The Download: AI conquers Minecraft, and babies after death
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.
A bot that watched 70,000 hours of Minecraft could unlock AI’s next big thing
The news: An AI that binged on 70,000 hours of people playing Minecraft has learned how to play the game better than any AI before. The bot, created by OpenAI, showcases a powerful new technique that could be used to train machines to carry out a wide range of tasks by binging on websites like YouTube, a vast and untapped source of training data.
How they did it: The Minecraft AI learned to perform complicated sequences of keyboard and mouse clicks to complete tasks in the game. It’s the first bot that can craft so-called diamond tools, a task that typically takes good human players 20 minutes of high-speed clicking.
Why it matters: The result is a breakthrough for a technique known as imitation learning, in which neural networks are trained how to perform tasks by watching humans do them. Imitation learning can be used to train AI to control robot arms, drive cars or navigate websites. Read the full story.
—Will Douglas Heaven
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We can now use cells from dead people to create new life. But who gets to decide?
Peter Zhu was just 19 years old when he died following a skiing accident. His donor card made clear he had wanted to donate his organs. But his parents wanted to collect his sperm, too.
His parents told a court that they wanted to keep the possibility of using the sperm to eventually have children that would be genetically related to Peter. The court approved their wishes, and Peter’s sperm was retrieved from his body and stored in a local sperm bank.
We have the technology to use sperm, and potentially eggs, from dead people to make embryos, and eventually babies. And there are millions of eggs and embryos—and even more sperm—in storage and ready to be used. When the person who provided those cells dies, like Peter, who gets to decide what to do with them? Read the full story.
This story is from The Checkup, our weekly newsletter giving you the inside track on all things biotech. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Thursday.
Read more of our fascinating reproductive technology stories:
+ Inside the race to create egg and sperm cells in the lab. It uses a technique that could potentially solve infertility problems and allow more people to have children that are genetically-related to them. Read the full story.
+ Scientists have found a way to mature eggs from transgender men in the lab. It could offer them new ways to start a family—without the need for distressing IVF procedures. Read the full story. + How reproductive technology is changing what it means to be a parent. Advances could lead to babies with four or more biological parents—forcing us to reconsider parenthood. Read the full story.
I’ve combed the internet to find you today’s most fun/important/scary/fascinating stories about technology.
1 Elon Musk wants to reinstate banned Twitter accounts
It’s an incredibly dangerous decision with widespread repercussions. (WP $)
+ Recent departures have hit Twitter’s policy and safety divisions hard. (WSJ $)
+ It looks like Musk’s promise of no further layoffs was premature. (Insider $)
+ Meanwhile, Twitter Blue is still reportedly launching next week. (Reuters)
+ Imagine simply transferring your followers to another platform. (FT $)
+ Twitter’s potential collapse could wipe out vast records of recent human history. (MIT Technology Review)
2 Russia’s energy withdrawal could kill tens of thousands in Europe
High fuel costs could result in more deaths this winter than the war in Ukraine. (Economist $)
+ Higher gas prices will also hit Americans as the weather worsens. (Vox)
+ Ukraine’s invasion underscores Europe’s deep reliance on Russian fossil fuels. (MIT Technology Review)
3 FTX is unable to honor the grants it promised various organizations
Many of them are having to seek emergency funding to plug the gaps. (WSJ $)
+ Bahamians aren’t thrilled about what its collapse could mean for them. (WP $)
4 It’s a quieter Black Friday than usual
Shopping isn’t much of a priority right now. (Bloomberg $)
+ If you do decide to shop, make sure you don’t get scammed. (Wired $)
5 The UK is curbing its use of Chinese surveillance systems
But only on “sensitive” government sites. (FT $)
+ The world’s biggest surveillance company you’ve never heard of. (MIT Technology Review)
6 Long covid is still incredibly hard to treat
Its symptoms vary wildy, which can make it hard to track, too. (Undark)
+ A universal flu vaccine is looking promising. (New Scientist $)
7 San Francisco’s police is considering letting robots use deadly force
The force has 12 remotely piloted robots that could, in theory, kill someone. (The Verge)
8 Human hibernation could be the key to getting us to Mars
It could be the closest we can get to time travel. (Wired $)
9 Why TikTok is suddenly so obsessed with dabloons
It’s a form of choose-your-own-adventure fun. (The Guardian)
10 We can’t stop trying to reinvent mousetraps
There are thousands of versions out there, yet we keep coming up with new designs. (New Yorker $)
Quote of the day
“I get compared to a car crash or a train wreck a lot, where people can’t look away, which I enjoy hearing very much.”—Eli Betchik, one of TikTok’s most popular rage-bait chefs, explains their joy at concocting—and consuming—the most revolting recipes possible in front of a horrified audience to The Verge.
The big story
Toronto wants to kill the smart city forever
In February, the city of Toronto announced plans for a new development along its waterfront. They read like a wish list for any passionate urbanist: 800 affordable apartments, a two-acre forest, a rooftop farm, a new arts venue focused on indigenous culture, and a pledge to be zero-carbon.
The idea of an affordable, off-the-grid Eden in the heart of the city sounds great. But there was an entirely different urban utopia planned for the same 12-acre plot, known as Quayside, just a few years ago.
But controversy ensued almost from the moment the project, run by Sidewalk Labs, the urban innovation arm of Alphabet, was announced in 2017. It struggled to build a neighborhood “from the internet up,” and the company pulled the plug in May 2020. With its very top-down approach, Sidewalk failed to comprehend Toronto’s civic culture—and doomed its vision for a smart city in the process. Read the full story.
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.)
+ This one’s for all of Duolingo’s victims across the world.
+ David Lynch is the master of musical suspense. Here’s just a couple of his best moments.
+ These fisherman sweaters, or jumpers, as we call them in the UK, look both beautiful and incredibly cozy.
+ Lao Gan Ma Spicy Chilli Crisp, a spicy chilli sauce and national Chinese treasure, sounds right up my street.
+ Happy-almost birthday to Flossie, who at 26 is officially the world’s oldest living cat!