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The Download

The Download: a microbiome gold rush, and Eric Schmidt’s election misinformation plan

Plus: Blue Origin is launching a rocket later today—if everything goes to plan

December 18, 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 hunter-gatherer groups at the heart of a microbiome gold rush

Over the last couple of decades, scientists have come to realize just how important the microbes that crawl all over us are to our health. But some believe our microbiomes are in crisis—casualties of an increasingly sanitized way of life. Disturbances in the collections of microbes we host have been associated with a whole host of diseases, ranging from arthritis to Alzheimer’s.

Some might not be completely gone, though. Scientists believe many might still be hiding inside the intestines of people who don’t live in the polluted, processed environment that most of the rest of us share. They’ve been studying the feces of people like the Yanomami, an Indigenous group in the Amazon, who appear to still have some of the microbes that other people have lost. 

But there is a major catch: we don’t know whether those in hunter-gatherer societies really do have “healthier” microbiomes—and if they do, whether the benefits could be shared with others. At the same time, members of the communities being studied are concerned about the risk of what’s called biopiracy—taking natural resources from poorer countries for the benefit of wealthier ones. Read the full story.

—Jessica Hamzelou

Eric Schmidt has a 6-point plan for fighting election misinformation

—by Eric Schmidt, formerly the CEO of Google, and current cofounder of philanthropic initiative Schmidt Futures

The coming year will be one of seismic political shifts. Over 4 billion people will head to the polls in countries including the United States, Taiwan, India, and Indonesia, making 2024 the biggest election year in history.

With AI starting to make social media much more toxic, platforms and regulators need to act quickly to regain user trust and safeguard our democracy, setting up new rules and laws. While these won’t solve all the problems of mis- and disinformation, they can help stem the tide ahead of elections next year. 

Here I propose six technical approaches that platforms should adopt to protect their users. Read the full story.

You can read more about Eric Schmidt’s plan to combat election misinformation in the latest edition of The Technocrat, MIT Technology Review’s weekly tech and politics newsletter. 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 Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket is taking off today
But a crew won’t be on board this time. (Engadget)
+ How to watch the flight blast off. (The Verge)
+ China has launched a spy satellite using its tallest ever rocket. (Ars Technica)

2 Why generate AI companies appear so fixated on the media
It’s not just down to a desire to reduce their likelihood of getting sued by publishers. (NY Mag $)
+ Make no mistake—AI is owned by Big Tech. (MIT Technology Review)

3 The EV hype bubble is bursting
Firms that fail to deliver their lofty green promises could face bankruptcy—or even jail time. (NYT $)
+ Tesla is recalling more than two million cars in the US. (NY Mag $)
+ …But experts aren’t convinced the recall will actually fix its safety issues. (WP $)

4 When it comes to loneliness, tech is a double-edged sword
Because it can alleviate, as well as exacerbate our feelings of disconnect. (WP $)
+ Why do you feel lonely? (MIT Technology Review)

5 Not all robotaxi companies are in trouble right now
May Mobility has avoided a lot of the pitfalls its rivals have experienced. (The Verge)
+ Robotaxis are here. It’s time to decide what to do about them. (MIT Technology Review)

6 Children with cancer were treated with contaminated drugs
And, years later, the company responsible hasn’t faced any serious consequences. (Bloomberg $)
+ Innovative new cell therapies could finally get at tough-to-target cancers. (MIT Technology Review)

7  Department store salespeople are influencers too
Stores used to avoid social media promotion. Now they can’t get enough of it. (The Information $)

8 The UK’s health service is experimenting with drone deliveries
Healthcare trusts hope they’ll help to improve services but also save money. (FT $)

9 Not all self-checkouts are awful
In fact, Uniqlo’s hi-tech checkout machines are pretty good. (WSJ $)

10 How the world laughs online
From lol and jaja to kkkk and wkwkwk. (Rest of World)

Quote of the day

"There are these guys who don't do anything.”

—An anonymous Nvidia worker laments the fact that a growing number of employees, sitting on a wealth of company stock, are content to kick back and do as little as possible to Insider.

The big story

The big new idea for making self-driving cars that can go anywhere

May 2022

When Alex Kendall sat in a car on a small road in the British countryside and took his hands off the wheel back in 2016, it was a small step in a new direction—one that a new bunch of startups bet might be the breakthrough that makes driverless cars an everyday reality.

This was the first time that reinforcement learning—an AI technique that trains a neural network to perform a task via trial and error—had been used to teach a car to drive from scratch on a real road. It took less than 20 minutes for the car to learn to stay on the road by itself, Kendall claims.

These startups are betting that smarter, cheaper tech will let them overtake current market leaders. But is this yet more hype from an industry that’s been drinking its own Kool-Aid for years? 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.)

+ These are some super tuneful chili peppers.
+ Ever wondered about the device playing music through your headphones on a plane? Wonder no more.
+ Let’s dive inside the mystery of the missing X-Files song.
+ Our four-legged friends are a lot smarter than some would have us believe.
+ Happy 80th birthday to the man, the myth, the legend—Keith Richards.

Deep Dive

The Download

The Download: Apple’s AI plans, and a carbon storage boom

Plus: Elon Musk has withdrawn his lawsuit against OpenAI

The Download: more energy-efficient AI, and the problem with QWERTY keyboards

Plus: an FDA panel has voted against approving MDMA as a treatment for PTSD

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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