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The Download

The Download: generating AI memories, and China’s softening tech regulation

Plus: we need to think about how we assess safe AI

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.

Generative AI can turn your most precious memories into photos that never existed

As a six-year-old growing up in Barcelona, Spain, during the 1940s, Maria would visit a neighbor’s apartment in her building when she wanted to see her father. From there, she could try and try to catch a glimpse of him in the prison below, where he was locked up for opposing the dictatorship of Francisco Franco.

There is no photo of Maria on that balcony. But she can now hold something like it: a fake photo—or memory-based reconstruction, as the Barcelona-based design studio Domestic Data Streamers puts it—of the scene that a real photo might have captured.The studio uses generative image models, such as OpenAI’s DALL-E, to bring people’s memories to life.

The fake snapshots are blurred and distorted, but they can still rewind a lifetime in an instant. Read the full story.

—Will Douglas Heaven

Why China’s regulators are softening on its tech sector

Understanding the Chinese government’s decisions to bolster or suppress a certain technology is always a challenge. Why does it favor this sector instead of that one? What triggers officials to suddenly initiate a crackdown? The answers are never easy to come by.

Angela Huyue Zhang, a law professor in Hong Kong, has some suggestions. She spoke with Zeyi Yang, our China reporter, on how Chinese regulators almost always swing back and forth between regulating tech too much and not enough, how local governments have gone to great lengths to protect local tech companies, and why AI companies in China are receiving more government goodwill than other sectors today. Read the full story.

This story is from China Report, our weekly newsletter covering tech in China. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Tuesday.

+ Read more about Zeyi's conversation with Zhang and how to apply her insights to AI here.

The must-reads

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

1 We need new ways to evaluate how safe an AI model is
Current assessment methods haven’t kept pace with the sector’s rapid development. (FT $)
+ Do AI systems need to come with safety warnings? (MIT Technology Review)

2 Japan has grand hopes of rebuilding its fallen chip industry 
And a small farming town has a critical role to play. (NYT $)
+ Google is working on its own proprietary chips to power its AI. (WSJ $)
+ Intel also unveiled a new chip to rival Nvidia’s stranglehold on the industry. (Reuters)

3 Russia canceled the launch of its newest rocket
The failure means the country is lagging further behind its space rivals in China and the US. (Bloomberg $)
+ The US is retiring one of its most powerful rockets, the Delta IV Heavy. (Ars Technica)

4 Gaming giant Blizzard is returning to China
After hashing out a new deal with long-time partner NetEase. (WSJ $)

5 Volkswagen converted a former Golf factory to produce all-electric vehicles
Its success suggests that other factories could follow suit without major job losses. (NYT $)
+ Three frequently asked questions about EVs, answered. (MIT Technology Review)

6 OpenAI is limbering up to fight numerous lawsuits
By hiring some of the world’s top legal minds to fight claims it breached copyright law. (WP $)
+ AI models that are capable of “reasoning” are on the horizon—if you believe the hype. (FT $)
+ OpenAI’s hunger for data is coming back to bite it. (MIT Technology Review)

7 San Francisco’s marshlands urgently need more mud
A new project is optimistic that dumping sediment onto the bay floor can help. (Hakai Magazine)
+ Why salt marshes could help save Venice. (MIT Technology Review)

8 Scientists are using eDNA to track down soldiers’ remains
Unlike regular DNA, it’s the genetic material we’re all constantly shedding. (Undark Magazine)
+ How environmental DNA is giving scientists a new way to understand our world. (MIT Technology Review)

9 We may have finally solved a cosmic mystery
However, not all cosmologists are in agreement. (New Scientist $)

10 Social media loves angry music 🎧
Extreme emotions require a similarly intense soundtrack. (Wired $)

Quote of the day

“I would urge everyone to think of AI as a sword, not just a shield, when it comes to bad content.”

—Nick Clegg, Meta’s global affairs chief, plays up AI’s ability to prevent the spread of misinformation rather than propagate it, the Guardian reports.

The big story

Inside China’s unexpected quest to protect data privacy

August 2020

In the West, it’s widely believed that neither the Chinese government nor Chinese people care about privacy. In reality, this isn’t true.

Over the last few years the Chinese government has begun to implement privacy protections that in many respects resemble those in America and Europe today.

At the same time, however, it has ramped up state surveillance. This paradox has become a defining feature of China’s emerging data privacy regime, and raises a serious question: Can a system endure with strong protections for consumer privacy, but almost none against government snooping? Read the full story.

—Karen Hao

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 rare, blind, hairy mole is a sight to behold.
+ When science fiction authors speak, the world listens.
+ Great, now the cat piano is going to be stuck in my head all day.
+ How to speak to just about anyone—should you want to, that is.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose Wong

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