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The Download

The Download: brain bandwidth, and artificial wombs

Plus: Microsoft approached Apple about buying Bing a few years ago

September 29, 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.

Elon Musk wants more bandwidth between people and machines. Do we need it?

Last week, Elon Musk made the bold assertion that sticking electrodes in people’s heads is going to lead to a huge increase in the rate of data transfer out of, and into, human brains.

The occasion of Musk’s post was the announcement by Neuralink, his brain-computer interface company, that it was officially seeking the first volunteer to receive an implant that contains more than twice the number of electrodes than previous versions to collect more data from more nerve cells.

The entrepreneur mentioned a long-term goal of vastly increasing “bandwidth” between people, or people and machines, by a factor of 1,000 or more. But what does he mean, and is it even possible? Read the full story.

—Antonio Regalado

This story is from The Checkup, MIT Technology Review’s weekly biotech newsletter. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Thursday.

Everything you need to know about artificial wombs

Earlier this month, US Food and Drug Administration advisors met to discuss how to move research on artificial wombs from animals into humans.

These medical devices are designed to give extremely premature infants a bit more time to develop in a womb-like environment before entering the outside world. They have been tested with hundreds of lambs (and some piglets), but animal models can’t fully predict how the technology will work for humans. 

Regulators are grappling with the question of how much of the unknown is acceptable as this research moves out of the lab and into first-in-human trials. But selecting the right participants will be tricky. Read the full story.

—Cassandra Willyard

The must-reads

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

1 Microsoft suggested that Apple buy Bing in 2020 
The deal would have installed Bing as the iPhone’s default search engine, but it never came to fruition. (Bloomberg $)
+ Microsoft could overtake Apple as the world’s most valuable firm. (Economist $)

2 A jury will decide whether Tesla’s autopilot caused a driver’s death
The plaintiffs claim that Tesla overhyped the system’s capabilities to make it appear more autonomous than it actually is. (WP $)
+ Should a self-driving car kill the baby or the grandma? Depends on where you’re from. (MIT Technology Review)

3 Take a look inside Huawei’s lobbying playbook
Confidential group chats, gifted gadgets, and secret agreements. (NYT $)
+ Meanwhile, Apple met with Chinese officials to forge a friendly agreement. (WSJ $)

4 The US power grid largely avoided blackouts this summer
That’s no guarantee it’ll hold up in the future, though. (Vox)
+ Stitching together the grid will save lives as extreme weather worsens. (MIT Technology Review)

5 Startups are desperate to become chummy with chipmakers 
Access to powerful chips can make or break an enterprise. (The Information $)
+ These simple design rules could turn the chip industry on its head. (MIT Technology Review)

6 Forever chemicals are absolutely everywhere
And even a lawsuit from the US Department of Justice will stop one company from using them. (Bloomberg $)
+ Plastic pollution persists, even in the absence of humans. (Motherboard)

7 Venture capitalists really don’t want to fund women’s health startups
Investors are mostly male, and largely uninterested. (Proto.Life)
+ Why can’t tech fix its gender problem? (MIT Technology Review)

8 What comes after smartphones?
Experts can’t agree on whether the future contains more screens—or none at all. (Inverse)
+ Even seemingly unassailable apps aren’t invincible. (WP $)

9 The world’s oldest active torrent has turned 20 years old
Happy anniversary to The Fanimatrix! (Motherboard

10 Is it time to banish the group chat?
Please, one-on-one texts only from now on. (The Atlantic $)

Quote of the day

“I work at X, he worked at Twitter.” 

—Linda Yaccarino, CEO of X, insists the company’s culture has changed since its former Head of Trust and Safety, Yoel Roth, was driven into hiding after Elon Musk blamelessly accused him of supporting child sexualisation last year, the Verge reports.

The big story

How big science failed to unlock the mysteries of the human brain

August 2021

In September 2011, Columbia University neurobiologist Rafael Yuste and Harvard geneticist George Church made a not-so-modest proposal: to map the activity of the entire human brain.

That knowledge could be harnessed to treat brain disorders like Alzheimer’s, autism, schizophrenia, depression, and traumatic brain injury, and help answer one of the great questions of science: How does the brain bring about consciousness? 

A decade on, the US project has wound down, and the EU project faces its deadline to build a digital brain. So have we begun to unwrap the secrets of the human brain? Or have we spent a decade and billions of dollars chasing a vision that remains as elusive as ever? Read the full story.

—Emily Mullin

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.)

+ Enjoy this dreamy Stone Roses intro on a Friday morning.
+ You know what doesn’t get enough appreciation? A good pie recipe.
+ Building your own PC may be time-consuming, but it also gives you an enormous sense of wellbeing.
+ Aww, why can’t my emotional support alligator come to the ball game with me? 🐊
+ The prevailing mystery of what trilobites ate has finally been solved: and it sounds pretty tasty.

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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