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The Download

The Download: tiny TikTok-style soap operas, and how algorithms change us

Plus: the FCC has banned AI robocalls

February 27, 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.

China’s next cultural export could be TikTok-style short soap operas

Until last year, Ty Coker, a 28-year-old voice actor who lives in Missouri, mostly voiced video games and animations. But in December, they got a casting call for their first shot at live-action content: a Chinese series called Adored by the CEO, which was being remade for an American audience. Coker was hired to dub one of the main characters.

But you won’t find Adored by the CEO on TV or Netflix. Instead, it’s on FlexTV, a Chinese app filled with short dramas like this one. The shows on FlexTV are shot for phone screens, cut into about 90 two-minute episodes, and optimized for today’s extremely short attention span. Coker calls it “soap operas for the TikTok age.”

In the past few years, these short dramas have become hugely popular in China, and the most successful domestic productions make tens of millions of dollars in a few days. This success has motivated a few companies to replicate the business model outside China. If they succeed, they could be China’s next big cultural export. Read the full story

—Zeyi Yang

How Wi-Fi sensing became usable tech 

Wi-Fi sensing is a tantalizing concept: that the same routers bringing you the internet could also detect your movements. But, as a way to monitor health, it’s mostly been eclipsed by other technologies, like ultra-wideband radar. 

Despite that, Wi-Fi sensing hasn’t gone away. Instead, it has quietly become available in millions of homes, supported by leading internet service providers, smart-home companies, and chip manufacturers. 

Wi-Fi’s ubiquity continues to make it an attractive platform to build upon, especially as networks continually become more robust. Soon, thanks to better algorithms and more standardized chip designs, it could be invisibly monitoring our day-to-day movements for all sorts of surprising—and sometimes alarming—purposes. Read the full story

—Meg Duff

Ubiquitous algorithms are shaping culture

Music, film, the visual arts, literature, fashion, journalism, food—algorithmic recommendations have fundamentally altered all these cultural products, not just influencing what gets seen or ignored but creating a kind of self-reinforcing blandness we are all contending with now.

This is actually the opposite of the personalization Netflix and other tech platforms promise. But why does it matter? And how did we get here? Three recently-released books try to get at some answers. Read our review of them.

—Bryan Gardiner

The two stories above are from the next issue of MIT Technology Review, set to land tomorrow. The theme of the magazine is hidden worlds. Subscribe to get your copy!

The must-reads

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

1 The US spacecraft that landed on the moon is about to stop functioning
But another lunar lander, from Japan, has unexpectedly popped back to life. (NYT $)

2 Meet the nine-month-old $2 billion French AI startup 
Mistral claims it’ll rival US giants—but it’s also just taken money from Microsoft. (WSJ $)
Microsoft is investing an undisclosed amount into Mistral. (FT $)

3 How a local news website became an AI-generated clickbait farm
This case provides a fascinating insight into how generative AI is starting to fill the internet up with trash. (Wired $)
We are hurtling toward a glitchy, spammy, scammy, AI-powered internet. (MIT Technology Review)

4 A Democrat consultant admitted to being behind the Biden robocall 📞
Well, that was pretty dumb, as campaigning strategies go. (WP $)
The US is not ready for what AI is going to do to its elections. (The Guardian)
Meta is promising it’ll form a team to tackle deceptive uses of AI in the upcoming EU elections. (BBC)

5 The US is reportedly using AI to choose where to bomb
It used machine learning algorithms to identify targets in the Middle East this month, a defense official said. (Bloomberg $)
Inside the messy ethics of making war with machines. (MIT Technology Review

6 What a huge solar storm could do to us ☀️
We’re poorly prepared for the havoc it could wreak on our energy grids and communication systems. (New Yorker $)

7 Bans on deepfakes take us only so far—here’s what we really need
Recent moves are promising, but the open source boom makes things tricky. (MIT Technology Review)

8 The promise of green ammonia
Ammonia production accounts for almost 2% of global CO2 emissions, but startups are racing to produce cleaner alternatives.  (BBC)
How ammonia could help clean up global shipping. (MIT Technology Review

9 Some etiquette rules for how to use tech without being rude
Let the debate commence. (WSJ $)

10 Here’s a Slack hack for you 
Change your name to ‘Slackbot’ and simply disappear into the ether. (The Verge)

Quote of the day

“We’re not clear exactly how these platforms work.”

—Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson sums up a very real problem facing judges and politicians trying to regulate social media companies during yesterday’s Supreme Court hearing, Vox reports. 

The big story

Mass-market military drones have changed the way wars are fought

Hand holds a small quadcopter drone with a bomblet attached.

January 2023

When the United States first fired a missile from an armed Predator drone at suspected Al Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan in November 2001, it changed warfare permanently. During the two decades that followed, highly sophisticated US drones were repeatedly deployed in targeted killing campaigns. They were only available to the most powerful nations.

But new navigation systems and wireless technologies have helped to create a new type of Turkish-made military drone. It caught the world’s attention in Ukraine in 2022, when it proved itself capable of holding back one of the most formidable militaries on the planet. The Bayraktar TB2 drone marks a new chapter in drone warfare. Read the full story.

— Kelsey D. Atherton

We can still have nice things

A place for comfort, fun and distraction to brighten up your day. (Got any ideas? Drop me a line or tweet 'em at me.)

+ How do cows stay so calm?!
+ What no one tells you about getting old. (NYT $)
+ I enjoyed looking at these beautiful photos of birds from around the world. 
+ Time is the best ingredient, as these braising recipes show.

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

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose Wong

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