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The Download

The Download: Harvard’s geoengineering failure, and extending nuclear plants’ lifetimes

Plus: Google is weighing up charging for its AI-powered search

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 hard lessons of Harvard’s failed geoengineering experiment

In March 2017, at a small summit in Washington, DC, two Harvard professors, David Keith and Frank Keutsch, laid out plans to conduct what would have been the first solar geoengineering experiment in the stratosphere.

The basic concept behind solar geoengineering is that by spraying certain particles high above the planet, humans could reflect some amount of sunlight back into space as a means of counteracting climate change. But critics have argued that an intervention that could tweak the entire planet’s climate system is too dangerous to study in the real world.

The single, small balloon experiment came to represent all of these fears—and, in the end, it was more than the researchers were prepared to take on. Last month, a decade after the project was first proposed, Harvard officially announced the project’s termination. So what went wrong? And what does that failure say about the latitude that researchers have to explore such a controversial subject? Read the full story.

—James Temple

Why the lifetime of nuclear plants is getting longer

The average age of reactors in nuclear power plants around the world is creeping up. In the US, which has more operating reactors than any other country, the average reactor is 42 years old. Nearly 90% of reactors in Europe have been around for 30 years or more. 

Older reactors, especially smaller ones, have been shut down in droves due to economic pressures, particularly in areas with other inexpensive sources of electricity, like cheap natural gas. But there could still be a lot of life left in older nuclear reactors. 

Extending the lifetime of existing nuclear plants could help cut emissions and is generally cheaper than building new ones. So just how long can we expect nuclear power plants to last? 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.

Your solar eclipse questions, answered

On Monday, April 8, a total solar eclipse will cross North America. It’ll be the last one visible from the mainland United States until 2044. Join MIT Technology Review at 4pm ET tomorrow for a fun (and free!) LinkedIn Live session dedicated to answering all of your burning solar eclipse questions ahead of this spectacular celestial event.

The must-reads

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

1 Google is considering charging for its AI-powered search 
In what would be the biggest-ever shake-up of its search engine business. (FT $)
+ Google has never paywalled any element of search before now. (Bloomberg $)
+ Why you shouldn’t trust AI search engines. (MIT Technology Review)

2 Israel used AI to identify 37,000 potential Palestinian targets 
The system rapidly processed masses of data to list men it said were linked to Hamas. (The Guardian)
+ Inside the messy ethics of making war with machines. (MIT Technology Review)

3 Banks and financial services are being targeted by deep fakes
Bad actors are increasingly turning to AI to impersonate customers and steal money. (WSJ $)

4 Microsoft claims to have made the most reliable quantum computer yet
It’s able to correct its own errors, which is a significant step forward. (New Scientist $)
+ Quantum computing is taking on its biggest challenge: noise. (MIT Technology Review)

5 X is restoring blue checks to influential users 
Much to the surprise of the account holders. (WP $)

6 NASA is taking moon buggy design suggestions
Three companies are locked in competition to build the futuristic vehicles. (NYT $)
+ The rovers will operate even when astronauts are not on the moon. (WP $)
+ Future space food could be made from astronaut breath. (MIT Technology Review)

7 Cryptographers explain how they cracked the Zodiac Killer cipher
After it stumped experts for 51 years. (404 Media)

8 Chinese netizens are mourning deceased loved ones with AI
Through digital avatars and audio voice recreations. (The Guardian)
+ Mourners would do well to temper their expectations of these grief tools. (Undark Magazine)
+ Technology that lets us “speak” to our dead relatives has arrived. Are we ready? (MIT Technology Review)

9 Cultured quail meat has been approved for sale in Singapore
It’s the brainchild of the same company that created a wooly mammoth meatball. (Bloomberg $)
+ Here’s what a lab-grown burger tastes like. (MIT Technology Review)

10 Brands are worried that ChatGPT hates them
A negative write-up from the chatbot definitely falls in the ‘bad publicity’ category. (Fast Company $)

Quote of the day

“It has eaten our world. It will eat everyone else’s world.”

—Bill Boulding, dean of Duke’s Fuqua School, explains to the Wall Street Journal why business schools have been forced into integrating AI into every aspect of their teaching.

The big story

Millions of coders are now using AI assistants. How will that change software?

December 2023

Two weeks into the coding class he was teaching at Duke University in North Carolina this spring, Noah Gift told his students they’d no longer be working with Python, one of the most popular entry-level programming languages. Instead, they’d be using an AI tool called Copilot, a turbocharged autocomplete for computer code, to use Rust, a language that was newer, more powerful, and much harder to learn.

Gift isn't alone. Ask a room of programmers if they use Copilot, and many now raise a hand. Like ChatGPT with education, Copilot is up-ending an entire profession by giving people new ways to perform old tasks.

With Microsoft and Google about to embed similar AI models into office software used by billions around the world, it’s worth asking exactly what these tools do for programmers. And just how big a difference will they make? Read the full story.

—Will Douglas Heaven

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.)

+ Sydney’s annual duck fashion show is the sartorial event of the season.
+ A night out with a Robbie Williams tribute act, who could ask for more?
+ This innovative interpretation of Star Wars’ Imperial March is very funny.
+ The world’s largest hot dog is coming to Times Square—kind of. 🌭

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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