The Download April 19, 2022: Neo-colonial AI, and aging clocks

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.

South Africa’s private surveillance machine is fueling a digital apartheid

Johannesburg, the sprawling megacity once home to Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, is now birthing a uniquely South African surveillance model. In the last five years, the city has become host to a centralized, coordinated, entirely privatized mass surveillance operation. Vumacam, the company building the nationwide CCTV network, already has over 6,600 cameras and counting, more than 5,000 of which are concentrated in Johannesburg. The video footage it takes feeds into security rooms around the country, which then use all manner of AI tools like license plate recognition to track population movement and trace individuals. These tools have been enthusiastically adopted by the local security industry, grappling with the pressures of a high-crime environment.

Civil rights activists worry the new surveillance is fueling a digital apartheid and unraveling people’s democratic liberties, but a growing chorus of experts say the stakes are even higher. They argue that the impact of artificial intelligence is repeating the patterns of colonial history, and here in South Africa, where colonial legacies abound, the unfettered deployment of AI surveillance offers just one case study in how a technology that promised to bring societies into the future is threatening to send them back to the past. Read the full story.

—Karen Hao and Heidi Swart

This is the first part of our series on AI colonialism, digging into how the technology is impoverishing the communities and countries that don’t have a say in its development. Parts 2—4 are coming later in the week, and you can read Karen Hao’s introductory essay here.

How we can fix AI’s inequality problem

The economy is being transformed by digital technologies, especially in artificial intelligence, that are rapidly changing how we live and work. But this transformation poses a troubling puzzle: these technologies haven’t done much to grow the economy, and income inequality is worsening. Productivity growth, which economists consider essential to improving living standards, has largely been sluggish since at least the mid-2000s in many countries.

Why are these technologies failing to produce more economic growth? Why aren’t they fueling more widespread prosperity? To find an answer, some leading economists and policy experts are looking more closely at how we invent and deploy AI and automation—and identifying ways we can make better choices. Read the full story.

—David Rotman

Aging clocks aim to predict how long you’ll live

Age is much more than the number of birthdays you’ve clocked. Stress, sleep, and diet all influence how our organs cope with the wear and tear of everyday life, which could make you age faster or slower than people born on the same day. That means your biological age could be quite different from your chronological age—the number of years you’ve been alive.

Your biological age is likely a better reflection of your physical health and even your own mortality than your chronological age. But calculating it isn’t nearly as straightforward, which is why scientists have spent the last decade developing tools called aging clocks that assess markers in your body to reveal your biological age and predict how many healthy years you have left. Proponents of aging clocks are already trying to use them to show that anti-aging interventions can make individuals biologically younger. But it’s unclear that they’re accurate or reliable enough to make such claims. Read the full story.

—Jessica Hamzelou

Aging clocks emerged as the clear winner for Tech Review’s 11th breakthrough technology of 2022. More than 10,000 readers voted—if you were one of them, thank you!

Quote of the day

“It’s like packing bikinis for Siberia, using chopsticks to eat steak, teaching an eagle how to swim.”

—An anonymous Shanghai resident details the frustrations of living in the city’s extreme zero-covid lockdown while cases continue to soar for The Guardian.

The must-reads

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

1 Russian soldiers are attacking a 300-mile front in Ukraine
The aim is to take full control of the Donbas region in the country’s east. (NYT $)
+ Putin’s desire to conquer Donbas is symbolic. (BBC) + The State Department has condemned Russian airstrikes as a “campaign of terror.” (WP $)
+ The siege of Mariupol appears to be drawing to an end. (FT $)

2 Crypto hackers are stealing ever-larger sums
And it’s mainly down to vulnerable, poorly-managed open-source code.(TR)
+ Bitcoin mining has devastated the city of Plattsburgh in New York. (TR)
+ The case for keeping cash. (TR)

3 Even democracies use controversial spyware
NSO has paved the way for this sort of surveillance to become terrifyingly commonplace. (New Yorker $)
+ The UK prime minister’s office has allegedly been hit with an NSO spyware attack. (The Guardian)
+ The hacker-for-hire industry is now too big to fail. (TR)

4 Facebook investing in Nigerian internet infrastructure comes at a price
Yep, you guessed it. User data. (The Guardian)
+ It’s been accused of failing to moderate misinformation in Africa. (The Guardian)

5 Intel claims its AI can read students’ emotions
Plot spoiler: it can’t. Not accurately, anyway.  (Protocol
+ Emotion AI researchers say overblown claims give their work a bad name. (TR)

6 How serious is Elon Musk about owning Twitter, really?
And should we be worried? (The Atlantic $)
+ Twitter’s board is trying hard to avoid a scenario where he buys 100% of the company.  (Bloomberg $)
+ Twitter’s edit button might show how the tweet originally appeared. (TechCrunch)

7 Food in the metaverse isn’t very good
Because—shocker—you can’t actually eat it! (Insider)
+ Here’s how to let a metaverse die with dignity. (Polygon)

8 A former Dollar General worker is using TikTok to push for union representation
Instead of listening to her concerns, the company fired her. But she’s not going quietly. (NYT $)
+ Amazon’s warehouse in New Jersey is the latest to get a union vote. (WP $)

9 Online white supremacist communities are preying on teenagers
Even the anti-racist material to combat it has been weaponized. (The Atlantic $)

10 Here’s how you should be texting 💬
Sorry, grammar sticklers! (WP $)

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 video of Peter Mayhew (Chewbacca) speaking English on the Star Wars set to help Harrison Ford react to his lines is hilarious.
+ I have a grudging respect for this unpleasant-looking Is It Cake?
+ Yet another Wordle clone, Redactle forces you to guess the redacted words from Wikipedia articles.
+ The Terrible Maps Twitter account may not be terribly useful, but it is funny.
+ This profile of mob chef David Ruggerio is completely mind-boggling.
+ Read Molly and David’s sweet story of meeting in the pandemic while he was shielding.
+ Comedian Munya’s assessment of what it’s like in the UK the second the sun comes out is spot on.

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