The Download: eternal youth, and the hunt for new metals

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.

How scientists want to make you young again

A little over 15 years ago, scientists at Kyoto University in Japan made a remarkable discovery. When they added just four proteins to a skin cell and waited about two weeks, some of the cells underwent an unexpected and astounding transformation: they became young again. They turned into stem cells almost identical to the kind found in a days-old embryo, just beginning life’s journey.

At least in a petri dish, researchers using the procedure can take withered skin cells from a 101-year-old and rewind them so they act as if they’d never aged at all.

Now, after more than a decade of studying and tweaking so-called cellular reprogramming, a number of biotech companies and research labs say they have tantalizing hints that the process could be the gateway to an unprecedented new technology for age reversal. Read the full story.

—Antonio Regalado

This piece is from our forthcoming mortality-themed issue, launching tomorrow. If you want to read it when it comes out, you can subscribe to MIT Technology Review for as little as $80 a year.

Machine learning could vastly speed up the search for new metals

The news: Machine learning could help develop new types of metals with useful properties, such as resistance to extreme temperatures and rust, according to new research. A team of researchers from the Max Planck Institute managed to identify 17 promising new metals using AI, which predicts which combinations of metals will show promise far more precisely than current methods of laboratory experimentation.

Why it matters: The discovery could prove useful for a range of sectors—for example, metals that perform well at lower temperatures could improve spacecraft, while metals that resist corrosion could be used for boats and submarines. It could also pave the way for greater use of machine learning in materials science. Read the full story.

—Tammy Xu

Do AI systems need to come with safety warnings?

Considering how powerful AI systems are, and the roles they increasingly play in helping to make high-stakes decisions about our lives, homes, and societies, they receive surprisingly little formal scrutiny.

That’s starting to change, thanks to the blossoming field of AI audits. When they work well, these audits allow us to reliably check how well a system is working and figure out how to mitigate any possible bias or harm—and their increasing adoption suggests that one day we might see cigarette-pack-style warnings that AI systems could harm your health and safety. Read the full story.

—Melissa Heikkilä

Melissa’s story is from The Algorithm, our 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 The likelihood of nuclear war is still very low
Despite what Vladimir Putin would have us believe. (Wired $)
+ Russia has falsely accused Ukraine of making a “dirty bomb.” (The Atlantic $)
+ Ukraine is desperately trying to protect its power grid. (The Economist $)
+ What is the risk of a nuclear accident in Ukraine? (MIT Technology Review)

2 The US has charged Chinese intelligence officers with spying
Two men have been accused of trying to interfere with the country’s criminal prosecution of Huawei. (FT $)
+ Apple’s relationship with China is slowly souring. (Economist $)

3 Handwashing won’t do much to prevent you getting covid
But it’s key to preventing the spread of other illnesses. (The Atlantic $)

4 Cocaine from drug delivery services is sometimes laced with fentanyl
The deadly opioid is killing users who are unaccustomed to it. (WSJ $)

5 Japan is pushing digital IDs with renewed vigor
But its privacy-conscious citizens are reluctant to get on board. (AP News)

6 TikTok is full of election misinformation
It’s a newer platform, yet has all of the same problems that plagued its predecessors. (The Guardian)

7 Ring security camera alerts are triggering violence
An innocent woman was shot at after a homeowner suspected her of trying to rob him. (Motherboard
How Amazon Ring uses domestic violence to market doorbell cameras. (MIT Technology Review)

8 Your car’s safety tech isn’t necessarily making you safer 
By over-relying on it, we risk exacerbating the problem. (The Verge)

9 Fake meat is becoming more convincing 🥩
But plant-based meat has a perception problem that’s hard to shake. (Vox)
+ Could “hybrid meat” change our minds? (Vox)
+ Impossible Foods has a big new offering in the works: filet mignon. (MIT Technology Review)

10 Indonesia isn’t bothered about Netflix
Native streaming platform Vidio is where it’s at. (Rest of World)

Quote of the day

“The information war moves at the speed of electrons, not at the speed of interviews.” 

—Denver Riggleman, a former senior advisor to the January 6 committee, highlights the difficulties in trying to catch rapidly-changing political misinformation to Wired.

The big story

My satellite would fit in a small suitcase.

December 2020

Sara Seager has thought long and hard about the math: the odds that Earth harbors the only life in the universe are almost impossible. 

A pioneer in the search for exoplanets, or planets orbiting other stars, the MIT astrophysicist came up with the now-standard practice of studying the atmospheres of planets by analyzing the light that filters through them. 

She also developed ASTERIA, a satellite the size of a small suitcase, designed to demonstrate the technology needed for a tiny telescope to search for exoplanets by detecting the minuscule dip in a star’s light when an orbiting planet passes in front of it. Read the full story.

—Sara Seager

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.)

+ Congratulations to “The Lord’s Drapes”—the winner of the USA Mullet Championships!
+ I’ve been inspired to practice my competitive powerful owl call (thanks Alan!)
+ This cool new website is making the content of CDs and floppy discs accessible to web users. 
+ Any British readers know what a formative role Ceefax played in our pre-internet lives: now, some dedicated fans have resurrected it.
+ A sweet little baby bison has been born in the English countryside.

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