The Download: robotic bees, and China’s surveillance state

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.

How robotic honeybees and hives could help the species fight back

Something was wrong, but Thomas Schmickl couldn’t put his finger on it. It was 2007, and the Austrian biologist was spending part of the year at East Tennessee State University. During his daily walks, he realized that insects seemed conspicuously absent.

Schmickl, who now leads the Artificial Life Lab at the University of Graz in Austria, wasn’t wrong. Insect populations are indeed declining or changing around the world.

Robotic bees, he believes, could help both the real thing and their surrounding nature, a concept he calls ecosystem hacking. Already, some companies offer augmented beehives that monitor conditions inside, or even robotically tend the bees. Now Schmickl and his colleagues want to go a step further and use technology to manipulate the insects’ behavior. Read the full story.

—Elizabeth Preston

The Chinese surveillance state proves that the idea of privacy is more “malleable” than you’d expect

Over the past decade, the US—and the world more generally—has watched with growing alarm as China has emerged as a global leader in surveillance technologies. While this has lead to a slew of human rights abuses, the state has also used surveillance tech for good: to find abducted children, for example, and to improve traffic control and trash management in cities.

As Wall Street Journal reporters Josh Chin and Liza Lin argue in their new book Surveillance State, the Chinese government has built a new social contract with its citizens: their data in exchange for more precise governance that, ideally, makes their lives safer and easier (even if it doesn’t always work out so simply in reality). 

MIT Technology Review recently spoke with Chin and Lin about the misconception that privacy is not valued in China, how the pandemic has accelerated the use of surveillance tech in China, and whether the technology itself can stay neutral. Read the full story.

—Zeyi Yang

The must-reads

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

1 North Korea’s crypto hackers are fueling its nuclear weapons program
They’re believed to have stolen hundreds of millions of dollars in the past year alone. (CNET)
+ The country’s recent missile launches were ‘simulation’ of attacks on South Korea. (BBC)

2 We’re all likely to contract covid multiple times
But, experts say, the infections should become less frequent. (New Yorker $)
+ Unraveling the human immunome is incredibly complex. (Neo.Life)
+ This nanoparticle could be the key to a universal covid vaccine. (MIT Technology Review)

3 Apple’s new iPhone misinterprets roller coaster rides as car crashes
It’s a major problem when it keeps warning both 911 and loved ones that you’re in danger when you’re not. (WSJ $)

4 Even Meta’s employees aren’t fully convinced by the metaverse
Some teams are fed up with catering to Mark Zuckerberg’s whims. (NYT $)
+ The company is desperately trying to improve the quality of its experiences. (FT $)

5 The US and China are engaged in an economic war  
America’s efforts to curb China’s domestic tech industry has infuriated Beijing. (Bloomberg $)
+ Supercomputers are at the heart of the restrictions. (Reuters)
+ Inside the software that will become the next battle front in the US-China chip war. (MIT Technology Review)

6 How online moderation became rebranded as a censorship 
The 2016 US Presidential election was a turning point in online speech’s politicization. (WP $)
+ A former Democratic strategist is building a network of progressive news sites. (Wired $)

7 How sustainable are biofuels, exactly?
Scientists can’t agree on whether greener fuels will ultimately help or harm the planet. (Knowable Magazine)
+ The world will need dozens of breakthrough climate technologies in the next decade. (MIT Technology Review)

8 China’s biggest influencers are being dogged by scandal
Squeaky-clean virtual avatars are one solution. (FT $)
+ How China’s online influencers fell from their thrones. (MIT Technology Review)

9 GIFs are in decline
But they refuse to die quite yet. (The Atlantic $)

10 Magnetism may have helped shape the universe after all
The theory has been dismissed for decades, but new experiments suggest otherwise. (New Scientist $)

Quote of the day

“I kind of want to up the standards a bit.”

—Christopher Slayton, an 18-year old Minecraft player, tells the New York Times why he decided to spend two months creating the entire known universe within the video game.

The big story

A first-of-its-kind geoengineering experiment is about to take its first step

February 2021

In a world that’s cutting carbon dioxide emissions too slowly to prevent catastrophic climate change, solar geoengineering might buy some time. But doing it on a large scale could mean messing with planet-wide weather patterns. The effects are unpredictable; in some places, they might even be disastrous.

If those launches are approved—and that’s still a big if—they will be the first geoengineering experiments in the stratosphere. But before the balloons have even left the ground, they’re already drawing criticism. Read the full story.

—James Temple

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.)

+ This celebration of all things arty and spooky is perfect as the nights start to draw in.
+ Are politicians the new influencers?
+ Somebody stop me!
+ Happy 10th anniversary to Losing You by Solange, which is an absolute tune.
+ A veteran weather reporter explains what it’s like to cover some of the biggest storms on record.

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