The Download: deepfakes of the dead, and why it’s time to embrace fake meat

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.

Deepfakes of your dead loved ones are a booming Chinese business

Once a week, Sun Kai has a video call with his mother, and they discuss his day-to-day life. But Sun’s mother died five years ago, and the person he’s talking to isn’t actually a person, but a digital replica he made of her—a moving image that can conduct basic conversations. They’ve been talking for a few years now.

There are plenty of people like Sun who want to use AI to preserve, animate, and interact with lost loved ones as they mourn and try to heal. The market is particularly strong in China, where at least half a dozen companies are now offering such technologies and thousands of people have already paid for them.

But some question whether interacting with AI replicas of the dead is truly a healthy way to process grief, and it’s not entirely clear what the legal and ethical implications of this technology may be. Still, if only 1% of Chinese people can accept AI cloning of the dead, that’s still a huge market. Read the full story.

—Zeyi Yang

To read more about China’s flourishing market for deepfakes that clone the dead, check out the latest edition of China Report, our weekly newsletter covering tech in China. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Tuesday.

How I learned to stop worrying and love fake meat

Fixing our collective meat problem is one of the trickiest challenges in addressing climate change—and for some baffling reason, the world seems intent on making the task even harder.

The latest example occurred last week, when Florida governor Ron DeSantis signed a law banning the production, sale, and transportation of cultured meat across the Sunshine State. 

The good news is the world is making some real progress in developing meat substitutes that increasingly taste like, look like the traditional versions, whether they’ve been developed from animal cells or plants. 

If they catch on and scale up, it could make a real dent in emissions—with the bonus of reducing animal suffering, environmental damage, and the spillover of animal disease into the human population. The bad news is we can’t seem to take the wins when we get them. Read the full story.

—James Temple

The way whales communicate is closer to human language than we realized

The news: Sperm whales are fascinating creatures. They possess the biggest brain of any species, and are highly social. But there’s also a lot we don’t know about them, including what they may be trying to say to one another when they communicate using a system of short bursts of clicks, known as codas. Now, new research suggests that sperm whales’ communication is actually much more expressive and complicated than previously thought.

How they did it: Researchers used statistical models to analyze whale codas and managed to identify a structure to their language that’s similar to features of the complex vocalizations humans use. Their findings represent a tool future research could use to decipher not just the structure but the actual meaning of whale sounds. Read the full story.

—Rhiannon Williams

The must-reads

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

1 OpenAI has created a deepfake detector
But it’s only sharing it with a handful of disinformation researchers. (NYT $)
+ It also doesn’t work 100% of the time, to no one’s surprise. (WSJ $)+ OpenAI is working on a search feature for ChatGPT, apparently. (Bloomberg $)
+ An AI startup made a hyperrealistic deepfake of me that’s so good it’s scary. (MIT Technology Review)

2 TikTok is suing the US government
In a bid to block the law that could force its parent company to sell it. (WSJ $)
+ TikTok’s algorithm could be rebuilt if necessary, says the former US secretary. (Bloomberg $)

3 Boeing has called off its first crewed space flight
An anomaly on the rocket’s pressure regulation valve was to blame. (NBC News)
+ It’s unlikely to take off until Friday at the earliest. (WP $)
+ Elon Musk doesn’t see a current use for AI at SpaceX. (Insider $)

4 The US is cracking down on chip exports to Huawei
Intel and Qualcomm will be curbed from doing business with the Chinese firm. (WP $)
+ Why it’s so hard for China’s chip industry to become self-sufficient. (MIT Technology Review)

5 A Chinese scam ring is duping international shoppers
Its fake designer web shops have been operating for close to a decade. (The Guardian)

6 It takes a while to diagnose someone with depression 
But researchers are interested in harnessing our devices to speed the process up. (Vox)
+ Here’s how personalized brain stimulation could treat depression. (MIT Technology Review)

7 This hacking technique steals data via your computer’s processor
Even when it’s running software that’s been blocked from the internet. (New Scientist $)
+ Microsoft has created an AI model that doesn’t need the internet. (Bloomberg $)

8 There’s space metals in them thar asteroids
Mining companies are scrambling to strike it big up in space. (Undark Magazine)
+ The first-ever mission to pull a dead rocket out of space has begun. (MIT Technology Review)

9 Ticketmaster’s ‘untransferable’ tickets are anything but 🎟
Where there’s a will, scalpers will find a way. (404 Media)

10 Tesla fans in India have been waiting eight years for their cars
Without even so much as an apology. (Rest of World)

Quote of the day

“Lol mom the AI got you too, BEWARE!”

—Singer Katy Perry shares how her own mother fell for an AI-generated image of Perry in an elaborate gown seemingly attending the Met Gala earlier this week, 404 Media reports.

The big story

Novel lithium-metal batteries will drive the switch to electric cars 

February 2021

For all the hype and hope around electric vehicles, they still make up only about 2% of new car sales in the US, and just a little more globally.

For many buyers, they’re simply too expensive, their range is too limited, and charging them isn’t nearly as quick and convenient as refueling at the pump. All these limitations have to do with the lithium-ion batteries that power the vehicles.

But QuantumScape, a Silicon Valley startup is working on a new type of battery that could finally make electric cars as convenient and cheap as gas ones. Read the full story.

—James Temple

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.)

+ These little mice are having the best time in their custom-built pub.
+ Leonel Vasquez’s sonic sculptures are very cool.
+ Bob Dylan doesn’t care about attaining perfection—and neither should you.
+ Tongue twisters have been tripping us up for centuries. Here’s a look back over the history of eight of the most famous.

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