The Download: unlocking Chinese social accounts, and AI voice analysis

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 Tencent’s weirdly secretive customer service center

—Zeyi Yang

When I recently visited China, for the first time since the pandemic, I traveled to Shenzhen in a bid to unlock my 15-year old Tencent social media account.

I have tons of personal stuff—diary entries, chat logs, emails—locked away in Tencent’s instant messaging platform QQ. My account was suddenly suspended in November 2021, months after I used it to report on a story about QQ’s censorship of LGBTQ content, and to connect with sources for other stories. But it wasn’t clear whether that activity resulted in the suspension. 

I’d basically given up on ever accessing it again, until I learned about Tencent’s weirdly secretive customer service center in Shenzhen. It’s a last resort for desperate users willing to make the journey to meet with a representative to make their case. Read the full story to find out what it’s like inside.

Zeyi’s story is from China Report, his weekly newsletter giving you the inside track on all things happening in China. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Tuesday.

Podcast: When AI hears a problem

Hidden away in our voices are signals that may hold clues to how we’re doing, what we’re feeling and even what’s going on with our physical health. So what does it mean now the AI systems tasked with analyzing these signals are moving into healthcare? Find out by listening to the latest episode of In Machines We Trust, our award-winning podcast, on Apple Podcasts, or wherever you usually listen.

The must-reads

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

1 OpenAI’s CEO Sam Altman is urging the US to regulate AI

Over to you, politicians. (NYT $)
+ Altman is particularly worried by the potential for AI to disrupt the 2024 US election. (FT $)
+ Why AI is better suited to tasks than actual jobs. (Bloomberg $)
+ Some experts are increasingly gloomy about where this is all heading. (New Yorker $)
+ ChatGPT is everywhere. Here’s where it came from. (MIT Technology Review)

2 South Korea’s had enough of tech leaks
Chinese companies have been charming Korea’s engineers into spilling trade secrets. (FT $)
+ A former Apple engineer has been charged with stealing its self-driving car tech. (WSJ $)

3 Regulation is coming for crypto
Slowly but surely—but some experts worry it’s too little, too late. (Economist $)
+ Investing in crypto is tantamount to gambling, according to the UK. (Reuters)
+ What’s next for crypto. (MIT Technology Review)

4 A Russian man has been charged with involvement in a huge cyber attack  
Authorities are offering up to $10 million in exchange for help arresting him. (WP $)

5 Two poultry workers have tested positive for bird flu in the UK

It’s unclear how they contracted it, and neither experienced symptoms. (BBC)
+ We don’t need to panic about a bird flu pandemic—yet. (MIT Technology Review)

6 Dating sites are riddled with catfish
Contractors across the world are being paid to manipulate unwitting daters. (Wired $)

7 Gig economy workers are begging for tips online 
DoorDash workers say they are almost entirely reliant on tips for their income. (Motherboard)

8 The world desperately needs more copper 
It’s an essential component for batteries—but it’s becoming more difficult to mine. (Bloomberg $)
+ How old batteries will help power tomorrow’s EVs. (MIT Technology Review)

9 TikTok is reimagining history without Western imperial power
Thanks to a bit of help from ChatGPT and Midjourney. (Rest of World)

10 Say ‘I do’ with these AI-generated wedding vows 💐
Exactly what you want on your big day, I’m sure. (WSJ $)

Quote of the day

“The ultimate guide to life, love, and eternal salvation!”

—ChatGPT takes a stab at writing an upbeat book blurb for the Bible, according to the Guardian.

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. 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 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.)

+ Researchers have built a meticulous digital twin of the Titanic to work out exactly what went wrong on that fateful day in 1912.
+ Here’s what an astrophysicist has to say on the ‘is the Sun white or yellow?’ debate.
+ Seriously, why doesn’t anyone in Succession eat anything!? 🥐
+ The physics of soap bubbles are pretty complicated. Maybe 18th century French painters can give us some much-needed insight?
+ Ahh, millennial parties were quite something.

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