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The Download: a novel form of censorship in China, and a self-taught robot dog

July 18, 2022

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.

A million-word novel got censored before it was even shared. Now Chinese users want answers.

Imagine you are working on your novel on your home computer. It’s nearly finished; you have already written approximately one million words. All of a sudden, the online word processing software tells you that you can no longer open the draft because it contains illegal information. Within an instant, all your words are lost.

This is what happened in June to a Chinese novelist writing under the alias Mitu. She had been working with WPS, a domestic version of cloud-based word processing software such as Google Docs or Microsoft Office 365. In the Chinese literature forum Lkong on June 25, Mitu accused WPS of “spying on and locking my draft,” citing the presence of illegal content. Several other novelists say they have had their drafts locked for unclear reasons in the past.

Mitu’s complaint triggered a social media discussion in China about censorship and tech platform responsibility. It has also highlighted the tension between Chinese users’ increasing awareness of privacy and tech companies’ obligation to censor on behalf of the government. Read the full story

—Zeyi Yang

This robot dog just taught itself to walk

The robot dog is waving its legs in the air like an exasperated beetle. After 10 minutes of struggling, it manages to roll over to its front. Half an hour in, the robot is taking its first clumsy steps, like a newborn calf. But after one hour, the robot is strutting around the lab with confidence. 

What makes this four-legged robot special is that it learned to do all this by itself, without being shown what to do in a computer simulation. 

Researchers used an AI technique called reinforcement learning, which trains algorithms by rewarding them for desired actions, to train the robot to walk from scratch in the real world

Traditionally, robots are trained in a computer simulator first, but these findings suggest reinforcement learning-based techniques could teach robots new skills in real-world environments in a relatively short amount of time. Read the full story

—Melissa Heikkilä

The must-reads

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

1 Europe is experiencing a blistering, record-breaking heatwave 
The UK issued its first ever ‘red’ alert warning of heat deaths, even among the fit and healthy. (NYT $)
Wildfires are forcing people to flee. (Axios)
+ Heat waves mess with our sleep, leaving us stressed and angry. (Wired $)
How one senator doomed the Democrats’ climate plan. (NYT $)
How hot is too hot for the human body? (MIT Technology Review
 
2 Covid isn’t behaving as predicted 
Rather than becoming a seasonal disease, successive waves keep piling up on top of each other. (The Guardian)
Don’t be surprised if you get reinfected. (The Atlantic $)
 
3 Abortion bans in the US are forcing activists to rethink tactics
The situation requires secrecy and discretion, which is the opposite of what they’re used to. (The Atlantic $)
How to track your period safely post-Roe. (MIT Technology Review)
+ Anti-abortion activits are collecting the data they’ll need. (MIT Technology Review)
 
4 Saudi Arabia’s smart city dream keeps getting weirder 
Thanks to a combination of a vast budget, and a powerful prince’s ever-changing, wild demands. (Bloomberg $)
Toronto wants to kill the smart city forever. (MIT Technology Review
 
5 Elon Musk is trying to delay his trial with Twitter 
If he gets his way, we’ll be hearing about all this nonsense right into 2023. (WSJ $)
Musk has reason to worry about the judge. (Ars Technica)
Musk is Twitter’s biggest problem right now, but he’s far from its only one. (Axios)
 
6 A CRISPR offshoot is about to get its first serious real-world test
A trial will establish whether a form of gene editing called base editing could help to treat sickle-cell disease. (Nature)
Edits to a cholesterol gene could stop the biggest killer on earth. (MIT Technology Review)
 
7 An experimental horror game is pushing the boundaries of AI art
Though the artists behind it are bumping up against AI companies’ squeamishness. (The Verge)
+ Why we’ll never truly be able to call AI “creative.” (MIT Technology Review)
 
8 How people’s brains respond to having extra limbs—in VR
Surprisingly well! (Scientific American $)
 
9 Nurses tread a fine ethical line when they post on TikTok 
There’s been a lot of backlash against a nurse who shared a video of her reaction to a patient dying. (NBC)
Dementia content gets billions of views on TikTok. Whose story does it tell? (MIT Technology Review)
 
10 How we get those images from the James Webb Space Telescope
With enormous technical difficulty. (IEEE Spectrum
Why stars look spiky in the telescope images. (The Verge)
ICYMI: here are those stunning pictures again. (MIT Technology Review)

Quote of the day

“This is not just summer. It is just hell."

—Green French lawmaker Melanie Vogel tweets her reaction to news that soil temperatures reached 138°F in Spain at the end of last week.

The big story

Meet Altos Labs, Silicon Valley’s latest wild bet on living forever

September 2021

An ambitious new anti-aging company has burst onto the scene: Altos Labs. It’s backed by billionaire investors like Jeff Bezos and Yuri Milner, and has recruited a large cadre of top scientists with lavish salaries. It will establish several institutes in places including the Bay Area, San Diego, Cambridge, UK and Japan. 

Altos is pursuing biological reprogramming technology, a way to rejuvenate cells in the lab that some scientists think could be extended to revitalize entire animal bodies, ultimately prolonging human life. It’s a nascent field, risky, and a long way from human therapy—but it has huge promise. Read the full story.

—Antonio Regalado

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.)

+ The ‘explosive color’ era in the early 00s was surely the heyday of gadget design.
+  I wish I lived in this Dutch village.
+  If nothing else, the photos that accompany this story about death-defying big wave surfing might cool you down. 
+ The latest Rings of Power trailer has set tongues wagging.  
+ A Van Gogh portrait has been discovered on the back of his “Head of a Peasant Woman” painting.
+ As if we needed more reasons to love Kate Bush.

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Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

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