The Download: a military AI boom, and China’s industrial espionage

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 business is booming for military AI startups

Exactly two weeks after Russia invaded Ukraine in February, Alexander Karp, the CEO of data analytics company Palantir, made his pitch to European leaders. With war on their doorstep, Europeans ought to modernize their arsenals with Silicon Valley’s help, he argued in an open letter.

Militaries are responding to the call. NATO announced on June 30 that it is creating a $1 billion innovation fund that will invest in early-stage startups and venture capital funds developing “priority” technologies, while the UK has launched a new AI strategy specifically for defense, and the Germans have earmarked just under half a billion for research and AI.

​​The war in Ukraine has added urgency to the drive to push more AI tools onto the battlefield. Those with the most to gain are startups such as Palantir, which are hoping to cash in as militaries race to update their arsenals with the latest technologies. But long-standing ethical concerns over the use of AI in warfare have become more urgent as the technology becomes more and more advanced, while the prospect of restrictions and regulations governing its use looks as remote as ever. Read the full story.

—Melissa Heikkilä

Computers will be transformed by alternative materials and approaches—maybe sooner than you think

In less than a century, computing has transformed our society and helped spur countless innovations. But while we fundamentally owe these capabilities to our ability to build progressively better computing devices, the transistor at the heart of computer chips is reaching its limits.

Those on this year’s list of MIT Technology Review Innovators under 35 list are overhauling computer performance and energy efficiency with fresh ideas. Read more about their exciting contributions to computing’s next wave in this essay by Prineha Narang, the Howard Reiss Chair Professor in Physical Sciences at University of California, Los Angeles.

This essay is part of MIT Technology Review’s 2022 Innovators Under 35 package recognizing the most promising young people working in technology today. See the full list here.

The must-reads

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

1 The US and UK are gravely concerned by China’s industrial espionage
Beijing is hellbent on stealing western technology, the countries’ spy chiefs warned (FT $)
+ The US is weighing up expanding restrictions on exports to China. (NYT $)
+ It’s also pressing a Dutch chipmaker to stop selling its gear to China. (Bloomberg $)

2 Apple’s new security feature defends against government spyware
Activating Lockdown Mode is designed to prevent Pegasus-style spyware from transmitting data to other devices. (WP $)
+ The vast majority of iPhone users are unlikely to ever benefit from it. (Ars Technica

3 Why molecules could become the next microchip
Bioscience holds great promise—but it’s advancing frustratingly slowly. (FT $)
+ Biologists would love to program cells as if they were computer chips. (TR)

4 It’s a bad time to be a startup
Funding has fallen to its lowest level in three years, and more layoffs are looming. (NYT $)
+ It doesn’t look too rosy for the wider industry, either. (Bloomberg $)

5 Growing numbers of women want their tubes tied
But they still have to convince their doctor first. (Wired $)
+ Google should delete abortion search queries. (Bloomberg $)

6 Disinformation is Washington’s elephant in the room
The problem is, no one can agree on how to tackle it. (NYT $)

7 The UK wants to make deepfake porn illegal
The country’s Law Commission says that current laws haven’t moved with the times. (FT $)
+ Deepfake porn is ruining women’s lives. Now the law may finally ban it. 
(MIT Technology Review)

8 Sorry, we’re not living in a simulation
Despite some theorists’ best efforts to convince us that we are. (Big Think)
+ This super-realistic virtual world is a driving school for AI. (MIT Technology Review

9 Walking to earn crypto is as pointless as it sounds
Yet still, people have fallen for it. (NY Mag $) 
+ Some American cities are still pinning their hopes on crypto. (Slate)

10 Viral hikes are becoming a problem ⛰
Instagram geotags are causing overcrowding and disruption. (The Guardian)

Quote of the day

“I think that we just assume that something so simple must have a right answer, and it bothers us that it doesn’t.” 

—Developer Neal Agarwal, who developed the game ‘Absurd Trolley Problems,’ tells Vice why it’s a philosophical question we can’t resist debating.

The big story

The coming war on the hidden algorithms that trap people in poverty

December 2020

Credit scores have been used for decades to assess consumer creditworthiness, but their scope is far greater now that they are powered by algorithms. Their comprehensive influence means that if your score is ruined, it can be nearly impossible to recover. For low-income individuals, the rapid growth and adoption of automated decision-making systems has created a hidden web of interlocking traps.

Fortunately, a growing group of civil lawyers are beginning to organize around this issue. Borrowing a playbook from the criminal defense world’s pushback against risk-assessment algorithms, they’re seeking to fight back against the hidden systems that lock vulnerable people in poverty. Read the full story.

—Karen Hao

We can still have nice things

A place for comfort, fun and distraction in these weird times. (Got any ideas? Drop me a line or tweet ’em at me.)

+ The James Webb Space Telescope is limbering up to reveal the deepest photo of our universe ever taken.
+ Dipping your corn on the cob in a salt bath is supposedly even tastier than coating it in butter.
+ Love them or hate them, Minions are everywhere right now.
+ This week marks 26 years since Dolly the sheep became the first cloned mammal ever created from an adult cell.
+ David Harbour, aka Hopper from Stranger Things, sounds like a really interesting guy.

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