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The Download

The Download: OpenAI’s top scientist on AGI, and gene therapy to restore hearing

Plus: scientists are being pressured to take sides in the conflict between Israel and Palestine

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.

Ilya Sutskever, OpenAI’s chief scientist, on his hopes and fears for the future of AI

Ilya Sutskever, OpenAI’s cofounder and chief scientist, is no longer focusing on building the next generation of his company’s flagship generative AI models. Instead his new priority is to figure out how to stop an artificial superintelligence (a hypothetical future technology he sees coming with the foresight of a true believer) from going rogue.

A lot of what Sutskever says is wild. But not nearly as wild as it would have sounded just one or two years ago. He thinks ChatGPT just might be conscious (if you squint). He thinks the world needs to wake up to the true power of the technology his company and others are racing to create.

He is certain that machines will one day be as smart as humans. This could, in his opinion, automate health care, make it a thousand times cheaper and a thousand times better, cure diseases, or actually solve global warming. But the problem with a technology that doesn’t exist is that you can say whatever you want about it. Read our exclusive interview.

—Will Douglas Heaven

Some deaf children in China can hear after gene treatment

Earlier this year, Qin Lixue enrolled her six-year old daughter Li Xincheng, in a study of a new type of gene therapy. The little girl, nicknamed Yiyi, was born entirely deaf. During the procedure, doctors used a virus to add replacement DNA to the cells in Yiyi’s inner ear that pick up vibrations, allowing them to transmit sound to her brain.

Yiyi is one of several deaf children who scientists in China say are the first people ever to have their natural hearing pathway restored in a dramatic new demonstration of the possibilities of gene therapy. The feat is even more remarkable because until now, no drug of any kind has ever been able to improve hearing.

It may be remembered as China’s first domestic gene-therapy breakthrough, as well the most dramatic restoration of a lost sense yet achieved. Read the full story.

—Antonio Regalado & Zeyi Yang

How scientists are being squeezed to take sides in the conflict between Israel and Palestine

The spreading human devastation of the Israel-Gaza conflict has led to tensions and strife in the scientific community. Some academics have already had their careers damaged from the blowback to their online statements. 

Meanwhile, some Israeli universities have said they will show zero tolerance for anyone who expresses “support for terrorism,” and there are reports of Arab Israeli students being disciplined for posts on social media sites.   

Reactions to the war are raising questions about freedom of speech, and of thought—issues that are core to science. It seems inevitable that as the violence escalates, so will the fallout. Read the full story.

—Antonio Regalado

This story first appeared in The Checkup, MIT Technology Review's weekly biotech newsletter. 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 TikTok streamers are profiting from the Israel-Hamas conflict 
And it doesn’t seem like any of them are donating money to affected civilians. (Wired $)
+ Documenting this war on X is virtually impossible. (404 Media)

2 Cruise has suspended all its driverless car fleets
In an extreme effort to regain the public’s trust. (Reuters)
+ A day in the life of a Chinese robotaxi driver. (MIT Technology Review)

3 Things aren’t looking good for Sam Bankman-Fried
He fell apart under cross-examination. Things are likely to get even worse next week. (The Verge)
+ Judge Lewis Kaplan criticized SBF’s meandering answers. (Insider $)

4 There’s a major shortage of RSV vaccines
Demand for the new vaccines to protect children has far outstripped supply. (Vox)
+ mRNA vaccines just won a Nobel Prize. Now they’re ready for the next act. (MIT Technology Review)

5 US abortion rates are still climbing
Despite more than a dozen states banning the procedure. (The Atlantic $)
+ Texas is trying out new tactics to restrict access to abortion pills online. (MIT Technology Review)

6 Climate refugees are abandoning their homes in the San Blás islands
Rising sea levels are forcing them to move to the mainland. (FT $)
+ Climate action is gaining momentum. So are the disasters. (MIT Technology Review)

7 Tenants are suing landlords over rent-fixing software
They claim the software artificially raised rents and set prices. (Motherboard)
+ House-flipping algorithms are coming to your neighborhood. (MIT Technology Review)

8 Sports Twitter just refuses to die
Sports fanatics just can’t get their fix anywhere else. (NYT $)
+ Elon Musk appears to be recommending some strange ‘ war experts.’ (WP $)

9 How creators took over the world
From early blogs, to irreverent videos, creating is a multi-billion dollar business. (WP $)

10 Meet the robots chilling out at the South Pole
A handful of Roombas are the closest things researchers are allowed to pets. (IEEE Spectrum)

Quote of the day

“I feel a keen sense not to become the next roadkill.”

—Prabhakar Raghavan, a senior vice president at Google, describes how his desire to keep the company ahead of its competition keeps him up at night, Bloomberg reports.

The big story

How sounds can turn us on to the wonders of the universe

June 2023 

Astronomy should, in principle, be a welcoming field for blind researchers. But across the board, science is full of charts, graphs, databases, and images that are designed to be seen.

So researcher Sarah Kane, who is legally blind, was thrilled three years ago when she encountered a technology known as sonification, designed to transform information into sound. Since then she’s been working with a project called Astronify, which presents astronomical information in audio form. 

For millions of blind and visually impaired people, sonification could be transformative—opening access to education, to once unimaginable careers, and even to the secrets of the universe. Read the full story.

—Corey S. Powell

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.)

+ Are you brave enough to visit these iconic horror film locations? (The Blair Witch woods? Absolutely not!)
+ Forget counting sheep: counting spiders could be more beneficial for the environment. 🕷️
+ Patrick Bateman’s skincare routine sounds exhausting (but also like it really works)
+ These cute polar bears are getting into the autumnal swing of things.
+ Berlin thinks we should party in a former chemical weapons lab. Who are we to disagree?

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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