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The Download

The Download: abandoning carbon offsets, and creating new materials

Plus: the upheavals at OpenAI just keep on coming

November 30, 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.

The University of California has all but dropped carbon offsets—and thinks you should, too

In the fall of 2018, the University of California tasked a team of researchers with identifying projects from which it could confidently purchase carbon offsets that would reliably cancel out greenhouse gas emissions across its campuses. They found next to nothing.

The findings helped prompt the entire university system to radically rethink its sustainability plans. Now the researchers are sharing the lessons they learned over the course of the project, in the hopes of helping other universities and organizations consider what role, if any, offsets should play in sustainability strategies, MIT Technology Review can report.

The project’s leaders have three main takeaways for what others should do. Read our story to find out what they are.

—James Temple

Google DeepMind’s new AI tool helped create more than 700 new materials

The news: Google DeepMind has created a tool that uses deep learning to dramatically speed up the process of discovering new materials. The technology, which is called graphical networks for material exploration (GNoME), has already been used to predict structures for 2.2 million new materials, of which more than 700 have gone on to be created and tested in the lab.


Why it matters: From EV batteries to solar cells to microchips, new materials can supercharge technological breakthroughs. But discovering them usually takes months or even years of trial-and-error research. Thanks to GNoME, the number of known stable materials has grown almost tenfold, to 421,000. Read the full story.

—June Kim

The X Prize is taking aim at aging with a new $101 million award

Money can’t buy happiness, but X Prize founder Peter Diamandis hopes it might be able to buy better health. The X Prize Foundation, which funds global competitions to spark development of breakthrough technologies, has announced a new $101 million prize—the largest yet—to address the mental and physical decline that comes with aging. 

The winners will have to prove by 2030 that their intervention can turn back the clock in older adults by at least a decade in three key areas: cognition, immunity, and muscle function. Its organizers are hoping the large prize will convince hundreds or even thousands of teams to compete. 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 Ilya Sutskever is leaving the OpenAI board  
But the chief scientist is staying at the firm—for now. (Bloomberg $)
+ Microsoft has been added as a non voting member of the board. (NYT $)
+ Sam Altman says he initially felt furious after being asked to return to the company. (The Verge)
+ Inside the mind of OpenAI’s chief scientist. (MIT Technology Review)

2 Elon Musk isn’t playing nice with X’s worried advertisers
In fact, he went on a foul-mouthed rant railing against them. (CNBC)
+ Disney boss Bob Iger was a target of Musk’s ire. (WP $)
+ Musk just can’t help himself. (Slate $)

3 Next year is going to be even hotter 🌡️
Thanks, in part, to the El Niño weather phenomenon. (FT $)
+ Methane is due to be a hot topic at COP28. (Economist $)+ Climate action is gaining momentum. So are the disasters. (MIT Technology Review)

4 Google has agreed to pay Canadian news outlets $100 million a year
It’s a rare win for publishers in their fight to get Big Tech to pay for content. (Motherboard)
+ Supporters say it’s the first step towards creating a sustainable news ecosystem. (BBC)

5 India is determined to clean up the Ganges river
The sacred waterway is incredibly polluted. Cleaning it up is both a holy and a scientific mission. (Wired $)
+ El Paso was “drought-proof.” Climate change is pushing its limits. (MIT Technology Review)

6 US border control is planning to trial Palmer Luckey’s AI surveillance towers
The autonomous towers track objects even in the coldest conditions. (404 Media)

7 Inside one man’s mission to track America’s gun violence
No one federal agency charts it, so Dan Kois has stepped up to fill the void. (Bloomberg $)

8 Please don’t follow TikTok’s dating advice
It’s bleak at best, outrageously sexist at worst. (Vox)
+ Here’s how the net’s newest matchmakers help you find love. (MIT Technology Review)

9 Cutting virtual grass is deeply satisfying
Just ask the video games fans transfixed by maintaining their lawns. (The Guardian)

10 What Spotify Unwrapped tells us about ourselves
Wherever we go, there we are listening to something embarrassing. (WSJ $)
+ Are you a vampire or a shapeshifter this year? (Wired $)
+ Please, no more memes. (NY Mag $)

Quote of the day

“It’s a deafening cacophony of broken records.”

—Petteri Taalas, the secretary general of the World Meteorological Organization, despairs at the extreme climate conditions the world has weathered over the past year, New Scientist reports.

The big story

Meetings suck. Can we make them more fun?

September 2021

Since the pandemic made working remotely commonplace, workers have complained about getting “Zoomed out” or dealing with “Zoom fatigue.”

No wonder that other tech companies wonder how they could reinvent meetings too, especially since it doesn’t seem as if remote work is going anywhere soon. But to take Zoom’s crown they’ll need to get creative, and come up with ways to keep employees from feeling burned out by endless video calls. Read the full story.

—Tanya Basu

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.)

+ Would you wear a festive sweater with Microsoft’s iconic Windows XP wallpaper on it? 100% yes.
+ Spotify Wrapped seems to think we all live in Burlington, Vermont (shout out to any readers who actually do live there!)
+ Teddy bears may be adorable, but they used to have a reputation as a dangerous influence on children.
+ This invisible pumpkin pie is stressing me out.
+ Online perfume reviews are completely unhinged.

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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