The Download: Russia’s crumbling tech industry, and an AI security disaster

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 Russia killed its tech industry

In the months after Vladimir Putin announced the invasion of Ukraine, Russia saw a mass exodus of IT workers. According to government figures, about 100,000 IT specialists left Russia in 2022, or some 10% of the tech workforce—a number that is likely an underestimate.

It has now been over a year since the invasion began. The tech workers who left everything behind to flee Russia warn that the country is well on its way to becoming a village: cut off from the global tech industry, research, funding, scientific exchanges, and critical components. It’s an accelerating trend that started well before the war. Read the full story.

—Masha Borak

Three ways AI chatbots are a security disaster 

AI language models are the shiniest, most exciting thing in tech right now. But they’re poised to create a major new problem: they are ridiculously easy to misuse. No programming skills are needed, and there’s no known fix.

Tech companies are racing to embed these models into tons of products to help people do everything from book trips to organize their calendars to take notes in meetings. 

But the way these products work creates a ton of new risks, from leaking people’s private information to helping criminals phish, spam, and scam people. Our senior AI reporter Melissa Heikkilä has dug into the ways they’re open to abuse. Read the full story.

If you’d like to read more about the security vulnerabilities lurking in AI products, Melissa has written about why we’re hurtling toward a glitchy, spammy, scammy, AI-powered internet for The Algorithm, her weekly newsletter. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Monday.

The complex math of counterfactuals could help Spotify pick your next favorite song

The news: A new kind of machine-learning model built by a team of researchers at the music-streaming firm Spotify captures, for the first time, the complex math behind counterfactual analysis, a technique that can be used to identify the causes of past events and predict the effects of future ones.

What are counterfactuals? The basic idea behind counterfactuals is to ask what would have happened in a situation had certain things been different. It’s like rewinding the world, changing a few crucial details, and then hitting play to see what happens. By tweaking the right things, it’s possible to separate true causation from correlation and coincidence.

Why it’s important: The model could improve the accuracy of automated decision making, especially personalized recommendations, in a range of applications beyond song suggestions, from finance to healthcare. Read the full story.

—Will Douglas Heaven

The must-reads

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

1 NASA has named the astronauts that will head back to the moon
It’ll be the first crewed moon mission since Apollo in 1972. (BBC)
+ The mission’s crew will fly to the moon next year. (The Atlantic $)
+ Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit has filed for bankruptcy. (Sky News)
+ South Korea’s Hanwha is hoping to take its place as a SpaceX challenger. (Bloomberg $)
+ What’s next in space. (MIT Technology Review)

2 ICE is demanding data from schools and abortion clinics
It’s a strategy that may well be illegal. (Wired $)
+ Texas is trying out new tactics to restrict access to abortion pills online. (MIT Technology Review)

3 AI text detectors aren’t working
A tool designed to flag AI text penalized an innocent high school student instead. (WP $)
+ Universities aren’t convinced by the software’s promises. (FT $)
+ How OpenAI snowballed from a plucky startup to an AI giant. (The Information $)
+ Why detecting AI-generated text is so difficult (and what to do about it) (MIT Technology Review)

4 Paris wants its flying taxis up and running by next year’s Olympics
It’s an optimistic aim, to put it mildly. (Bloomberg $)
+ These aircraft could change how we fly. (MIT Technology Review)

5 Ozone-depleting chemicals are making a comeback
Scientists are struggling to work out what’s causing the rise in emissions. (The Verge)
+ The chemicals have been banned since 2010. (New Scientist $)

6 The lure of chatbots for political pollsters
Humans don’t answer the phone, but chatbots are always ready to talk. (The Atlantic $)

7 Australia has banned TikTok on government devices
It’s the latest in a long line of countries erring on the side of caution. (TechCrunch)
+ The beauty of TikTok’s secret, surprising, and eerily accurate recommendation algorithms. (MIT Technology Review)

8 Parents are reserving social media handles for their babies 🍼
But there’s no guarantee they’ll actually want to use them. (NYT $) 

9 AI doesn’t have a sense of smell
But it’s being used to design bespoke fragrances anyway. (FT $)

10 You can’t escape voice notes 🔊
They’re low effort for the sender, but can be a hassle for the receiver. (Vox)

Quote of the day

“It is the next step on the journey that gets humanity to Mars. This crew will never forget that.”

—Victor Glover, one of the astronauts due to travel to the moon, describes the  importance of NASA’s Artemis II mission, Ars Technica reports.

The big story

What does GPT-3 “know” about me? 

August 2022

One of the biggest stories in tech is the rise of large language models that produce text a human might have written. 

These models’ power comes from troves of publicly available human-created text that has been hoovered from the internet. If you’ve posted anything even remotely personal in English on the internet, chances are your data might be part of some of the world’s most popular LLMs. 

Melissa Heikkilä, MIT Technology Review’s AI reporter, wondered what data these models might have on her—and how it could be misused. So she put OpenAI’s GPT-3 to the test. Read about what she found.

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.)

+ How DJ Khaled spearheaded rap’s love of memes
+ This woman’s work: these photos of women through the ages are quite something.
+ The science behind how and why we fall in love is fascinating.
+ The heartwarming story behind the creation of Tetris.
+ What do fake pop stars tell us about the real world? Quite a lot, actually.

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