The Download: how a racing AI won, and taking on biotech’s big challenges

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.

Sony’s racing AI destroyed its human competitors by being nice (and fast)

“Wait, what? How?” Emily Jones wasn’t used to being left behind. A top sim-racing driver with multiple wins to her name, Jones jerked the steering wheel in the esports rig, eyes fixed on the screen in front of her: “I’m pushing way too hard to keep up— How does it do that?” Her staccato commentary intercut with squealing tires, Jones flung her virtual car around the virtual track at 120 miles per hour—then 140, 150—chasing the fastest Gran Turismo driver in the world.

Built by Sony AI, a research lab launched by the company in 2020, Gran Turismo Sophy is a computer program trained to control racing cars inside the world of Gran Turismo, a video game known for its super-realistic simulations of real vehicles and tracks. In a series of events held behind closed doors last year, Sony put its program up against the best humans on the professional sim-racing circuit. 

What they discovered during those racetrack battles—and the ones that followed—could help shape the future of machines that work alongside humans, or join us on the roads. Read the full story

—Will Douglas Heaven

We’re rewriting what we thought was possible in biotech

The tech in biotech is nailing it. Machine learning and artificial intelligence can now figure out who has a condition (perhaps better than your doctor can), establish a medical checklist to diagnose you, and help target likely treatments. AI models can help design drugs or find a new purpose for existing ones. 

However, challenges remain. Models trailed by our historic data pick up our flaws and biases. People across the world are working on addressing these in order to help biotech to fulfill its promise, including some of those listed in the biotech section of MIT Technology Review’s 35 Innovators under 35 this year. Check them out.

The must-reads

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

1 Heat records were shattered across Europe yesterday
And they’re likely to be broken again today. (WP $)
British homes are particularly ill-equipped for heat, with air conditioning in less than 5% of them. (NYT $)
This summer is just a preview of what’s to come. (NBC)
2 New covid vaccines will be ready this fall. Will anyone take them? 
The stakes just do not feel as high as they did in December 2020. (The Atlantic $)
Even though cases are rising rapidly again. (NYT $)
The virus is evolving at a pace that’s very hard for vaccines to match. (Wired $)
We need treatments for mild covid, too. (Nature)
3 Amazon is suing more than 10,000 Facebook admins over fake reviews
This problem has plagued the company since forever. Clearly someone senior has had enough. (TechCrunch)
4 There’s a growing underground marketplace for abortion pills 💊
It’s unregulated, possibly illegal, and the only choice left for people in parts of the US. (Wired $)
+ Where to get abortion pills and how to use them. (MIT Technology Review)
5 Microloans are pushing young people in China into debt
Small online lenders have made it incredibly easy to borrow money—too easy. (South China Morning Post)
+ Almost half a trillion dollars has been wiped from the valuations of fintech companies. (FT $)
The ‘buy now, pay later’ industry is going through a reckoning in the US. (Axios)
6 People are hacking gas pumps ⛽
It’s not a new problem, but it’s become far more prevalent since gas got so expensive. (NBC)
7 Instagram is terrible now
Out with the friends and photo-sharing, in with the algorithmically promoted videos and ads. (WP $)
8 The ultimate DIY project? Building your own coffin ⚰
Sounds like a major undertaking to me. (WSJ $)
9 A futuristic implant could radically improve people’s hearing 
By zapping their cochlear nerve with beams of light. (IEEE Spectrum)
Hearing aids that read your brain will know who you want to hear. (MIT Technology Review)
10 This app lets your followers (anonymously) tell you what they really think of you
Uhh, no thanks! (NYT $)

Quote of the day

“Users may be surprised to learn that, in a bankruptcy scenario, the crypto and funds held in their accounts may not be considered their own property.”

—Daniel Saval, a lawyer with Kobre & Kim, tells CNBC that people looking to get their money out of collapsed crypto platforms shouldn’t get their hopes up.

The big story

How digital beauty filters perpetuate colorism

August 2021

Colorism has a long history, driven by European ideals of beauty that associate lighter skin with purity and wealth, darker tones with sin and poverty. 

These prejudices have been part of the social and media landscape for a long time but today, thanks to the prevalence of selfies and face filters, digital colorism has spread. 

With Snapchat, Instagram, TikTok, and Facebook a part of billions of people’s everyday lives, many of us find that people see far more pictures of us than ever before. But there are biases built into these systems, and they could be particularly catastrophic for women with darker complexions. Read the full story

—Tate Ryan-Mosley

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.)

+ Dolphins! So many dolphins! Thanks Donna. 
+ There’s a special sort of warm fuzzy feeling you get at a dinner party with friends.
+ An adventure game where you, the protagonist, are a cat? I’m listening… 
+ This interview with Daniel Kaluuya has got me excited for Nope, which comes out this week. 
+ A short documentary investigating why bread is (mostly) kinda bad in America.

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