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The Download

The Download: commercializing space, and China’s chip self-sufficiency efforts

Plus: Starlink is going after internet bootleggers

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 great commercial takeover of low-Earth orbit

NASA designed the International Space Station to fly for 20 years. It has lasted six years longer than that, though it is showing its age, and NASA is currently studying how to safely destroy the space laboratory by around 2030. 

The ISS never really became what some had hoped: a launching point for an expanding human presence in the solar system. But it did enable fundamental research on materials and medicine, and it helped us start to understand how space affects the human body. 

To build on that work, NASA has partnered with private companies to develop new, commercial space stations for research, manufacturing, and tourism. If they are successful, these companies will bring about a new era of space exploration: private rockets flying to private destinations. They’re already planning to do it around the moon. One day, Mars could follow. Read the full story.

— David W. Brown

This story is for subscribers only, and is from the next magazine issue of MIT Technology Review, set to go live on April 24, on the theme of Build. If you don’t already, sign up now to get a copy when it lands.

Why it’s so hard for China’s chip industry to become self-sufficient

Inside most laptop and data center chips today, there’s a tiny component called ABF. It's a thin insulating layer around the wires that conduct electricity. And over 90% of the materials around the world used to make this insulator are produced by a single Japanese company named Ajinomoto.

As our AI reporter James O'Donnell explained in his story last week, Ajinomoto figured out in the 1990s that a chemical by-product from the production of the seasoning powder MSG can be used to make insulator films, which proved to be essential for high-performance chips. And in the 30 years since, the company has totally dominated ABF supply.

Within China, at least three companies are developing similar insulator products to rival Ajinomoto’s. For decades, the fact that the semiconductor supply chain was in a few companies’ hands was seen as a strength, not a problem. But now, both the US and Chinese governments increasingly see it as a problem to be fixed. Read the full story.

—Zeyi Yang

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

The must-reads

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

1 Starlink is cracking down on internet thieves
Users have been connecting to its services from countries where it's not licensed to operate. (WSJ $)
+ Antarctica’s history of isolation is ending—thanks to Starlink. (MIT Technology Review)

2 Microsoft has invested more than $1 billion into an Abu Dhabi AI firm 
The company, called G42, recently cut its links with its Chinese hardware supplier. (FT $)
+ Behind Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella’s push to get AI tools in developers’ hands. (MIT Technology Review)

3 How wartime British scientists worked how how to keep humans alive underwater
Their extraordinary findings played a key part in making D-Day a success. (Wired $)

4 The longevity movement is full of contradictory arguments
But who really wants to live forever anyway? (New Yorker $)
+ The quest to legitimize longevity medicine. (MIT Technology Review)

5 Audiobooks are a hit with Spotify subscribers
But they’re limited to 15 hours’ of listening per month. (Bloomberg $)

6 Farewell to Atlas the robot 🤖
Boston Dynamics’ dancing, backflipping humanoid robot is retiring after 11 years in the spotlight. (The Verge)
+ Is robotics about to have its own ChatGPT moment? (MIT Technology Review)

7 Everything is so expensive these days
And covert personalized pricing systems are set to make things even pricier. (The Atlantic $)
+ It turns out Gen Z is a lot richer than their elders. (Economist $)

8 Amazon is a swamp of trashy ebooks
They were a problem before the AI boom, but generative AI has made the issue significantly worse. (Vox)

9 TikTok’s hottest product is industrial-grade glycine from China
The amino acids are feeding the platform’s insatiable appetite for ironic obsessions. (WP $)

10 Behold—the straw that won’t give you wrinkles
Unsurprisingly, it’s the kind of nonsense that will take off on social media. (NYT $)

Quote of the day

“People can giggle and say, 'Oh, look, there's Brutus plunging a knife into the back of Julius Caesar.'"

—Nick Clegg, president of global affairs at Meta, describes his vision of future history classes enabled by VR, Axios reports.

The big story

What is death?

November 2023

Just as birth certificates note the time we enter the world, death certificates mark the moment we exit it. This practice reflects traditional notions about life and death as binaries. We are here until, suddenly, like a light switched off, we are gone.

But while this idea of death is pervasive, evidence is building that it is an outdated social construct, not really grounded in biology. Dying is in fact a process—one with no clear point demarcating the threshold across which someone cannot come back.

Scientists and many doctors have already embraced this more nuanced understanding of death. And as society catches up, the implications for the living could be profound. Read the full story

—Rachel Nuwer

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.)

+ This Switch bread has a cute lil secret.
+ If you’re one of life’s poor navigators, fear not—you’re not alone.
+ Trying to sell your home? Don’t paint your front door these colors.
+ This is a fascinating look at the science behind entering the state of creative flow.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose Wong

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