The Download: AI privacy risks, and cleaning up shipping

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.

What does GPT-3 “know” about me?

One of the biggest stories in tech this year has been the rise of large language models (LLMs). These are AI models that produce text a human might have written—sometimes so convincingly they have tricked people into thinking they are sentient.

These models’ power comes from troves of publicly available human-created text that has been hoovered from the internet. If you’ve posted anything even remotely personal in English on the internet, chances are your data might be part of some of the world’s most popular LLMs. 

My colleague Melissa Heikkilä, our AI reporter, recently started to wonder what data these models might have on her—and how it could be misused. A bruising experience a decade ago left her paranoid about sharing personal details online, so she put OpenAI’s GPT-3 to the test to see what it “knows” about her. Read about what she found.

How ammonia could help clean up global shipping

The news: Foul-smelling ammonia might seem like an unlikely fuel to help cut greenhouse-gas emissions. But it could also play a key role in decarbonizing global shipping, providing an efficient way to store the energy needed to power large ships on long journeys.

What’s happening: The American Bureau of Shipping recently granted early-stage approval for some ammonia-powered ships and fueling infrastructure, meaning such ships could hit the seas within the next few years. While the fuel would require new engines and fueling systems, swapping it in for fossil fuels that ships burn today could help make a significant dent in global carbon emissions.

What’s next: Some companies are looking even further into the future, with New York–based Amogy raising nearly $50 million earlier this year to use the chemical for fuel cells that promise even greater emissions cuts. If early tests for ammonia work out, these new technologies could help the shipping industry to significantly reduce its emissions. Read the full story.

—Casey Crownhart

The must-reads

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

1 Pakistan is reeling from its devastating flooding
Poor policy making, mixed with a climate change-driven monsoon, has displaced millions of people and destroyed homes, food and livelihoods. (Vox
+ These images highlight the extent of the destruction. (The Guardian)
+ Residents are trying to salvage their belongsides from the waters. (BBC)

2 California has passed new online child safety rules 
The legislation will force websites and apps to add protective measures for under-18s. (NYT $)
The state also wants to punish doctors who spread health misinformation. (NYT $) 

3 NASA will try to launch its Artemis rocket again on Saturday
An inaccurate sensor reading is believed to have caused the botched lift-off on Monday. (BBC)

4 Elon Musk has found a new tactic to try to wriggle out of buying Twitter
He’s using the recent whistleblower allegations. (FT $)
+ What you need to know about the upcoming legal fight. (WSJ $)
+ Twitter is failing to adequately tackle self-harming content. (Ars Technica)

5 Deepfakes are infiltrating the mainstream
The technology is improving by the day, and we should be worried. (WP $)
+ A horrifying new AI app swaps women into porn videos with a click. (MIT Technology Review)

6 Cyber insurance isn’t equipped to deal with cyber warfare
Insurers can’t agree on what should and shouldn’t be covered. (Wired $)

7 A program to clean polluted Nigerian wetlands worsened the problem
Ogoniland residents have been left to deal with the oil-soaked lands. (Bloomberg $)
+ The companies that caused an oil spill in California have been fined $13 million. (CNN)

8 How giant isopods got so giant
The roly-poly relative’s genes explain why it can grow to the size of a chihuahua. (Hakai Magazine)
+ The primordial coelacanth was an energy-saving expert. (New Scientist $)

9 Gen Z is really into making collages
Naturally, there’s an app for that. (The Information $)

10 Dadcore fashion has gone viral 🎣
Leaving a generation of iconic fishing fans in its wake. (Input)

Quote of the day

“I’ve definitely had days where I’ve achieved all of that, but it’s exhausting.”

—Dynasti deGouville, 22, describes the pressure she felt to subscribe to the #ThatGirl lifestyle of early rising, grueling exercise, and restrictive diets peddled by TikTok clips of thin, white women to the Wall Street Journal.

The big story

Humanity is stuck in short-term thinking. Here’s how we escape.

October 2020

Humans have evolved over millennia to grasp an ever-expanding sense of time. We have minds capable of imagining a future far off into the distance. Yet while we may have this ability, it is rarely deployed in daily life. If our descendants were to diagnose the ills of 21st-century civilization, they would observe a dangerous short-termism: a collective failure to escape the present moment and look further ahead.

The world is saturated in information, and standards of living have never been higher, but so often it’s a struggle to see beyond the next news cycle, political term, or business quarter. How to explain this contradiction? Why have we come to be so stuck in the “now”? Read the full story.

—Richard Fisher

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 dog slide looks like an infinite delight.
+ Three hours of underground 90s hip hop is guaranteed to put you in a good mood.
+ After a two-year break, the World Gravy Wrestling Championship is back! 
+ Electro icon Gary Numan has some interesting words of wisdom.
+ The Perseverance Rover is digging around for evidence of past life on Mars.

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