip does require a bit of specialized equipment.

Elizabeth Warren, the firebrand senator from Massachusetts, was in the middle of protesting the nomination of her colleague, Jeff Sessions, for attorney general last night when Republicans invoked a rarely-used parliamentary rule to silence her. So she took an even rarer step for a sitting senator, and took her protest to Facebook live.

Quote of the Day

"You want us to employ a sort of wonder machine to detect each misuse. Such a machine doesn’t exist."

—Martin Munz, a lawyer for Facebook, asserted that the company isn’t responsible for policing misuse of an image of Anas Modamani, a Syrian refugee. Modamani’s photograph with German chancellor Angela Merkel has been circulated on the social network along with false claims that he committed acts of terrorism.


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