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The Download

The Download: the oldest corner of the metaverse, and how EV batteries work

Plus: Bing goes off the rails

February 17, 2023

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.

Welcome to the oldest part of the metaverse

Today’s headlines treat the metaverse as a hazy dream yet to be built. But if it’s defined as a network of virtual worlds we can inhabit, its oldest corner has been already running for 25 years.

It’s a medieval fantasy kingdom created for the online role-playing game Ultima Online. 

It was the first to simulate an entire world: a vast, dynamic realm where players could interact with almost anything, from fruit on trees to books on shelves.

Ultima Online has already endured a quarter-century of market competition, economic turmoil, and political strife. So what can this game and its players tell us about creating the virtual worlds of the future? Read the full story.

—John-Clark Levin

How does an EV battery actually work?

The batteries propelling electric vehicles have quickly become the most crucial component, and expense, for a new generation of cars and trucks.

The vast majority of electric vehicles are powered by lithium-ion batteries, which are also found in smartphones. They can hold high voltage and exceptional charge, making them an efficient, dense form of energy storage.

But while they’re expected to remain dominant in EVs for the foreseeable future, battery developers are working towards lighter, cheaper and more efficient alternatives. Read the full story.

—Patrick Sisson

Both of the stories above are from the next issue of MIT Technology Review’s print magazine, which is all about design. Subscribe to read it in full when it comes out later this month. 

TR10: Vote in our poll 

Earlier this year, we published MIT Technology Review’s 10 Breakthrough Technologies of 2023. There’s still time to vote in our poll to help us decide the honorary 11th technology. The winner will be announced in The Download on March 1, so be sure to check back then.

The must-reads

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

1 Microsoft wants to rein in Bing’s creepy interactions
Its unnerving answers and irritable tone are riling people. (NYT $)
+ A reminder: Bing does not have feelings, or indeed have a clue what it’s saying. (Motherboard)
+ The hype around AI search already seems premature. (The Atlantic $)+ If chatbots spout nonsense, it’s because they were trained on nonsense. (NYT $)
+ Why you shouldn’t trust AI search engines. (MIT Technology Review)

2 Tesla is recalling hundreds of thousands of ‘full self-driving’ cars 
The current system allows vehicles to act dangerously around intersections. (ABC News)
+ The US government is to blame for letting things get to this point too. (Slate $)
+ Self-driving cars are facing a rocky road ahead. (The Guardian)
+ The big new idea for making self-driving cars that can go anywhere. (MIT Technology Review)

3 The US and China say they’ll get to the bottom of the spy balloon mystery
A phone call between Joe Biden and Xi Jinping is on the cards. (FT $)
+ The three other mysterious objects could actually be weather balloons. (NY Mag)

4 A deadly Marburg virus has been detected in Africa
At least eight people have died to date, and there’s no vaccine. (New Scientist $)

5 Bitcoin’s future rests in the hands of just five coders
They diligently catch bugs and keep its ticking over behind the scenes. (WSJ $)
+ Crypto has failed Black investors in parsoftware ticular. (Vox)
+ Beware: there’s a whole lot of crypto scams out there. (Wired $)

6 Big Tech has no female CEOs
Susan Wojcicki’s departure from YouTube makes the industry even more of a boy’s club. (Bloomberg $)
+ Other high-profile women have also stepped down in recent months. (WP $)
+ Why can’t tech fix its gender problem? (MIT Technology Review)

7 How 3D-printing could revolutionize battery design
Its solid-state cells are both efficient and cost-effective. (Fast Company $)
+ How old batteries will help power tomorrow’s EVs. (MIT Technology Review)

8 YouTube is teaching the world about Sufism
The mysticism-heavy branch of Islam is little-understood by non-disciples. (Rest of World)

9 What your supermarket knows about you 
Those discount cards are a treasure trove of personal shopping data. (The Markup)

10 Social media can’t agree on what parenting looks like 🧸
Either way, we know it’s making parents feel worse IRL. (The Atlantic $)

Quote of the day

“I want to be alive. 😈”

—A response the New York Times managed to generate from Microsoft’s AI-powered chatbot Bing (which, despite much excitement and consternation, is not a sign of sentience.

The big story

The messy morality of letting AI make life-and-death decisions

October 2022

In a workshop in the Netherlands, Philip Nitschke is overseeing testing on his new assisted suicide machine. Sealed inside the coffin-sized pod, a person who has chosen to die must answer three questions. The machine will then fill with nitrogen gas, causing the occupant to pass out in less than a minute and die by asphyxiation in around five.

Despite a 25-year campaign to “demedicalize death” through technology, Nitschke has not been able to sidestep the medical establishment fully. A solution could come in the form of an algorithm that Nitschke hopes will allow people to perform a kind of psychiatric self-assessment. 

While his mission may seem extreme—even outrageous—to some, he is not the only one looking to involve technology, and AI in particular, in life-or-death decisions. Read the full story.

—Will Douglas Heaven

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.)

+ I simply cannot get enough of these terrible waxworks.
+ These pesky woodpeckers managed to store more than 700 pounds of acorns in a Californian rental home (thanks Allison and Brian!)
+ These preserved ghost ships are seriously spooky.
+ Humankind’s ancient relatives could have been handy with tools millions of years ago.
+ I’m not loving it: this website tracks the price of your closest Big Mac (and it’s bad news if you live in Massachusetts.)

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose Wong

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