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The Download: Russia is risking the creation of a “splinternet”—and it could be irreversible

Also: What do psychedelic drugs do to our brains? AI could help us find out.

March 17, 2022
Ms Tech

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.

Russia is risking the creation of a “splinternet”—and it could be irreversible

Cut off: Russia’s disconnection from the online services of the West has been abrupt and severe. Facebook has been blocked entirely by Russian authorities, while Twitter is almost completely cut off. Many more companies have voluntarily withdrawn from the Russian market—including Apple, Microsoft, TikTok, and Netflix. 

Deeper splits: But all these are just services that use the internet, rather than the technologies or agreements that power it. More profound splits are on the cards—provoked by action on both sides. The moves have raised fears of a “splinternet”, in which instead of the single global internet we have today, we have a number of national or regional networks that don’t speak to one another and perhaps even use incompatible technologies. 

Why it matters: That would spell the end of the internet as a single global communications technology. If countries like China, Russia, and Iran set up rival governance bodies and a rival network, only the mutual agreement of all the world’s major nations could rebuild it. Read the full story

—James Ball

What do psychedelic drugs do to our brains? AI could help us find out

The big picture: Psychedelic drugs have long been touted as possible treatments for mental-health disorders like depression and PTSD. But very little is really known about what these substances actually do to our brains. Understanding how they work could help unlock their potential.

A new methodology: Some scientists are using AI to figure it out. A team at McGill University in Montreal used natural language processing to study written “trip reports” of users’ experiences with a range of drugs. The team then integrated this data with records of which neurotransmitter receptors in the brain each drug is known to interact with. Together, these steps let the team identify which receptors are linked to specific drug experiences.  

What next: The work could shed light on how hallucinogens trigger specific mental states, whether that be euphoria, anxiety, or a sense of being at one with the world. It could also help design new drugs for mental health disorders—something some firms are already trying to do. Read the full story.

—Jessica Hamzelou

The must-reads

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

1 Russia has stepped up its campaign of bombing civilians in Ukraine
It just bombed a theater in Mariupol that hundreds of people had been sheltering in. (AP)
  + US intelligence estimates Russia has lost more than 7,000 troops already. (NYT $)
  + Zelensky urged more US companies to quit Russia. (Quartz)
  + Biden pledged a further $800 million for Ukraine’s war effort, including drones and anti-aircraft systems. (Reuters $)
  + The tractor has become a symbol of Ukrainian resistance. (Vice)
  + Ukrainian influencers are documenting what’s going on. (The Verge)
  + What’s the risk of nuclear war? It’s not zero. (NYT $) 

2 Facebook and YouTube removed a deepfake of the Ukrainian President 
It purported to show him surrendering to Russia—but it was quickly debunked. (CNN)
  + Not before causing a fair bit of chaos yesterday, though. (Vice)
  + The biggest threat of deepfakes isn't the deepfakes themselves. (TR)  

3 There’s a link between covid-19 deaths and internet access
It’s not clear exactly why, though. (Vox)
  + Covid cases are on the rise again around the world. (Ars Technica)
  + Citizen science is making a comeback. (Wired $) 

4 NASA released its first image from the James Webb Telescope 🔭
And it’s a stunner. (Ars Technica)
 + NASA’s early warning system to detect asteroids got its first test. (CNN

5 Parts of Kenya are slowly sliding underwater 
And hundreds of thousands of people are being displaced as a result. (The Guardian)
  + How rising groundwater caused by climate change could devastate coastal communities. (TR)
  + The promise of solar canal panels. (The Next Web

6 How Chinese professors got caught up in a spying panic in the US
And, in some cases, saw their livelihoods torn to shreds as a result. (New Yorker $)
  + The US government is ending the China Initiative. Now what? (TR

7 Inside a ransomware gang’s group chats
The Conti gang extorted $180 million from companies last year. Now it wants to diversify into crypto projects. (Wired $)

8 Netflix thinks it can guilt you into paying for those passwords you share
Just after it significantly hiked prices. Good luck with that. (Gizmodo)

9 How is Instagram going to avoid hosting stolen NFTs?
It sounds like a minor consideration but it’s really not, given the world of NFTs is awash with them. (The Next Web)
  + Spotify is planning to join in the crypto craze. (FT $) 

10 Elon Musk is beefing with Chechnya’s brutal dictator on Twitter
Warning: extremely high levels of toxic masculinity detected. (Vice)

Quote of the day

“I think he is a war criminal.”

—President Joe Biden delivers his sharpest rebuke yet of Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

We can still have nice things

A place for comfort, fun and distraction in these weird times. (Got any ideas? Drop me a line or tweet 'em at me.)

  + Happy St Patrick’s Day to those who celebrate it! And before you decide whether to celebrate it, you might want to take this quiz
  + These social media accounts are bound to cheer you up. 
  + A surprisingly touching interview with the living legend that is Denzel Washington.
  + GUTTED to learn the world’s largest ‘potato’ is, in fact, not a potato
  + Where you’ll find some of the best sunsets and sunrises in the world. 
  + My inner child was thrilled by this totally pointless, yet totally hilarious, weapon.
  + A type of bat not seen in 40 years has been found in Rwanda.

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