The Download: AI propaganda, and digital twins

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.

Propagandists are using AI too—and companies need to be open about it

—Josh A. Goldstein is a research fellow at Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology (CSET), where he works on the CyberAI Project. Renée DiResta is the research manager of the Stanford Internet Observatory and the author of Invisible Rulers: The People Who Turn Lies into Reality.

At the end of May, OpenAI marked a new “first” in its corporate history. It wasn’t an even more powerful language model or a new data partnership, but a report disclosing that bad actors had misused their products to run influence operations.

The company had caught five networks of covert propagandists—including players from Russia, China, Iran, and Israel—using their generative AI tools for deceptive tactics that ranged from creating large volumes of social media comments in multiple languages to turning news articles into Facebook posts.

The use of these tools, OpenAI noted, seemed intended to improve the quality and quantity of output. AI gives propagandists a productivity boost too.

As researchers who have studied online influence operations for years, we have seen influence operations continue to proliferate, on every social platform and focused on every region of the world. And if there’s one thing we’ve learned, it’s that transparency from Big Tech is paramount. Read the full story.

+ If you’re interested in how crooks are using AI, check out Melissa Heikkilä’s story on how generative tools are boosting the criminal underworld.

Digital twins are helping scientists run the world’s most complex experiments

In January 2022, NASA’s $10 billion James Webb Space Telescope was approaching the end of its one-million-mile trip from Earth. But reaching its orbital spot would be just one part of its treacherous journey. To ready itself for observations, the spacecraft had to unfold itself in a complicated choreography that, according to its engineers’ calculations, had 344 different ways to fail.

Over multiple days of choreography, the telescope fed data back to Earth in real time, and software near-simultaneously used that data to render a 3D video of how the process was going, as it was going. The 3D video represented a “digital twin” of the complex telescope: a computer-based model of the actual instrument, based on information that the instrument provided. 

The team watched tensely, during JWST’s early days, as the 344 potential problems failed to make their appearance. At last, JWST was in its final shape and looked as it should—in space and onscreen. The digital twin has been updating itself ever since.

As the technology becomes more common, researchers are increasingly finding these twins to be productive members of scientific society—helping humans run the world’s most complicated instruments, while also revealing more about the world itself and the universe beyond. Read the full story

—Sarah Scoles

The must-reads

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

1 What to expect from Apple’s AI-focused WWDC event 
A deal with OpenAI is likely to be on the cards, amid an avalanche of AI features. (Bloomberg $)
+ Siri is due to get a buzzy LLM makeover. (The Verge)
+ What we need is AI features that are actually useful, not just showboating. (TechCrunch)

2 India’s internet space race is hotting up
The country’s telecoms giants want to beat Starlink at its own game. (FT $)

3 Silicon Valley’s medical tests industry is booming
They’re enabling patients to bypass doctors—for better and worse. (WP $)

4 AI tools are being trained on the faces of Brazilian children
Without their knowledge or consent. (Wired $)
+ We need to bring consent to AI. (MIT Technology Review)

5 Online scammers are ripping off small businesses too
It’s not just big designer names at risk of being impersonated any more. (WSJ $)

6 Perplexity is repackaging news articles with minimal attribution
A Forbes journalist has hit back at how the AI search engine repurposed the publication’s reporting. (Bloomberg $)
+ Here’s how AI summaries for search engines get things wrong. (MIT Technology Review)

7 AI image detectors are doing an okay job
But the results of generative AI are becoming ever subtler. (IEEE Spectrum)
+ This tool could protect your pictures from AI manipulation. (MIT Technology Review)

8 How viral videos shifted Californians’ perspective on crime
The galvanizing effect of these clips appears to fuel public appetite for harsher penalties. (The Atlantic $)
+ AI was supposed to make police bodycams better. What happened? (MIT Technology Review)

9 Refrigerators have altered how our food tastes
Colder foods and drinks need to be extra sweet to register as sweet at all. (New Yorker $)
+ Why food allergen labels are so misleading. (Undark Magazine)

10 Nokia claims to have made the world’s first ‘immersive phone call’
Complete with 3D sound, apparently. (Reuters)

Quote of the day

“The blue wall has been breached.”

—Ryan Selkis, chief executive of cryptocurrency intelligence group Messari, tells the Financial Times how Donalad Trump is winning over traditionally liberal Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. 

The big story

Quantum computing is taking on its biggest challenge: noise

January 2024

In the past 20 years, hundreds of companies have staked a claim in the rush to establish quantum computing. Investors have put in well over $5 billion so far. All this effort has just one purpose: creating the world’s next big thing.

But ultimately, assessing our progress in building useful quantum computers comes down to one central factor: whether we can handle the noise. The delicate nature of their systems makes them extremely vulnerable to the slightest disturbance, which can generate errors or even stop a quantum computation in its tracks.

In the last couple of years, a series of breakthroughs have led researchers to declare that the problem of noise might finally be on the ropes. Read the full story.

—Michael Brooks

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.)

+ No one has ever had a better camping trip than this hedgehog.
+ Hoping to see the Northern Lights this summer? Here’s how to maximize your chances of spotting the phenomenon in the US.
+ These super-strong women can roll up 10 frying pans within a minute!
+ If you’re ever stuck on how to strike up conversation, these foolproof starters should help you out.

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