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The Download

The Download: beyond CRISPR, and OpenAI’s superalignment findings

Plus: a marketing group says it can listen to consumer conversations through their phones

December 15, 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.

Vertex developed a CRISPR cure. It’s already on the hunt for something better.

The company that just got approval to sell the first gene-editing treatment in history, for sickle-cell disease, is already looking for an ordinary drug that could take its place. Vertex Pharmaceuticals has a 50-person team working to make a pill that doesn’t do gene editing at all—but achieves the same treatment goals. 

Now that medicine’s CRISPR era has begun, some of the technique’s limitations are already visible. The treatment, called Casgevy, is both tough on patients and hugely expensive, with many barriers to access. Such drawbacks are why a pill to alleviate sickle-cell, if developed, could sweep CRISPR from the playing field. Read the full story.

—Antonio Regalado

Now we know what OpenAI’s superalignment team has been up to

OpenAI has announced the first results from its superalignment team, the firm’s in-house initiative dedicated to preventing a superintelligence—a hypothetical future computer that can outsmart humans—from going rogue.

While many researchers still question whether machines will ever match human intelligence, let alone outmatch it, OpenAI’s team takes machines’ eventual superiority as given. 

In a low-key research paper, the team describes a technique that lets a less powerful large language model supervise a more powerful one—and suggests that this might be a small step toward figuring out how humans might supervise superhuman machines. Read the full story.

—Will Douglas Heaven

Google DeepMind used a large language model to solve an unsolvable math problem

The news: Google DeepMind has used a large language model to crack a famous unsolved problem in pure mathematics. The researchers say it is the first time a large language model has been used to discover a solution to a long-standing scientific puzzle—producing verifiable and valuable new information that did not previously exist.

Why it matters: Large language models have a reputation for making things up, not for providing new facts. Google DeepMind’s new tool, called FunSearch, could change that. It shows that they can indeed make discoveries—if they are coaxed just so, and if you throw out the majority of what they come up with. Read the full story.

—Will Douglas Heaven

Needle-free covid vaccines are (still) in the works

Covid shots do an admirable job of boosting our immune response enough to protect against serious illness, but they don’t boost immunity in the one spot we’d like them to: our airways.

That’s why researchers have been working on vaccines you breathe into your lungs or spray into your nose. The idea is that these vaccines will elicit an immune response in the mucous membranes of your respiratory tract that might help stave off infection or, if you do become infected, make you less likely to transmit the virus.

These “mucosal” covid vaccines aren’t available in the US or Europe, but they are in other parts of the world. So when will the US get its first mucosal covid vaccine? What will it look like? And will it work as intended? Read the full story.

—Cassandra Willyard

This story is from The Checkup, our weekly newsletter giving you the inside track on all things health and biotech.
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The must-reads

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

1 A marketing team says it can listen to consumers through their phones
It’s what the conspiracists have claimed for years—now they might actually have a point. (404 Media)

2 The race to dominate wearable AI is heating up
Big Tech is throwing money at AR glasses and goggles. But who will come out on top? (The Information $)
+ Apple’s Vision Pro spatial videos are evoking strong reactions. (CNET)

3 Inside Mark Zuckerberg’s Hawaii compound
It’s not just a home—it’s a fortress. (Wired $)

4 Robotaxi firm Cruise is laying off a quarter of its staff
In the wake of a serious accident that hospitalized a pedestrian. (Wired $)
+ Several top execs have left the company too. (The Verge)
+ Robotaxis are here. It’s time to decide what to do about them. (MIT Technology Review)

4 Racist and antisemitic memes are thriving on X
AI-generated memes start life on 4chan, before spreading thanks to X’s loose policies. (WP $)
+ Conspiracy theorists are going into overdrive over two new movies.(Motherboard)
+ The UK is considering cracking down on children’s social media use. (FT $)

5 Shopping for other people’s returned items is big business  
Returned something to Amazon lately? I could be resold for as little as $1. (WP $)
+ Our addiction to cheap products shows no sign of waning. (Vox)

6 Europe isn’t interested in America’s defense tech 
Smaller budgets and different priorities mean US firms aren’t cutting through. (Bloomberg $)
+ At one point it seemed business could boom for US military AI startups. (MIT Technology Review)

7 Computer code could hold clues to hackers’ identities
And the US government is keen to identify perpetrators. (WSJ $)

9 TikTok’s giant waves are nightmare fodder 🌊
The North Sea’s choppy terrain makes for terrifyingly compelling videos. (NYT $)
+ Another massive TikTok trend? This Windows screen saver. (The Guardian)

10 Why is it so tough to cultivate lab-grown chicken? 🐓
Scaling up fake meat is a major challenge—and so is its carbon footprint. (Bloomberg $)
+ I tried lab-grown chicken at a Michelin-starred restaurant. (MIT Technology Review)

Quote of the day

“Alexa, insult me.”

—The surprising top request Amazon Echo users made to its AI assistant Alexa this year, The Guardian reports.

The big story

These impossible instruments could change the future of music

October 2021

When Gadi Sassoon met Michele Ducceschi backstage at a rock concert in Milan in 2016, the idea of making music with mile-long trumpets blown by dragon fire, or guitars strummed by needle-thin alien fingers, wasn’t yet on his mind. 

At the time, Sassoon was simply blown away by the everyday sounds of the classical instruments that Ducceschi and his colleagues were re-creating with computers. 

The sounds were the early results of a curious project at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, where Ducceschi was a researcher at the time. The project aimed to produce the most lifelike digital music ever created—creating a combination of sounds that would be pretty much impossible to nail otherwise. Read the full story.

—Will Douglas Heaven

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.)

+ What could be cuter than a puppy and a kitten meeting for the first time? Nothing, that’s what.
+ These teeny tiny Rembrandts could be the artist’s smallest-ever portraits.
+ It’s almost 2024—let’s get planning fun stuff for the year ahead.
+ On this day in 1970, the Soviet spacecraft Venera 7 landed on the surface of Venus: the very first successful landing of a spacecraft on another planet.
+ Merry Chrismukkah, one and all ❤️

Deep Dive

The Download

The Download: the problem with plug-in hybrids, and China’s AI talent

Plus: Silicon Valley is desperate to snap up top AI talent—before anyone else does

The Download: defining open source AI, and replacing Siri

Plus: the EU has announced a raft of new Big Tech probes

The Download: the mystery of LLMs, and the EU’s Big Tech crackdown

Plus: the trade secret war between China and the US is hotting up

The Download: new AI regulations, and a running robot

Plus: Nvidia has unveiled a whole load of new AI chips

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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