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The Download

The Download: Sam Altman on AI’s killer function, and the problem with ethanol

Plus: this group of tech billionaires want to shape US AI policy

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.

Sam Altman says helpful agents are poised to become AI’s killer function

Sam Altman, CEO of OpenAI, has a vision for how AI tools will become enmeshed in our daily lives. 

During a sit-down chat with MIT Technology Review in Cambridge, Massachusetts, he described how he sees the killer app for AI as a “super-competent colleague that knows absolutely everything about my whole life, every email, every conversation I’ve ever had, but doesn’t feel like an extension.”

In the new paradigm, as Altman sees it, AI will be capable of helping us outside the chat interface and taking real-world tasks off our plates. Read more about Altman’s thoughts on the future of AI hardware, where training data will come from next, and who is best poised to create AGI.

—James O'Donnell

A US push to use ethanol as aviation fuel raises major climate concerns

Eliminating carbon pollution from aviation is one of the most challenging parts of the climate puzzle, simply because large commercial airlines are too heavy and need too much power during takeoff for today’s batteries to do the job. 

But one way that companies and governments are striving to make progress is through the use of various types of sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs), which are derived from non-petroleum sources and promise to be less polluting than standard jet fuel.

This week, the US announced a push to help its biggest commercial crop, corn, become a major feedstock for SAFs. It could set the template for programs in the future that may help ethanol producers generate more and more SAFs. But that is already sounding alarm bells among some observers. Read the full story.

James Temple

Three takeaways about the current state of batteries

Batteries have been making headlines this week. First, there’s a new special report from the International Energy Agency all about how crucial batteries are for our future energy systems. The report calls batteries a “master key,” meaning they can unlock the potential of other technologies that will help cut emissions.

Second, we’re seeing early signs in California of how the technology might be earning that “master key” status already by helping renewables play an even bigger role on the grid. 

Our climate reporter Casey Crownhart has rounded up the three things you need to know about the current state of batteries—and what’s to come. Read the full story.

This story is from The Spark, our weekly climate and energy 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 These tech moguls are planning how to construct AI rules for Trump
They helped draft and promote TikTok ban legislation—and AI is next on their agenda. (WP $)
+ Ted Kaouk is the US markets’ regulator’s first AI officer. (WSJ $)+ A new AI security bill would create a record of data breaches. (The Verge)
+ Here’s where AI regulation is heading. (MIT Technology Review)

2 Crypto’s grifters insist they’ve learned their lesson
But the state of the industry suggests they’ll make the same mistakes over again. (Bloomberg $)

3 Good luck tracking down these AI chips
South Korean chip supplier SK Hynix says it’s sold out for the year. (WSJ $)
+ It’s almost fully booked throughout 2025, too. (Bloomberg $)
+ Why it’s so hard for China’s chip industry to become self-sufficient. (MIT Technology Review)

4 Universal Music Group has struck a deal with TikTok 
The label’s music was pulled from the platform three months ago. (Variety $)
+ Taylor Swift, Olivia Rodrigo, and Drake are among its high-profile roster. (The Verge)

5 Ukraine is bootstrapping its own killer-drone industry
Effectively creating air-bound bombs in lieu of more sophisticated long-range missiles. (Wired $)
+ Mass-market military drones have changed the way wars are fought. (MIT Technology Review)

6  The US asylum border app is stranding vulnerable migrants
Its scarce appointments leave asylum seekers with little choice but to pay human trafficking groups. (The Guardian)
+ The new US border wall is an app. (MIT Technology Review)

7 Things aren’t looking good for Volocopter
The flying taxi startup is holding crisis talks with investors. (FT $)
+ These aircraft could change how we fly. (MIT Technology Review)

8 Describing quantum systems is a time-consuming process
A new algorithm could help to dramatically speed things up. (Quanta Magazine)

9 What Reddit’s ‘Am I the Asshole?’ forum can teach philosophers
It’s an undoubtedly brave endeavor. (Vox)

10 The web’s home page refuses to die
Social media is imploding, but the humble website prevails. (New Yorker $)
+ How to fix the internet. (MIT Technology Review)

Quote of the day

“Whomever they choose, they king-make.”

— Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s CEO, describes the stranglehold Apple exercises over the companies vying to make its default search engine for iPhone, Bloomberg reports.

The big story

Can Afghanistan’s underground “sneakernet” survive the Taliban?

November 2021

When Afghanistan fell to the Taliban, Mohammad Yasin had to make some difficult decisions very quickly. He began erasing some of the sensitive data on his computer and moving the rest onto two of his largest hard drives, which he then wrapped in a layer of plastic and buried underground.

Yasin is what is locally referred to as a “computer kar”: someone who sells digital content by hand in a country where a steady internet connection can be hard to come by, selling everything from movies, music, mobile applications, to iOS updates. And despite the dangers of Taliban rule, the country’s extensive “sneakernet” isn’t planning on shutting down. Read the full story.

—Ruchi Kumar

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.)

+ There is nothing more terrifying than a ‘boy room.’
+ These chocolate limes look beyond delicious (and seriously convincing!) 🍋‍🟩
+ Drake is beefing with everyone—but why?
+ Here’s how to calm that eternal to-do list in your head.

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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