The Download: YouTube’s deadly crafts, and DeepMind’s new chatbot

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 YouTube baker fighting back against deadly “craft hacks”

Ann Reardon is probably the last person whose content you’d expect to be banned from YouTube. A former Australian youth worker and a mother of three, she’s been teaching millions of loyal subscribers how to bake since 2011. But the removal email was referring to a video that was not Reardon’s typical sugar-paste fare.

Since 2018, Reardon has used her platform to warn viewers about dangerous new “craft hacks” that are sweeping YouTube, tackling unsafe activities such as poaching eggs in a microwave, bleaching strawberries, and using a Coke can and a flame to pop popcorn.

The most serious is “fractal wood burning”, which involves shooting a high-voltage electrical current across dampened wood to burn a twisting, turning branch-like pattern in its surface. The practice has killed at least 33 people since 2016.

On this occasion, Reardon had been caught up in the inconsistent and messy moderation policies that have long plagued the platform and in doing so, exposed a failing in the system: How can a warning about harmful hacks be deemed dangerous when the hack videos themselves are not? Read the full story.

—Amelia Tait

DeepMind’s new chatbot uses Google searches plus humans to give better answers

The news: The trick to making a good AI-powered chatbot might be to have humans tell it how to behave—and force the model to back up its claims using the internet, according to a new paper by Alphabet-owned AI lab DeepMind. 

How it works: The chatbot, named Sparrow, is trained on DeepMind’s large language model Chinchilla. It’s designed to talk with humans and answer questions, using a live Google search or information to inform those answers. Based on how useful people find those answers, it’s then trained using a reinforcement learning algorithm, which learns by trial and error to achieve a specific objective. Read the full story.

—Melissa Heikkilä

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The must-reads

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

1 We still don’t know when the pandemic will be over
President Biden may have heralded its end, but there’s no denying covid is still a major issue. (The Atlantic $)
+ Japan is finally lifting its restrictions to tourists. (The Guardian)
+ Hong Kong has scrapped its hotel quarantine rules, too. (Bloomberg $)
+ Two inhaled covid vaccines have been approved—but we don’t know yet how good they are. (MIT Technology Review)

2 Russia’s internet regulator is now a fully-fledged intelligence agency 
The county’s authorities use it to surveil and quash dissent at scale. (NYT $)
+ The horrifying reality of living under Russian occupation in Ukraine. (Economist $) 

3 The “shameware” enabling churches to snoop on their congregations
In a bid to discourage individuals from watching porn or other “sinful” activities. (Wired $)

4 Amazon is hiring dangerous trucking contractors 
More than 75 people have been killed in crashes since 2015. (WSJ $)
+ Amazon is desperately trying to crack India, without much success. (Rest of World)

5 How crypto rose, fell, rose again and fell again
It’s had a wild 13 years—but what’s next could be even more unpredictable. (WP $)
+ Coinbase has denied dabbling in proprietary trading. (WSJ $)
+ Crypto data center Compute North has filed for bankruptcy. (Bloomberg $)
+ It’s okay to opt out of the crypto revolution. (MIT Technology Review)

6 Recycling dead EV batteries is the next great challenge
Mainly because reprocessing old cells is tricky, expensive and inefficient. (Knowable Magazine)
+ This startup wants to pack more energy into electric vehicle batteries. (MIT Technology Review)

7 It’s possible to make civilization extinction-proof
We need to lower the current existential risk first, though. (Vox)

8 Here’s how to detect an audio deepfake 🔊
They can be super convincing, especially over the phone. (Fast Company $)
+ A House of the Dragon deepfake turns Emilia Clarke into Rhaenyra. (CNET)

9 Your oral microbiome could explain why your teeth are the way they are 
Consumer tests make it easier to track your mouth health—but are they worth the money? (Neo.Life)

10 Why tech bros are getting into martial arts 🥋
Less silent retreat, more “put me in a chokehold.” (The Information $)

Quote of the day

“There will not be a hyperloop system constructed that will transport either goods or passengers — or I’ll eat a tractor.”

—Carlo van de Weijer, director of smart mobility at Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands, explains his misgivings about the promise of hyperloop transportation to the New York Times.

The big story

One man’s crusade to end a global scourge with better salt

December 2020

When he was growing up, Venkatesh Mannar and his siblings treated the family saltworks as their playground. After several years in the United States, first studying and then working at salt producers that used giant mechanized harvesters, he returned to India in 1972 to run his business.

After helping to persuade countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America to iodize their salt to eliminate iodine deficiency, which causes problems ranging from hypothyroidism to learning difficulties, Mannar turned his attention to another element that many people don’t get enough of: iron. A lack of it is one cause of anemia, which affects over 1.6 billion people, causing dizziness, poor maternal and infant health, and decreased cognitive function.

Mannar eventually made defeating anemia with iron-enriched salt part of his life’s mission. Adding iron to salt that is already iodized has turned out to be a real technical challenge, and getting manufacturers and the public to adopt it is another problem entirely. But if the effort succeeds, Mannar and his backers hope to add yet more essential minerals, turning humble table salt into one of the most potent public health tools the world has at its disposal. Read the full story.

—Anna Louie Sussman

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.)

+ Did you know that lions can’t purr? Now you do.
+ Tom Persky is one of the last people still selling floppy disks 💾
+ This Star Wars-inspired list of travel destinations is super inspiring.
+ A horror movie starring a killer Christmas tree? Roll on December!
+ This gorgeous corgi puppy‘s resilience is an inspiration to us all (thanks Charlotte!)

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