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The Download

The Download: disputes over green mining, and what’s next for robotaxis

Plus: New Hampshire residents have been targeted with fake Joe Biden robocalls

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.

This town’s mining battle reveals the contentious path to a cleaner future

In June last year, Talon, an exploratory mining company, submitted a proposal to Minnesota state regulators to begin digging up as much as 725,000 metric tons of raw ore per year, mainly to unlock the rich and lucrative reserves of high-grade nickel in the bedrock.

Talon is striving to distance itself from the mining industry’s dirty past, portraying its plan as a clean, friendly model of modern mineral extraction. It proclaims the site will help to power a greener future for the US by producing the nickel needed to manufacture batteries for electric cars and trucks, but with low emissions and light environmental impacts.

But as the company has quickly discovered, a lot of locals aren’t eager for major mining operations near their towns. Read the full story.

—James Temple

What’s next for robotaxis in 2024

In 2023, it almost felt as if the promise of robotaxis was soon to be fulfilled. Hailing a robotaxi had briefly become the new trendy thing to do in San Francisco. 

However, that dream crashed and burned in October, when a serious accident in downtown San Francisco involving a vehicle belonging to Cruise, one of the leading US robotaxi companies, cast a long shadow over the technology’s future. 

Despite that, other robotaxi companies across the world are still forging ahead. Zeyi Yang, our China reporter, talked to experts about how to understand the challenges facing the robotaxi industry. Here’s how they expect it to change in 2024.

Why does AI being good at math matter?

Last week the AI world was buzzing over a new paper in Nature from Google DeepMind, in which the lab managed to create an AI system that can solve complex geometry problems.

This is the second time in recent months that the AI world got all excited about math. The rumor mill went into overdrive last November, when there were reports that the boardroom drama at OpenAI, which saw CEO Sam Altman temporarily ousted, was caused by a new powerful AI breakthrough. It was reported that the AI system in question was called Q* and could solve complex math calculations

You don’t need to be really into math to see why this is potentially very exciting. Math is really, really hard for AI models. Complex math requires sophisticated reasoning skills, and many AI researchers believe that the ability to crack it could herald more powerful and intelligent systems. Read the full story.

This story is from The Algorithm, our weekly newsletter keeping you up to date on all the biggest AI developments. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Monday.

Vote for the 11th breakthrough technology of 2024

Throughout January, we’ve been showcasing the 10 breakthrough technologies poised to have a real impact on the world—covering everything from Twitter killers to weight-loss drugs. But now we need your help to help select a bonus 11th technology. 

Check out the shortlist (and the rest of the list) and vote in our poll to confirm your choice—we’ll be unveiling 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 Fake Joe Biden robocalls urged New Hampshire residents not to vote
The incident is being treated as an attempt at voter suppression. (NBC News)
+ The Trump campaign has denied any involvement. (NY Mag $)
+ It could be the start of a new wave of political deepfakes ahead of the US election. (NYT $)
+ Six ways that AI could change politics. (MIT Technology Review)

2 Google is turning its back on ambitious moonshots 
The projects are wildly expensive, and don’t tend to produce viable businesses. (Bloomberg $)

3 The world’s first malaria vaccine program for children has begun

But experts worry how many children in high-risk areas will actually receive it. (Wired $)
+ The new malaria vaccine might not be perfect, but it will save countless lives. (MIT Technology Review)

4 A man claims Macy’s facial recognition led to him being assaulted in jail
The technology’s accuracy has been questioned in multiple lawsuits. (WP $)
+ Police are using the technology to try and crack cold cases. (Wired $)
+ The movement to limit face recognition tech might finally get a win. (MIT Technology Review)

5 It’s pretty unlikely a printer cartridge could contain a computer virus
But HP’s CEO is convinced it’s a real and present danger. (Ars Technica)

6 We’re learning more about China’s shadowy spy agency
Its public profile is growing as it steps up its efforts to warn the public about the dangers of foreign espionage. (FT $)

7 TikTok’s illness influencers are sick and tired
While documenting their conditions can help with medical bills, it’s exhausting. (Vox)
+ Dementia content gets billions of views on TikTok. Whose story does it tell? (MIT Technology Review)

8 The first chickpeas have been grown in moon dust 
It’s the sort of development that could make long-term lunar stays more feasible. (New Scientist $)
+ What’s next for the moon. (MIT Technology Review)

9 Gummy vitamins rarely deliver on their promises

Their less-tasty counterparts are lower in sugar, and deliver their benefits more reliably. (The Atlantic $)

10 Rats love taking selfies 🐀
Or could it just be the sugar reward they received for snapping the shutter? (NYT $)

Quote of the day

“Some members of Congress prefer to opine about aliens to the press rather than get an evidence-based briefing on the matter.” 

—Sean Kirkpatrick, the former head of the Pentagon’s division dedicated to investigating extraterrestrials, explains his decision to step down from the group, Motherboard reports.

The big story

How a tiny Pacific Island became the global capital of cybercrime

November 2023

Tokelau, a string of three isolated atolls strung out across the Pacific, is so remote that it was the last place on Earth to be connected to the telephone—only in 1997. Just three years later, the islands received a fax with an unlikely business proposal that would change everything.

It was from an early internet entrepreneur from Amsterdam, named Joost Zuurbier. He wanted to manage Tokelau’s country-code top-level domain, or ccTLD—the short string of characters that is tacked onto the end of a URL—in exchange for money.

In the succeeding years, tiny Tokelau became an unlikely internet giant—but not in the way it may have hoped. Until recently, its .tk domain had more users than any other country’s: a staggering 25 million—but the vast majority were spammers, phishers, and cybercriminals.

Now the territory is desperately trying to clean up .tk. Its international standing, and even its sovereignty, may depend on it. Read the full story.

—Jacob Judah

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.)

+ If you catch a glimpse of bigfoot while you’re out and about, I’m afraid to say it could just be a black bear.
+ Novak Djokovic has a special relationship with a tree in Melbourne, as you do. 🌳
+ Voldemort’s laugh across different languages is highly lol-worthy.
+ If you didn’t get fed up of making sourdough in lockdown, here’s a refresher on how to get started.
+ These Japanese sites are simply breathtaking.

Correction: The story has been updated to clarify that Cruise’s October accident was not fatal. The victim was hospitalized with serious injuries but survived.

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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