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The Download

The Download: home robot surveillance, and problematic AI text

Plus: Elon Musk hasn't said whether he'll step down as Twitter CEO or not

December 20, 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 Roomba recorded a woman on the toilet. How did screenshots end up on Facebook?

In the fall of 2020, gig workers in Venezuela posted a series of images to online forums where they gathered to talk shop. The photos were mundane, if sometimes intimate, household scenes captured from low angles—including a particularly revealing shot of a young woman in a lavender T-shirt sitting on the toilet, her shorts pulled down to mid-thigh.

The images were not taken by a person, but by development versions of iRobot’s Roomba J7 series robot vacuum, the company which Amazon recently acquired for $1.7 billion in a pending deal. They were then sent to Scale AI, a startup that contracts workers around the world to label data used to train artificial intelligence.

Earlier this year, MIT Technology Review obtained 15 screenshots of these private photos, which had been posted to closed social media groups. The images speak to the widespread, and growing, practice of sharing potentially sensitive data to train algorithms. They also reveal a whole data supply chain—and new points where personal information could leak out—that few consumers are even aware of. Read the full story.

—Eileen Guo

How AI-generated text is poisoning the internet

If you’ve spent much time online recently, you’ve probably stumbled across a joke, essay, or another bit of text written by ChatGPT, the latest incarnation of OpenAI’s large language model GPT-3.

It’s becoming increasingly hard to tell what’s written by AI, and what’s written by humans. But there is a more serious long-term implication. We may be witnessing, in real time, the birth of a snowball of bullshit.

These models are trained on text scraped from the internet, including all the toxic, silly, false, malicious things humans have written online, which they then regurgitate as fact. 

When tech companies scrape the internet again, they scoop up AI-written text that they use to train bigger, more convincing models, which humans can use to generate even more nonsense before it is scraped again and again, ad nauseam. This problem—AI feeding on itself and producing increasingly polluted output—is only going to grow unless we act, and act quickly. Read the full story.

—Melissa Heikkilä

Melissa’s story is from The Algorithm, her weekly newsletter shining a light on the murky world of AI. Sign up to receive it 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 Elon Musk hasn’t said if he’ll step down or not 
Instead, he’s (finally) questioning whether Twitter polls are a wise way to make decisions. (The Guardian)
+ The moments that have defined Musk’s Twitter tenure to date. (WP $)
+ The company is rapidly changing under him, often hourly. (Vox)
+ Does it really matter if Musk is CEO or not, given that he owns Twitter? (The Intercept
+ Bill Gates thinks the company is stirring up digital polarization. (FT $)
+ Mastodon has gained more than two million new users since Musk took over. (The Verge)

2 China is trying to live with covid
The government’s decision to quickly abandon its zero-covid strategy has left officials struggling. (NYT $)

3 Sam Bankman-Fried has agreed to be extradited to the US
But it’s not clear when. (Reuters)
+ He spent his first week in prison watching movies and reading articles about himself. (NY Mag $)
+ Here’s just some of the things SBF spent a million dollars on. (FT $)
+ It’s okay to opt out of the crypto revolution. (MIT Technology Review)

4 Negotiators have struck a landmark deal to protect the planet
If successful, it will protect at least a third of all land and water by 2030. (Vox)
+ Why the oil-rich Gulf is investing heavily in clean energy. (Economist $)
+ Climate action is gaining momentum. So are the disasters. (MIT Technology Review)

5 Deadly strep A infections could be spreading across the US
An outbreak in the UK has killed 16 children, and the US could be next. (Wired $)

6 Criminals swatted victims through hacked Ring cameras 
The pair live-streamed armed police responses to their hoax calls online. (Bloomberg $)
+ How Amazon Ring uses domestic violence to market doorbell cameras. (MIT Technology Review)

7 Mexico’s delivery apps loan programs are saddling workers with debt
The interest quickly accumulates, and is automatically deducted from their pay. (Rest of World)

8 Mars is surprisingly windy
So much so that it could power human colonies, if we ever manage to settle there. (Motherboard)

9 TikTok is driving interest in buccal fat removal
Users are speculating which celebrities have undergone the procedure, which extracts fat from the cheeks to accentuate the cheekbones. (WSJ $)

10 Tracking Santa’s journey across the globe is a serious business 🎅
The man behind the tracking tech is confident it’s absolutely fail-safe. (Insider $)

Quote of the day

“It sounds like they really want to become… not necessarily landlords of the rainforest but, yeah, owning the rainforest.”

—Jillian Crandall, an architect, questions NFT company Nemus’s plans to buy more than 40,000 hectares of the Amazon rainforest and sell corresponding digital tokens in a conservation bid, she tells Motherboard.

The big story

Money is about to enter a new era of competition

April 2022

To many, cash now seems largely anachronistic. People across the world commonly use their smartphones to pay for things. This shift may look like a potential driver of inequality: if cash disappears, one imagines, that could disenfranchise the elderly, the poor, and others. 

In practice, though, cell phones are nearly at saturation in many countries. And digital money, if implemented correctly, could be a force for financial inclusion. 

The big questions now are around how we proceed, and whether the huge digital money shift ultimately benefits humanity at large—or exacerbates existing domestic and global inequities. Read the full story.

—Eswar Prasad

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.)

+ Once spiders learn to type, that’s when we really need to worry.
+ Historical biomolecules could finally give us much-needed insight into Vlad the Impaler.
+ Please, I beg you, take anything but my tote bag.
+ If you’ve ever wondered, here’s the exact recipe you’d need to make 300 delicious latkes—for a latke party, of course.
+ Salt Lake City’s festive decorations are making me feel seriously Christmassy.

Deep Dive

The Download

The Download: the Saudi sci-fi megacity, and sleeping babies’ brains

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. These exclusive satellite images show Saudi Arabia’s sci-fi megacity is well underway In early 2021, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia announced The Line: a “civilizational revolution” that would house up…

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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