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The Download

The Download: AI’s gaming prowess, and calculating methane emissions

Plus: TikTok is unhappy about the passage of a new bill in the US

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.

An AI that can play Goat Simulator is a step toward more useful machines

The news: A new AI agent from Google DeepMind can play different games, including ones it has never seen before such as Goat Simulator 3, a fun action game with exaggerated physics. Unlike earlier game-playing AI systems, which mastered only one game or could only follow single goals or commands, this new agent is able to play a variety of different games, including Valheim and No Man’s Sky. 

How they did it: Researchers were able to get it to follow text commands to play seven different games and move around in three different 3D research environments. They trained it on lots of examples of humans playing video games, alongside keyboard and mouse input and annotations of what the players did. Then they used an AI technique called imitation learning to teach the agent to play games as humans would.

Why it’s a big deal: It’s a step toward more generalized AI that can transfer skills across multiple environments—and this sort of knowledge transfer between games represents a significant milestone for AI research. Read the full story.

—Melissa Heikkilä

Methane leaks in the US are worse than we thought

What’s happening: Methane emissions in the US are worse than scientists previously estimated, a new study has found. The research represents one of the most comprehensive surveys yet of methane emissions from US oil- and gas-producing regions, and found that  emissions were significantly higher than previously estimated.

The big picture: The study highlights the urgent need for new and better ways of tracking the powerful greenhouse gas. The problem is, it’s basically impossible to use just one instrument to measure all the different methane sources. Read the full story.

—Casey Crownhart

To learn more about why methane emissions are still such a mystery, check out the latest edition of The Spark, our weekly climate newsletter. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Wednesday.

The must-reads

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

1 The US has passed a bill that could lead to a TikTok ban 
But that still doesn’t mean it’ll happen. (Vox)
+ What happens next is anyone’s guess. (NYT $)
+ TikTok is insisting it’s a major contributor to US GDP. (WP $)
+...But the app itself loses several billion dollars a year. (The Information $)

2 Measles is resurging in the US

Vaccination rates are down, and outbreaks are on the rise. (The Atlantic $)
+ The very young and the immunocompromised are at the highest risk. (Vox)
+ How wastewater could offer an early warning system for measles. (MIT Technology Review)

3 SpaceX is limbering up for another Starship launch today
It’s hoping to demonstrate relighting a Raptor engine in space for the first time. (TechCrunch)+ It’s also the first time SpaceX is anticipating splashing down in the Indian Ocean. (Ars Technica)
+ Starlink has been denied permission to deploy new satellites in low orbit. (IEEE Spectrum)

4 China’s record on climate change is a mixed bag
On one hand, it’s a green tech hub. On the other, it’s still a massive pollutor. (Economist $)
+ The world’s biggest crude oil producer, though? That’d be the US. (Vox)
+ Emissions hit a record high in 2023. (MIT Technology Review)

5 Black women who blow the whistle on tech malpractice face higher risks
They’re forced to weather considerably more scrutiny and abuse than their white counterparts. (The Markup)
+ Inside Timnit Gebru’s last days at Google. (MIT Technology Review)

6 A child extortion network has been hiding in plain sight online
The sprawling ecosystem of predators spreads across major platforms, who have failed to stamp the groups out. (Wired $) 

7 Commercial safes can be bypassed by secret backdoor codes
And the US Department of Defense wants to keep it quiet. (404 Media)

8 We’re entering the age of moon mining
The moon is rich in Helium-3, an isotope that could fuel nuclear reactors. (WP $)
+ Here’s how we could mine the moon for rocket fuel. (MIT Technology Review)

9 Facebook Marketplace is the last good thing about the social network
If you can swerve the scams, that is. (NYT $)

10 Neil Young’s music is returning to Spotify
But the man himself is—characteristically—unhappy about it. (Insider $)

Quote of the day

“TikTok is banned in China. So, we’re going to emulate the Chinese communists by banning it in our country?”

—US Senator Rand Paul makes his feelings on the proposed TikTok ban clear in an interview with The Hill.

The big story

California’s coming offshore wind boom faces big engineering hurdles

December 2022

Last December, dozens of companies fought for the right to lease the first commercial wind power sites off the coast of California in an auction that could kick-start the state’s next clean energy boom.

The state has an ambitious goal: building 25 gigawatts of offshore wind by 2045. That’s equivalent to nearly a third of the state’s total generating capacity today, or enough to power 25 million homes.

But, among other tests, the plans are facing a daunting geological challenge: the continental shelf drops steeply just a few miles off the California coast. 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.)

+ The winners of this year’s Sony World Photography Awards are truly jaw-dropping.
+ This scarf-printing process is weirdly soothing to watch.
+ Today, on Albert Einstein’s birthday, why not take the time to brush up on the theory of relativity?
+ Curb Your Enthusiasm: ranked. Do you agree?

Deep Dive

The Download

The Download: Apple’s AI plans, and a carbon storage boom

Plus: Elon Musk has withdrawn his lawsuit against OpenAI

The Download: more energy-efficient AI, and the problem with QWERTY keyboards

Plus: an FDA panel has voted against approving MDMA as a treatment for PTSD

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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