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The Download

The Download: learning from environmental DNA, and why we should welcome watermarks

Plus: the FCC has banned AI robocalls

February 13, 2024

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.

How environmental DNA is giving scientists a new way to understand our world

Environmental DNA is a relatively inexpensive, widespread, potentially automated way to observe the diversity and distribution of life. 

Unlike previous techniques, which could identify DNA from, say, a single organism, the method also collects the swirling cloud of other genetic material that surrounds it. It can serve as a surveillance tool, offering researchers a means of detecting the seemingly undetectable. By sampling eDNA, or mixtures of genetic material in water, soil, ice cores, cotton swabs, or practically any environment imaginable, even thin air, it is now possible to search for a specific organism or assemble a snapshot of all the organisms in a given place.

It offers a thrilling — and potentially chilling — way to collect information about organisms, including humans, as they go about their everyday business. Read the full story.

—Peter Andrey Smith

Why Big Tech’s watermarking plans are some welcome good news

The world of AI has produced some depressing headlines recently, from the Taylor Swift AI-generated porn scandal to the proliferation of political deepfakes as election campaigns get underway in many countries around the world. But there’s a glimmer of good news in there, too: tech companies are stepping up and putting into place measures to better detect AI-generated content.

Meta has promised to start labeling AI-generated images on its platforms, and Big Tech is throwing its weight behind “provenance” tech that explains where content came from and who—or what—created it. These methods are not foolproof, but they’re a start. And even better, alongside these sorts of voluntary measures, we’re starting to see binding regulations. Read the full story

—Melissa Heikkilä

This story is from The Algorithm, our weekly newsletter giving you the inside track on all things AI. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Monday.

The must-reads

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

1 Deepfakes are being used to resurrect dead politicians 
For example in Indonesia, where over 200 million voters will go to the polls tomorrow. (CNN)
And also in India, which has a general election around the corner. (Al Jazeera)

2 How BYD beat Tesla to become the world’s top electric vehicle maker
Its growth has been truly stratospheric. Now here comes the scrutiny. (NYT $)
BYD is getting into shipping in a big way—this is why. (MIT Technology Review)

3 Sports leagues are rolling out apps for Apple’s Vision Pro headset
Now we just have to wait to see if people enjoy using them. (NBC)
This is what it’s like to wear the headset every day for two weeks. (WP $)
The Vision Pro could help scientists conduct research. (Nature)

4 Vietnam is becoming instrumental in the US-China chip war
And it’s doubling down on its role by dangling tax breaks and other perks to companies. (Nikkei Asia)
+ Raising trillions of dollars is probably the easiest bit of Sam Altman’s chip plan. (WSJ $)

5 Estate agents are using AI to furnish people’s homes with fake furniture 
Which must reduce their workload. But… does it cross the line into outright deception? (Vice)
AI is being used for an even grimmer purpose: to generate obituaries. (The Verge)

6 We’re getting closer to blood tests to predict dementia
A giant study of over 50,000 volunteers has yielded some amazing insights. (The Guardian)

7 How Slack changed us
It made work feel more casual—but also arguably more all-consuming, too. (The Verge)

8 Fans are fuming after Spotify layoffs broke a musical encyclopedia 
This is a real reminder of just how fragile the digital world can be. (TechCrunch)

9 Temu is determined you are going to hear about it
The Chinese e-commerce company is spending a ton of money to get name recognition among Americans. (The Atlantic $)
Why the stress around Chinese apps in the US is overblown. (MIT Technology Review)

10 Musk allegedly bought Twitter because the private jet account annoyed him
I guess this is what pettiness looks like when you’re one of the richest men on the planet. (Gizmodo)

Quote of the day

“It codifies your culture, your society’s intelligence, your common sense, your history – you own your own data.”

—Jensen Huang, CEO of Nvidia, explains why he thinks every country should build its own ‘sovereign’ AI during the World Governments Summit in Dubai.

The big story

How megacities could lead the fight against climate change


April 2021

In 2050, 2.5 billion more people will live in cities than do today. As the world grows more urbanized, many cities are becoming more populous while also trying to reduce carbon emissions and blunt the impacts of climate change.

In the coming decades, cities will be engines of economic growth. But they must also play a key role in confronting climate change. Learn how some of the world’s biggest cities—called megacities—are rising to this challenge. Read the full story.

—Gabrielle Merite & Andre Vitorio

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.)

+ Here in the UK, it’s pancake day! The perfect excuse to treat yourself to a nice breakfast.
+ Surely this is how many of us sleep.
+ This comedy sketch about the inherent weirdness of waiters serving black pepper had me giggling. 
+ Fascinated by this list of the priciest books sold last year. 

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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