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The Download

The Download: policing the metaverse, and the dangers of extreme climate solutions

Plus: how to think critically about AI chatbots

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.

How an undercover content moderator polices the metaverse

When Ravi Yekkanti puts on his headset to go to work, he never knows what the day spent in virtual reality will bring. Who might he meet? Will a child’s voice accost him with a racist remark? Will a cartoon try to grab his genitals? 

Yekkanti’s job, as he sees it, is to make sure everyone in the metaverse is safe and having a good time, and he takes pride in it. He’s at the forefront of a new field, VR and metaverse content moderation. 

Digital safety in the metaverse has been off to a somewhat rocky start, with reports of sexual assaults, bullying, and child grooming—an issue that’s only becoming more urgent with Meta’s recent announcement that it is lowering the age minimum for its Horizon Worlds platform from 18 to 13.

Because traditional moderation tools, such as AI-enabled filters on certain words, don’t translate well to real-time immersive environments, mods like Yekkanti are the primary way to ensure safety in the digital world. And that work is getting more important every day. Read the full story.

—Tate Ryan-Mosley

The flawed logic of rushing out extreme climate solutions

Early last year, entrepreneur Luke Iseman says, he released a pair of sulfur dioxide–filled weather balloons from Mexico’s Baja California peninsula, in the hope that they’d burst miles above Earth.

It was a trivial act in itself, effectively a tiny, DIY act of solar geoengineering, the controversial proposal that the world could counteract climate change by releasing particles that reflect more sunlight back into space.

Entrepreneurs like Iseman invoke the stark dangers of climate change to explain why they do what they do—even if they don’t know how effective their interventions are.. But experts say that urgency doesn’t create a social license to ignore the underlying dangers or leapfrog the scientific process. Read the full story.

—James Temple

A chatbot that asks questions could help you spot when it makes no sense

The news: AI chatbots often present falsehoods as facts and have inconsistent logic, and that can be hard to spot. One way around this problem, a new study suggests, is to change the way the AI presents information. 

Why it matters: Getting users to engage more actively with the chatbot’s statements might help them think more critically about that content. The researchers hope their method could help develop people’s critical thinking skills as they use AI chatbots in school or when searching for information online. Read the full story.

—Melissa Heikkilä

How bugs and chemicals in your poo could give away exactly what you’ve eaten

Our waste contains the stuff that our bodies are generally trying to get rid of. But it can also provide insight into our gut microbiomes and how they influence our health.

Scientists are getting better at collecting and making sense of the bugs and chemicals that end up in our stool, including guessing the kinds of food we’ve eaten with surprising accuracy. Not only could this help improve research into how our bodies process food, but also to better our overall health. Read the full story.

—Jessica Hamzelou

Jessica’s story is from The Checkup, her weekly newsletter giving you the inside track on all things biotech. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Thursday.

The must-reads

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

1 Europe could force AI labs to reveal their secrets
New legislation could require them to disclose copyrighted training material. (WSJ $)
+ Why telling ChatGPT your deepest, darkest secrets is a seriously bad idea. (WP $)+ The EU wants to regulate your favorite AI tools. (MIT Technology Review)

2 The 2024 US election already has a deepfake problem
Generative AI is more accessible than ever, and it’s getting harder to tell the difference between what’s real and what’s fake. (Wired $)
+ AI avatars are eerily good at tricking banks. (WSJ $)

3 Washington is protecting residents’ reproductive data
It’s the first state to limit the collection of sensitive health data post-Roe. (WP $)
+ Abortion-restricting bills have failed to pass in South Carolina and Nebraska. (Axios)
+ The cognitive dissonance of watching the end of Roe unfold online. (MIT Technology Review)

4 Twitter rival Bluesky is gaining traction
If you can get hold of an invite, that is. (Bloomberg $)
+ On Bluesky, one does not post, one ‘skeets.’ (The Verge)
+ Twitter complies with all government requests these days. (Rest of World)

5 How to clean up the shipping industry ⛵
Sailing ships could play a surprising role. (New Yorker $)
+ Around 95% of today’s ships are powered by petroleum products. (Bloomberg $)
+ How ammonia could help clean up global shipping. (MIT Technology Review)

6 Weight loss drugs don’t necessarily make you healthier
But millions of eligible Americans may not care. (Bloomberg $)
+ Mounjaro is set to join the likes of Ozempic and Wegovy. (AP News)
+ Weight-loss injections have taken over the internet. But what does this mean for people IRL? (MIT Technology Review)

7 What it’ll take to build cities in space
Planets aren’t terribly hospitable, but asteroids might be. (The Atlantic $)
+ How big is SpaceX’s Starship rocket? Really, really big. (Insider $)
+ Japanese company Ispace’s value has halved since it failed to reach the moon. (Bloomberg $)

8 The internet is about to lose a whole lot of images
Imgur is wiping out pornographic pictures and images from anonymous accounts. (Motherboard)

9 Keeping donated organs healthy and viable is a huge challenge
New cooling transportation techniques could help. (Proto.Life)
+ A new storage technique could vastly expand the number of livers available for transplant. (MIT Technology Review)

10 AI can still be fun
It’s not all doom and gloom, after all. (Vox)

Quote of the day

"It's Sam's world, and we're all living in it."

—Ric Burton, a prominent tech developer, describes the all-encompassing vision of OpenAI founder Sam Altman to Insider.

The big story

How to befriend a crow

October 2022

The crows play hide-and-seek with Nicole Steinke after her older kids head to school. She feeds a family of the birds from her apartment balcony in Alexandria, Virginia, twice daily. Once there’s no food left, they’ll look for her as she walks around her neighborhood. When one crow finds her, it will call to the others, and they’ll surround her.

The crows have become minor TikTok celebrities thanks to CrowTok, a small but extremely active niche on the social video app that has exploded in popularity over the past two years. CrowTok isn’t just about birds, though. It also often explores the relationships that corvids—a family of birds including crows, magpies, and ravens—develop with human beings.

They’re not the only intelligent birds around, but in general, corvids are smart in a way that resonates deeply with humans. But how easy is it to befriend them? And what can it teach us about attention, and patience, in a world that often seems to have little of either? Read the full story.

—Abby Ohlheiser

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.)

+ Celebrity weddings really are a different breed.
+ While they don’t have to worry about endless Zoom meetings, parrots enjoy making video calls to their feathered pals.
+ Let’s all take a collective trip to the Candy Wrapper Museum. 🍫
+ Japan’s cherry blossom trees are breathtakingly beautiful.
+ Here’s how to make sure you’re eating sushi properly—and don’t overdo the wasabi. 🍣

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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