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The Download

The Download: are we alone, and private military data for sale

Plus: OpenAI needs more cash

November 13, 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.

Are we alone in the universe?

The quest to determine if anyone or anything is out there has gained greater scientific footing over the past 50 years. Back then, astronomers had yet to spot a single planet outside our solar system. Now we know the galaxy is teeming with a diversity of worlds.

We’re now getting closer than ever before to learning how common living worlds like ours actually are. New tools, including artificial intelligence, could help scientists look past their preconceived notions of what constitutes life. 

Future instruments will sniff the atmospheres of distant planets and scan samples from our local solar system to see if they contain telltale chemicals in the right proportions for organisms to prosper. But determining whether these planets actually contain organisms is no easy task. Read the full story.

—Adam Mann

‘Are we alone?’ is the first entry in our new mini-series The Biggest Questions, which explores how technology is helping probe some of the deepest, most mind-bending mysteries of our existence.

The US military’s privacy problem in three charts

Highly personal and sensitive data about military members, such as home addresses, health and financial information, is easily accessible to anyone who wants to buy it. It’s for sale for as little as $0.12 per record by US-based data brokers. 

That’s the finding of a new report from Duke University researchers that shows how data brokers are selling this sort of information with minimal vetting to customers both domestically and overseas—creating major privacy and national security risks.

If you’re interested in learning more about just what kinds of data is for sale by these brokers, as well as their economic model, our senior tech policy reporter Tate Ryan-Mosley dug deeper into the report—with some surprising results. Read the full story.

This story is from The Technocrat, MIT Technology Review's weekly tech policy newsletter about power, politics, and Silicon Valley. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Friday.

The must-reads

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

1 OpenAI wants a whole load more money from Microsoft
To fund its ambitions to create artificial general intelligence. (FT $)
+ OpenAI’s recruiters are making big plays for Google’s talent. (Insider $)
+ Inside the mind of OpenAI’s chief scientist. (MIT Technology Review)

2 NSO Group is trying to restore its reputation (again)
The Israeli spyware firm is trying to persuade the US to reverse its blacklisting. (The Intercept)
+ The hacking industry faces the end of an era. (MIT Technology Review)

3 Our smartphones are powerful propaganda production tools
And working out what to believe is becoming harder by the day. (WSJ $)

4 This animal liberation group is a well-oiled investigative machine 
And it’s sharing its guerilla tech tactics for the first time. (Wired $)

5 China’s biggest livestreamer is losing his commercial clout 💄
Li Jiaqi’s falling cosmetics sales reflects a weaker, thriftier economy. (Bloomberg $)
+ Deepfakes of Chinese influencers are livestreaming 24/7. (MIT Technology Review)

6 Microbiome treatments are on the rise
Pills containing organisms from feces may sound disgusting, but evidence suggests they can succeed where antibiotics fail. (Economist $)
+ How gene-edited microbiomes could improve our health. (MIT Technology Review)

7 Who chooses these wild drug names?
Ozempic, Wegovy, and now Zepbound—are all bound by surprisingly strict rules. (Slate $)
+ Weight-loss injections have taken over the internet. But what does this mean for people IRL? (MIT Technology Review)

8 Boomers love VR
They don’t really care about the metaverse, though. (The Information $)
+ Inside the cozy but creepy world of VR sleep rooms. (MIT Technology Review)

9 Carrier pigeons may be quicker than your sluggish internet 🐦
Even when there’s no guarantee they won’t stop for a little rest. (WP $)

10 Losing your phone doesn’t have to be a disaster
There are certain steps you can take to make the whole process less painful. (Vox)
+ Beware your phone’s selfie camera: it’s getting too good. (The Atlantic $)

Quote of the day

"The main reason people get caught is because they're slacking. I've never been caught.”

—George, a software engineer who’s held up to four full-time jobs at the same time, explains to Insider the complexities of juggling multiple jobs on the sly.

The big story

These prosthetics break the mold with third thumbs, spikes, and superhero skins

February 2023

Traditionally, prosthetics designers have looked to the human body for inspiration. Prosthetics were seen as replacements for missing body parts; hyper-realistic bionic legs and arms were the holy grail. 

But we’re now witnessing a movement in alternative prosthetics, a form of assistive tech that bucks convention by making no attempt to blend in. Instead of making devices that mimic the appearance of a “normal” arm or leg, a new wave of designers are creating fantastical prosthetics that might wriggle like a tentacle, light up, or even shoot glitter. Read the full story.

—Joanna Thompson

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.)

+ Syrniki, cheesy Ukrainian pancakes, sound like the perfect remedy to winter weather.
+ LA’s cat patio movement can’t stop, won’t stop.
+ Prince was truly one of a kind—just ask his friends.
+ Get your week off to the best start with this haunting choral arrangement.
+ Even a bad cover is a good cover in my book.

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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