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The Download

The Download: AI objectification, and SBF charged

Plus: A nuclear fusion breakthrough

December 13, 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 viral AI avatar app Lensa undressed me—without my consent

When Melissa Heikkilä, our senior AI reporter, tried the new viral AI avatar app Lensa, she was hoping to get results similar to other colleagues at MIT Technology Review, who got realistic yet flattering avatars—think astronauts, and fierce warriors. Instead, she got tons of nudes. Out of the generated 100 avatars, 16 were topless, while another 14 depicted her in extremely skimpy clothes and overtly sexualized poses.

Melissa has Asian heritage. Many of the avatars were of generic Asian women clearly modeled on anime or video-game characters, or, most likely, porn. Another colleague with Chinese heritage got similar results: reams and reams of pornified avatars.

Lensa’s hypersexualization of Asian women is sadly unsurprising. Its results are generated using Stable Diffusion, an AI model that draws from a massive open-source data set compiled by scraping images from the internet. But the problem runs deeper than the training data. Read the full story.

How it feels to be sexually objectified by an AI

You can read more of Melissa’s thoughts on Lensa’s avatars reflecting sexist and racist stereotypes in The Algorithm, her weekly AI newsletter. In it, she reflects on how it made her feel when the model returned more realistic portrayals of her when she told it she was male, and what the issues with Lensa tell us about AI more widely. Read the full story.

Sign up to receive the Algorithm in your inbox every Monday.

The must-reads

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

1 Sam Bankman-Fried has been charged with fraud
US authorities say the FTX founder’s plan was to defraud investors right from the start. (The Verge)
+ Bankman-Fried’s Stanford Law School professor parents are also under scrutiny. (NYT $)
+ The US Department of Justice is divided over whether to charge Binance, too. (Reuters
+Effective altruism devotees are furious at the founder. (Vox)

2 Limitless clean energy could be on the horizon
The US Department of Energy is poised to confirm that a fusion reaction has created a net energy gain for the first time today. (WP $)
+ Scientists have been trying to make the breakthrough happen for almost 100 years. (The Atlantic $)

3 Twitter has dissolved its Trust and Safety Council
At a time when it arguably needs it more than ever. (TechCrunch)
+ Twitter is playing around with blue, gold and gray check marks, for some reason. (Vox)
+ The company is auctioning off fancy chairs from its gutted HQ. (Motherboard)
+ Twitter’s potential collapse could wipe out vast records of recent human history. (MIT Technology Review)

4 CRISPR gene editing has slowed Alizheimer’s progression in mice
If applied to humans, the technique may prove even more effective. (New Scientist $)

5 AI is hunting for EV metals 
In theory, it could make mining more efficient and less destructive. (Wired $)
+ Machine learning could vastly speed up the search for new metals. (MIT Technology Review)

6 China is readying a rescue package for its chip sector
To the tune of $143 billion. (Reuters)
+ Beijing has filed a complaint against US semiconductor restrictions. (WSJ $)
+ Europe’s chip industry is still playing catch up. (FT $)
+ Corruption is sending shock waves through China’s chipmaking industry. (MIT Technology Review)

7 India’s gig workers are facing a bleak future
Many people took the jobs as a last resort. Now they’re stuck with them. (Rest of World)

8 What it’s like to pretend to be an AI chatbot 
In other words, a person pretending to be a computer pretending to be a person. (The Guardian)

9 The Pizza Rat video is still making its creator money 🍕🐀
Seven years after it originally went viral. (Insider $)

10 The thumb drive has a surprisingly dramatic origin story
Including patent disputes, account falsification, and a jail sentence. (IEEE Spectrum)

Quote of the day

“FTX operated behind a veneer of legitimacy Mr. Bankman-Fried created...that veneer wasn’t just thin, it was fraudulent.”

—Gurbir Grewal, director of the US enforcement division, lays out the charges against Sam Bankman-Fried, reports ABC News.

The big story

Why it’s so hard to make tech more diverse

June 2021

Tracy Chou has a long history of working to expose Silicon Valley’s diversity issues. As an engineer at Pinterest, she published a widely circulated blog post calling for tech companies to share data on how many women worked on their engineering team, and collected their responses in a public database that revealed how homogeneous many technical teams at top companies still were. 

About a year later, she started a company called Block Party that targets online harassment by giving Twitter users more control over which tweets appear in their feed and mentions.

Here, we check in with Chou, who is based in San Francisco, to learn more about what it takes to make change in the tech sector and what entrepreneurs like her are up against. Read the full story.

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.)

+ This is cool—NASA is working on a robotic arm to withstand temperatures of minus-280 degrees.
+ Why Welsh language music is having a moment right now—cwl!
+ The secret to becoming a better multitasker? Taking notes.
+ How three intrepid women set a climbing record scaling the Rayu route in northern Spain.
+ I need a bread warmer in all of my radiators, stat.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose Wong

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