The Download: harmful AI, and a deadlier monkeypox variant

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.

Who’s going to save us from bad AI?

About damn time. That was the response from AI policy and ethics wonks to news last week that the White House’s science and technology advisory agency had unveiled an AI Bill of Rights. The document is Biden’s vision of how the US government, technology companies, and citizens should work together to hold the AI sector accountable.

It’s a great initiative, and long overdue. The US has so far been one of the only Western nations without clear guidance on how to protect its citizens against AI harms—covering everything from wrongful arrests, suicides, and entire cohorts of schoolchildren being marked unjustly by an algorithm, and that’s just for starters.

But it’s not all good news. The AI Bill of Rights is missing some pretty important areas of harm, such as law enforcement and worker surveillance. And unlike the actual US Bill of Rights, the AI Bill of Rights is more an enthusiastic recommendation than a binding law, which experts worry won’t be fully adequate to hold errant tech companies to account. Read the full story.

—Melissa Heikkilä

This story is from The Algorithm, MIT Technology Review’s new weekly newsletter covering all the latest developments in AI. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Monday.

Read more of our latest stories about AI: 

+ The EU wants to put companies on the hook for harmful AI. A new bill will allow consumers to sue companies for damages—if they can prove that a company’s AI harmed them. Read the full story.

+ How DeepMind thinks it can make chatbots safer. The lab trained a chatbot to learn from human feedback and search the internet for information to avoid providing toxic answers. Read the full story.

+ What does GPT-3 “know” about me? Large language models are trained on troves of personal data hoovered from the internet. But how much does it actually know about us? Read the full story.

+ Google’s new AI can hear a snippet of a song—and then keep on playing. The technique, called AudioLM, generates naturalistic sounds without the need for human annotation. Read the full story.

The must-reads

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

1 A more dangerous monkeypox variant could go global
Scientists worry the deadlier Clade I variant could spread beyond the Democratic Republic of Congo. (New Scientist $)
+ More than 26,000 people in the US contracted monkeypox this year. (WP $)

2 Women are smuggling abortion pills into the US from Mexico
They’re risking jail time and significant fines to help terminate pregnancies in post-Roe states. (New Yorker $)
+ Where to get abortion pills and how to use them. (MIT Technology Review)

3 Why mental health discourse on social media is so unbearable
While internet diagnosis is helpful for some, others have leaned too far into self-pathologizing. (Vox)

4 Iranian celebrities are galvanizing protestors online
Warnings from the country’s security officials have fallen on deaf ears. (FT $)

5 Bitcoin mining has soared to record levels
You can thank The Merge. (Bloomberg $)
+ Crypto mining is particularly hot in Africa right now. (CoinDesk)
+ A couple mistakenly refunded $10.5 million by are in court. (The Guardian)

6 WhatsApp spam is out of control in India
Users are left constantly blocking a stream of spam. (Rest of World)
+ The people using humor to troll their spam texts. (MIT Technology Review)

7 Black holes could help explain how the universe began
If a new quantum gravity theory pays dividends, that is. (NYT $)
+ This is the first image of the black hole at the center of our galaxy. (MIT Technology Review)

8 We should pay attention to flooding myths 
Geo-legends teach us how our ancestors dealt with the climate. (The Atlantic $)
+ Pakistan’s flood survivors are trying to rebuild. (New Yorker $)
+ Deadly spores could spread to new areas via wildfire smoke. (Wired $)

9 The surprisingly controversial history of the microprocessor
Inventor Ted Hoff didn’t patent the invention—a decision he came to regret. (IEEE Spectrum)

10 Jellyfish can be tasty
There are a lot of them, too. But good luck convincing people to eat them. (Hakai Magazine)
+ A battery made from seaweed could pave the way to greener energy storage. (New Scientist $)

Quote of the day

“There is a person whose name is a scent fighting a company whose name reminds one of birds—Dickens would just love that.”

—Stephen Gillers, a law professor at New York University, tells the Wall Street Journal why literary fans are so invested in Elon Musk and Twitter’s legal scuffle.

The big story

An elegy for cash: the technology we might never replace

January 2020

Think about the last time you used cash. How much did you spend? What did you buy, and from whom? Was it a one-time thing, or was it something you buy regularly? Was it legal?

If you’d rather keep all that to yourself, you’re in luck. The person in the store (or on the street corner) may remember your face, but as long as you didn’t reveal any identifying information, there is nothing that links you to the transaction.

We shouldn’t take this freedom for granted. Much of our commerce now happens online. It relies on banks and financial technology companies to serve as middlemen. And while notes and coins remain popular in many countries, in others they are nearing obsolescence. Read the full story.

—Mike Orcutt

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.)

+ The Halloween countdown has officially started.
+ A moment of appreciation for Alan “Nasty” Nash—a 17-time world toe wrestling champion, who’s stepping down (groan) from the sport.
+ This humble worm is hungry for some delicious plastic.
+ Glassmaking is an endlessly fascinating process.
+ The UK is deep in the grip of David Bowie fever, according to its annual baby name figures.

Main Menu