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The Download

The Download: hydropower’s rocky path ahead, and how to reverse falling birth rates

Plus: a Microsoft engineer has blown the whistle on the company's harmful AI tool

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.

Emissions hit a record high in 2023. Blame hydropower.

Hydropower is one of the world’s largest sources of renewable electricity.

But last year, weather conditions caused hydropower to fall short in a major way, with generation dropping by a record amount. In fact, the decrease was significant enough to have a measurable effect on global emissions. 

Total energy-related emissions rose by just over 1% in 2023, and a shortfall of hydroelectric power accounts for 40% of that rise, according to a new report from the International Energy Agency.

Between year-to-year weather variability and climate change, there could be rocky times ahead for hydropower. Here’s what we can expect from the power source and what it might mean for climate goals. Read the full story.

—Casey Crownhart

This story is from The Spark, our weekly climate and energy newsletter. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Wednesday.

How reproductive technology can reverse population decline

Back in October, we held a subscriber-only exclusive Roundtables discussion on how innovations from the lab could affect the future of families. Antonio Regalado, our biotechnology editor, sat down with entrepreneur Martín Varsavsky, founder of fertility clinic Prelude Fertility, to explore the cause of plummeting birth rates worldwide, and much more.

If you missed it the first time round, subscribers can watch a recording of the discussion here—and if you’re not already a subscriber, why not become one?

The must-reads

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

1 Microsoft’s AI image generator could pose a danger to society 
At least, that's what an engineer at the company has alleged. (CNBC)
+ He claims that Microsoft never responded to his warnings. (Ars Technica)
+ Text-to-image AI models can be tricked into generating disturbing images. (MIT Technology Review)

2 The EU is investigating why Apple kicked Epic Games from its App Store
Epic likened the move to a “feudal lord mounting the skulls of their former enemies on their castle walls.” (FT $)
+ The EU will determine whether Apple has broken the law. (Bloomberg $)

3 SpaceX is planning another Starship launch for next week
Regulatory approval is still pending, though. (TechCrunch)
+ Russia’s primary rocket is looking pretty old these days. (Ars Technica)
+ Future satellites could be launched into space courtesy of giant balloons. (Economist $)

4 We’re witnessing the birth of the AI device era
Where software leads, hardware will follow. (The Atlantic $)
+ It turns out AI models are better prompters than humans. (IEEE Spectrum)
+ Meet the jobseekers trying to outwit AI interviewers. (The Guardian)

5 The US office that oversees AI is falling apart
Workers are contending with black mold and leaks alongside the pressure to keep the country safe. (WP $)

6 Microsoft’s Bing search engine is thriving in China
By kotowing to Beijing’s demands that it sanitizes its results. (Bloomberg $)
+ A Google engineer has been indicted over allegedly stealing trade secrets for China. (The Verge)

7 A German man received 217 covid jabs in two and a half years
And he’s absolutely fine. (Wired $)
+ The findings suggest that overexposure to vaccines may not affect immune response. (The Atlantic $)
+ Scientists are finding signals of long covid in blood. (MIT Technology Review)

8 Inside China’s emerging psychedelic scene  
The country’s pervasive surveillance system is reflected in drug-induced visions. (Vox)
+ Mind-altering substances are being overhyped as wonder drugs. (MIT Technology Review)

9 It’s time to ditch your wallet for good
Gen Z pays on their smartphones. (NYT $)
+ A word to the wise: never ask a young person how old they think you are. (Vox)

10 Speed dating is making a major comeback
Dating app fatigue is real, and IRL matchmaking is having a renaissance. (WP $)
+ Here’s how the net’s newest matchmakers help you find love. (MIT Technology Review)

Quote of the day

“Opened TikTok to a video of Mark Wahlberg asking me to pray with him… and I cannot think of a thing I want to do less, actually.”

—X user Brandi Howard makes her feelings about Wallberg’s pay-to-pray app Hallow clear, the New York Times reports. 

The big story

This fuel plant will use agricultural waste to combat climate change

February 2022

A startup called Mote plans to build a new type of fuel-producing plant in California’s fertile Central Valley that would, if it works as hoped, continually capture and bury carbon dioxide, starting from 2024. 

It’s among a growing number of efforts to commercialize a concept first proposed two decades ago as a means of combating climate change, known as bioenergy with carbon capture and sequestration, or BECCS.

It’s an ambitious plan. However, there are serious challenges to doing BECCS affordably and in ways that reliably suck down significant levels of carbon dioxide. Read the full story.

—James Temple

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.)

+ That’s one seriously smart pooch.
+ Yum—Polish food is having a moment in the spotlight.
+ If you’ve ever harbored a sneaking suspicion that major authors’ plots are kind of the same, you’re not alone.
+ This hyper-realistic portrait tattoo of Jake Gyllenhaal is unbelievable.

Deep Dive

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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