The Download: online safety laws, and mastering pure math

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.

Why child safety bills are popping up all over the US

Bills that are supposed to make the internet safer for children and teens have been popping up all over the United States recently. They are partly a response to concerns, especially among parents, over the potentially negative impact of social media on kids’ mental health.

However, the content of these bills varies drastically from state to state. While some aim to protect privacy, others risk eroding it. Some could have a chilling effect on free speech online. 

There’s a decent chance that many of the measures will face legal challenges, or prove unenforceable. It’s a messy, complex situation. But below the surface, there are some important arguments that will shape how tech is regulated in the US. So what’s going on? And why does it matter? Let us explain

—Tate Ryan-Mosley 

This story is from The Technocrat, Tate’s weekly newsletter all about power, politics, and Silicon Valley. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Friday.

How to bring the lofty ideas of pure math down to earth

There’s an undeniably mystical quality to math. Mathematicians speak of their profession in quasi-religious terms. There’s even a general derision toward those who seek useful application. No wonder, then, that it’s so hard to find accessible math textbooks. What you really need is a sympathetic voice—the testimony of one who has climbed the heights of abstract math but also has the patience to guide a newcomer. Luckily, such a voice exists in mathematician and concert pianist Eugenia Cheng, who has written a number of books that aim to demystify math. Read our review.

The must-reads

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

1 How Apple plans to entice you to buy its headset
By packing it with tons of features, and hoping buyers might find something they like. (Bloomberg $)
Inside the cozy but creepy world of VR sleep rooms. (MIT Technology Review)

2 Elon Musk has turned blue checks into a source of embarrassment 
They used to signify public status. Now they just show you’ve paid a billionaire $8. (Slate $)
Musk has sucked the life out of Twitter. (The Atlantic $)
He’s reignited his reputation for risk in the past week. (WSJ $)
Twitter is removing inaccurate labels calling prominent news organizations ‘state-funded’. (NYT $)
How Twitter helped to fuel the Silicon Valley Bank run. (Axios)

3 China is still hampering efforts to study covid
Three years on, we still don’t know how the pandemic started. (NYT $)
Meet the scientist at the center of the covid lab leak controversy. (MIT Technology Review)
Listen to our podcast that delves into the mystery surrounding covid’s origins. (MIT Technology Review)

4 Tech layoffs are coming for middle managers
Tech companies claim there are now too many supervisors, and not enough work for them all. (FT $)
Lyft is laying off 1,200 people. (NYT $)
Fear not: tech workers are still hugely in demand in the wider economy. (Vox)

5 The Supreme Court has preserved abortion pill access, for now
Mifepristone will remain available—but the fight to keep it on the market isn’t settled yet. (NBC)

6 AI is coming for voice actors
Good luck telling the difference between real and artificial voices these days. (WP $)
What will be AI’s impact on work more generally? (Wired $)
What history can teach us about what’s coming next. (WSJ $)

7 Tech billionaires are excited about nuclear fusion
But will it become a viable technology, or will it remain a distant dream? (WSJ $) 
What you need to understand about the latest fusion breakthrough. (MIT Technology Review)

8 The official Paralympics TikTok account is proving controversial
A lack of context or trust online breeds exactly these sorts of problems. (NPR)
TikTok users are demanding artists speed up popular songs. (NBC)

9 Weddings are becoming more techie
Virtual weddings are mostly out, but gadgetry is still in for some. (BBC)
This couple just got married in the Taco Bell metaverse. (MIT Technology Review)

10 Hacker group names are becoming ridiculous
It’s hard to feel scared of Periwinkle Tempest, Pumpkin Sandstorm or Charming Kitten. (Wired $)

Quote of the day

“The locals here are just being sacrificed.”

—Sharon Almaguer, a resident of Port Isabel, a city six miles away from SpaceX’s Boca Chica launch site, tells the New York Times that last week’s Starship launch shook buildings in the city and left it covered in grime. 

The big story

What would it be like to be a conscious AI

August 2021

Machines with minds are mainstays of science fiction—the idea of a robot that somehow replicates consciousness has been around so long it feels familiar. 

Such machines don’t exist, of course, and maybe never will. Indeed, the concept of a machine with a subjective experience of the world and a first-person view of itself goes against the grain of mainstream AI research.

It also collides with questions about the nature of consciousness and self—things we still don’t entirely understand. Read the full story

—Will Douglas Heaven

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.)

+ A tour of Japan’s beautiful castles is at the top of my travel list.
+ Black Hole Sun is just one of those songs that always sounds good, no matter how you mix it up.
+ Gandalf the Gray, meet Gandalf the Gray!
+ A potluck wedding, you say?
+ If you’ve always wanted to know the items Kermit the Frog can’t live without, wonder no more.

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