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The Download

The Download: defining open source AI, and replacing Siri

Plus: the EU has announced a raft of new Big Tech probes

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.

The tech industry can’t agree on what open source AI means. That’s a problem.

Suddenly, “open source” is the latest buzzword in AI circles. Meta has pledged to create open-source artificial general intelligence. And Elon Musk is suing OpenAI over its lack of open-source AI models. 

Meanwhile, a growing number of tech leaders and companies are setting themselves up as open-source champions. 

But there’s a fundamental problem—no one can agree on what “open-source AI” means. In theory, it promises a future where anyone can take part in the technology’s development. That could accelerate innovation, boost transparency, and give users greater control over systems that could soon reshape many aspects of our lives. 

But what even is it? What makes an AI model open source, and what disqualifies it? Whatever the answers are, they could have significant ramifications for the future. Read the full story.

—Edd Gent

Apple researchers explore dropping “Siri” phrase & listening with AI instead

The news: Researchers from Apple are probing whether it’s possible to use artificial intelligence to detect when a user is speaking to a device like an iPhone, thereby eliminating the technical need for a trigger phrase like “Siri,” according to a new paper.

How they did it: Researchers trained a large language model using both speech captured by smartphones as well as acoustic data from background noise to look for patterns that could indicate when they want help from the device. The results were promising—the model, which was built in part with a version of OpenAI’s GPT-2, was able to make more accurate predictions than audio-only or text-only models, and improved further as the size of the models grew larger. 

Why it matters: The paper is one of a number of recent signals that Apple, which is perceived to be lagging behind other tech giants like Amazon, Google, and Facebook in the artificial intelligence race, is planning to incorporate more AI into its products. Read the full story.

James O'Donnell & Eileen Guo

The must-reads

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

1 The European Union is wasting no time applying new rules to Big Tech 
It’s using the recently-passed Digital Markets Act to investigate Apple, Meta and Google. (FT $)
+ They could face a fine of 10% of their annual turnover. (Reuters)
+ The EU has also just passed a law to rein in various uses of AI—here’s what you need to know. (MIT Technology Review)

2 The Pentagon wants to build a disposable drone army
It’s a stark departure from the military’s traditional tactics. (Vox)
+ Mass-market military drones have changed the way wars are fought.  (MIT Technology Review)

3 Americans are selling old bitcoin mining computers
Newer machines are more efficient, and companies want to keep costs down. (Bloomberg $)+ China is phasing US-made chips out of its government computers. (FT $)
+ How Bitcoin mining devastated this New York town. (MIT Technology Review)

4 We’re (probably) surrounded by mysterious ghost particles
Now CERN has greenlit a new project to prove whether they actually exist. (BBC)
+ Inside the hunt for new physics at the world’s largest particle collider. (MIT Technology Review)

5 X is desperately trying to court creators
But big name social stars are reluctant to get involved. (WSJ $)

6 China is a hotbed of AI talent
While the majority of top chatbots were developed in the US, China is creating the next generation of researchers. (NYT $)
+ Four things to know about China’s new AI rules in 2024. (MIT Technology Review)

7 Inside the fight to decarbonize software
The green software engineering movement is fast gaining momentum. (IEEE Spectrum)
+ Making an image with generative AI uses as much energy as charging your phone. (MIT Technology Review)

8 The number of landlines in the US is falling
But millions of people still rely on them, especially in emergencies. (WP $)

9 Want honest style advice? Give Xiaohongshu a try
The Chinese lifestyle app is a breath of fresh air for Americans fed up with polite but unhelpful suggestions. (WSJ $)
+ It’s making some serious cash, too. (FT $)

10 A major drama is tearing birdwatching’s most popular apps apart 🦉
Two men are locked in competition over who was first to observe 10,000 species. (The Guardian)

Quote of the day

 “You’re going to get things that people perceive as being safe. Nobody wants to play safe. Nobody says, ‘This is a good, predictable game.’”

— Saxs Persson, a vice president at video game maker Epic Games, laments how the industry is being forced into avoiding taking risks amid mass layoffs and slow growth, Bloomberg reports.

The big story

How big technology systems are slowing innovation 

February 2022 

In 2005, years before Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa came on the scene, two startups—ScanSoft and Nuance Communications—merged to pursue a burgeoning opportunity in speech recognition. The new company developed powerful speech-processing software and grew rapidly for almost a decade. Then suddenly, around 2014, it stopped growing.

Nuance’s story is far from unique. In all major industries and technology domains, startups are facing unprecedented obstacles, and growing much more slowly than comparable companies did in the past. And it will take not only strong antitrust enforcement to reverse the trend, but a fundamental loosening of restrictions like non-compete agreements and intellectual property rights. Read the full story.

—James Bessen

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 Getty Museum has released tens of thousands of images of artworks into the public domain, including paintings by Vincent van Gogh.
+ A magician reveals how those sleight of hand tricks in films and TV really work.
+ Artist Sho Shibuya has painted a sunrise on the front page of the New York Times since 2020, and the results are incredible.
+ If you’re in the US or UK, keep an eye out for the Northern lights tonight!

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: 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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