The Download: paradigm-shifting supershoes, and AI-powered NPCs

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.

Supershoes are reshaping distance running

Since 2016, when Nike introduced the Vaporfly, a paradigm-­shifting shoe that helped athletes run more efficiently (and therefore faster), the elite running world has muddled through a period of soul-searching over the impact of high-tech footwear on the sport.

“Supershoes” —which combine a lightweight, energy-­returning foam with a carbon-fiber plate for stiffness—have been behind every broken world record in distances from 5,000 meters to the marathon since 2020.

To some, this is a sign of progress. In much of the world, elite running lacks a widespread following. Record-breaking adds a layer of excitement. And the shoes have benefits beyond the clock: most important, they help minimize wear on the body and enable faster recovery from hard workouts and races.

Still, some argue that they’ve changed the sport too quickly. Read the full story. 

—Jonathan W. Rosen

This story is from the forthcoming print issue of MIT Technology Review, which explores the theme of Play. It’s set to launch tomorrow, so if you don’t already, subscribe now to get a copy when it lands.

My colleagues turned me into an AI-powered NPC. I hate him.

—Niall Firth

It feels weird, talking to yourself online. 

Especially when you’re pretty much the most unpleasant character you’ve ever met.

The “me” I’ve been chatting to this week, called King Fiall of Nirth, is a creation from Inworld AI, a US-based firm that hopes to revolutionize how we interact with characters in games. Its goal is to leverage the power of generative AI to imbue NPCs with the power to chat freely with players, giving open-world games a deeper, more immersive feel.

I didn’t create King Fiall myself, of course. I’m not a total narcissist. No, instead I asked some colleagues to get around a laptop one lunchtime and build my personality as if I were an NPC. 

It turns out that was a mistake. 

Because the character they created is—and there’s really no easy way to say this—a monster. Read the full story

This story is from The Algorithm, our weekly newsletter all about AI and its impact on the world. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Monday.

+ Read more: How generative AI could reinvent what it means to play

Roundtables: The future of AI games

(For subscribers and MIT Alumni only)

Generative AI is coming for games and redefining what it means to play. AI-powered NPCs that don’t need a script could make games—and other worlds—deeply immersive. Watch executive editor Niall Firth and editorial director Allison Arieff discuss what this might look like, as well as get a sneak preview of the big stories for the next issue of the print magazine. 

The must-reads

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

1 US record labels are suing AI music startups
They’re alleging copyright infringement “on a massive scale”. (Wired $) 
+ Listen to the AI-generated songs that got Udio and Suno sued. (404 Media)
Why artists are becoming less scared of AI. (MIT Technology Review)

2 Apple is the first company charged under a new EU competition law 
For allegedly unfair restrictions on app developers. (NYT $)
Apple is struggling to get us excited about a cheaper, weaker Vision Pro. (Gizmodo
It has however mercifully fixed a bug that let hackers invade people’s virtual rooms with spiders (for real.) (Mashable)

3 China’s probe returned the first samples from the far side of the moon
It’s exciting to think what the rock and soil it collected might reveal. (NBC)

4 Julian Assange is now free
He’s entered a plea deal with the US. (The Verge)

5 Facebook seems to have totally given up on moderation
AI-generated spam and scams are everywhere, and it’s (404 Media)
+ Photographers say Meta is labeling their real photos as ‘made with AI’. (TechCrunch)

6 Female fertility tech startups are being dragged down by privacy fears
Which are entirely legitimate, given the fact women are being prosecuted post-Roe (FT $)

7 Amazon is working on a rival to ChatGPT to launch this September
It’s already very late to the party. (Insider $)
ChatGPT has been found to be ableist in how it assesses candidates for hiring. (Mashable)

8 What if we powered planes with electromagnetic waves? ✈⚡
All in favor of out-of-the-box thinking… but excuse me if I skip the test flight. (IEEE Spectrum)

9 Zooming out in remote meetings? You’re not alone
Research concludes it’s best if they’re small, short, and everyone has their cameras on. (Harvard Business Review $)

10 How to get a healthier work/life balance
Tech can be part of the problem, but here’s how it can be a solution, too. (WP $)

Quote of the day

“I believe we’re in a time of experimentation where platforms are willing to gamble and roll the dice and say, ‘How little content moderation can we get away with?”

—Sarah T. Roberts, a UCLA professor who studies social media moderation, tells 404 Media why Facebook is now overrun with AI-generated spam and scams. 

The big story

One city’s fight to solve its sewage problem with sensors

sound bend river


April 2021

In the city of South Bend, Indiana, wastewater from people’s kitchens, sinks, washing machines, and toilets flows through 35 neighborhood sewer lines. On good days, just before each line ends, a vertical throttle pipe diverts the sewage into an interceptor tube, which carries it to a treatment plant where solid pollutants and bacteria are filtered out.

As in many American cities, those pipes are combined with storm drains, which can fill rivers and lakes with toxic sludge when heavy rains or melted snow overwhelms them, endangering wildlife and drinking water supplies. But city officials have a plan to make its aging sewers significantly smarter. Read the full story

—Andrew Zaleski

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.)

+ I like the idea of people ‘having’ rather than ‘being a’ genius
+ It’s very easy to make frosé at home.
+ A Muslim all-female thrash metal band are set to become the first Indonesian group to play at the UK’s Glastonbury music festival this week <3
+ It appears that I have been seriously underestimating fish.

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