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The Download

The Download: authoritarian tech, and tower-building drones

Plus: AI text-to-image models' databases contain images of beheadings and non-consensual graphic images

September 22, 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.

The world is moving closer to a new cold war fought with authoritarian tech

Despite President Biden’s assurances at Wednesday’s United Nations meeting that the US is not seeking a new cold war, one is brewing between the world’s autocracies and democracies—and technology is fueling it.

Late last week, Iran, Turkey, Myanmar, and a handful of other countries took steps toward becoming full members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), an economic and political alliance led by the authoritarian regimes of China and Russia.

The majority of SCO member countries, as well as other authoritarian states, are following China’s lead and are trending toward more digital rights abuses by increasing the mass digital surveillance of citizens, censorship, and controls on individual expression.

And while democracies also use massive amounts of surveillance technology, it’s the tech trade relationships between authoritarian countries that’s enabling the rise of digitally enabled social control. Read the full story.

—Tate Ryan-Mosley

Watch this team of drones 3D-print a tower

The news: A mini-swarm’s worth of drones have been trained to work together to 3D-print some simple towers. Inspired by the way bees or wasps construct large nests, the process has multiple drones work together to build from a single blueprint, with one essentially checking the others’ work as it goes. 

How it works: One drone deposits a layer of building material, and the other verifies the accuracy of everything printed so far. The drones are fully autonomous while flying, but they are monitored by a human who can step in if things go awry.

Why it matters: One day, the method could help with challenging projects such as post-disaster construction or even repairs on buildings that are too high to access safely, the team behind it hopes—and could construct buildings in the Arctic or even on Mars. Read the full story.

—Tammy Xu

Podcast: Real-time farming

In the latest episode of our podcast, In Machines We Trust, we take a trip to a Californian vineyard to learn about how how it’s deploying sensors and other forms of AI. Listen to it on Apple Podcasts, or wherever else you usually listen.

The must-reads

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

1 ISIS execution footage is powering AI text-to-image models
Non-consensual explicit images of celebrities have also been found in popular models’  datasets. (Motherboard)
+ Dall-E 2 can now generate images of human faces. (The Guardian)
+ Open source AI tool Stable Diffusion creates more risque art than other models. (Wired $)
+ The dark secret behind those cute AI-generated animal images. (MIT Technology Review)

2 Patients immersed in VR during surgery may need less anesthetic
Which could help to shorten hospital stays and swerve surgical complications. (MIT Technology Review)
+ VR is as good as psychedelics at helping people reach transcendence. (MIT Technology Review)

 3 Predators are targeting children on Twitch with startling ease
Its moderation tools are failing to protect young users from abusers. (Bloomberg $)
+ The platform is slashing the percentage of revenue it gives to its biggest streamers. (NYT $)

4 Making a battery-powered plane is really hard
But that’s not stopping companies from trying to overcome the significant hurdles. (WP $) 
+ Air taxi firm Kittyhawk has announced that it’s closing down. (WSJ $) 
+ This is what’s keeping electric planes from taking off. (MIT Technology Review)

5 The hidden dangers of machine translation 
When harmless phrases are mistranslated into another language, the results can be deadly. (Slate $)

6 We need new painkillers 💊
We’re overly reliant on dangerous opioids. But finding new drugs that are equally effective is a long process. (Economist $)

7 South Korea doesn’t want to miss out on the US EV boom
Carmakers outside the US are excluded from the country’s tax credits break. (Rest of World)
+ China is considering legal action over the “discriminatory” law. (Bloomberg $)
+ EV tax credits could stall out on lack of US battery supply. (MIT Technology Review)

8 How tech can help save whales from fatal ship encounters
Data streams and microphones monitor the animals. (NYT $)

9 Neptune has never looked better
The James Webb Space Telescope has taken a super clear picture of the planet. (The Atlantic $)
+ NASA has refueled its Artemis 1 rocket ahead of its next launch. (The Verge)
+ SpaceX’s Starship rocket could take off in October, apparently. (CNET)

10 Cats and dogs may not need to eat so much meat 🐈‍⬛🐕
Evidence is mounting that pets can thrive on plant-based diets, but vets aren’t so sure. (New Scientist $)

Quote of the day

“Start thinking with your sci-fi hat on.”

—Peter Singer, co-manager of futurist firm Useful Fiction, which has advised the US Air Force and military contractors, explains to Vox why the war in Ukraine has ushered in a new era of technological warfare.

The big story

Zimbabwe’s climate migration is a sign of what’s to come

December 2021

Julius Mutero has spent his entire adult life farming a three-hectare plot in Mabiya, eastern Zimbabwe, but has harvested virtually nothing in the past six years. He is just one of the 86 million people in sub-Saharan Africa who the World Bank estimates will migrate domestically by 2050 because of climate change—the largest number predicted in any of six major regions the organization studied.

In Zimbabwe, farmers who have tried to stay put and adapt by harvesting rainwater or changing what they grow have found their efforts woefully inadequate in the face of new weather extremes. Droughts have already forced tens of thousands from the country’s lowlands to the Eastern Highlands. But their desperate moves are creating new competition for water in the region, and tensions may soon boil over. Read the full story.

—Andrew Mambondiyani

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.)

+ Phew, this goldfish doesn’t know how lucky it is!
+ This video of a trombone video game parping out Beethoven is one of the funniest things I’ve seen in a long time (thanks Robbie!)
+ The WikiReader is a remarkable and much-loved little gadget that allows you to access Wikipedia without the internet.
+ How Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse breathed new life into blockbuster animations.
+ Bicycles: friend or foe?

Deep Dive

The Download

The Download: YouTube’s deadly crafts, and DeepMind’s new chatbot

Plus: it's still unclear when, or if, the pandemic will ever be over

The Download: AI-generated art and YouTube’s algorithm

Plus: how YouTube's recommendation algorithm is failing its users

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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