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The Download

The Download: gene-edited pig liver transplants, and AI to fight apartheid

Plus: Meta's joining the race to create AGI

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.

​​A brain-dead man was attached to a gene-edited pig liver for three days

Surgeon Abraham Shaked thinks he has probably carried out more than 2,500 liver transplants. But in December 2023, the team he oversees at the University of Pennsylvania did something he’d never tried before. 

Working on the body of a brain-dead man, they attached his veins to a refrigerator-size machine with a pig liver mounted in the middle of it. For three days, the man’s blood passed into the machine, through the pig liver, and back into his body.

This “extracorporeal,” or outside-the-body, liver is designed to help people survive acute liver failure. The idea is to use the external organ to support people with liver failure until a human liver transplant becomes available for them—or until their livers bounce back. Read the full story.

—Antonio Regalado

Read more about how brain-dead bodies are now sought after for cross-species organ experiments in the latest edition of The Checkup, our weekly biotech newsletter. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Thursday.

How satellite images and AI could help fight spatial apartheid in South Africa  

Raesetje Sefala grew up sharing a bedroom with her six siblings in a cramped township in the Limpopo province of South Africa. The township’s inhabitants, predominantly Black people, had inadequate access to schools, health care, parks, and hospitals. 

Just a few miles away in Limpopo, white families lived in big, attractive houses, with easy access to all these things. The older Sefala became, the more she peppered her father with questions about the visible racial segregation of their neighborhood: “Why is it like this?”

Now, at 28, she is helping do something about it. Alongside computer scientists Nyalleng Moorosi and Timnit Gebru at the nonprofit Distributed AI Research Institute (DAIR), which Gebru set up in 2021, she is deploying computer vision tools and satellite images to analyze the impacts of racial segregation in housing, with the ultimate hope that their work will help to reverse it. Read the full story.

—Abdullahi Tsanni

The first gene-editing treatment: 10 Breakthrough Technologies 2024

It was only 11 years ago that scientists first developed the potent DNA-snipping technology called CRISPR. Now they’ve brought CRISPR out of the lab and into real medicine with a treatment that cures the symptoms of sickle-cell disease.

Sickle-cell is caused by inheriting two bad copies of one of the genes that make hemoglobin. Symptoms include bouts of intense pain, and life expectancy with the disease is just 53 years. It affects 1 in 4,000 people in the US, nearly all of them African-American. 

The news is undoubtedly good. But the expected price tag of the gene-editing treatment is $2 to $3 million. And Vertex has no immediate plans to offer it in Africa—where sickle-cell disease is most common, and where it still kills children. Read the full story.

—Antonio Regalado

Gene-editing treatments are 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.

The must-reads

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

1 Meta says it wants to create artificial general intelligence
Joining the ranks of OpenAI and Google DeepMind. (The Verge)
+ Meta’s getting serious about chips to support its AI push. (Reuters)
+ AGI is one of the most disputed concepts in tech. These researchers want to fix that. (MIT Technology Review)

2 Japan will attempt to land on the moon today
If the mission is successful, it’ll become the fifth country to touch down there. (WP $)
+ Life as an astronaut isn’t all glamor and accolades. (WP $)

3 Netflix won’t have an Apple Vision Pro app
And if you also can’t watch YouTube, or listen to Spotify… that severely limits what you can do on it. (Bloomberg $)
+ These minuscule pixels are poised to take augmented reality by storm. (MIT Technology Review)

4 China is being dragged into Myanmar’s civil war
Through the unexpected medium of pig butchering cyber scams. (Vox)
+ The involuntary criminals behind pig-butchering scams. (MIT Technology Review)

5 Thousands of companies are monitoring your every move on Facebook
At a much larger scale than we previously realized. (The Markup)

6 Amazon is tinkering with a paid-for version of Alexa
Unfortunately, the quality of its answers still needs work—a lot of work. (Insider $)
+ The more familiar Alexa sounds, the more we like it, apparently. (WSJ $)

7 Laid-off workers are filming and sharing their dismissals online
Who are these videos helping, really? (Motherboard)

8 Digital twins are changing how we design our cities
It’s the new frontier of modern urban planning. (FT $)
+ We need smarter cities, not “smart cities.” (MIT Technology Review)

9 A TikTok tunneler has been stopped from digging under her home
Who could have predicted this would happen!? (NYT $)

10 You don’t have to react to everything 👍
Slack, Gmail, and Facebook have made acknowledging messages a full-time job. It’s time to break the cycle. (The Atlantic $)

Quote of the day

“It’s the difference between buying Beanie Babies Inc and buying Beanie Babies.”

—William Savitt, a lawyer for crypto exchange Coinbase, says that buying cryptocurrencies is more akin to purchasing collectibles than stakes in a company, the Guardian reports.

The big story

AI hype is built on high test scores. Those tests are flawed.

August 2023

In the past few years, multiple researchers claim to have shown that large language models can pass cognitive tests designed for humans, from working through problems step by step, to guessing what other people are thinking.

These kinds of results are feeding a hype machine predicting that these machines will soon come for white-collar jobs. But there’s a problem: There’s little agreement on what those results really mean. Read the full story.

—William 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.)

+ A historic wooden sauna from the 1948 London Olympics has been saved, thanks to the tireless work of a small group of sauna enthusiasts.
+ Nintendo World's Donkey Kong ride sounds incredibly intense.
+ Oh, for a snooze onboard a sleeper train.
+ Is Dry January dragging a bit? Try these non-alcoholic twists on boozy classics.
+ Happy birthday to Dolly Parton, 78 years young today!

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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