The Download: The Merge arrives, and China’s AI image censorship

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 Merge is here: Ethereum has switched to proof of stake

What’s happened: “The Merge”, a major upgrade to the Ethereum cryptocurrency platform, was finally completed early this morning after a six-year buildup. Ethereum now uses proof of stake, a way to approve new transactions that promises to cut the blockchain’s energy requirements by 99.9% and usher in a new era for the second-largest cryptocurrency. 

Why it matters: It would be hard to overstate how much industry excitement there has been around this shift. Many hope it can both rehabilitate the reputation of crypto for skeptics and improve the efficiency of Ethereum’s enormous ecosystem of businesses and developers, cutting fees and helping it to scale.

What’s next?: We won’t know right away whether the Merge lives up to its transformative promise. Power dynamics are still a concern, and some of the scaling efficiencies that supporters are most excited about may not arrive until well into 2023. But there’s no doubting the fact that one of crypto’s biggest players investing in a less destructive, more efficient ecosystem is, in itself, a huge achievement. Read the full story.

—Rebecca Ackermann

Read more:

  • Why Ethereum is switching to proof of stake and how it will work. The move has been many years in the making, but doesn’t come without risks. Read the full story.
  • Ethereum thinks it can change the world. It’s running out of time to prove it. The blockchain system has daunting technical problems to fix. But first, its disciples need to figure out how to govern themselves. Read the full story.
  • Ethereum’s foundation is pumping $30 million into “transformative” upgrades. The long-promised overhaul that will unlock what creator Vitalik Buterin calls the “world computer” needs a cash infusion. Read the full story
  • It’s okay to opt out of the crypto revolution. The industry is investing heavily in getting more people to buy in. That doesn’t mean you have to. Read the full story.

There’s no Tiananmen Square in the new Chinese image-making AI

With ERNIE-ViLG, a new AI developed by the Chinese tech company Baidu, you can generate images that capture the cultural specificity of China.

But there are many things—like Tiananmen Square, the country’s second-largest city square and a symbolic political center—that the AI refuses to show you. 

It’s not rare for similar AIs to limit users from generating certain types of content. Open AI’s DALL-E 2 prohibits sexual content, faces of public figures, or medical treatment images. But the case of ERNIE-ViLG underlines the question of where exactly the line between moderation and political censorship lies. Read the full story.

—Zeyi Yang

Read more:

  • The dark secret behind those cute AI-generated animal images. Google Brain revealed its own image-making AI, called Imagen, earlier this year. But don’t expect to see anything that isn’t wholesome. Read the full story.
  • This avocado armchair could be the future of AI. Last year, OpenAI extended GPT-3 with two new models that combine NLP with image recognition to give its AI a better understanding of everyday concepts. 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 Social media’s biggest companies appeared before the US Senate
Past and present Meta, Twitter, TikTok and YouTube employees answered questions on social media’s impact on homeland security. (TechCrunch)
+ Retaining user attention is their algorithms’ primary purpose. (Protocol)
+ TikTok’s representative avoided committing to cutting off China’s access to US data. (Bloomberg $)

2 China wants to reduce its reliance on Western tech
Investing heavily in native firms is just one part of its multi-year plan. (FT $)
+ Cybercriminals are increasingly interested in Chinese citizens’ personal data. (Bloomberg $)
+ The FBI accused him of spying for China. It ruined his life. (MIT Technology Review)

3 California is suing Amazon
Accusing it of triggering price rises across the state. (WSJ $)
+ The two-year fight to stop Amazon from selling face recognition to the police. (MIT Technology Review)

4 Russia is waging a surveillance war on its own citizens 
Its authorities are increasingly targeting ordinary people, not known dissidents or journalists. (Slate $)
+ Russian troops are still fleeing northern Ukraine. (The Guardian

5 Dozens of AIs debated 100 years of climate negotiations in seconds
They’re evaluating which policies are most likely to be well-received globally. (New Scientist $)
+ Patagonia’s owner has given the company away to fight climate change. (The Guardian

6 Iranian hackers hijacked their victims’ printers to deliver ransom notes
The three men have been accused of targeting people in the US, UK and Iran. (Motherboard)

7 DARPA’s tiny plane could spy from almost anywhere
The unmanned vehicle could also carry small bombs. (WP $)
+ The Taliban have crashed a helicopter left behind by the US military. (Motherboard)

8 Listening to stars helps astronomers to assess what’s inside them
The spooky-sounding acoustic waves transmit a lot of data. (Economist $)
+ The James Webb Space Telescope has spotted newborn stars. (Space)
+ The next Space Force chief thinks the US needs a satellite constellation to combat China.  (Nikkei Asia)

9 We’ll never be able to flip and turn like a cat
But the best divers and gymnasts are the closest we can get. (The Atlantic $)
+ The best robotic jumpers are inspired by nature. (Quanta)

10 This robot is having a laugh
Even if it’s not terribly convincing. (The Guardian)

Quote of the day

“Tesla has yet to produce anything even remotely approaching a fully self-driving car.”

—Briggs Matsko, a Tesla owner, explains his rationale for suing the company over the “deceptive” way it marketed its driver-assistance systems, according to Reuters.

The big story

The Soviets turned the Volga River into a machine. Then the machine broke.

December 2021

About 2,300 miles long, the Volga—sometimes referred to as “Mother Volga”—is the longest river in Europe and the biggest by water flow. The history of the Big Volga project is, in a sense, the history of Soviet industrialization. It is also a history of rivalry with the US, which for decades raced the Soviets to build bigger, more impressive dams.

But the project tried to do too much. The river has become polluted, silted up, and overwhelmed by invasive species. Water flows at a tenth of the speed it did before the dams were constructed, and widespread toxic algal blooms are now common. 

And now that the Volga basin has been identified as one of the regions most at risk of climate change-induced drought, it’s not an exaggeration to say that Russia’s mother river is broken. Read the full story.

—Olga Dobrovidova

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.)

+ Wait, they’re rebooting The Crow?!
+ Are you ready to embrace chaos cooking? Me neither.
+ Yes, you can pull off a leather jacket. Here’s how.
+ These small towns in Italy are incredibly beautiful, and perfect vacation inspiration.
+ Aww, Brendan Fraser is capturing the hearts of the internet.

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