The Download: the minerals powering our economy, and Chinese companies’ identity crisis

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.

Quartz, cobalt, and the waste we leave behind

It is easy to convince ourselves that we now live in a dematerialized ethereal world, ruled by digital startups, artificial intelligence, and financial services.

Yet there is little evidence that we have decoupled our economy from its churning hunger for resources. We are still reliant on the products of geological processes like coal and quartz, a mineral that’s a rich source of the silicon used to build computer chips, to power our world.

Three recent books aim to reconnect readers with the physical reality that underpins the global economy. Each one fills in dark secrets about the places, processes, and lived realities that make the economy tick, and reveals just how tragic a toll the materials we rely on take for humans and the environment. Read the full story.

—Matthew Ponsford

The story is from the current print issue of MIT Technology Review, which is on the theme of Build. If you don’t already, subscribe now to receive future copies once they land.

If you’re interested in the minerals powering our economy, why not take a look at my colleague James Temple’s pieces about how a US town is being torn apart as communities clash over plans to open a nickel mine—and how that mine could unlock billions in EV subsidies.

The must-reads

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

1 Blacklisted Chinese firms are rebranding as American
In a bid to swerve the Biden administration’s crackdown on national security concerns. (WSJ $)+ The US has sanctioned three Chinese nationals over their links to a botnet. (Ars Technica)

2 More than half of cars sold last year were SUVs
The large vehicles are major contributors to the climate crisis. (The Guardian)
+ Three frequently asked questions about EVs, answered. (MIT Technology Review)

3 A record number of electrodes have been placed on a human brain
The more electrodes, the higher the resolution for mapping brain activity. (Ars Technica)
+ Beyond Neuralink: Meet the other companies developing brain-computer interfaces. (MIT Technology Review)

4 A former FTX executive has been sentenced to 7.5 years in prison
Ryan Salame had been hoping for a maximum of 18 months. (CoinDesk)

5 Food delivery apps are hemorrhaging money 
The four major platforms are locked in intense competition for diners. (FT $)

6 Saudi Arabia is going all in on building solar farms
It’s looking beyond its oil empire to invest in other promising forms of energy. (NYT $)
+ The world is finally spending more on solar than oil production. (MIT Technology Review)

7 Clouds are a climate mystery ☁
Experts are trying to integrate them into climate models—but it’s tough work. (The Atlantic $)
+ ‘Bog physics’ could work out how much carbon is stored in peat bogs. (Quanta Magazine)

8 An 11-year old crypto mystery has finally been solved
To crack into a $3 million fortune. (Wired $)

9 AI models are pretty good at spotting bugs in software 🪳
The problem is, they’re also prone to making up new flaws entirely. (New Scientist $)
+ How AI assistants are already changing the way code gets made. (MIT Technology Review)

10 Beware promises made by airmiles influencers ✈
While some of their advice is sound, it pays to play the long game. (WP $)

Quote of the day

“We learned about ChatGPT on Twitter.”

—Helen Toner, a former OpenAI board member, explains how the company’s board was not informed in advance about the release of its blockbuster AI system in November 2022, the Verge reports.

The big story

Generative AI is changing everything. But what’s left when the hype is gone?

December 2022

It was clear that OpenAI was on to something. In late 2021, a small team of researchers was playing around with a new version of OpenAI’s text-to-image model, DALL-E, an AI that converts short written descriptions into pictures: a fox painted by Van Gogh, perhaps, or a corgi made of pizza. Now they just had to figure out what to do with it.

Nobody could have predicted just how big a splash this product was going to make. The rapid release of other generative models has inspired hundreds of newspaper headlines and magazine covers, filled social media with memes, kicked a hype machine into overdrive—and set off an intense backlash from creators.

The exciting truth is, we don’t really know what’s coming next. While creative industries will feel the impact first, this tech will give creative superpowers to everybody. Read the full story

—Will Douglas Heaven

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.)

+ These baby tiger cubs are just too cute.
+ Meet me at El Califa de León, the world’s first taquería to receive a Michelin star.
+ This feather sounds like a bargain, frankly. 🪶
+ Did you know that Sean Connery was only 12 years older than Harrison Ford when he played his father in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade?

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