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The Download: hacking VR headsets, and contrails to cool the planet

Plus: US politicians are warming to the idea of a TikTok ban

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

VR headsets can be hacked with an Inception-style attack

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In the Christoper Nolan movie Inception, Leonardo DiCaprio’s character uses technology to enter his targets’ dreams to steal information and insert false details into their subconscious. 

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A new “inception attack” in virtual reality works in a similar way. Researchers at the University of Chicago exploited a security vulnerability in Meta’s Quest VR system that allows hackers to hijack users’ headsets, steal sensitive information, and—with the help of generative AI—manipulate social interactions. 

The attack hasn’t been used in the wild yet, and the bar to executing it is high, because it requires a hacker to gain access to the VR headset user’s Wi-Fi network. However, it is highly sophisticated and leaves those targeted vulnerable to phishing, scams, and grooming, among other risks. Read the full story.

—Melissa Heikkilä

You can read more about why we need to defend against VR cyberattacks in the latest edition of The Algorithm, our weekly AI newsletter. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Monday.

How rerouting planes to produce fewer contrails could help cool the planet

What’s happening: A handful of studies have concluded that making minor adjustments to the routes of a small fraction of airplane flights could meaningfully reduce global warming. Now a new paper finds that these changes could be pretty cheap to pull off as well.

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How it works: Jets release heat, water vapor, and particulate matter that can produce thin clouds in the sky, known as “contrails”. When numerous flights pass through such areas, these contrails can form clouds that absorb radiation escaping from the surface, acting as blankets floating above the Earth.

Why it matters: A small fraction of overall flights, between 2% and 10%, create about 80% of the contrails. So the growing hope is that simply rerouting those flights could significantly reduce the effect, presenting a potentially high leverage, low cost and fast way of easing warming. Read the full story.

—James Temple

LLMs become more covertly racist with human intervention

The news: Since their inception, it’s been clear that large language models like ChatGPT absorb racist views from the millions of pages of the internet they are trained on. Developers have responded by trying to make them less toxic. But new research suggests that those efforts are only curbing racist views that are overt, while letting more covert stereotypes grow stronger and better hidden. And it’s a problem that grows as these models get bigger and bigger.

How they did it: Researchers asked five AI models to make judgments about speakers who used African-American English (AAE). The race of the speaker was not mentioned in the instructions. Even when the two sentences had the same meaning, the models were more likely to apply adjectives like “dirty,” “lazy,” and “stupid” to speakers of AAE than speakers of Standard American English. Read the full story.

—James O’Donnell

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The must-reads

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

1 The movement to ban TikTok is gaining momentum
A backlash from US users appears to be making politicians more determined to ban it. (Vox)
+ TikTok is far from the first Chinese company the US has sought to punish. (WSJ $)
+ The app has become a major political hot potato. (Bloomberg $)

2 South Korea’s chipmaking giants have stopped selling used equipment
Samsung and SK Hynix want to avoid falling foul of US sanctions. (FT $)
+ For its part, the US is now backing chip production in the Philippines. (Bloomberg $)
+ Why China is betting big on chiplets. (MIT Technology Review)

3 Midjourney has banned Stability AI workers from its service
It claims the rival workers caused a systems outage trying to scrape Midjourney’s data. (The Verge)

4 Modern cars are reporting your driving behavior to insurers
Their data is used to draw up sophisticated risk profiles—and increase the cost of insurance. (NYT $)

5 Meet the AI doom mongers 💀
A burgeoning Bay Area community is seeking answers about what to believe. (New Yorker $)
+ How existential risk became the biggest meme in AI. (MIT Technology Review)

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6 This tiny deep sea drone is mapping Australia’s coral reefs 🐟
Exploring the ocean is a huge challenge. These machines are making it easier. (IEEE Spectrum)
+ The robots are coming. And that’s a good thing. (MIT Technology Review)

7 How microgravity could help to produce better medicines
Near-weightlessness is a great way to improve the crystal formation essential to manufacturing medications. (WSJ $)

8 This robot is modeled on a long-extinct sea creature
The pleurocystitid existed around 450 million years ago. (Ars Technica)

9 China’s real estate agents are livestreaming available properties
And home sales in niche tourist town Xishuangbanna are booming as a result. (Rest of World)
+ Deepfakes of Chinese influencers are livestreaming 24/7. (MIT Technology Review)

10 Doomscrolling is out—Downpour is in
The simple app allows you to build games starring your own pictures. (The Guardian)
+ I used generative AI to turn my story into a comic—and you can too. (MIT Technology Review)

Quote of the day

“It’s increasingly more of a pond than an ocean.”

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—Ekaterina Almasque, a general partner at venture capital firm OpenOcean, tells Reuters how companies are locked in fierce competition to hire AI talent from a dwindling pool of qualified candidates.

The big story

The quest to learn if our brain’s mutations affect mental health

August 2021

Scientists have so far been unable to link brain disorders, such as autism and Alzheimer’s disease, to an identifiable gene.

But a University of California, San Diego study published in 2001 suggested a different path. What if it wasn’t a single faulty gene—or even a series of genes—that always caused cognitive issues? What if it could be the genetic differences between cells?

The explanation had seemed far-fetched, but researchers are belatedly starting to take it seriously. Read the full story.

—Roxanne Khamsi

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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 mysterious sound in the GoldenEye video game soundtrack has finally been explained.
+ Ice cream under the microscope looks seriously weird. 🍦
+ Of course Jon Hamm loves a Bloody Mary during a flight.
+ Seismic alien waves? Err, it was probably a passing truck, sorry.

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