The Download: the future of electroceuticals, and bigger EVs

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.

The messy quest to replace drugs with electricity

In the early 2010s, electricity seemed poised for a hostile takeover of your doctor’s office. Research into how the nervous system—the highway that carries electrical messages between the brain and the body— controls the immune response was gaining traction.

And that had opened the door to the possibility of hacking into the body’s circuitry and thereby controlling a host of chronic diseases, including rheumatoid arthritis, asthma, and diabetes, as if the immune system were as reprogrammable as a computer.

To do that you’d need a new class of implant: an “electroceutical.” These devices would replace drugs. No more messy side effects. And no more guessing whether a drug would work differently for you and someone else. In the 10 years or so since, around a billion dollars has accreted around the effort. But electroceuticals have still not taken off as hoped.

Now, however, a growing number of researchers are starting to look beyond the nervous system, and experimenting with clever ways to electrically manipulate cells elsewhere in the body, such as the skin.

Their work suggests that this approach could match the early promise of electroceuticals, yielding fast-healing bioelectric bandages, novel approaches to treating autoimmune disorders, new ways of repairing nerve damage, and even better treatments for cancer. Read the full story.

—Sally Adee

Why bigger EVs aren’t always better

SUVs are taking over the world—larger vehicle models made up nearly half of new car sales globally in 2023, a new record for the segment. 

There are a lot of reasons to be nervous about the ever-expanding footprint of vehicles, from pedestrian safety and road maintenance concerns to higher greenhouse-gas emissions. But in a way, SUVs also represent a massive opportunity for climate action, since pulling the worst gas-guzzlers off the roads and replacing them with electric versions could be a big step in cutting pollution. 

It’s clear that we’re heading toward a future with bigger cars. Here’s what it might mean for the climate, and for our future on the road. Read the full story.

—Casey Crownhart

This story is from The Spark, our weekly climate and energy newsletter. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Wednesday.

The must-reads

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

1 A pro-Palestinian AI image has been shared millons of times
But social media activism critics feel it’s merely performative. (WP $)
+ The smooth, sanitized picture is inescapable across Instagram and TikTok. (Vox)
+ It appears to have originated from Malaysia. (The Guardian)

2 OpenAI is struggling to rein in its internal rows
Six months after Sam Altman returned as CEO following a coup, divisions remain. (FT $)
+ A nonprofit created by former Facebook workers is experiencing similar problems. (Wired $)

3 Chinese EV makers are facing a new hurdle in the US
A new bill could quadruple import duties on Chinese EVs to 100% (TechCrunch)
+ Why China’s EV ambitions need virtual power plants. (MIT Technology Review)

4 India’s election wasn’t derailed by deepfakes
AI fakery was largely restricted to trolling, rather than malicious interference. (Rest of World)
+ Meta says AI-generated election content is not happening at a “systemic level” (MIT Technology Review)

5 Extreme weather events are feeding into each other
It’s becoming more difficult to separate disasters into standalone events. (Vox)
+ Our current El Niño climate event is about to make way for La Niña. (The Atlantic $)
+ Last summer was the hottest in 2,000 years. Here’s how we know. (MIT Technology Review)

6 It’s high time to stop paying cyber ransoms
Paying criminals isn’t stopping attacks, experts worry. (Bloomberg $)

7 How programmatic advertising facilitated the spread of misinformation
Algorithmically-placed ads are funding shadowing operations across the web. (Wired $)

8 Smart bandages could help to heal wound faster 🩹
Sensor-embedded dressings could help doctors to monitor ailments remotely. (WSJ $)

9 Move over smartphones—the intelliPhones are coming 📱
It’s a lame name for the AI-powered phones of tomorrow. (Insider $) 

10 The content creators worth paying attention to
Algorithms are no substitution for enthusiastic human curators. (New Yorker $)

Quote of the day

“It’s not about managing your home, it’s about what’s happening. That’s like, ‘Hey, there’s raccoons in my backyard.’”

—Liz Hamren, CEO of smart doorbell company Ring, explains the firm’s pivot away from fighting neighborhood crime and towards keeping tabs on wildlife to Bloomberg.

The big story

House-flipping algorithms are coming to your neighborhood

April 2022

When Michael Maxson found his dream home in Nevada, it was not owned by a person but by a tech company, Zillow. When he went to take a look at the property, however, he discovered it damaged by a huge water leak. Despite offering to handle the costly repairs himself, Maxson discovered that the house had already been sold to another family, at the same price he had offered.

During this time, Zillow lost more than $420 million in three months of erratic house buying and unprofitable sales, leading analysts to question whether the entire tech-driven model is really viable. For the rest of us, a bigger question remains: Does the arrival of Silicon Valley tech point to a better future for housing or an industry disruption to fear? Read the full story.

—Matthew Ponsford

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.)

+ What mathematics can tell us about the formation of animal patterns.
+ How much pasta is too much pasta?
+ Here’s how to stretch out your lower back—without risking making it worse.
+ Over on the Thailand-Malaysia Border, food is an essential signifier of identity.

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