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The Download

The Download: digital hide-and-seek, and AI for African languages

Plus: Elon Musk has boosted antisemitic sentiment on X

November 20, 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.

This viral game in China reinvents hide-and-seek for the digital age

The “cat-and-mouse game” has gone viral in China this year, drawing thousands of people across the country to events every week. It’s a fun combination of a childhood game, in-person networking, the latest location-sharing technology, and meme-worthy experience. 

It’s not a typical hide-and-seek game, though, but rather one for the digital age: both the seekers and the hiders chase and evade each other by following their real-time locations on a map on their phones.Our reporter Zeyi Yang played a game with 40 strangers in a seven-acre park built on the site of the infamous Kowloon Walled City. Read about his experience here.

This company is building AI for African languages

Inside a co-working space in the Rosebank neighborhood of Johannesburg, Jade Abbott popped open a tab on her computer and prompted ChatGPT to count from 1 to 10 in isiZulu, a language spoken by more than 10 million people in her native South Africa. The results were “mixed and hilarious,” says Abbott, a computer scientist and researcher. 

Then she typed in a few sentences in isiZulu and asked the chatbot to translate them into English. Once again, the answers? Not even close.

Abbott’s experience mirrors the situation faced by Africans who don’t speak English. Many language models like ChatGPT do not perform well for African languages. 

But a new venture called Lelapa AI, a collaboration between Abbott and a biomedical engineer named Pelonomi Moiloa, is trying to use machine learning to create tools that specifically work for Africans. Read the full story.  

—Abdullahi Tsanni

A controversial US surveillance program is up for renewal. Critics are speaking out.

A debate is raging about the renewal of a controversial US surveillance program, created in 2008 to expand the power of US agencies to collect electronic “foreign intelligence information,” whether about spies, terrorists, or cybercriminals abroad, without a warrant. It compels tech companies to hand over communications records to US intelligence agencies. 

A lot of data about Americans who communicate with people internationally gets swept up in these searches. Critics say that is unconstitutional. Despite that, it’s been renewed in both 2012 and 2017. So is it likely to be renewed yet again? Here’s what you need to know

—Tate Ryan-Mosley

This story is from The Technocrat, our weekly newsletter all about politics, power, 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 Microsoft has hired former OpenAI CEO Sam Altman
He’ll lead a ‘new advanced AI research team’ along with a bunch of his other former OpenAI colleagues. (The Verge)
Dozens of OpenAI employees have said they’ll quit. (The Information $)
Trouble had been brewing at OpenAI for a while. (The Atlantic $)
Altman had been raising money for a new chip venture in the Middle East before he was pushed out. (Bloomberg $)
Who’s who on OpenAI’s board, the group behind Altman’s ouster. (CNBC)
Read our recent interview with OpenAI’s chief scientist, reportedly one of the board members who pushed Altman out. (MIT Technology Review)
+ Our 2020 feature on OpenAI uncovered many of the tensions that have come to a head this week. (MIT Technology Review)

2 Robotaxi company Cruise’s CEO has resigned 
The company is in chaos after being forced to pull its entire driverless fleet over safety concerns. (WP $)
Why city employees tend to dislike driverless cars. (NYT $)
+ Robotaxis are here. It’s time to decide what to do about them. (MIT Technology Review)

3 Inside Ukraine’s invisible war
Both sides are using radio signals to overwhelm communications links to drones and troops, locate targets, and trick guided weapons. (NYT $)

4 Ad execs are urging X’s CEO to step down
They say that by staying, Linda Yaccarino is endorsing Musk’s anti-semitic diatribes. (Forbes)
This is the growing list of companies pulling ads from X. (WP $)

5 The southern hemisphere is in for a sweltering summer
It’s highly likely it’ll see record-breaking temperatures over the coming months, scientists say. (Nature)
The richest 1% are responsible for more carbon emissions than the poorest 66%, according to Oxfam. (The Guardian)

6 SpaceX’s Starship rocket reached space, but then exploded 🚀💥
Or, as they like to put it, experienced a ‘rapid unscheduled disassembly’. (CNBC)

7 Teen boys are falling for a Snapchat nude photo scam
It’s a classic—but devastating—example of online sextortion. (WSJ $)

8 Italy’s parliament has banned lab-grown meat 🥩
The right-wing government said it posed a threat to the country’s way of life. (Quartz $)
Read our review of lab-grown chicken at a Michelin-starred restaurant. (MIT Technology Review)

9 We may have to wait longer for Apple’s Vision Pro headset than planned
There’s no way it’s going to launch in January as originally planned, insiders say. (Mashable)

10 The argument for using AI to log every moment of your life
It’s a dream for some… but a total nightmare to others. (Wired $)

Quote of the day

"OpenAI is nothing without its people."

—Wording that’s being posted online by a growing number of OpenAI employees, indicating that further resignations are still to come.

The big story

How to befriend a crow

woman petting a crow at a kitchen table
GETTY IMAGES

October 2022

Nicole Steinke 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 active niche that has exploded in popularity. 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.)

+ I can’t stop watching these extreme close-up videos of everyday objects.
+ Turn a clip of you singing into a roster of songs, thanks to this clever site.
Wildlife is everywhere in our cities, you just need to know where to look.
+ Start planning your escape for next year, courtesy of the best places to visit in 2024.
+ Brace yourself: it’s nearly Star Wars Holiday Special time.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose Wong

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