The Download: China’s version of ChatGPT, and protecting our brain data

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.

Chinese tech giant Baidu just released its answer to ChatGPT

Yesterday, Robin Li, Baidu’s cofounder and CEO, took the stage in Beijing to showcase the company’s new large language model, Ernie Bot. 

He showed off pre-recorded examples of what the chatbot can do, including solving math questions, writing marketing copy, and answering questions about Chinese literature.

The Chinese public has been hungry for a ChatGPT alternative; both OpenAI and the Chinese government have barred individuals in China from using the American chatbot. But Ernie Bot’s release felt comparatively rushed, and Li repeatedly said that the system is still imperfect. Read the full story.

—Zeyi Yang

If you’d like to learn more about how AI is changing the written word, check out:

+ GPT-4 is bigger and better than ChatGPT—but OpenAI won’t say why. Read the full story.

+ How AI could write our laws. Read the full story.
+ Take an exclusive look at the inside story of how ChatGPT was built, as told by the people who made it.

Tech that aims to read your mind and probe your memories is already here

In recent years, we’ve seen neurotechnologies move from research labs to real-world use. Schools have used some devices to monitor the brain activity of children to tell when they are paying attention. Police forces are using others to work out whether someone is guilty of a crime. And employers use them to keep workers awake and productive.

These technologies hold the remarkable promise of giving us all-new insight into our own minds. But our brain data is precious, and letting it fall into the wrong hands could be dangerous. Jessica Hamzelou, our senior biotech reporter, had a fascinating call with Nita Farahany, a futurist and legal ethicist at Duke University, who’s written a book arguing for new rules to protect our cognitive liberty. Read the full story.

Jessica’s story is from the Checkup, her weekly newsletter giving you the inside track on all things biotech. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Thursday.

The must-reads

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

1 Baidu’s Ernie chatbot isn’t very impressive 
China’s heavy internet censorship could be part of the reason why. (NYT $)
+ The company’s shares plummeted after its lackluster unveiling. (The Guardian)
+ Why large language models are starting to behave in weird, unpredictable ways. (Quanta)
+ The ChatGPT-fueled battle for search is bigger than Microsoft or Google. (MIT Technology Review)

2 China is likely to oppose any forced TikTok sale
The standoff between the US and China shows no sign of ending. (The Information $)
+ How TikTok became a political hot potato. (WP $)

3 We could be one step closer to confirming covid’s origins 
A new analysis suggests that raccoons may have carried the virus in 2019. (The Atlantic $)

4 Inside Elon Musk’s war room
Twitter’s still desperately scrabbling around for ways to save money. (FT $)

5 Meta’s new AI tool can predict millions of protein structures
In theory, it could help to speed up drug discovery. (WSJ $)+ Biotech labs are using AI inspired by DALL-E to invent new drugs. (MIT Technology Review)

6 Silicon Valley Bank built an empire out of pandering to VCs
Some of them are still struggling to come to terms with what happened. (Motherboard)
+ The bank’s collapse is the tech industry’s first real financial crisis. (Insider $)

7 How the tech crash has reverberated across the world
Its impact is being felt far beyond Silicon Valley. (Rest of World)

8 LinkedIn is crawling with spies
Sophisticated state-backed groups are connecting with unsuspecting targets. (Wired $)
+ The 1,000 Chinese SpaceX engineers who never existed. (MIT Technology Review)

9 Scientists have built a ‘living computer’
It’s powered by tens of thousands of brain cells from mice. (New Scientist $)

10 What Spotify’s TikTok-esque makeover means for artists
Unfortunately, it probably doesn’t mean more money. (The Guardian)
+ Is AI-generated music any good? It depends who you ask. (Wired $)

Quote of the day

“Let’s change the topic and talk about something else.”

—Gipi Talk, a ChatGPT-style chatbot developed by a group of engineers in China, refuses to answer whether Xi Jinping is a good leader, the Wall Street Journal reports.

The big story

These scientists are working to extend the life span of pet dogs—and their owners

August 2022

Matt Kaeberlein is what you might call a dog person. He has grown up with dogs and describes his German shepherd, Dobby, as “really special.” But Dobby is 14 years old—around 98 in dog years.

Kaeberlein is co-director of the Dog Aging Project, an ambitious research effort to track the aging process of tens of thousands of companion dogs across the US. He is one of a handful of scientists on a mission to improve, delay, and possibly reverse that process to help them live longer, healthier lives. 

And dogs are just the beginning. One day, this research could help to prolong the lives of humans. Read the full story.

—Jessica Hamzelou

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.)

+ In praise of loving your neighborhood, and everything in it.
+ Happy St Patrick’s Day! Enjoy this absolute classic from some of Ireland’s finest sons. 🍀
+ What should I read next? This handy website should be able to help you out.
+ Uber meets Succession meets Industry? Count me in.
+ An AI-powered cookbook is helping to reduce food waste—and to whip up some healthy recipe inspiration along the way.

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