The Download: how to test AI, and treating paralysis

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.

AI models can outperform humans in tests to identify mental states

Humans are complicated beings. The ways we communicate are multilayered, and psychologists have devised many kinds of tests to measure our ability to infer meaning and understanding from interactions with each other. 

AI models are getting better at these tests. New research published has found that some large language models perform as well as, and in some cases better than, humans when presented with tasks designed to test the ability to track people’s mental states, known as “theory of mind.” 

This doesn’t mean AI systems are actually able to work out how we’re feeling. But it does demonstrate that these models are performing better and better in experiments designed to assess abilities that psychologists believe are unique to humans. Read the full story.

—Rhiannon Williams

And, if you’re interested in learning more about why the way we test AI is so flawed, read this piece by our senior AI editor Will Douglas Heaven.

A device that zaps the spinal cord gave paralyzed people better control of their hands

Fourteen years ago, a journalist named Melanie Reid attempted a jump on horseback and fell. The accident left her mostly paralyzed from the chest down. Eventually she regained control of her right hand, but her left remained, in her own words, “useless.”

Now, thanks to a new noninvasive device that delivers electrical stimulation to the spinal cord, she has regained some control of her left hand. She can use it to sweep her hair into a ponytail, scroll on a tablet, and even squeeze hard enough to release a seatbelt latch. These may seem like small wins, but they’re crucial.

Reid was part of a 60-person clinical trial, from which the vast majority of participants benefited. The trial was the last hurdle before the researchers behind the device could request regulatory approval, and they hope it might be approved in the US by the end of the year. Read the full story.

—Cassandra Willyard

Join us at EmTech Digital this week!

Between the world leaders gathering in Seoul for the second AI Safety Summit this week and Google and OpenAI’s launches of their supercharged new models, Astra and GPT-4o, the timing could not be better. AI feels hotter than ever.  

This year’s EmTech Digital, MIT Technology Review’s flagship AI conference, will be all about how we can harness the power of generative AI while mitigating its risks,and how the technology will affect the workforce, competitiveness, and democracy. We will also get a sneak peek into the AI labs of Google, OpenAI, Adobe, AWS, and others. 

It’ll be held at the MIT campus and streamed live online from tomorrow, May 22-23. Readers of The Download get 30% off tickets with the code DOWNLOADD24—here’s how to register. See you there!

For a sneak peek at some of the most exciting sessions on the agenda, check out the latest edition of The Algorithm, our weekly AI newsletter. 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 Scarlett Johansson denied OpenAI permission to use her voice 
But it created the eerily similar ‘Sky’ voice for its chatbots anyway. (Rolling Stone $)
+ OpenAI took down the voice after Johansson’s lawyers got in touch. (NYT $)
+ The company is reportedly talking with her legal team. (The Verge)
+ GPT-4o was weirdly flirty during its launch demo. (MIT Technology Review)

2 A host of chipmaker startups want to overtake Nvidia
But the GPU giant is number one for a reason. (Economist $)
+ Nvidia’s rivals are backing an initiative to break its industry stranglehold. (FT $)
+ Modern chips need major computing power. Maybe light could help? (Quanta Magazine)
+ What’s next in chips. (MIT Technology Review)

3 Can we really credit an AI chatbot for preventing suicide?
Chatbots are notoriously unpredictable—and that’s problematic. (404 Media)
+ A chatbot helped more people access mental-health services. (MIT Technology Review)

4 The current strain of bird flu could, in theory, jump to pigs
Which would be seriously bad news for humans. (The Atlantic $)
+ The viral outbreak has killed tens of millions of birds to date. (NY Mag $)
+ Here’s what you need to know about bird flu. (MIT Technology Review)

5 The gig economy is attracting older workers
The problem is, their policies are rarely designed to accommodate older people. (Rest of World)

6 A brain implant has restored a paralyzed man’s bilingual abilities
It suggests that the brain isn’t overly picky about which language it’s handling. (Ars Technica)
+ Beyond Neuralink: Meet the other companies developing brain-computer interfaces. (MIT Technology Review)

7 Deleted photos have cropped up in iPhone’s users camera rolls
At what point is something truly eradicated, then? (Wired $)
+ Apple has issued a fix, but not an explanation. (The Verge)

8 Google is pivoting away from its ambitious moonshots
So its employees are taking a risk and going it alone. (Bloomberg $)
+ We need a moonshot for computing. (MIT Technology Review)

9 Do you voicenote?
If you don’t yet, it’s only a matter of time until your friends start forcing you. (WP $)

10 This electric spoon tricks your tongue into tasting salt 🥄
Pass the—oh never mind. (Reuters)

Quote of the day

“Dr Wright presents himself as an extremely clever person. However, in my judgment, he is not nearly as clever as he thinks he is.”

—Justice James Mellor, a UK judge, rules that computer scientist Craig Wright lied “extensively and repeatedly” in his quest to prove he is bitcoin creator Satoshi Nakamoto, Wired reports.

The big story

How one mine could unlock billions in EV subsidies

January 2024

On a farm near Tamarack, Minnesota, Talon Metals has uncovered one of America’s densest nickel deposits. Now it wants to begin tunneling deep into the rock to extract hundreds of thousands of metric tons of mineral-rich ore a year.

If regulators approve the mine, it could mark the starting point in what this mining exploration company claims would become the country’s first complete domestic nickel supply chain, running from the bedrock beneath the Minnesota earth to the batteries in electric vehicles across the nation.

Their experience forms a fascinating microcosm of how the Inflation Reduction Act’s rich subsidies are starting to filter down through the US economy. Read the full story.

—James Temple

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.)

+ Over in London, the Science Museum’s weird and wonderful collection of random household gadgets is entering its final weeks.
+ Devastating news: the TikTok of the man in a bus in a hammock isn’t real.
+ Put the laptop away! European cafes have had enough of them.
+ If you’re planning a cruise this summer, here’s some handy tips on minimizing your chances of getting seasick.

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