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The Download: exascale computing, and AI takes on geometry

Plus: the internet is becoming overrun with AI-generated garbage

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.

Exascale computers: 10 Breakthrough Technologies 2024


In May 2022, the global supercomputer rankings were shaken up by the launch of Frontier. It’s the fastest supercomputer in the world, and can perform as many calculations in one second as 100,000 laptops.

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With its launch, the era of exascale computing officially began. Several more such exascale computers will soon join its ranks, from the US, Europe, and reportedly also China. Scientists and engineers are eager to use these turbocharged computers to advance a range of fields. And the progress won’t stop here. Read the full story.

—Sophia Chen

Exascale computers is one of MIT Technology Review’s 10 Breakthrough Technologies for 2024. Check out the rest of the list and vote for the final 11th breakthrough—we’ll reveal the winner in April.

+ What’s next for the world’s fastest supercomputers. Scientists have begun running experiments on the world’s first official exascale machine, while facilities worldwide build other machines to join the ranks. Read the full story.

Google DeepMind’s new AI system can solve complex geometry problems

The news: Google DeepMind has created an AI system that can solve complex geometry problems. The program combines a language model with a type of AI called a symbolic engine, which uses symbols and logical rules to make deductions. These two approaches work together to solve difficult mathematical problems.


Why it matters: Mathematics serves as an important benchmark to gauge progress in AI intelligence. This new program is a significant step towards machines with more human-like reasoning skills. Read the full story.

—June Kim

How hot salt could transform nuclear power

For more than a month in total, 12 metric tons of molten salt coursed through pipes at Kairos Power in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

The company is developing a new type of nuclear reactor that will be cooled using this salt mixture, and its first large-scale test cooling system just completed 1,000 hours of operation in early January. This is the second major milestone for Kairos in recent weeks. In December, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission granted a construction permit for the company’s first nuclear test reactor.

Nuclear power plants can provide a steady source of carbon-free energy, but projects to build them have been plagued by delays and skyrocketing budgets. Kairos hopes to change nuclear powers’ fortunes with a new version of the technology that could cut costs and construction times. Read the full story.

—Casey Crownhart


To read more about the next generation of nuclear reactors, check out the latest edition of The Spark, our weekly climate and energy newsletter. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Wednesday.

A new AI-based risk prediction system could help catch deadly pancreatic cancer cases earlier

What’s happened: A new AI system could help detect the most common form of pancreatic cancer, new research has found. The system outperformed current diagnostic standards and could be used in a clinical setting to identify patients who would benefit from early screening or testing, helping catch the disease earlier and save lives.

How they did it: The researchers fed two AI models anonymized data from 6 million electronic health records, 35,387 of which were pancreatic cancer cases, from 55 health-care organizations in the US. The neural network identified 35% of patients who had the disease as high risk 6 to 18 months before they were diagnosed, compared to current screening guidelines of 10%. Read the full story.

—Rhiannon Williams

The must-reads


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

1 Garbled AI-generated text is taking over the web Particularly mistranslations of languages spoken in Africa and the Global South. (Motherboard)
+ We are hurtling toward a glitchy, spammy, scammy, AI-powered internet. (MIT Technology Review)

2 A project to build a chip factory in Arizona has run into difficulty
TSMC said it’s likely to miss yet more deadlines to get it up-and-running. (WSJ $)+ China could be staring down the barrel of more restrictions. (CNBC)
+ The $100 billion bet that a postindustrial US city can reinvent itself as a high-tech hub. (MIT Technology Review)

3 It looks like China could reach the moon before the US 
The country’s rapid progress has US politicians rattled. (WP $)
+ Meanwhile, Astrobotic’s failed lunar lander is due to burn up tomorrow. (TechCrunch)

4 Sheryl Sandberg is leaving Meta’s board
After 12 years advising the company. (BBC)
+ Her departure comes as Meta fully focuses its attentions on AI. (WP $)

5 Samsung’s new phones are packed with AI features

It’s trying to secure an early lead as the first smartphone firm to fully embrace AI. (Bloomberg $)+ The phones can translate calls in real time and speed up search. (WSJ $)
+ The smartphone market isn’t looking too hot these days. (FT $)

6 Google is still retaining abortion clinic location data
A year and a half after promising to delete it. (The Guardian)
+ Google has been forced to make it clearer that it tracks Incognito Mode users. (Wired $)

7 What comes after Ozempic?
Patients taking the drug will see a slow-down in their weight loss. New drugs could allow them to keep shedding the pounds. (The Atlantic $)
+ But the long-term health impacts of these drugs are still unknown. (MIT Technology Review)

8 Spotify doesn’t care about niche artists
Its plans to cull tracks under a certain listening threshold confirms it. (FT $)


9 The JWST is turning everything we know about the universe on its head
Astronomers’ predictions aren’t matching their observations. (Vox)
+ How the James Webb Space Telescope broke the universe. (MIT Technology Review)

10 Here’s how to use your devices less
But still get everything done. (NYT $)
+ How to log off. (MIT Technology Review)

Quote of the day

“Student should look ‘studenty’ and have a healthy-looking BMI.”

—A document from food delivery robot company Starship obtained by 404 Media instructs a public university to promote its service on campus with photographs and videos featuring a very specific kind of student.

The big story


The future of open source is still very much in flux

August 2023 

When Xerox donated a new laser printer to MIT in 1980, the company couldn’t have known that the machine would ignite a revolution.

While the early decades of software development generally ran on a culture of open access, this new printer ran on inaccessible proprietary software, much to the horror of Richard M. Stallman, then a 27-year-old programmer at the university.

A few years later, Stallman released GNU, an operating system designed to be a free alternative to one of the dominant operating systems at the time: Unix. The free-software movement was born, with a simple premise: for the good of the world, all code should be open.

Forty years later, tech companies are making billions on proprietary software, and much of the technology around us is inscrutable. But while Stallman’s movement may look like a failed experiment, the free and open-source software movement is not only alive and well; it has become a keystone of the tech industry. Read the full story.

—Rebecca Ackermann


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.)

+ Being cringe is cool—I promise.
+ Mob wife chic is the latest beauty trend gripping the internet, and we have The Sopranos to thank.
+ Enjoy some comforting pasta recipes to brighten up these cold months.
+ William Shatner is one man who really lives life to its fullest.
+ It’s time to get excited: The White Lotus is heading back to our screen soon, but not soon enough.

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