The Download: donating your body, and climate change momentum

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.

What happens when you donate your body to science

Rebecca George doesn’t mind the vultures that complain from the trees that surround the Western Carolina University body farm. Her arrival has interrupted their breakfast. George studies human decomposition, and part of decomposing is becoming food. Scavengers are welcome.

George, a forensic anthropologist, places the body of a donor in the Forensic Osteology Research Station—known as the FOREST. This is Enclosure One, where donors decompose naturally above ground. Nearby is Enclosure Two, where researchers study bodies that have been buried in soil. She is the facility’s curator, and monitors the donors—sometimes for years—as they become nothing but bones. 

In the US, about 20,000 people or their families donate their bodies to scientific research and education each year. Whatever the reason, the decision becomes a gift. Western Carolina’s FOREST is among the places where watchful caretakers know that the dead and the living are deeply connected, and the way you treat the first reflects how you treat the second. Read the full story.

—Abby Ohlheiser

We’re excited to share this first piece from our forthcoming mortality-themed issue, available from 26 October. If you want to read it when it comes out, you can subscribe to MIT Technology Review for as little as $80 a year.

Climate action is gaining momentum. So are the disasters.

In recent months, we’ve witnessed stunning progress on climate action—and terrifying signs of the dangers we’ve unleashed.

The US finally stepped up as a leader in climate action, enacting a trio of major laws that could add up to the largest federal investment ever into climate and clean-energy technologies, and renewables, electric vehicles, and meat alternatives are now competitive mainstream options.

But in so many other ways, we are getting started tragically, disastrously, unforgivably late. While we’re setting ourselves up to make faster progress in the future, the measure that matters most has continued to rise: global emissions reached their highest level ever in 2021. So we have to redouble our efforts to accelerate emissions reductions—and fast. Read the full story.

This essay is an extended version of the opening talk that James Temple will deliver this morning at ClimateTech, MIT Technology Review’s inaugural climate and energy conference running today and tomorrow. Register for last-minute tickets and follow along with the latest updates on our liveblog

The mothers of Mexico’s missing use social media to search for mass graves

Mexico has long struggled with a history of kidnapping. As of October 5, there were 105,984 people officially listed as disappeared in Mexico. More than a third have vanished in the past few years, and while many are thought to have been kidnapped or forcibly recruited by criminal organizations, most are likely dead.

But authorities are still hesitant to get involved in the search for the missing. And so the task continues to fall on families. Much of the work they do now happens over social media, where people widely distribute photographs of missing relatives, coordinate search efforts, and raise awareness of the problem. But the work is not without challenges. Read the full story.

Chantal Flores

Podcast: AI finds its voice

Despite Big Tech’s best efforts, voice assistants are still a far cry from the hyper-intelligent thinking machines we’ve been musing about for decades.

In this encore episode of MIT Technology Review’s In Machines We Trust podcast, we explore how machines learn to communicate—and what it means for the humans on the other end of the conversation. Listen to it on Apple Podcasts, or wherever else you usually listen.

The must-reads

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

1 We need to talk about “medium” covid  
The mid-term complications of the virus, lasting around 12 weeks after you first fall ill, can lead to life-threatening complications. (The Atlantic)
+ The nasal version of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine has failed a trial. (FT $)
+ One in 20 people suffer long-term covid effects, a study suggests. (BBC)

2 Meta is desperately trying to make the metaverse happen
Mark Zuckerberg wants us to live, work and breathe all things metaverse. Consumers aren’t convinced. (MIT Technology Review)
+ The company is setting its sights firmly on the corporate world. (FT $)
+ Zuck’s avatar finally has legs! (The Verge)
+ Working in the metaverse doesn’t sound like a whole lot of fun. (Bloomberg $)

3 Twitter is reviewing its permanent ban policy
But it’s unlikely to be good news for Donald Trump. (FT $)
+ Elon Musk’s deal to buy Twitter is still dragging on. (Economist $) 

4 China’s netizens are using jokes to circumvent censorship 🍚🐰
Emoji and phonetic pronunciation allows discussion of controversial topics to continue online. (Rest of World)
+ The complicated danger of surveillance states. (MIT Technology Review)

5 NASA’s DART asteroid mission was a smashing success
It managed to shorten its target’s orbit by an impressive 22 minutes. (Wired $)
+ Watch the moment NASA’s DART spacecraft crashed into an asteroid. (MIT Technology Review)

6 Current 5G is unlikely to interfere with planes
A new study has allayed some of the fear around 5G cell towers operating in airports’ vicinities. (Bloomberg $)

7 Police released an image of a suspect informed by DNA phenotyping 
This is problematic in the extreme. (Motherboard)
+ How often does DNA profiling work, really? (The Conversation)
+ Storing data in DNA could potentially keep it safe for hundreds of years. (BBC)

8 How human hibernation could work 🐻
The genetic hardware to sleep for months could be hidden within us all. (New Scientist $)
+ How hibernating bears stay healthy. (WP $)

9 Deep sea mining could risk the lives of amazing creatures
We need metal for EV batteries, but at what cost? (Vox)

10 Proving you know a secret is tricky
It’s essentially the principle behind cryptography. (Quanta Magazine)

Quote of the day

“This is more like shutting down speakeasies.”

—Morgan McGuire, chief scientist at Roblox, explains what policing bad behavior in the company’s 3D virtual world is like to Reuters.

The big story

Inside the race to build the best quantum computer on Earth

February 2020

Google’s most advanced computer isn’t at the company’s headquarters in Mountain View, California, nor anywhere in the febrile sprawl of Silicon Valley. It’s a few hours’ drive south in Santa Barbara, in a flat, soulless office park.

This is the computer that Google is betting on to beat IBM in a race to be among the first to usher in a new era of machines that would make today’s mightiest computer look like an abacus, but through very different approaches. And it’s these differing goals that could influence which—if either—comes out ahead in the quantum computing race. Read the full story.

—Gideon Lichfield

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 Twitter account goes through some of the bizarre license plate applications California received a couple of years ago—shout out to WYU H8NN.
+ Happy 40th birthday to the humble compact disc. 💿
+ From arty press release into….art?
+ It turns out that frogs are actually extremely graceful dancers (thanks Nana!)
+ When is a comet not a comet? When it’s closer to an asteroid.

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