The Download: fish-safe hydropower, and fixing space debris

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 fish-safe hydropower technology could keep more renewables on the grid

Hydropower is the world’s leading source of renewable electricity, generating more power in 2022 than all other renewables combined. But while hydropower is helping clean up electrical grids, it’s not always great for fish. Dams can change their habitats. And for migratory species, hydropower facilities can create dangerous or insurmountable barriers. 

That’s why, in some parts of the world, governments have put protections in place to protect ecosystems from hydropower’s potential harms. These can sometimes force older facilities to close, and that’s a big problem: pulling hydropower plants off the grid eliminates a flexible, low-emissions power source that can contribute to progress in fighting climate change.

But there’s some good news: new technologies, including fish-safe turbines, could help utilities and regulators come closer to striking a balance between the health of river ecosystems and global climate goals. Read the full story

—Casey Crownhart

What it’s like to be a space debris engineer 

Although significant attention has been devoted to launching spacecraft into space, the idea of what to do with their remains has been largely ignored until recently. Satellites have simply been left in orbit at the ends of their lives, creating debris that must be monitored and, if possible, maneuvered around to avoid a collision.

But there are people working on cleaning Earth’s orbit up. Meet Stijn Lemmens. He’s a senior space debris mitigation analyst at the European Space Agency. Lemmens works on counteracting space pollution by collaborating with spacecraft designers and the wider industry to create missions less likely to clutter the orbital environment. Read all about him and his work

—Elna Schütz

This story is from the latest issue of MIT Technology Review. Subscribe to read the whole thing, if you don’t already!

The must-reads

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

1 Apple is planning to bring AI features to the Vision Pro
It must be hoping that this could boost sales of the device, which have been disappointing so far. (Bloomberg $)
The Vision Pro is now on sale outside the US. (Ars Technica)

2 Detroit is changing how its police use facial recognition
It’s making the rules much stricter, after bad matches led to three wrongful arrests. (NYT $)
The movement to limit face recognition tech might finally get a win. (MIT Technology Review)

3 What is AI search good for?
Given the errors, it’s best to think of its answers as a starting point rather than the final word. (Vox)
Here’s why chatbots make things up—and why it’s such a deep-rooted problem. (MIT Technology Review)
OpenAI has built an AI tool that it says can spot hallucinations. (IEEE Spectrum)

4 Amazon plans to spend over $100 billion on data centers over the next decade
And yep, you guessed it: it’s all about meeting demand for AI tools. (WSJ $)
Amazon is copying Shein and Temu’s playbook, prioritizing cheapness over speed. (The Atlantic $)

5 Brazil’s Pantanal fire season is already breaking records
And it isn’t even meant to have started yet. (ABC)
+ How NASA is using AI and drones to tackle wildfires. (CNET)
Meet the scientists trying to understand the world’s worst wildfires. (MIT Technology Review)

6 Combined covid-flu vaccines are coming
Moderna has just completed successful phase III trials for the drug. (Nature)
The next generation of mRNA vaccines is on its way. (MIT Technology Review)

7 These parents are campaigning for a phone-free childhood
They’re trying to do the right thing—but the odds are painfully stacked against them. (The Guardian)
New York City plans to ban phones from schools. (NPR)

8 There’s a big problem with electric vehicles: buggy software
When you add more complexity, you add more points of failure. (The Verge)
How did China come to dominate the world of electric cars? (MIT Technology Review)

9 Hot AI Jesus is all over Facebook
And he appears to be astonishingly popular engagement bait. (The Atlantic $)

10 Tennis hopes to use video games to win over new fans
After all, it’s worked well as a strategy for soccer. (FT $)

Quote of the day

“I think we’re starting to increasingly lose touch with what an unedited face looks like.”

—Dr Kerry McInerney, a research associate at the University of Cambridge, tells CNN that AI is turbo-charging already-unrealistic beauty standards online.

The big story

A brief, weird history of brainwashing

puppet person silhouette on a red network with an eye, an angry dog, the hammer and sickle, and a gun


April 2024

On a spring day in 1959, war correspondent Edward Hunter testified before a US Senate subcommittee investigating “the effect of Red China Communes on the United States.”

Hunter discussed a new concept to the American public: a supposedly scientific system for changing people’s minds, even making them love things they once hated.

Much of it was baseless, but Hunter’s sensational tales still became an important part of the disinformation and pseudoscience that fueled a “mind-control race” during the Cold War. US officials prepared themselves for a psychic war with the Soviet Union and China by spending millions of dollars on research into manipulating the human brain.

But while the science never exactly panned out, residual beliefs fostered by this bizarre conflict continue to play a role in ideological and scientific debates to this day. Read the full story.

—Annalee Newitz

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.)

+ Get me on one of these beaches, stat.
+ Seems like sound parenting advice to me. 
+ When it’s hot, there are few things nicer than a cold noodle salad.
+ Boston’s trains are getting googly eyes.

Main Menu