The Download: synthetic sex cells, and brain stimulation

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.

Inside the race to make human sex cells in the lab

The way we make babies could be about to change. Maybe. 

An embryo forms when sperm meets egg. But what if we could start with other cells—if a blood sample or skin biopsy could be transformed into “artificial” sperm and eggs? What if those were all you needed to make a baby?

That’s the promise of a radical approach to reproduction. Scientists have already created artificial eggs and sperm from mouse cells and used them to create mouse pups. Artificial human sex cells are next, promising a whole host of radical alternative routes to parenthood, including spelling an end to infertility, and allowing same-sex couples to have genetically related children. 

The problem is actually getting there and—maybe even harder—untangling the knot of ethical issues that will come up along the way. Read the full story.

—Jess Hamzelou

Read next: How artist Ani Liu’s work is exposing the messy, technologized, and undervalued nature of reproductive labor in the 21st century. Read the full story.

Brain stimulation can improve the memory of older people

The news: Many of us will struggle to remember things as we get older. A gentle form of brain stimulation might help, according to new research. Growing evidence suggests that applying electrical stimulation to brain networks can change the way they work, potentially strengthening connections between brain regions.

How it works: A team of researchers used a form of brain stimulation called transcranial alternating current stimulation. tACS, as it’s known, allows gentle pulses of electricity to the skull via electrodes embedded in what is essentially a swimming cap. The group focused on two regions of the brain that are known to be involved in memory, and delivered electrical pulses of activity to match each region’s characteristic activity patterns.

What they found: The approach appears to boost the memories of older people and help them remember lists of words. Throughout the experiment, people who received brain stimulation improved in their ability to remember words. There was no such improvement among those who weren’t stimulated. Read the full story.

The must-reads

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

1 Twitter is reportedly riddled with security vulnerabilities
The company’s former security chief alleges the company misled its own board about the extent of its problems. (WP $)
+ Peiter Zatko, known as Mudge, has filed a complaint with Congress and agencies. (CNN)
+ Meanwhile, Elon Musk has sent a subpoena to Jack Dorsey. (The Verge)

2 Meet the designer behind gender-neutral emoji
Paul D. Hunt is dedicated to making emoji reflect a fuller, more inclusive human experience. (MIT Technology Review)
+ This woman decides what emoji we get to use. (MIT Technology Review)

3 We don’t know how social media is affecting teenagers’ mental health
But it’s generally agreed that some teens are more susceptible to its harms than others. (NYT $)

4 The US megadrought is worsening
Experts say it demonstrates how the ways in which we use and manage water needs to change—and fast. (Fast Company $)
+ The heatwave gripping China shows no signs of weakening, either. (Axios)
+ Our water infrastructure needs to change. (MIT Technology Review)

5 Fringe video sites are filling the misinformation void
Conspiracy theorists and extremists thrive on the mainstream platforms’ rivals. (Reuters)
+ Removing anti-vaxx groups from Facebook appears to push them to Twitter. (New Scientist $)

6 The implications of sequencing a baby’s genome at birth
Parents are learning about hidden conditions, for better or worse. (New Scientist $)

7 America isn’t building anything anymore
It’s caught in a catch-22 of needing new infrastructure and needing to respect environmental protection laws. (Motherboard)
+ How to fix what the innovation economy broke about America. (MIT Technology Review)

8 The James Webb Space Telescope’s pictures of Jupiter are spectacular 🔭
Even the experts who led the observation are impressed. (CNN)
+ Sound waves in space are petrifying. (Motherboard)

9 How four students Rickrolled their entire school
Luckily, their teachers saw the funny side. (Wired $)

10 Why the ‘girl explaining’ meme went viral
And flipped a classic ‘boy explaining’ meme on its head. (WP $)

Quote of the day

“When that friendship is no longer there, I immediately take my location back.”

—Olive Okoro, a student from Texas, explains the tricky politics of sharing her location with friends through Apple’s Find My feature to the New York Times.

The big story

The US crackdown on Chinese economic espionage is a mess. We have the data to show it.

December 2021

A visiting researcher at UCLA accused of hiding his connection to China’s People’s Liberation Army. A hacker indicted for breaking into video game company servers in his spare time. And a Harvard professor accused of lying to investigators about funding from China. 

For years, the US Department of Justice has used these cases to highlight the success of its China Initiative, an effort to counter rising concerns about Chinese economic espionage and threats to US national security. 

But an investigation by MIT Technology Review shows that the China Initiative has strayed far from its initial mission. Instead of focusing on economic espionage and national security, the initiative now appears to be an umbrella term for cases with almost any connection to China. And while the threat of Chinese intellectual property theft is real, critics wonder if the China Initiative is the right way to counteract it. Read the full story.

—Eileen Guo, Jess Aloe, & Karen Hao

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.)

+ Karaoke is Japan’s national pastime. Here’s why.
+ The funniest jokes from this year’s Edinburgh Fringe comedy festival are highly subjective.
+ The Magdeburg Unicorn is absolutely incredible.
+ The dry weather has exposed the ruins of a lost church in an English reservoir.
+ If you ever wondered what it’d be like to play as a squirrel with a gun, wonder no more.

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