The Download: a promising new fuel, and why our phones struggle with wildfires

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.

This unlikely fuel could power cleaner trucks and ships

Transportation is a huge piece of the climate puzzle, accounting for over 15% of worldwide global greenhouse gas emissions. And while we’re making steady progress, there are parts of the puzzle that are harder to solve, like vehicles that need to cover long distances or run for long durations without stopping to charge.

New York–based startup Amogy thinks the key to solving this problem lies in harnessing ammonia—one of the world’s most widely shipped chemicals—to power electric tractors, trucks, and even ships. 

Casey Crownhart, our climate reporter, visited its headquarters to hear more about the team’s big ideas. Read the full story.

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

Learn how technology is changing the world of work 

Are you interested in exploring the emerging technologies like AI reshaping the world of business today? Attend EmTech Next, our three-day online conference from June 13-15. Speakers from leading organizations such as Google, NASA, Johnson & Johnson, NVIDIA, and the USPS will sit down with MIT Technology Review’s editorial team to discuss innovations and impact. Get your ticket today!

The must-reads

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

1 Our phones are failing to capture the reality of wildfires
Their sophisticated color correction algorithms mean it’s harder to take accurate photos. (Vice)
It’s been a terrifying week for New Yorkers. (New Yorker $)
But the situation is slowly improving. (NYT $)
+ These apps let you check the air quality where you live. (WSJ $)

DeSantis’s campaign shared deepfake images of Trump and Fauci
The line between reality and fiction is getting harder to discern. (NPR)

 3 The dam collapse in Ukraine is an ecological disaster
Worst of all, some of the damage it’s caused may be permanent. (Wired $)
Satellite images lay bare the scale of the destruction. (NBC)

4 We need more data on AI’s carbon footprint
We could pay a high environmental price for the technology’s rapid growth. (The Guardian)
Why we need to do a better job of measuring AI’s carbon footprint. (MIT Technology Review)
Labor unions have a new enemy: AI. (WP $)
A detector can spot AI-written academic text. (The Register)

5 Louisiana will require parental consent for kids’ online accounts
But it’s hard to see how this’ll be backed up with action. (NYT $)
Why child safety bills are popping up all over the US. (MIT Technology Review)

6 What Meta’s planning next
The same as all its competitors, it seems: AI everywhere. (NYT $)
Here’s what Zuckerberg had to say about Apple’s new headset. (The Verge)

7 The streaming business model is broken
We’re living in a time of ‘peak TV’, yet no one seems to be able to make the numbers add up. (Vulture)

8 How online advertisers label you
The categories people are placed in are really based on guesswork, but occasionally it can be spookily accurate. (The Markup)

9A tiny ancient hominin may have been cleverer than we thought
We might need to rethink our existing narratives around human evolution. (The Economist $)

10 Please, do not use ‘double click’ as a verb 
I beg of you. (FT $)

Quote of the day

“We’ve been hearing from creators and public figures who are interested in having a platform that is sanely run.”

—A top Meta exec tells employees why the company is planning to launch a Twitter clone, The Verge reports.

The big story

The Atlantic’s vital currents could collapse. Scientists are racing to understand the dangers.

F.G. Walton Smith at sea

December 2021

Scientists are searching for clues about one of the most important forces in the planet’s climate system: a network of ocean currents known as the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC). They want to better understand how global warming is changing it, and how much more it could shift, or even collapse.

The problem is the Atlantic circulation seems to be weakening, transporting less water and heat. Because of climate change, melting ice sheets are pouring fresh water into the ocean at the higher latitudes, and the surface waters are retaining more of their heat. Warmer and fresher waters are less dense and thus not as prone to sink, which may be undermining one of the currents’ core driving forces. Read the full story.

—James Temple

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.)

+ No one is certain why the Dana octopus squid has the world’s biggest light-producing organs.
+ How to become a really, really good listener? Drop the cliches.
Weird name owners of the world, unite!
+ Some of the tat you come across on Chinese shopping site Temu is… seriously out there.
+ What do sommeliers drink when they’re not working? Costco wine, apparently. 🍷

The Download: carbon-capturing super trees, and DeepMind’s sorting breakthrough

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 the quest to engineer climate-saving “super trees”

Biotech startup Living Carbon is trying to design trees that grow faster and grab more carbon than their natural peers, as well as trees that resist rot, keeping that carbon out of the atmosphere. 

In February, the startup planted the first forest in the United States that contains genetically engineered trees. But there’s still much we don’t know. How will these trees affect the rest of the forest? How far will their genes spread? And how good are they, really, at pulling more carbon from the atmosphere? Read the full story.

—Boyce Upholt

Google DeepMind’s game-playing AI just found another way to make code faster

The news: A year after DeepMind used a version of its game-playing AI AlphaZero to find new ways to speed up the calculation of a crucial piece of math, the AI research lab has pulled the same trick again—twice. 

Using a new version of AlphaZero called AlphaDev, it has discovered how to sort items in a list up to 70% faster than the best existing method, and also found a way to speed up a key algorithm used in cryptography by 30%.

Why it matters: These algorithms are among the most common building blocks in software. Small speed-ups can make a huge difference, cutting costs and saving energy. Read the full story.

—Will Douglas Heaven

The must-reads

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

1 Instagram is fostering a vast child sex abuse network
The platform’s algorithms promote sickening content, too. (WSJ $) 
+ Meta has set up an investigatory task force in response to a new report. (WP $)

2 The Biden administration is delivering on its crypto-humbling promises 
It looks an awful lot like part of its plan of being seen to be tough on tech. (Vox)
+ Crypto ads in the UK will have to carry new risk warnings. (The Guardian)

 3 Solar energy from space has been beamed to Earth
It could be a real milestone for renewable energy efforts. (WSJ $)
+ There’s a lot going on up in space these days. (The Atlantic $)

4 Sequoia Capital has created its own dedicated China firm
It demonstrates how even the massive venture capital firm is struggling to combine doing business with both the US and China. (FT $)

5 AI wants to optimize your job
But some workers worry it looks a whole lot like an extra layer of surveillance. (WP $)
+ OpenAI hasn’t even started training GPT-5 yet. (TechCrunch)
+ This startup is using AI to give workers a “productivity score.” (MIT Technology Review)

6 We can’t ignore the communities living on climate change’s front line 
But while the fate of the climate looks dire, disaster is not a foregone conclusion. (New Scientist $)
+ The UN just handed out an urgent climate to-do list. Here’s what it says. (MIT Technology Review)

7 What it’s like to try and get online in North Korea
Millions of its residents have never even seen a webpage. (Wired $)

8 Plant burgers have a tropical oil problem 🍔
Plant-based meat isn’t immune from environmental issues, even if it is broadly more climate-friendly. (Vox)
+ The world’s biggest beef supplier is building a lab-grown meat plant in Spain. (Bloomberg $)
+ Here’s what a lab-grown burger tastes like. (MIT Technology Review)

9 Robots are competing in dog agility competitions
It’ll be a while before they’re faster than our four-legged friends, though.(IEEE Spectrum)
+ This robot dog just taught itself to walk. (MIT Technology Review)

10 The internet has made our birthdays weird 🎂
Congratulatory emails from Uber and airlines… no thanks. (Rest of World)
+ It’s a sobering reminder that some platforms aren’t made to last. (Wired $)

Quote of the day

“The AI boom has brought the energy back into the Bay that was lost during covid.”

—Doug Fulop, a tech entrepreneur who moved to Oregon last year, explains why he and his partner are moving back to the newly-invigorated San Francisco to the New York Times.


The big story

Yann LeCun has a bold new vision for the future of AI

June 2022

Around a year and a half ago, Yann LeCun realized he had it wrong. 

LeCun, who is chief scientist at Meta’s AI lab and a professor at New York University, is one of the most influential AI researchers in the world. He had been trying to give machines a basic grasp of how the world works—a kind of common sense—by training neural networks to predict what was going to happen next in video clips of everyday events. But guessing future frames of a video pixel by pixel was just too complex. He hit a wall.

Now, after months figuring out what was missing, he has a bold new vision for the next generation of AI, which he thinks will one day give machines the common sense they need to navigate the world. But his vision is far from comprehensive; indeed, it may raise more questions than it answers. Read the full story.

—Melissa Heikkilä & Will Douglas Heaven

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.)

+ Danny DeVito interviewing Arnold Schwarzenegger about existential crises is my personal heaven.
+ Why spending time in the wind is a good idea—according to the Dutch, anyway.
+ The Fugees reuniting is exactly what the world needs right now, even if it’s for one night only.
+ A handy reminder not to put too much stock in those pesky personality tests.
+ Roll up, roll up: for a bit of medieval comedy!

This unlikely fuel could power cleaner trucks and ships

This article is from The Spark, MIT Technology Review’s weekly climate newsletter. To receive it in your inbox every Wednesday, sign up here.

Last Friday, I hoisted myself up a ladder and plopped down into the seat of a bright green John Deere tractor. There wasn’t a cornstalk or a soybean sprout in sight—my view through the windshield was a fairly typical parking lot in Brooklyn. 

I’d asked to climb aboard the tractor to get a look inside of one of the only vehicles in the world that can run using a surprising fuel: ammonia. The chemical is typically used for fertilizer, but a New York–based startup, called Amogy, is developing technology that can help it power electric tractors, trucks, and even ships. I visited Amogy’s headquarters to find out why so many companies in transportation are looking into new fuels, and where ammonia might fit in. 

Starting up

Transportation is a huge piece of the climate puzzle, accounting for over 15% of worldwide global greenhouse gas emissions. And while we’re making steady progress thanks to electric vehicles, trains, and the like, there are parts of the puzzle that are harder to solve, like vehicles that need to venture long distances or run for long durations without stopping to charge.

Amogy thinks the key to solving this problem lies in ammonia. It’s one of the world’s most widely shipped chemicals today, since it’s used to make fertilizer. And it’s relatively convenient, packing a lot of energy into a small space without weighing too much to cart around. 

“What’s missing in the market is the way of using ammonia,” says Young Suk Jo, Amogy’s chief technology officer. “That’s what we’re developing.” 

The basic goal behind the company’s tech is to pull apart ammonia into its constituent parts: hydrogen and nitrogen. The hydrogen can then be used in a fuel cell to generate electricity, while the nitrogen gas by-product is safely released into the atmosphere (which is mostly nitrogen anyway). 

This is called ammonia cracking, and one of the company’s key inventions is a chemical catalyst that helps that reaction run efficiently at a lower temperature than what’s typical today. Amogy combines that cracker with a control system, technology that cleans up any leftover ammonia from the reaction, and a fuel cell. Together, all those components can basically transform ammonia into electricity.

Amogy started out by demonstrating its system on a drone in 2021. That first setup produced an average of about five kilowatts of electrical power. Next up was the tractor, which the company retrofitted with an ammonia-to-power system that’s about 20 times more powerful than the drone demonstration system. (The additional equipment is fairly obvious on the tractor, giving me a pretty big blind spot on the right side from where I sat in the cab.) Finally, the company ran a semi truck in January of this year, using a 300 kW system. 

All those demonstration vehicles helped attract attention, including some from investors: the company closed a $150 million funding round earlier this year. But Amogy has its sights on even bigger machinery: ships. 

Shipping out

Companies trying to cut their climate impacts in the marine shipping sector are looking to alternative fuels, including methanol and ammonia. Amogy’s system could be a better option than combustion engines, though, since it would limit pollution that can trap heat in the atmosphere and harm human health and the environment. 

I’ll note here that ammonia itself isn’t very pleasant to be around, and in fact it can be toxic. Proponents argue that safety protocols for handling it are pretty well established in industry, and professionals will be able to transport and use the chemical safely. 

Amogy’s systems aren’t quite big enough for ships yet. The company is working on one more demonstration that will help it get closer to a commercial system: a tugboat, which it plans to launch later this year in upstate New York. 

Eventually, the company plans to make modules that can fit together, making the systems large enough to power ships. Amogy’s first commercial maritime system will be deployed with Southern Devall, which transports ammonia on barges today in the US. 

Global ammonia production topped 200 million metric tons in 2022, most of it used for fertilizer. The problem is, the vast majority of that was produced using fossil fuels. 

For Amogy’s systems to cut emissions significantly, they’ll need to be powered by ammonia that’s made without producing a lot of greenhouse-gas emissions, likely using renewable electricity or maybe carbon capture systems. 

According to Amogy’s estimates, supply for these low-carbon ammonia sources could reach 70 million tons by 2030. But those projects will need to make it out of the planning stages and actually start producing ammonia before it can be used in fertilizers, tractors, or tugboats. 

Related reading 

  • Making low-carbon ammonia could require a whole lot of green hydrogen

Another thing

There’s a lot of money flowing into ocean chemistry. A new initiative called Carbon to Sea is injecting $50 million over the next five years into a technique called ocean alkalinity enhancement. The basic idea is that adding alkaline substances into seawater could help the oceans suck up more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, combating climate change. 

The new group’s goals include eventually conducting small field trials, advancing policies, and working to measure and verify efforts in the space. Check out my colleague James Temple’s story for the full scoop. 

Keeping up with climate

California’s largest insurer, State Farm, announced that it will stop accepting applications for most types of insurance in the state, citing “rapidly growing catastrophe exposure.” (New York Times) Allstate quietly adopted the same policy several months ago, also citing worsening climate conditions. (New York Times)

Every year around this time, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere reach a new record. But the increase this year is the highest ever. (Washington Post)

EV chargers are a lot more common than they used to be, and a lot less common than they need to be. Reliability and availability will both need to improve for more consumers to be comfortable switching to EVs. (The Atlantic

→ Here’s where all the fast chargers are in the US (as of summer 2022, at least). (MIT Technology Review)

A startup called Equatic is zapping seawater in an attempt to pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. (The Verge)

A new class action lawsuit in California takes aim at Delta Airlines and the company’s claim to be “carbon neutral”. The lawsuit says that the offsets the company relies on don’t deliver the impact they promise. (Washington Post)

→ To understand how offsets can actually end up adding carbon pollution into the atmosphere, check out this investigation of California’s program. (MIT Technology Review)

An opinion piece about the climate impacts of EVs got a lot of attention over the weekend, because it was written by the actor who plays Mr. Bean (I am unfortunately 100% serious). Here’s a story to set the record straight. The short version: EVs are better for the climate than gas-powered vehicles in nearly all cases. (Inside Climate News)

Inside the quest to engineer climate-saving “super trees”

Fifty-three million years ago, the Earth was much warmer than it is today. Even the Arctic Ocean was a balmy 50 °F—an almost-tropical environment that looked something like Florida, complete with swaying palm trees and roving crocodiles. 

Then the world seemed to pivot. The amount of carbon in the atmosphere plummeted, and things began to cool toward today’s “icehouse” conditions, meaning that glaciers can persist well beyond the poles. 

What caused the change was, for decades, unclear. Eventually, scientists drilling into Arctic mud discovered a potential clue: a layer of fossilized freshwater ferns up to 20 meters thick. The site suggested that the Arctic Ocean may have been covered for a time in vast mats of small-leaved aquatic Azolla ferns. Azollas are among the fastest-growing plants on the planet, and the scientists theorized that if such ferns coated the ocean, they could have consumed huge quantities of carbon, helping scrub the atmosphere of greenhouse gasses and thereby cooling the planet.

Patrick Mellor, paleobiologist and chief technology officer of the biotech startup Living Carbon, sees a lesson in the story about these diminutive ferns: photosynthesis can save the world. Certain fluke conditions seem to have helped the Azollas along, though. The arrangement of continental plates at the time meant the Arctic Ocean was mostly enclosed, like a massive lake, which allowed a thin layer of fresh river water to collect atop it, creating the kind of conditions the ferns needed. And crucially, when each generation of ferns died, they settled into saltier water that helped inhibit decay, keeping microbes from releasing the ferns’ stored carbon back into the atmosphere.

Mellor says we can’t wait millions of years for the right conditions to return. If we want plants to save the climate again, we have to prod them along. “How do we engineer an anthropogenic Azolla event?” he says. “That’s what I wanted to do.”

At Living Carbon, Mellor is trying to design trees that grow faster and grab more carbon than their natural peers, as well as trees that resist rot, keeping that carbon out of the atmosphere. In February, less than four years after he co-founded it, the company made headlines by planting its first “photosynthesis-enhanced” poplar trees in a strip of bottomland forests in Georgia. 

This is a breakthrough, clearly: it’s the first forest in the United States that contains genetically engineered trees. But there’s still much we don’t know. How will these trees affect the rest of the forest? How far will their genes spread? And how good are they, really, at pulling more carbon from the atmosphere?

Living Carbon has already sold carbon credits for its new forest to individual consumers interested in paying to offset some of their own greenhouse gas emissions. They’re working with larger companies, to which they plan to deliver credits in the coming years. But academics who study forest health and tree photosynthesis question whether the trees will be able to absorb as much carbon as advertised. 

Even Steve Strauss, a prominent tree geneticist at Oregon State University who briefly served on Living Carbon’s scientific advisory board and is conducting field trials for the company, told me in the days before the first planting that the trees might not grow as well as natural poplars. “I’m kind of a little conflicted,” he said, “that they’re going ahead with this—all the public relations and the financing—on something that we don’t know if it works.”

Roots of an idea

In photosynthesis, plants pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and use the energy from sunlight to turn it into sugars. They burn some sugars for energy and use some to build more plant matter—a store of carbon.

A research group based at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign supercharged this process, publishing their results in early 2019. They solved a problem presented by RuBisCO, an enzyme many plants use to grab atmospheric carbon. Sometimes the enzyme accidentally bonds with oxygen, a mistake that yields something akin to a toxin. As the plant processes this material, it must burn some of its sugars, thereby releasing carbon back to the sky. A quarter or more of the carbon absorbed by plants can be wasted through this process, known as photorespiration.

The researchers inserted genes into tobacco plants that helped them turn the toxin-like material into more sugar. These genetically tweaked plants grew 25% larger than controls.

The breakthrough offered good news for the world’s natural landscapes: if this genetic pathway yields more productive crops, we’ll need less farmland, sparing forests and grasslands that otherwise would have to be cleared. As for the plants’ ability to remove atmospheric carbon over the long term, the new trick doesn’t help much. Each year, much of the carbon in a crop plant’s biomass gets returned to the atmosphere after it’s consumed, whether by microbes or fungi or human beings. 

Still, the result caught the attention of Maddie Hall, a veteran of several Silicon Valley startups who was interested in launching her own carbon-capture venture. Hall reached out to Donald Ort, the biologist who’d led the project, and learned that the same tweaks might work in trees—which stay in the ground long enough to serve as a potential climate solution.

Late in 2019, Hall settled on the name for her startup: Living Carbon. Not long afterward, she met Mellor at a climate conference. Mellor was then serving as a fellow with the Foresight Institute, a think tank focused on ambitious future technologies, and had become interested in plants like Pycnandra acuminata. This tree, native to the South Pacific islands of New Caledonia, pulls huge quantities of nickel out of the soil. That’s likely a defense against insects, but as nickel has natural antifungal properties, the resulting wood is less prone to decay. Mellor figured if he could transfer the correct gene into more species, he could engineer his Azolla event.

When Mellor and Hall met, they realized their projects were complementary: put the genes together and you’d get a truly super tree, faster-growing and capable of more permanent carbon storage. Hall tapped various contacts in Silicon Valley to collect $15 million in seed money, and a company was born.

In some ways, Living Carbon’s goal was simple, at least when it came to photosynthesis: take known genetic pathways and place them in new species, a process that’s been conducted with plants for nearly 40 years. “There’s a lot of mystification of this stuff, but really it’s just a set of laboratory techniques,” Mellor says. 

Since neither Mellor nor Hall had substantial experience with genetic transformation, they enlisted outside scientists to do some of the early work. The company focused on replicating Ort’s enhanced-photosynthesis pathway in trees, targeting two species: poplars, which are popular with researchers because of their well-studied genome, and loblolly pines, a common timber species. By 2020, the tweaked trees had been planted in a grow room, a converted recording studio in San Francisco. The enhanced poplars quickly showed results even more promising than Ort’s tobacco plants. In early 2022, Living Carbon’s team posted a paper on the preprint server bioRxiv claiming that the best-performing tree showed 53% more above-ground biomass than controls after five months. (A peer-reviewed version of the paper appeared in the journal Forests in April.) 

Through the loophole

Plant genetics research can be a long scientific slog. What works in a greenhouse, where conditions can be carefully controlled, may not work as well in outdoor settings, where the amounts of light and nutrients a plant receives vary. The standard next step after a successful greenhouse result is a field trial, which allows scientists to observe how genetically engineered (GE) plants might fare outside without actually setting them fully loose.

US Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulations for GE field trials aim to minimize “gene drift,” in which the novel genes might spread into the wild. Permits require that biotech trees be planted far from species with which they could potentially reproduce, and in some cases the rules dictate that any flowers be removed. Researchers must check the field site after the study to ensure no trace of the GE plants remain.

Before planting trees in Georgia, Living Carbon launched its own field trials. The company hired Oregon State’s Strauss, who had given Living Carbon the poplar clone it had used in its gene transfer experiments. In the summer of 2021, Strauss planted the redesigned trees in a section of the university’s property in Oregon.

Strauss has been conducting such field trials for decades, often for commercial companies trying to create better timber technologies. It’s a process that requires patience, he says: most companies want to wait until a “half rotation,” or midway to harvest age, before determining whether a field trial’s results are promising enough to move forward with a commercial planting. Living Carbon’s trees may never be harvested, which makes setting a cutoff date difficult. But when we spoke in February, less than two years into the field trial and just before Living Carbon’s initial planting, Strauss said it was too early to determine whether the company’s trees would perform as they had in the greenhouse. “There could be a negative,” he said. “We don’t know.” 

looking up at a tree that is poking up through clouds

Strauss has been critical of the US regulatory requirements for field trials, which he sees as costly, a barrier that scares off many academics. The framework behind its rules emerged in the 1980s when, rather than wait on the slow grind of the legislative process, the Reagan administration adapted existing laws to fit new genetic technologies. For the USDA, the chosen tool was its broad authority over “plant pests,” a term meant to describe anything that might injure a plant—whether an overly hungry animal, a parasitic bacterium, or a weed that might outcompete a crop.

At the time, gene transfer in plants was almost entirely accomplished with the help of Agrobacterium tumefaciens. This microbe attacks plants by inserting its own genes, much like a virus. But scientists found they could convince the bacterium to deliver whatever snippets of code they desired. Since Agrobacterium itself is considered a plant pest, the USDA decided it had the authority to regulate the interstate movement and environmental release of any plant that had had its genes transformed by the microbe. This meant nearly comprehensive regulation of GE plants. 

In 1987, just one year after the USDA established its policy, a team of Cornell researchers announced the successful use of what’s become known as a “gene gun”—or, less colorfully, “biolistics”—in which bits of DNA are literally blasted into a plant cell, carried by high-velocity particles. No plant pest was involved. This created a loophole in the system, a way to produce GE plants that the current laws did not cover.

Since then, more than 100 GE plants, mostly modified crop plants, have thus escaped the USDA’s regulatory scrutiny.

Agrobacterium remains a common method of gene transfer, and it’s how Living Carbon produced the trees discussed in its paper. But Mellor knew going to market with trees considered potential plant pests “would be a long and depressing path,” he says, one with tests and studies and pauses to collect public comment. “It would take years, and we just wouldn’t survive.”

Once Living Carbon saw that its trees had promise, it dove through the loophole, creating new versions of its enhanced trees via biolistics. In formal letters to the USDA the company explained what it was doing; the agency replied that, because the resulting trees had not been exposed to and did not contain genes from a plant pest, they were not subject to regulations.

Other federal agencies also have authority over biotechnology. The Environmental Protection Agency regulates biotech plants that produce their own pesticides, and the Food and Drug Administration examines anything humans might consume. Living Carbon’s trees do not fit into either of these categories, so they could be planted without any further formal studies.

A year after Living Carbon announced its greenhouse results—before the data from the field trial had any meaning, according to Strauss—the company sent a team to Georgia to plant the first batch of seedlings outside strictly controlled fields. Mellor indicated that this would double as one more study site, where the trees would be measured to estimate the rate of biomass accumulation. The company could make an effort to start soaking up carbon even as it was verifying the efficacy of its trees.

Out in the wild

Experiments with genetically modified trees have historically evoked a strong response from anti-GE activists. In 2001, around 800 specimens growing in Strauss’s test plots at Oregon State University were chopped down or otherwise mutilated. 

In 2015, in response to the news that the biotech firm ArborGen had created a loblolly pine with “increased wood density,” protesters descended on the company’s South Carolina headquarters. (The company had taken advantage of the same loophole as Living Carbon; ArborGen has said the pine was never commercially planted.) But after the New York Times wrote about Living Carbon’s first planting in February, there were no notable protests.

One reason could be that the risk is far from clear-cut. Several forest ecologists I spoke to indicated that trees that grow substantially faster than other species could outcompete rivals, potentially making Living Carbon’s “super tree” a weed. None of these scientists, though, seemed particularly worried about that happening.

“I think it’d be difficult to on purpose make a tree that was a weed—that was able to invade and take over a forest,” said Sean McMahon, a forest ecologist with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. “I think it’d be impossible by accident to do it. I’m really not worried about a tree that takes over the world. I just think you’re going to break [the tree].” 

He pointed out that the timber industry has been working with scientists for decades, hoping to engineer fast-growing trees. “This is a billion-dollar industry, and if they could make trees grow to harvest in five years, they would,” he said. But there tend to be tradeoffs. A faster-growing tree, for example, might be more vulnerable to pests. 

The other reason for the quiet reception of these trees may be climate change: in a ravaged world, people may be more willing to tolerate risk. Keolu Fox, a geneticist at the University of California San Diego, is a co-director of science at Lab to Land, a nonprofit that is studying the potential for biotechnology to accelerate conservation goals on threatened lands, particularly in California. “We’re now talking about editing natural lands—that’s desperation,” Fox says. He thinks this desperation is appropriate, given the state of the climate crisis, though he’s not entirely convinced by Living Carbon’s approach.

Mellor suggests that gene drift should not be a problem: Living Carbon is planting only female trees, so the poplars don’t produce any pollen. That will not prevent wild-growing male trees from fertilizing the transgenic poplars, though the amount of resulting gene drift will likely be small and easily contained, Living Carbon says, especially given the company’s ability to avoid planting its trees near species that could fertilize them. But Mellor says he prefers to focus on other issues. Yes, some companies, like Monsanto, have used transgenic crops in exploitative ways, but that doesn’t mean transgenic technologies are inherently bad, he says. “Purity” is a silly standard, he says, and by trying to keep plants pure we’re missing the chance for needed innovations.

Living Carbon’s poplars seem to grow faster and survive droughts better than their natural counterparts, Mellor says. The rest of their genes match. “So, if, say, that competitively replaces the non-photosynthesis-enhanced version, is that a problem?” he asks. “And what kind of a problem is that? That’s the question now.” 

Plant or pest?

In 2019, before Living Carbon was formed, the USDA announced its intention to update its regulatory approach to transgenic plants. The new rules went into effect in August 2020, just after Living Carbon submitted letters seeking exemption for its trees; the letters were reviewed and the trees were grandfathered in under the old rules.

Any further biotechnology the company develops will be analyzed using the new approach, which focuses on what traits are inserted into plants rather than how they get there. There are still ways to avoid scrutiny: products whose genetic modification could be accomplished through conventional breeding, for example, are not subject to regulation—a loophole watchdog groups find problematic. But according to USDA spokespeople, Living Carbon’s core technology—fast-growing trees, produced through genetic insertion—does not appear to qualify for such exemptions. If Living Carbon wants to make even a slight genetic tweak to its trees, the new product will require further examination.

The USDA’s first step is to determine whether there is “a plausible pathway to increased plant pest risk.” If the answer is yes, the company will need permits to move or plant such trees until the USDA can complete a full regulatory review. 

Because the agency has not yet reviewed a tree with enhanced photosynthesis, officials declined to comment on whether the trait might constitute a pest risk. Even if it does not, the process might miss other risks: a 2019 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine pointed out that pest risk is a narrow metric that does not capture all of the potential threats to forest health. 

Nor does the USDA process offer a seal of approval suggesting the trees will actually work.

“One of the things that concerns me is [Living Carbon is] just focusing on carbon acquisition,” says Marjorie Lundgren, a researcher at Lancaster University in the UK who has studied tree species with natural adaptations leading to increased photosynthetic efficiency. She notes that trees need more than just carbon and sunlight to grow; they need water and nitrogen, too. “The reason they have such a high growth rate is because in the lab, you can just super-baby them—you can give them lots of water and fertilizer and everything they need,” she says. “Unless you put resources in, which is time and money, and not great for the environment, either, then you’re not going to have those same outcomes.” 

Living Carbon’s paper acknowledges as much, citing nitrogen as a potential challenge and noting that how the trees move carbon may become a limiting factor. The extra sugars produced through what the company calls “enhanced photosynthesis” must be transported to the right places, something trees haven’t typically evolved to do. 

The final, peer-reviewed version of the paper was amended to note the need to compare the grow-room results with field trials. And, as it happened, in April—the month the paper was published—Strauss sent Living Carbon an annual report with exciting news. He had noted statistically significant differences in height and drought tolerance between Living Carbon’s trees and the controls. He also found “nearly” significant differences in volume and diameter for some lines of engineered trees. 

Capturing the carbon

Living Carbon seems aware of the general public distrust of genetic technologies. Hall, the CEO, has said the company does not want to be “the Monsanto of trees” and is registered as a public benefit corporation. That allows it to decline ethically dubious projects without worrying about being sued by shareholders for passing up profits.

The company advertises its focus on “restoring land that has been degraded or is underperforming.” On its website, the pitch to potential carbon-credit buyers emphasizes that the tree-planting projects serve to restore ecosystems. 

One hope is that Mellor’s metal-accumulating trees will be able to restore soils at abandoned mining sites. Brenda Jo McManama, a campaign organizer with the Indigenous Environmental Network, lives amid such landscapes in West Virginia. She has been fighting GE trees for almost a decade and remains opposed to the technology, but she understands the appeal of such remediating trees. One key problem: they remain experimental. 

McManama notes, too, that landowners are allowed to harvest the wood from Living Carbon’s trees. This is not a problem for the climate—lumber still stores carbon—but it undercuts the idea that this is all about ecosystems. “Under their breath, it’s like, ‘Yeah, this will be a tree plantation,’” she says.

The initial planting site in Georgia, for example, belongs to Vince Stanley, whose family owns tens of thousands of acres of timber in the area. Stanley told the New York Times that the appeal of the trees was that he would be able to harvest them sooner than traditional trees.

Living Carbon contests the idea that it is creating “plantations,” which by definition would mean monocultures. But it has planted 12 different species on Stanley’s land. The company indicated that it is “interested” in partnering with timber companies; as Hall has noted, the top 10 in the US each own at least 1 million acres. But the Stanley site in Georgia is currently the only project that is technically classified as “improved forestry management.” (And even there, the company notes, the existing forest was regenerating very slowly due to wet conditions.)

Living Carbon funds its plantings—and makes its profits—by selling credits for the extra carbon the trees absorb. Currently, the company is offering “pre-purchases,” in which companies make a commitment to buy a future credit, paying a small portion of the fee up front to help Living Carbon survive long enough to deliver results.

The company has found that these buyers are more interested in projects with ecosystem benefits, which is why the first project, in Georgia, has become an outlier. There has been a subsequent planting in Ohio; this and all currently planned plantings are not near sawmills or in active timber harvesting regions. Thus, the company does not expect those trees to be harvested.

Wherever they plant trees—whether atop an old minefield or in a timber-producing forest—Living Carbon will pay the landowner an annual per-acre fee and cover the cost of plant site preparation and planting. At the end of the contract, after 30 or 40 years, the landowner can do whatever they want with the trees. If the trees grow as well as is hoped, Living Carbon assumes that even on timber land, their size would mean they’d be turned into “long-duration wood products,” like lumber for construction, rather than shredded to make pulp or paper.

Until recently, Living Carbon was also selling small-scale credits to individual consumers. When we spoke in February, Mellor pointed me toward Patch, a software company with a carbon-credit sales platform. The Georgia project was marketed there as “biotech-enhanced reforestation.” The credits were offered as a monthly subscription, at a price of $40 per metric ton of carbon removed. 

When I pressed Mellor for details about how the company calculated this price, given the lack of any solid data on the trees’ performance, he told me something the company had not  acknowledged in any public-facing documentation: 95% of the saplings at the Georgia site were not photosynthesis-enhanced. The GE poplar trees were planted in randomized experimental plots, with controls for comparison, and contribute only a small amount to the site’s projected carbon savings. Despite the advertising, then, customers were really paying for a traditional reforestation project with a small experiment tucked inside. 

A spokesperson for Living Carbon clarified that this planting makeup was dictated by the standards of the American Carbon Registry, the organization that independently certified the resulting credits, and that subsequent plantings have included a higher proportion of enhanced trees. By partnering with a new credit registry, Living Carbon hopes its 2024 plantings will be closer to 50% photosynthesis-enhanced.

That carbon credits can be offered for the Georgia site at all serves as a reminder: old-fashioned trees, without any new genes, already serve as a viable carbon drawdown technology. “There’s 80,000 species of trees in the world. Maybe you don’t have to throw nickel in them and CRISPR them,” said McMahon, of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. “Maybe just find the ones that actually grow fast [and] store carbon a long time.” Or, he added, pass regulation to protect existing forests, which he said could help the climate more than even a massive adoption of high-tech trees. 

Grayson Badgley, an ecologist at the nonprofit CarbonPlan, notes that the cost of the credits on Patch was on the high side for a reforestation project. CarbonPlan examines the efficacy of various carbon removal strategies, a necessary intervention given that carbon markets are ripe for abuse. Several recent investigations have shown that offset projects can dramatically inflate their benefits. One major regulatory group, the Integrity Council for the Voluntary Carbon Market, recently announced a new set of rules, and Verra, a US nonprofit that certifies offset projects, also plans to phase out its old approach to forestry projects.

Given the increasingly shaky reputation of carbon markets, Badgley finds Living Carbon’s lack of transparency troubling. “People should know exactly what they’re buying when they plug in their credit card number,” he says. 

Living Carbon says it began phasing out direct-to-consumer sales in late 2022, and that the final transaction was made late February, not long after the Georgia planting. (In total, subscribers funded 600 trees—a small portion of the 8,900 transgenic trees Living Carbon had planted as of late May.) I purchased a credit for research purposes in early February; as of March 1, when I canceled the subscription, I had received no details clarifying the makeup of the Georgia planting, nor any updates noting that the program was ending. I was also struck by the fact that in February, before Strauss delivered his data, Living Carbon was already touting field trial results on its website, ones that were even more impressive than its grow-room results. After I inquired about the source of these figures, the company removed them from the website.

The company says it’s fully transparent with the large-scale buyers who make up the core of its business strategy. What seemed to me like problematic embellishments and elisions were, according to spokespeople, the growing pains of a young startup with an evolving approach that is still learning how to communicate about its work. 

They also pointed out that many of the problems with forestry carbon credits come from the projects meant to protect forests against logging. Such credits are granted based on a counterfactual: how many trees would be destroyed in the absence of protection? That’s impossible to know with any precision. How much extra carbon Living Carbon’s trees absorb will be measured much more clearly. And if the trees don’t work, Living Carbon won’t be able to deliver its promised credits or get paid for them. “The risk that in the end [the trees] won’t deliver the amount of carbon that’s expected is on us—it’s not on the climate,” a company spokesperson said.

Pines and pollen

Living Carbon has bigger plans in the works (which will likely need to undergo USDA scrutiny). Mellor hopes the photosynthesis-enhanced loblolly pines will be ready for deployment within two years, which would open opportunities for more collaboration with timber companies. Experiments with metal-accumulating trees are underway, with funding from the US Department of Energy. Last year, the company launched a longer-term project that aims to engineer algae to produce sporopollenin, a biopolymer that coats spores and pollen and can last 100 times longer than other biological materials—and maybe longer than that, the company says. This could create a secure, long-term way to store carbon.

Living Carbon is not alone in this field. Lab to Land, the nonprofit targeting California ecosystems, is considering how carbon markets might drive demand for deep-rooted grasses that store carbon. But Lab to Land is moving far more slowly than Living Carbon—it’s at least a decade away from the deployment of any biotechnology, one of the co-directors of science told me—and, as it progresses, it is building multiple councils to consider the ethics of biotechnology.

A Living Carbon spokesperson suggested that “every scientist is in a way a bioethicist,” and that the company operates with careful morals. As a startup, Living Carbon can’t afford to dither—it needs to make a profit—and Hall says the planet can’t afford to dither, either. To solve climate change, we have to start trying potential technology now. She sees the current plantings as further studies that will help the company and the world understand these trees. 

Even with the new data, Steve Strauss remained circumspect about the trees’ long-term prospects. Living Carbon has only provided enough funding for the Oregon field tests to extend just beyond the current growing season; Strauss indicated that were this his company, he’d “want more time.”

Still, Strauss was the one academic scientist I spoke to who seemed enthused about Living Carbon’s plantings. He said they’d made a breakthrough, though one that is less scientific than social—a first step beyond the confines of test-plot fields. As a longtime proponent of genetic engineering, he thinks research into biotechnical solutions to climate change has been stalled for too long. The climate crisis is growing worse. Now someone is pushing forward. “Maybe this isn’t the ideal thing,” he told me when we first spoke in February. “And maybe they’re pushing this one product too hard, too fast. But I’m sort of glad it’s happening.”

Boyce Upholt is a writer based in New Orleans.

Google DeepMind’s game-playing AI just found another way to make code faster

DeepMind’s run of discoveries in fundamental computer science continues. Last year the company used a version of its game-playing AI AlphaZero to find new ways to speed up the calculation of a crucial piece of math at the heart of many different kinds of code, beating a 50-year-old record.

Now it has pulled the same trick again—twice. Using a new version of AlphaZero called AlphaDev, the UK-based firm (recently renamed Google DeepMind after a merge with its sister company’s AI lab in April) has discovered a way to sort items in a list up to 70% faster than the best existing method.

It has also found a way to speed up a key algorithm used in cryptography by 30%. These algorithms are among the most common building blocks in software. Small speed-ups can make a huge difference, cutting costs and saving energy.

“Moore’s Law is coming to an end, where chips are approaching their fundamental physical limits,” says Daniel Mankowitz, a research scientist at Google DeepMind. “We need to find new and innovative ways of optimizing computing.”

“It’s an interesting new approach,” says Peter Sanders, who studies the design and implementation of efficient algorithms at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany and who was not involved in the work. “Sorting is still one of the most widely used subroutines in computing,” he says.

DeepMind published its results in Nature today. But the techniques that AlphaDev discovered are already being used by millions of software developers. In January 2022, DeepMind submitted its new sorting algorithms to the organization that manages C++, one of the most popular programming languages in the world, and after two months of rigorous independent vetting, AlphaDev’s algorithms were added to the language. This was the first change to C++’s sorting algorithms in more than a decade and the first update ever to involve an algorithm discovered using AI.

DeepMind added its other new algorithms to Abseil, an open-source collection of prewritten C++ algorithms that can be used by anybody coding with C++. These cryptography algorithms compute numbers called hashes that can be used as unique IDs for any kind of data. DeepMind estimates that its new algorithms are now being used trillions of times a day.

AlphaDev is built on top of AlphaZero, the reinforcement-learning model that DeepMind trained to master games such as Go and chess. The company’s breakthrough was to treat the problem of finding a faster algorithm as a game and then train its AI to win it—the same approach it used last year to speed up matrix multiplications.

In AlphaDev’s case, the game involves choosing computer instructions and placing them in order so that the resulting lines of code make up an algorithm. AlphaDev wins the game if the algorithm is both correct and faster than existing ones. It sounds simple, but to play well, AlphaDev must search through an astronomical number of possible moves.  

DeepMind chose to work with assembly, a programming language that can be used to give specific instructions for how to move numbers around on a computer chip. Few humans write in assembly; it is the language that code written in languages like C++ gets translated into before it is run. The advantage of assembly is that it allows algorithms to be broken down into fine-grained steps—a good starting point if you’re looking for shortcuts.

Computer chips have different slots where numbers get put and processed. Assembly includes basic instructions for manipulating what’s in these slots, like mov(A,B), which tells a computer to move the number that’s in slot A to slot B, and cmp(A,B), which tells the computer to check if what’s in slot A is less than, equal to, or greater than what’s in slot B. Long sequences of such instructions can carry out everything that computers do.

AlphaDev plays a move in the game by adding a new assembly instruction to the algorithm it is building. To start, AlphaDev would add instructions at random, generating algorithms that would not run. Over time, just as AlphaZero did with board games, it learned to play winning moves. It added instructions that led to algorithms that not only ran, but were correct and fast.

DeepMind focused on algorithms for sorting short lists of three to five items. Such algorithms get called over and over again in programs that sort longer lists. Speed-ups in these short algorithms will therefore have a cumulative knock-on effect.

But short algorithms have also been studied and optimized by humans for decades. Mankowitz and his colleagues started with an algorithm for sorting a list of three items just as a proof of concept. The best human-devised version of this algorithm involves 18 instructions. They didn’t believe they’d be able to improve on it.

“We honestly didn’t expect to achieve anything better,” says Mankowitz. “But to our surprise, we managed to make it faster. We initially thought this was a mistake or a bug or something, but when we analyzed the program we realized that AlphaDev had actually discovered something.”

AlphaDev found a way to sort a list of three items in 17 instructions instead of 18. What it had discovered was that certain steps could be skipped. “When we looked at it afterwards, we were like, ‘Wow, that definitely makes sense,’” says Mankowitz. “But to discover something like this [without AlphaDev], it requires people that are experts in assembly language.”

AlphaDev could not beat the best human version of the algorithm for sorting a list of four items, which takes 28 instructions. But it beat the best human version for five items, cutting the number of instructions down from 46 to 42. 

That amounts to a significant speed-up. The existing C++ algorithm for sorting a list of five items took around 6.91 nanoseconds on a typical Intel Skylake chip. AlphaDev’s took 2.01 nanoseconds, around 70% faster. 

DeepMind compares AlphaDev’s discovery to one of AlphaGo’s weird but winning moves in its Go match against grandmaster Lee Sedol in 2016. “All the experts looked at this move and said, ‘This isn’t the right thing to do. This is a poor move,’” says Mankowitz. “But actually it was the right move, and AlphaGo ended up not just winning the game but also influencing the strategies that professional Go players started using.”

Sanders is impressed, but he does not think the results should be oversold. “I agree that machine-learning techniques are increasingly a game-changer in programming, and everybody is expecting that AIs will soon be able to invent new, better algorithms,” he says. “But we are not quite there yet.”

For one thing, Sanders points out that AlphaDev only uses a subset of the instructions available in assembly. Many existing sorting algorithms use instructions that AlphaDev did not try, he says. This makes it harder to compare AlphaDev with the best rival approaches.

It’s true that AlphaDev has its limits. The longest algorithm it produced was 130 instructions long, for sorting a list of up to five items. At each step, AlphaDev picked from 297 possible assembly instructions (out of many more). “Beyond 297 instructions and assembly games of more than 130 instructions long, learning became slow,” says Mankowitz.

That’s because even with 297 instructions (or game moves), the number of possible algorithms AlphaDev could construct is larger than the possible number of games in chess (10120) and the number of atoms in the universe (which is believed to be around 1080).

For longer algorithms, the team plans to adapt AlphaDev to work with C++ instructions instead of assembly. With less fine-grained control AlphaDev might miss certain shortcuts, but the approach would be applicable to a wider range of algorithms.

Sanders would also like to see a more exhaustive comparison with the best human-devised approaches, especially for longer algorithms. DeepMind says that’s part of its plan. Mankowitz wants to combine AlphaDev with the best human-devised methods, getting the AI to build on human intuition rather than starting from scratch.

After all, there may be more speed-ups to be found. “For a human to do this, it requires significant expertise and a huge amount of hours—maybe days, maybe weeks—to look through these programs and identify improvements,” says Mankowitz. “As a result, it hasn’t been attempted before.”

The Download: ocean-based carbon removal, and Musk’s untweeted trip to China

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.

Meta’s former CTO has a new $50 million project: ocean-based carbon removal

The news: A nonprofit formed by Mike Schroepfer, Meta’s former chief technology officer, has spun out a new organization aimed at speeding up research into ocean alkalinity enhancement—a potential way to use the seas to suck up and store away even more carbon dioxide. The Carbon to Sea Initiative will get $50 million over the next five years to pursue that goal.

How it works: Ocean alkalinity enhancement refers to various ways of adding alkaline substances, like olivine, basalt, or lime, into seawater. These basic materials bind with dissolved inorganic carbon dioxide in the water to form bicarbonates and carbonates, ions that can persist for tens of thousands of years in the ocean. As those CO2-depleted waters reach the surface, they can pull down additional carbon dioxide from the air to return to a state of equilibrium. 

Why it matters: While such projects would be challenging to scale, climate modelers are optimistic about the method’s potential. Read the full story.

—James Temple

Elon Musk’s quiet, untweeted China trip

Ever since China lifted most of its pandemic-era travel restrictions in January, foreign executives have been flocking in—including one Elon Musk. He paid a three-day visit to China last week to meet with high-ranking government officials. Unusually for him, he stayed off Twitter the entire time. 

However, from the public readouts posted by Chinese government websites and sightings of Musk shared on Chinese social media, we can reconstruct his trip. Read the full story.

—Zeyi Yang

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

The must-reads

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

1 The US regulator is suing Coinbase, too
Within 24 hours of going after fellow crypto exchange Binance. (WSJ $)
+ Retail crypto trading in the US isn’t looking so rosy right now. (Wired $)

2 OpenAI has no plans to launch any more products 

CEO Sam Altman says ChatGPT will be the last. (Insider $)+ The inside story of how ChatGPT was built from the people who made it. (MIT Technology Review)

3 Headsets are out, goggles are in
Apple is going all in on mixed reality—just don’t mention the metaverse. (The Atlantic $)
+ Wearing a computer on your face is still a weird experience. (Wired $)
+ Apple will need to convince developers to build apps for its headset. (MIT Technology Review)

4 Conservative activists are pressuring disinformation researchers
The unwanted attention is forcing some researchers out of the field, just as the 2024 US election approaches. (WP $)

5 The European Union may ban Huawei from 5G infrastructure
The bloc worries that its members haven’t heeded its warnings about high risk vendors. (FT $)

6 Johnson & Johnson’s covid vaccine has been withdrawn in the US
A lack of demand for the jab means there’s no need to update it. (Ars Technica)

7 A startup placed a brain implant on patients’ skulls for 15 minutes
The flexible devices are much less invasive than traditional electrodes. (Wired $)
+ How your brain data could be used against you. (MIT Technology Review)

8 How a hospital staffing startup imploded
CareRev’s CEO openly discussed his drug use with colleagues, for starters. (The Information $)

9 Finland is raising a generation of fact-checkers
It’s the global gold standard for teaching media literacy to children. (Slate $)
+ How different generations handle misinformation. (MIT Technology Review)

10 We’re finally learning more about synesthesia 🎨
Scientists now believe it’s closely linked to how we learn as children. (New Scientist $)

Quote of the day

“People hand out 5 stars like it’s candy.”

—Uber driver Donnie Freeman believes passengers are almost over-generous with ratings these days, he tells the Wall Street Journal.

The big story

The uneasy coexistence of Yandex and the Kremlin

August 2020

While Moscow was under coronavirus lockdown between March and June 2020, the Russian capital emptied out—apart from the streams of cyclists in the trademark yellow uniform of Yandex’s food delivery service.

Often referred to in the West as Russia’s Google, Yandex is really more like Google, Amazon, Uber, and maybe a few other companies combined. It’s a Russian Silicon Valley unto itself. 

But Yandex’s success has come at a price. The Kremlin has long viewed the internet as a battlefield in its escalating tensions with the West and has become increasingly concerned that a company like Yandex, with the heaps of data it has on Russian citizens, could one day fall into foreign hands. Read the full story.

—Evan Gershkovich

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.)

+ Aww, Banana the lobster has made a friend.+ I must admit, putting butter in porridge is a new one on me.
+ Archaeologists have uncovered bits and pieces of a Medieval church buried beneath the North Sea.
+ Oh I do like to be beside the seaside—reading about the seaside, too.
+ Want to see the world through the eyes of the Roman Empire? Now you can.

Elon Musk’s quiet, untweeted China trip

China Report is MIT Technology Review’s newsletter about technology developments in China. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Tuesday.

We usually hear too much about what Elon Musk’s up to lately, but you may have missed the news last week that he paid a three-day visit to China and met with quite a few high-ranking government officials there.

Ever since China lifted most of its pandemic-era travel restrictions in January, foreign executives have been swarming in. And Musk had good reason to go: China is a vital part of Tesla’s electric-vehicle empire, both as a market and as a production powerhouse. But as the owner of Starlink, SpaceX, and recently Twitter, Musk has a much more complicated relationship with the country.

There’s little information in English about Musk’s China trip. That’s primarily because Musk, usually active on the social media platform he just acquired, stayed very quiet during the whole trip. While Twitter is banned in China, people have all sorts of VPN tools to access it. Still, Musk didn’t seem to want to give the impression that he was on Twitter while there. He only tweeted a single time about the trip, after he left China. In fact, he even stopped commenting on other tweets—something he normally does dozens of times every day. 

But from the public readouts posted by Chinese government websites and sightings of Musk shared on Chinese social media, we can reconstruct his trip from Tuesday to Thursday.

He had quite a busy itinerary: in 44 hours, Musk met with at least three high-level Chinese officials, dined with the CEO of the world’s largest EV battery supplier, and visited Tesla’s factory in Shanghai, among other things. 

Musk’s private jet landed in Beijing on the afternoon of May 30, local time. He met with Qin Gang, China’s new foreign minister and previous ambassador to the US, the same day. According to the ministry’s press release, Musk said in the meeting that he strongly opposes decoupling supply chains between the US and China, because the two countries are “interlinked, like conjoined twins inseparable from each other.” That evening, he had dinner with Zeng Yuqun, the CEO of CATL, which is a key supplier of batteries to Tesla cars. 

Musk holding hands with Qin Gang, China's Minister of Foreign Affairs

The next day, he met with two more Chinese ministers, those in charge of commerce and technology. Reuters reported that he also visited Vice Premier Ding Xuexiang—China’s sixth-highest-ranking party official—that afternoon, but the meeting has not been made public by the government or Musk. In the evening, he flew to Shanghai and headed to the Tesla Gigafactory, where he took photos with employees that he would later post on Twitter.

Elon and the team of the Shanghai gigafactory pose for a group photo

On the morning of June 1, his last day in China, Musk squeezed in one last meeting with Chen Jining, the Shanghai party secretary, before his jet left for Texas at 11:23 a.m.

Musk is not the first American executive to visit China this year: before him, there were Apple’s Tim Cook, General Motors’s Mary Barra, JP Morgan’s Jamie Dimon, Starbucks’s Laxman Narasimhan, and more. But so far, Musk has received the biggest welcome, both from Chinese government officials and from the people on Chinese social media.

The main reason is that China and Tesla have been in a mutually beneficial relationship for years. Not only is China the second-largest market for Tesla, but the Shanghai Gigafactory produced over half of Tesla cars sold globally last year. On the other end, the Shanghai factory also contributed significantly to local employment and taxation, as well as making the city a hub of EV production.

During the strict one-month lockdown in Shanghai last year, the municipal government made extra arrangements to make sure the factory could resume production even while other parts of city life were on pause. During this visit, Musk acknowledged those efforts and thanked the Chinese commerce minister.

But there are other things that complicate the relationship between Musk and China.

For one thing, Starlink has long been a concern for Beijing because of its capacity to circumvent traditional communication blackouts and offer additional satellite intelligence. Its application in Ukraine during the war, in which China largely stands on the side of Russia, has made the issue clearer. Earlier this year, it was reported that researchers in China’s military academies have published dozens of papers on how to work against the Starlink satellites. 

On Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, Musk (or whoever operates his verified account) posted a note on May 30 that seemed designed to smooth things over a little: “The China space program is far more advanced than most people realize.”

At the core of Musk’s complicated relationship with China is the fact that his different companies have different relationships with the Chinese government. Tesla is exceptionally welcome in the country; Twitter is a big headache for the government and is strictly banned; SpaceX and Starlink are somewhere in between, representing both a security risk and a collaboration opportunity. 

So far, his ownership of the other companies hasn’t caused Tesla to fall out of favor in China. But in this age of sustained US-China tensions, dealing with the Chinese government is a very delicate act for any American company, and Tesla will probably be a bellwether. No matter how much trolling he likes to do in the US, Musk had to be more cautious when he was in China.

What do you think of the trend of American business executives visiting China? Let me know your thoughts at

Catch up with China

1. Montana’s TikTok ban could be another “junk internet bill”—highly politicized and unlikely to survive judicial review. (MIT Technology Review)

2. Sunday marked the 34th anniversary of the protest and massacre in Tiananmen Square. 

  • Every year in Hong Kong, people have gathered in a public park to hold a vigil. This year, the vigil was blocked by a food carnival hosted by pro-Beijing groups in the same park. (Wall Street Journal $)
  • People who tried to take candles out were taken away by police. (Reuters $)
  • The vigils and protests have been carried on by people overseas. (CNN)

3. Shein, the Chinese fashion e-commerce company that has attracted a large Gen Z following, has hired Washington lobbyists for the first time, to respond to allegations of forced labor practices. (Politico)

4. Defense officials around the world are gathering in Singapore this week for the high-level Shangri-la Dialogue. (CNBC)

  • Meanwhile, spy masters are having a separate, secret meeting in the same city. (Reuters $)
  • CIA director Bill Burns also had a secret trip to China last month, meeting Beijing’s intelligence officials. (Financial Times $)

5. As Pride month begins, China’s LGBTQ communities are losing their few support groups as they are squeezed by the government to shut down operations. (The Economist $)

6. Local police in China are increasingly dealing with a new type of scam: people are using generative AI tools to impersonate others and request money transfers from the victim’s contacts. (Wall Street Journal $)

Lost in translation

Would you spend $1 a month to have unlimited chats with a simulacrum of your favorite influencer? Xiaoice, a Chinese AI company, just offered this service. Every Thursday from now on, the company will release a new “AI clone” of a Chinese influencer (the first is designed around a 20-something female model named Hu Wenjie, better known by her online alias 半藏森林). Users can converse by text and voice with such AI chatbots. If they spend 30 RMB ($4.22) a month, the “influencer” will double as an office assistant and help with tasks like writing marketing copy. (Why would you want your influencer to do that?) The service has a strong romantic tone: the basic subscription is called the “relationship mode.” For now, the majority of the profits go to the influencer, according to a report by Chinese state broadcaster CCTV.

An "AI clone" of Hu Wenjie, a Chinese influencer

One more thing

The latest viral social media trend in China is packing a lunch that’s simple and sometimes too bland to eat and calling it 白人饭—literally, “white people food.” It’s surely a dig at the quick lunches in American food culture, but there are also people who say they’re doing it to lose weight or to forgo complicated food prep.

Meta’s former CTO has a new $50 million project: ocean-based carbon removal

A nonprofit formed by Mike Schroepfer, Meta’s former chief technology officer, has spun out a new organization dedicated to accelerating research into ocean alkalinity enhancement—one potential means of using the seas to suck up and store away even more carbon dioxide.

Additional Ventures, cofounded by Schroepfer, and a group of other foundations have committed $50 million over five years to the nonprofit research program, dubbed the Carbon to Sea Initiative. The goals of the effort include evaluating potential approaches; eventually conducting small-scale field trials in the ocean; advancing policies that could streamline permitting for those experiments and provide more public funding for research; and developing the technology necessary to carry out and assess these interventions if they prove to work well and safely.

The seas already act as a powerful buffer against the worst dangers of climate change, drawing down about a quarter of human-driven carbon dioxide emissions and absorbing the vast majority of global warming. Carbon dioxide dissolves naturally into seawater where the air and ocean meet.

But scientists and startups are exploring whether these global commons can do even more to ease climate change, as a growing body of research finds that nations now need to both slash emissions and pull vast amounts of additional greenhouse gas out of the atmosphere to keep warming in check.

Ocean alkalinity enhancement (OAE) refers to various ways of adding alkaline substances, like olivine, basalt, or lime, into seawater. These basic materials bind with dissolved inorganic carbon dioxide in the water to form bicarbonates and carbonates, ions that can persist for tens of thousands of years in the ocean. As those CO2-depleted waters reach the surface, they can pull down additional carbon dioxide from the air to return to a state of equilibrium. 

The ground-up materials could be added directly to ocean waters from vessels, placed along the coastline, or used in onshore devices that help trigger reactions with seawater.

Carbon to Sea is effectively an expansion of the Ocean Alkalinity Enhancement R&D Program, which Additional Ventures launched in late 2021 with the Astera Institute, the Grantham Environmental Trust, and others. Ocean Visions, a nonprofit research group working to advance ocean-based climate solutions, is also a partner, though not a funder. Early last year, the organizations began accepting applications for research grants for “at least $10 million” that could be put to use over the next five years. The program has committed $23 million to the research field so far.

Schroepfer, who will serve as a board chair of Carbon to Sea, said that he decided to support the field of ocean alkalinity enhancement because he consistently heard that it was a promising approach to carbon removal that needed to be closely studied, but “nobody was stepping up to do the actual funding of the work.”

“The way you get started is by doing,” he says. “And by moving, in particular, the science forward and making sure that the people who can answer these fundamental questions have the resources and time to answer them thoroughly.”

Antonius Gagern, previously the program director for ocean carbon dioxide removal at Additional Ventures, is leading the new organization.

“In looking at the different ways that the ocean is already using natural carbon pumps to sequester CO2 permanently, ocean alkalinity enhancement has emerged as, for us, the most promising one for a number of reasons,” Gagern says.

It’s “extremely scalable,” it’s “very permanent,” and it “doesn’t mess with” biological systems in the ways that other ocean-based approaches may, he adds.

‘A substantial climatic impact’

Other observers also consider ocean alkalinity enhancement a promising approach, in part because it’s one of the major ways the planet already pulls down carbon dioxide over very long time scales: rainwater dissolves basic rocks, producing calcium and other alkaline compounds that eventually flow into the oceans through rivers and streams. 

These processes naturally sequester hundreds of millions of tons of carbon dioxide per year, by some estimates. And the planet has more than enough of the reactive materials required to bond with all the carbon dioxide humans have emitted throughout history. 

There are potentially some additional benefits as well. Alkaline substances could reduce ocean acidification locally and might provide beneficial nutrients to certain marine organisms. 

Andreas Oschlies, a climate modeler at the Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research in Kiel, Germany, agrees that it’s one of the few carbon removal approaches that could “really deliver at scale and have a substantial climatic impact.” 

“The minerals are not limiting and the reservoir, the ocean, is not limiting,” he says.

(Oschlies hasn’t received research grants from the Additional Ventures consortium but is a senior advisor to a project that has.)

He’s quick to stress, however, that there are significant challenges in scaling it up, and that far more research is needed to understand the most effective approaches and secondary impacts of such interventions. 

Notably, some approaches would require mining, grinding, and moving around massive amounts of alkaline materials, all of which entails a lot of energy and environmental impacts.

“It’s a huge operation, of course, similar to fossil fuels or coal mining,” he says. “So these are all side effects we have to take into account.”

(Not all these concerns would necessarily be raised by other methods, however, like using electrochemistry to remove acid from seawater or processing existing waste from mines.)

There are additional challenges and uncertainties as well.  

Several recent lab experiments found that these approaches didn’t work as well or easily as expected. Indeed, in some instances the addition of such substances reduced alkalinity as well as the uptake of carbon dioxide. This raises the possibility that these methods may only work in limited areas or circumstances, or could be more costly or complex to implement than hoped.

Some of the minerals contain trace heavy metals, which can collect in marine ecosystems. They could also alter the light conditions and biogeochemistry of the waters in ways that might harm or help various organisms. 

Finally, the fact that carbon removal happens as a second step in the process makes it challenging to accurately monitor and measure how much CO2 the process really removes, particularly with approaches that occur in the turbulent, variable open oceans. That, in turn, could make it difficult to incentivize and monetize such efforts through carbon markets.

CarbonPlan, a San Francisco nonprofit that evaluates the scientific integrity of carbon removal projects and techniques, ranks ocean alkalinity enhancement on the low end of its “verification confidence levels,” which evaluate the degree to which long-term carbon removal and storage “can be accurately quantified” with existing tools and approaches.

“There is a lot of natural variability associated with these processes, which means it can be hard to discern a signal from the noise,” Freya Chay, program lead for carbon removal at CarbonPlan, said in an email. 

“We’re still in exploration mode when it comes to OAE—there is a lot to learn about how to measure, monitor, and effectively deploy these technologies,” she added.

‘Getting the science right’

These challenges are precisely why it’s crucial to fund a coordinated research program into ocean alkalinity research, Gagern says. One of Carbon to Sea’s top priorities will include “getting the science right,” he says, by supporting studies designed to assess what approaches work most effectively and safely, and under what conditions. 

He says that improving systems for monitoring, reporting, and verifying the carbon actually removed through these processes will also be a “major, major focus,” with efforts to develop, test, and refine sensors and models. Finally, Carbon to Sea will also prioritize “community building” in the nascent field, striving to draw in more researchers across disciplines and encourage collaborations through conferences, workshops, and fellowships.

One of Carbon to Sea’s initial grantees is the Ocean Alk-Align consortium, an international group of researchers studying the potential and environmental safety of ocean alkalinity enhancement.

“The award from Carbon to Sea enables us to rigorously investigate the promise of OAE for meaningful climate change mitigation and provides us with significant resources to tackle important questions through independent scientific study,” said Katja Fennel, who leads the consortium and is chair of the department of oceanography at Dalhousie University, in a prepared statement.

The program’s additional funding will likely go to a mix of research groups and startups.

A variety of companies are already exploring a handful of approaches. Project Vesta has been studying the potential for spreading fine olivine along beaches. A UCLA spinout, Equatic, is pairing alkaline materials and electricity to strip carbon dioxide from seawater and produce a clean form of hydrogen in the process. Ebb Carbon says it’s using electricity and membranes to produce an alkaline solution from the wastewater generated by desalination plants and industrial sites. The solution can then be returned to the ocean.

In addition, alkaline substances don’t necessarily have to make it to the oceans for carbon removal to occur. There’s also growing research and commercial interest in a broader category known as enhanced weathering. One startup, Lithos, is encouraging farmers to add crushed basalt rock to their fields, to increase crop yields and sequester carbon. Meanwhile, Travertine, a company spun out of the University of California, Berkeley, is developing ways of using mining waste to suck down and store away CO2

Other funders of Carbon to Sea include the Builders Initiative, Catalyst for Impact, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the Kissick Family Foundation, OceanKind, and the Thistledown Foundation. 

Additional Ventures provides funding to accelerate research and development in three major areas: climate change, biomedical research, and community and democracy. Schroepfer also recently established a climate-focused venture capital investment firm, Gigascale Capital.

He says it’s crucial to kick-start ocean alkalinity research now because it can take years to build momentum behind a substantial, multifaceted scientific program and do the community engagement necessary to move the field forward.

“We should have started a long time ago, but here we are,” he says. “We’re starting now, so that if we need this as a technique—and it is promising—in the future years, we’ve laid the groundwork for it to be a possible tool for humanity.”

Update: This story was updated to clarify the role of Ocean Visions in the consortium, to note that some of the concerns raised don’t apply to all proposed methods, and to include additional comments.

The Download: Apple’s headset challenges, and what AI can learn from nuclear safety

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.

Apple will face an uphill battle convincing developers to build apps for its headset

The ‘one more thing’ announced by Apple at its Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) this year was the industry’s worst-kept secret. The Apple Vision Pro, the tech giant’s gamble on making mixed reality headsets a thing, has received a mixed reception. Most of the concern has centered on the eye-watering $3,499 cost.

But there’s a bigger problem: Whether there’ll be enough apps available to make the cost of the device worth it. It’s a real challenge to redesign apps for an entirely new interface—and developers are concerned. Read the full story.

—Chris Stokel-Walker

To avoid AI doom, learn from nuclear safety

For the past few weeks, the AI discourse has been dominated by those who think we could develop an artificial-intelligence system that will one day become so powerful it will wipe out humanity.

So how do companies themselves propose we avoid AI ruin? One proposed solution comes from a new paper by DeepMind et al that suggests that AI developers should evaluate a model’s potential to cause “extreme” risks before even starting any training.

The process could help developers decide whether it’s too risky to proceed. But potentially it’d be more helpful for the AI sector to draw lessons from a field that knows a thing or two about very real existential threats—safety research and risk mitigation around nuclear weapons.

—Melissa Heikkilä

Melissa’s story is from The Algorithm, her weekly newsletter giving you the inside track on all things AI. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Monday.

The must-reads

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

1 The US Securities and Exchange Commission is suing Binance
 It’s seriously bad news for the crypto industry as a whole. (WSJ $)
+ Crypto companies are duking it out in a series of legal battles. (Wired $)
+ It’s okay to opt out of the crypto revolution. (MIT Technology Review)

2 Will anyone buy Apple’s Vision Pro?
At $3,499, the mixed reality headset isn’t exactly built for the masses. (Economist $) 
+ The device is less a traditional VR headset, more a modified pair of ski goggles. (Vox)
+ Apple is trying to distance itself from VR’s bad reputation. (NYT $)
+ Vision Pro is joining a long list of geeky-looking face-mounted devices. (WP $)

3 Twitter failed to catch known child sex abuse images  
Researchers claim it’s failing to implement even basic prevention measures. (WSJ $)
+ Twitter is working on a live video service that’s likely to appeal to right-wing figures. (Insider $)+ Elon Musk isn’t CEO anymore—Linda Yaccarino officially took over yesterday. (Reuters)

4 Junk AI content is flooding a programmer community
Stack Overflow approved all GPT content. Then came the spam. (Motherboard)
+ AI is broadening the horizons of, well, pretty much everything. (The Atlantic $)

5 New York is edging closer to banning geofence warrants
But time is running out to ban the police surveillance method during this legislative session. (Slate $)
+ Electronic medical records are a ticking privacy time bomb. (Wired $)

6 NASA’s mission to a metal-rich asteroid is back on track
It was plagued with issues last summer, but it’s now projected to reach its target by August 2029.(Ars Technica)

7 An Excel spreadsheet error led an Austrian party to announce the wrong leader 
It’s likely to fuel further dissatisfaction and erode trust in the group. (WP $)

8 Colombia is struggling to attract tech workers
Its significantly tougher new work visa rules are forcing skilled migrants to leave. (Rest of World)

9 San Francisco is trying to shake off its tech blues
A six day-long party should just about do it. (The Information $)

10 Sales of mood-altering mushrooms are on the rise 🍄
But there’ve been no clinical trials to prove they’re effective—or even safe. (Undark Magazine)
+ Mind-altering substances are being overhyped as wonder drugs. (MIT Technology Review)

Quote of the day

“We are operating as a fking unlicensed securities exchange in the USA bro.”

—Samuel Lim, Binance’s chief compliance officer, makes a startling admission to another compliance officer at the crypto exchange, according to a new complaint filed by the US Securities and Exchange Commission, reports TechCrunch.

The big story

Why people still starve in an age of abundance

December 2020

When the Norwegian committee decided to award the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize to the World Food Program, the United Nations’ food assistance agency, the news was greeted with more than a few smirks and eye-rolls.

The WFP, which provides food assistance to people in need, is the largest agency in the UN and has 14,500 employees worldwide. Critics believe it won the prize for simply doing its job—and an extremely narrow interpretation of its job, at that.

After nearly 60 years of trying to end hunger, the WFP is larger and busier than ever before. The world’s farmers produce more than enough to feed the world, and yet people still starve. Why? Read the full story.

—Bobbie Johnson

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.)

+ As if the Great Barrier Reef wasn’t cool enough, it’s got its own museum of underwater art.
+ Who doesn’t love a good soup?
+ No non-stick pan? No problem.
+ A definitive run-down of the toughest video game bosses of all time is nothing if not controversial.
+ This miniature kitchen is the cutest thing you’ll see today.