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The Download

The Download: metaverse ethics, and spotting AI text

Plus: Elon Musk has said he'll step down as Twitter CEO

December 19, 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.

I just watched Biggie Smalls perform ‘live’ in the metaverse

For a moment on Friday, Biggie Smalls was the only man on stage. A spotlight shone on him in his red velvet suit, and amid pre-recorded cheers, he rapped the lyrics to “Mo Money Mo Problems,” swiveling to the beat in his orange sneakers.

You wouldn’t be wrong to be confused. Smalls died in 1997, leaving an outsize musical and cultural legacy as one of the greatest rappers of all time. But he was in fine form on Meta’s Horizon Worlds: heaving between stanzas, pumping his fist rhythmically, and seeming very much alive.

But Smalls’s hyper-realistic avatar is not just an impressive technical feat. It is also a crucial test of two big questions we’ll soon face if metaverse platforms gain traction: whether people will pay to see an avatar of a dead artist perform, and whether that business is ethical. Read the full story.

—Tanya Basu

How to spot AI-generated text

This sentence was written by an AI—or was it? OpenAI’s new chatbot, ChatGPT, presents us with a problem: How will we know whether what we read online is written by a human or a machine?

ChatGPT generates remarkably human-sounding answers to questions that it’s asked. The trouble is, it’s merely predicting the most likely next word in the sentence. It hasn’t a clue whether something is correct or false, and confidently presents information as true even when it is not. Despite that, the internet is increasingly being flooded with AI-generated text.

We’re in desperate need of ways to differentiate between human- and AI-written text in order to counter potential misuses of the technology, and researchers are developing tools to do exactly that. But the rapid speed of AI development means we’re constantly playing catch up. 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 Twitter users have voted to remove Elon Musk in a poll
Whether Musk actually abides by its results remains to be seen. (FT $)
+ Twitter has banned links to rival social media sites. (The Verge)
+ Journalists’ accounts were banned and reinstated over a chaotic weekend. (NYT $)
+ What Musk wants from the writers he’s entrusted the Twitter Files to. (Slate $)
+ We’re witnessing the brain death of Twitter. (MIT Technology Review)

2 Sam Bankman-Fried should appear in a Bahamian court today
The FTX founder is expected to agree to extradition to the US to face fraud charges. (WP $)
+ Crypto evangelists in Puerto Rico are doubling down. (The Guardian)
+ However, investors in the US are throwing in the towel. (WSJ $)

3 Russian drones are targeting Kyiv’s power grid
It’s Moscow’s third attack on the city in less than a week. (Reuters)
+ Ukrainian developers are using sophisticated software to predict enemy troops’ movements. (The Guardian)

4 Digital mental health services are failing vulnerable users  
Some LGBTQ+ users say they were assigned unsympathetic therapists. (WSJ $) 

5 A teenage YouTuber is at the center of a child labor lawsuit
It’s highlighting just how loosely regulated social media is. (LA Times $)

6 Climate change-induced drought is sparking a food catastrophe
Millions of people living in the Horn of Africa are among the first to suffer. (Undark Magazine)

7 Silicon Valley is pulling the plug on its elaborate Christmas parties
Many companies feel it’s a bad look, given the sector’s recent lay-offs. (The Information $)
+ Big Tech’s legendary perks are disappearing too. (Insider $)

8 Portugal’s digital nomad dream is dying
Building a remote working village doesn’t necessarily mean said workers will turn up. (Wired $)
+ Our water infrastructure needs to change. (MIT Technology Review)

9 Instagram Notes is a harkback to the golden age of instant messaging
For millennials brought up on AIM, the nostalgia is overwhelming. (WSJ $)

10 How embroidery inspired the first computer program
Ada Lovelace was an algorithm pioneer. (Inverse)

Quote of the day

"I have never been able to kill stupid things before they cause damage.”

—John Carmack, a senior executive at Meta’s VR business, announced his departure from the company in a scathing memo criticizing its bureaucracy and lack of efficiency, Insider reports.

The big story

Stitching together the grid will save lives as extreme weather worsens

July 2022

The blistering heat waves that set temperature records across much of the US this summer strained electricity systems, and threatened to knock out power in vulnerable regions of the country. While the electricity largely stayed online, heavy use of energy-sucking air-conditioners and the intense heat contributed to scattered problems and close calls.

The nation’s isolated and antiquated grids are in desperate need of upgrades. One solution would be to more tightly integrate the country’s regional grids, stitching them together with more long-range transmission lines, allowing power to flow between regions to where it’s needed more urgently. However, that’s a mission that’s fraught with challenges. Read the full story.

—James Temple

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.)

+ Congratulations to World Cup winners Argentina, who are partying like it’s 1999 (thanks Niall!)
+ 90s LAN parties look like they were a whole lot of fun.
+ Did you know the game Monopoly was actually designed to educate players on the evils of capitalism? Me neither.
+ Here’s what the people of Yakutia, Siberia wear to keep warm when temperatures drop to -95°F (hint: lots of layers.)
+ Gorillaz’ augmented reality performances over the weekend look pretty sensational. 

Deep Dive

The Download

The Download: the problem with plug-in hybrids, and China’s AI talent

Plus: Silicon Valley is desperate to snap up top AI talent—before anyone else does

The Download: defining open source AI, and replacing Siri

Plus: the EU has announced a raft of new Big Tech probes

The Download: the mystery of LLMs, and the EU’s Big Tech crackdown

Plus: the trade secret war between China and the US is hotting up

The Download: new AI regulations, and a running robot

Plus: Nvidia has unveiled a whole load of new AI chips

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