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The Download

The Download: Google’s AI Overviews nightmare, and improving search and rescue drones

Plus: OpenAI says its tools were used for political propaganda campaigns

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.

Why Google’s AI Overviews gets things wrong

When Google announced it was rolling out its artificial intelligence-powered search feature earlier this month, the company promised that “Google will do the googling for you.”The new feature, called AI Overviews, provides brief, AI-generated summaries highlighting key information and links on top of search results.

Unfortunately, AI systems are inherently unreliable. And within days of AI Overviews being released in the US, users quickly shared examples of the feature suggesting that its users add glue to pizza, eat at least one small rock a day, and that former US president Andrew Johnson earned university degrees between 1947 and 2012, despite dying in 1875. 

Yesterday, Liz Reid, head of Google Search, announced that the company has been making technical improvements to the system.

But why is AI Overviews returning unreliable, potentially dangerous information in the first place? And what, if anything, can be done to fix it? Read the full story.

—Rhiannon Williams

AI-directed drones could help find lost hikers faster

If a hiker gets lost in the rugged Scottish Highlands, rescue teams sometimes send up a drone to search for clues of the individual’s route. But with vast terrain to cover and limited battery life, picking the right area to search is critical.

Traditionally, expert drone pilots use a combination of intuition and statistical “search theory”—a strategy with roots in World War II–era hunting of German submarines—to prioritize certain search locations over others.

Now researchers want to see if a machine-learning system could do better. Read the full story.

—James O'Donnell

What’s next for bird flu vaccines

In the US, bird flu has now infected cows in nine states, millions of chickens, and—as of last week—a second dairy worker. There’s no indication that the virus has acquired the mutations it would need to jump between humans, but the possibility of another pandemic has health officials on high alert. Last week, they said they are working to get 4.8 million doses of H5N1 bird flu vaccine packaged into vials as a precautionary measure. 

The good news is that we’re far more prepared for a bird flu outbreak than we were for covid. We know so much more about influenza than we did about coronaviruses. And we already have hundreds of thousands of doses of a bird flu vaccine sitting in the nation’s stockpile.

The bad news is we would need more than 600 million doses to cover everyone in the US, at two shots per person. And the process we typically use to produce flu vaccines takes months and relies on massive quantities of chicken eggs—one of the birds that’s susceptible to avian flu. Read about why we still use a cumbersome, 80-year-old vaccine production process to make flu vaccines—and how we can speed it up.

—Cassandra Willyard

This story is from The Checkup, our weekly biotech and health newsletter. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Thursday.

The must-reads

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

1 Russia, Iran and China used generative AI in covert propaganda campaigns
But their efforts weren’t overly successful. (NYT $) 
+ The groups used the generative AI models to write social media posts. (WP $)
+ NSO Group spyware has been used to hack Russian journalists living abroad. (Bloomberg $)
+ How generative AI is boosting the spread of disinformation and propaganda. (MIT Technology Review)

2 TikTok is reportedly working on a clone of its recommendation algorithm
Splitting its source code could trigger the creation of a US-only version of the app. (Reuters)
+ TikTok is attempting to convince the US of its independence from China. (The Verge)

3 A man in England has received a personalized cancer vaccine
Elliot Pfebve is the first patient to receive the jab as part of a major trial. (The Guardian)
+ Cancer vaccines are having a renaissance. (MIT Technology Review)

4 Amazon’s drone delivery business has cleared a major hurdle
US regulators have approved its drones to fly longer distances. (CNBC)

5 OpenAI has launched a version of ChatGPT for universities
ChatGPT Edu is supposed to help institutions deploy AI “responsibly.” (Forbes)
+ ChatGPT is going to change education, not destroy it. (MIT Technology Review)

6 Chile is fighting back against Big Tech’s data centers
Activists aren’t happy with the American giants’ lack of transparency. (Rest of World)
+ Energy-hungry data centers are quietly moving into cities. (MIT Technology Review)

7 Israel is tracking subatomic particles to map underground areas
Archaeologists avoid digging in places with religious significance. (Bloomberg $)

8 Ecuador is in serious trouble 
Drought and power outages are making daily life increasingly difficult. (Wired $)
+ Emissions hit a record high in 2023. Blame hydropower. (MIT Technology Review)

9 How to fight the rise of audio deepfakes
A wave of new techniques could make it easier to tackle the convincing clips. (IEEE Spectrum)
+ Here’s what it’s like to come across your nonconsensual AI clone. (404 Media)
+ An AI startup made a hyperrealistic deepfake of me that’s so good it’s scary. (MIT Technology Review)

10 The James Webb Space Telescope has spotted its most distant galaxy yet 🌌
The JADES-GS-z14-0 galaxy was captured as it was a mere 290 million years after the Big Bang. (BBC)

Quote of the day

“Despite what Donald Trump thinks, America is not for sale to billionaires, oil and gas executives, or even Elon Musk.”

—James Singer, a spokesperson for the Biden campaign, mocks Trump’s attempts to court Musk and other mega donors to fund his reelection campaign, the Financial Times reports.

The big story

How to fix the internet

October 2023

We’re in a very strange moment for the internet. We all know it’s broken. But there’s a sense that things are about to change. The stranglehold that the big social platforms have had on us for the last decade is weakening.

There’s a sort of common wisdom that the internet is irredeemably bad. That social platforms, hungry to profit off your data, opened a Pandora’s box that cannot be closed.

But the internet has also provided a haven for marginalized groups and a place for support. It offers information at times of crisis. It can connect you with long-lost friends. It can make you laugh.

The internet is worth fighting for because despite all the misery, there’s still so much good to be found there. And yet, fixing online discourse is the definition of a hard problem. But don’t worry. I have an idea. Read the full story

—Katie Notopoulos

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.)+ It’s peony season!
+ Forget giant squid—there’s colossal squid living in the depths of the ocean. 🦑
+  Is a long conversation in a film your idea of cinematic perfection, or a drawn-out nightmare?
+ Here’s how to successfully decompress after a long day at work.

Deep Dive

The Download

The Download: defining AI, and China’s driverless ambitions

Plus: Apple and Microsoft are walking away from OpenAI's board

The Download: AI agents, and how to detect a lie

Plus: Chinese EVs have hit an EU-shaped blockade

The Download: fish-safe hydropower, and fixing space debris

Plus: Apple is planning to bring AI features to the Vision Pro

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose Wong

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