The Download: bots for the brokenhearted, and AI for life and death decisions

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.

Technology that lets us speak to our dead relatives has arrived. Are we ready?

My colleague Charlotte embarked on an experiment during the pandemic. She created digital versions of her parents. They’re voice assistants constructed by the company HereAfter AI, powered by more than four hours of conversations they each had with an interviewer about their lives and memories.

Technology like this, which lets you “talk” to people who’ve died, has been a mainstay of science fiction for decades. But now it’s becoming a reality—and an increasingly accessible one, thanks to advances in AI and voice technology.

While Charlotte’s real, flesh-and-blood parents are still alive and well, their avatars offer a glimpse at a world where it’s possible to converse with loved ones—or simulacra of them—long after they’re gone.

But at the same time, the ethics of creating a virtual version of someone are understandably complex, and some people worry that digital versions of lost loved ones could actually prolong your grief—or even loosen your grip on reality. Read the full story.

—Charlotte Jee

Charlotte’s touching piece is from our forthcoming mortality-themed issue, available from October 26. If you want to read it when it comes out, you can subscribe to MIT Technology Review for as little as $80 a year.

AI could one day help to make life-and-death decisions

Philip Nitschke, also known as “Dr. Death” or “the Elon Musk of assisted suicide,” has a curious goal. He wants to “demedicalize” death and make assisted suicide as unassisted as possible through technology.

Nitschke’s nonprofit, Exit International, is working on an algorithm-based psychiatric self-assessment to allow people to end their lives without any human involvement. Although Nitschke is an extreme example, AI is already being used to triage and treat patients in a growing number of health-care fields. 

But many people feel extremely uneasy about letting algorithms help to make decisions about whether people live or die, and rightfully so. Read the full story.

—Melissa Heikkilä

This story is from The Algorithm, our new weekly newsletter giving you the inside track on all things AI. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Monday.

The must-reads

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

1 Russia is terrorizing Ukraine with deadly Iranian drones 
The unmanned “kamikaze” drones are targeting infrastructure in Kyiv. (FT $)
+ The US government has committed to another billion-dollar aid package. (New Yorker $)
+ China, India and Turkey are still buying fuel from Russia. (Vox)

2 Kayne West has agreed to buy Parler
What happens now is anyone’s guess. (CNBC)
+ West said he was driven to make the purchase after being banned by Instagram and Twitter. (Bloomberg $)
+ He’s been repeating extremist conspiracy theories lately. (Vox)
+ As fringe social platforms go, Parler is extremely small fry. (Slate)

3 China is struggling to control its fans
Fandoms are notoriously competitive, and they’re undermining Xi Jinping’s vision of a united China. (Vox)
+ How China’s biggest online influencers fell from their thrones. (MIT Technology Review)

4 Astronomers have witnessed the brightest explosion of all time
This kind of gamma ray burst is estimated to occur once every thousand years. (New Scientist $)

5 Why “zero trust” is losing its meaning
Partly because not all cybersecurity teams can agree on what it refers to. (Protocol)

6 Iodine tablets aren’t a magic cure for radiation exposure
They can, however, protect one specific part of the body. (Wired $)
+ NATO is watching Russia like a hawk for signs of a nuclear attack. (Economist $) 

7 We need to change how we view the ocean
That should involve giving it a legal right to life, researchers argue. (Motherboard)
+ Sponge cities are changing our relationship with water. (Wired $)
+ The architect making friends with flooding. (MIT Technology Review)

8 The home surveillance industry thrives on paranoia
The question is, what to do when nothing happens? (The Atlantic $)
+ How Amazon Ring uses domestic violence to market doorbell cameras. (MIT Technology Review)

9 Teenagers want to be nice to each other online, actually ❤
Luckily, there’s an app for that. (WSJ $)

10 A bionic nose could help covid patients to smell again 👃
By communicating with a brain implant. (IEEE Spectrum)

Quote of the day

“If you’re looking back at those experiences to be a guide on what will happen, you are playing out of a bad playbook.”

—John Lovelock, an analyst at Gartner, tells Insider why the current economic uncertainty, which is driven by inflation and not cash or employment problems, differs from other recessions in recent memory.

The big story

Why venture capital doesn’t build the things we really need

June 2020

Venture capitalists sell themselves as the top of the heap in Silicon Valley. They are the talent spotters, the cowboys, the risk takers; they support people willing to buck the system and, they say, deserve to be richly rewarded and lightly taxed for doing so.

This largely white, largely male corner of finance has backed software companies that grow fast and generate large amounts of money for a shrinking number of Americans—companies like Google, Facebook, Uber, and Airbnb. But they don’t create many jobs for ordinary people, especially compared with the companies or industries they disrupt. And things have been slowing down. Recently, venture capitalists have found fewer and fewer ideas that fit their preferred pattern. Read the full story.

—Elizabeth MacBride

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.)

+ Even babies in the womb aren’t sure about the taste of kale.
+ AI’s interpretation of what comedy flyers should look like is truly frightening. 
+ Aww, this baby pangolin is really enjoying its back scratch.
+ A quick trip through how witches have enchanted art over the centuries.
+ I can’t get enough of these banging bongo beats (thanks Afroditi!)

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