Meta’s new AI can turn text prompts into videos

Meta has today unveiled an AI system that generates short videos based on text prompts. 

Make-A-Video lets you type in a string of words, like “A dog wearing a superhero outfit with a red cape flying through the sky,” and then generates a five-second clip that, while pretty accurate, has the aesthetics of a trippy old home video. 

Although the effect is rather crude, the system offers an early glimpse of what’s coming next for generative artificial intelligence, and it is the next obvious step from the text-to-image AI systems that have caused huge excitement this year. 

Meta’s announcement of Make-A-Video, which is not yet being made available to the public, will likely prompt other AI labs to release their own versions. It also raises some big ethical questions. 

In the last month alone, AI lab OpenAI has made its latest text-to-image AI system DALL-E available to everyone, and AI startup Stability.AI launched Stable Diffusion, an open-source text-to-image system.

But text-to-video AI comes with some even greater challenges. For one, these models need a vast amount of computing power. They are an even bigger computational lift than large text-to-image AI models, which use millions of images to train, because putting together just one short video requires hundreds of images. That means it’s really only large tech companies that can afford to build these systems for the foreseeable future. They’re also trickier to train, because there aren’t large-scale data sets of high-quality videos paired with text. 

To work around this, Meta combined data from three open-source image and video data sets to train its model. Standard text-image data sets of labeled still images helped the AI learn what objects are called and what they look like. And a database of videos helped it learn how those objects are supposed to move in the world. The combination of the two approaches helped Make-A-Video, which is described in a non-peer-reviewed paper published today, generate videos from text at scale.

Tanmay Gupta, a computer vision research scientist at the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, says Meta’s results are promising. The videos it’s shared show that the model can capture 3D shapes as the camera rotates. The model also has some notion of depth and understanding of lighting. Gupta says some details and movements are decently done and convincing. 

“A young couple walking in heavy rain”

However, “there’s plenty of room for the research community to improve on, especially if these systems are to be used for video editing and professional content creation,” he adds. In particular, it’s still tough to model complex interactions between objects. 

In the video generated by the prompt “An artist’s brush painting on a canvas,” the brush moves over the canvas, but strokes on the canvas aren’t realistic. “I would love to see these models succeed at generating a sequence of interactions, such as ‘The man picks up a book from the shelf, puts on his glasses, and sits down to read it while drinking a cup of coffee,’” Gupta says. 

“An artist’s brush painting on a canvas”

For its part, Meta promises that the technology could “open new opportunities for creators and artists.” But as the technology develops, there are fears it could be harnessed as a powerful tool to create and disseminate misinformation and deepfakes. It might make it even more difficult to differentiate between real and fake content online. 

Meta’s model ups the stakes for generative AI both technically and creatively but also “in terms of the unique harms that could be caused through generated video as opposed to still images,” says Henry Ajder, an expert on synthetic media. 

“At least today, creating factually inaccurate content that people might believe in requires some effort,” Gupta says. “In the future, it may be possible to create misleading content with a few keystrokes.”  

The researchers who built Make-A-Video filtered out offensive images and words, but with data sets that consist of millions and millions of words and images, it is almost impossible to fully remove biased and harmful content

A spokesperson for Meta says it is not making the model available to the public yet, and that “as part of this research, we will continue to explore ways to further refine and mitigate potential risk.”

The Download: Amazon’s home-guarding robot, and covid’s violent legacy

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.

Amazon has a new plan for its home robot Astro: to guard your life

The news: Amazon announced yesterday that its home robot, Astro, will be getting a slew of major updates aimed at further embedding it in homes—and in our daily lives.

The details: The new features offer more home monitoring. Astro will be able to watch pets and send a video feed of their activities to users, for example. But the robot will also be able to wander around the house to keep an eye on rooms and entry points. Amazon also announced a new collaboration between Astro and the Ring home security camera system designed to protect areas outside the home from possible break-ins. 

Why it matters: Ring’s approach to surveillance hasn’t been without controversy. It’s reasonable to ask whether combining Astro’s ability to roam around a house with Ring’s established surveillance system might create even more problems than either product did in their previous iterations. Read the full story.

—Tanya Basu

The pandemic created a “perfect storm” for Black women at risk of domestic violence

Starr Davis was smitten when she met a handsome stranger with flawless skin and a wide smile in March 2020. He was charming and persistent; but their whirlwind romance took a major turn when she fell pregnant. His aggressive behavior started to make her uncomfortable, but he was the father of her child.

He became physically abusive a few weeks after she moved in with him. He forbade her from setting foot outside, saying it was to protect her and their unborn child from covid. With no friends or close family nearby for support, she suffered in silence.

Covid seems to have made things worse for many women experiencing violence at home. Anti-domestic-violence advocates point to dramatic increases in calls to shelters and support groups, and many care workers say this increase in domestic violence seems to have disproportionately affected Black women like Davis. Read the full story.

—Chandra Thomas Whitfield

Podcast: AI births digital humans

In the latest episode of our podcast, In Machines We Trust, we dig into the world of digital twins: AI-powered replicas designed to capture the physical look and expressions of real humans. But although the entertainment industry is embracing them, they raise familiar, thorny questions about ownership and digital rights. Listen to it on Apple Podcasts, or wherever else you usually listen.

The must-reads

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

1 Sweden has found a new leak in the Nord Stream pipeline
Russia is still denying any responsibility for attacking the gas pipeline, as the number of known leaks reaches four. (BBC)
+ Finding someone to blame is easier said than done. (Wired $)
+ The methane leak is likely to be the biggest ever, by far. (AP News)
+ The country’s tech imports have collapsed under sanctions. (Insider $)
+ Russia hasn’t been honest about the state of the pipeline for quite some time. (Slate $)

2 A bionic pancreas could solve one of the biggest challenges of diabetes
An algorithm takes over the arduous job of counting carbohydrates. (MIT Technology Review)

3 Crypto is still in crisis
Senior executives are still departing major firms, and investors are still wary. (Bloomberg $)
+ Do Kwon, the missing Terraform boss, has called the case against him ‘unfair.’ (Bloomberg $)
+ Crypto is weathering a bitter storm. Some still hold on for dear life. (MIT Technology Review)

4 A teenager died after a telehealth provider prescribed him antidepressants 
The company failed to obtain consent from the minor’s parents. (WSJ $)

5 China’s chipmakers are being investigated
Which is dealing the industry’s dreams of self-sufficiency a heavy blow. (FT $)
+ Corruption is sending shock waves through China’s chipmaking industry. (MIT Technology Review)
+ There are no chip reserves. (Vox)

6 What it’s like being trapped in a driverless car
The vehicles work pretty well—until they don’t. (NYT $)
+ The big new idea for making self-driving cars that can go anywhere. (MIT Technology Review)

7 How good bacteria can fight malnutrition 🦠
Food that rebalances malnourished microbiomes can help children to grow. (Economist $)
+ Choanoflagellates are tiny creatures that also harbor bacteria communities. (The Atlantic $)

8 Tech startups are helping to rebuild Bosnia
Its up-and-coming businesses want to reverse the war-scarred nation’s brain drain. (Rest of World)

9 TikTok is making it harder for record execs to discover new musicians
There’s plenty of chaff to separate from the wheat. (The Guardian)
+ A car-renting couple have been tracking their customers on the platform. (Motherboard)
+ Investors are growing tired of chasing TikTok-style social apps. (The Information $)

10 The CIA is investing in tech to resurrect mammoths 🦣
It uses CRISPR gene editing to create optimized genetic code. (Intercept)

Quote of the day

“Everything is possible if you’re brave.”

—Katherin Bestandig, a regular at the Bam Bam Beach Bitcoin Bar in Lagos, Portugal, describes her bold approach to investing in volatile cryptocurrency to the New York Times.

The big story

Why the balance of power in tech is shifting toward workers

February 2022

Something has changed for tech giants. Even as they continue to hold tremendous influence in our daily lives, a growing accountability movement has begun to check their power. Led in large part by tech workers themselves, a movement seeking reform of how these companies do business has taken on unprecedented momentum, particularly in the past year.

Concerns and anger over tech companies’ impact in the world is nothing new, of course. What’s changed is that workers are increasingly getting organized. Read the full story.

—Jane Lytvynenko

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.)

+ Ever feel like you’re being watched?
+ It’s up to you, New York!
+ Forget the gym, all the coolest cats are bouldering these days.
+ Lizzo visiting the Library of Congress to play a priceless flute is the serotonin boost I needed today.
+ A helpful reminder that all on LinkedIn is not as it seems (thanks Beth!)

How AI is helping birth digital humans that look and sound just like us

Digital twins capture the physical look and expressions of real humans. Increasingly these replicas are showing up in the entertainment industry and beyond. It gives rise to some interesting opportunities as well as thorny questions. 

We speak to:

Greg Cross, CEO and co-founder of Soul Machines

Sounds from:

  • 2PAC HOLOGRAM | LIVE Coachella Recording | High Quality – via YouTube
  • I’m Miquela, A Real-Life Robot Mess – via YouTube
  • Capitol Records signs AI, or ‘virtual’, rapper … then drops the artist after pushback – via YouTube
  • FN Meka Voice Glad Capitol Killed the Contract, Hitmaka Agrees | TMZ – via YouTube 
  • Black Mirror: You, me and Ashley Too – via Netflix
  • FN Meka – Moonwalkin’ – via YouTube
  • Capitol Records Drops Virtual Rapper FN Meka After Backlash Over Racist Stereotypes | Billboard News – via YouTube 
  • Kyle the Hooligan, the Black Rapper Behind FN Meka Says He’s Suing | TMZ – via YouTube
  • Future of digital humans – Mao Lin Liao – via YouTube

Credits:

This episode was produced by Anthony Green with help from Emma Cillekens. It was edited by Jennifer Strong and Mat Honan, mixed by Garret Lang, with original music from Jacob Gorski. It’s hosted by Jennifer Strong.

Full transcript:

 [TR ID]

[music and applause swells] 

Jennifer: It’s the closing night of 20-12 Coachella music festival… And Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg are joined on stage by a surprise guest: Tupac… despite the fact that the hip-hop legend died more than 15 years earlier.

Tupac hologram: Yeah! You know what the **** this is!

[crowd cheers]

Tupac hologram: What up Dre!

Dr. Dre: I’m chilling, what’s up Pac?

Tupac hologram: What the **** is up Coachella?!

[fade out] 

[scoring in]

Jennifer: A holographic-like image of the late rapper appeared alongside the real-life Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg… bantering with them…and addressing the crowd. 

This illusion took over a year to create, and was accomplished by piecing together audio, physical characteristics and movements from performances recorded before the rapper’s death.

To festival-goers and audiences streaming live, the effect was stunning… and a bit unsettling. 

These days, digital humans are taking on the jobs of entertainers in increasingly nuanced ways.

Miquela: I was programmed to believe that I was a 19 year old, half brazilian, half spanish girl named Miquela.

Jennifer: This digital influencer and model is a project that began as a CGI instagram profile… but has gone on to release music and collaborate with luxury brands, such as Calvin Klein and Prada… amassing millions of followers along the way. 

Miquela: Don’t worry y’all. I am a robot but I’m not here to, like, hack your venmo or leak your private browser history. 

Jennifer: For next-gen systems… AI is the core creation tool. With it comes interactive, human-like experiences… as well as some familiar, thorny questions about ownership.

WFAA News Anchor: I mean you got all these real people that want to get into this industry but yall choose to sign a virtual person? 

Hitmaka: If this would’ve went under the radar, they would’ve been making hundreds of millions of dollars from this. And nobody would’ve said nothing. 

Jennifer: I’m Jennifer Strong and this episode, we explore the real task of building these not real digital humans. 

[TITLES]

OC: …You have reached your destination.

[MUSIC IN] 

Greg Cross: You know, the art of creating digital characters and digital personalities, I mean, that’s been finely honed in the movie industry and what makes us fall in love with these avatars and these CGI characters is that they do express emotion in a very human-like way.

Greg Cross: Hi, I’m Greg Cross. I’m CEO and co-founder of Soul Machines. Soul machines is an artificial intelligence company. We make avatars and we bring them to life using a completely new paradigm in the world of animation. Something we call autonomous animation. So autonomous animation is what we are doing in this conversation. So my brain is animating me. It brings me to life. It chooses my words. The way I express them. And that just happens autonomously. And your brain at the same time as I’m talking is animating you. You’re hearing my words, you’re deciding what to think of them, how to feel about them. And so if we think about high quality CGI or avatar type animation, it’s all human acted content. So human actors play the role of the avatars. They get captured by these incredibly specialized cameras. The data gets processed and then. The data is used to bring the avatar to life.  

Jennifer: It’s the process used to create Gollum in the Lord of the Rings and it transformed the entire cast of the 2009 blockbuster, Avatar.

But the approach at Soul Machines relies on AI.

Greg Cross: Artificial intelligence has become a big part of the way in which we think about autonomous animation and the way it enables us to make machines more like us. We can interact with them in a more human-like way. So our digital people, our avatars are being rendered in the cloud and literally they’re being broadcast as a video stream from the cloud into the device. So it’s just like a zoom call, except you’re talking to a digital person rather than a real person. 

Jennifer: And it’s becoming popular within the entertainment industry. 

Greg Cross: Celebrities are looking for new ways to engage with their fans. So, social media started this trend where celebrities could create a direct connection with fan bases. This takes it to the next level. 

Jennifer: And he says celebrities are choosing to have digital twins for a whole range of reasons.

Greg Cross: We recently started working with Jack Nicklaus, you know, Jack’s 82 in real life. And for him, this is a legacy project. How does he make his legacy relevant to kids taking up golf for the first time today? So, we’ve announced that we are going to be reimagining Marilyn Monroe. For the 21st century working with the folk at Authentic Brands Group who own the digital rights to Marilyn. So, you know, this is a project where, you know, this huge amount of interest, I mean, in Marilyn today. So this is another way that we can tell her story. K-pop, uh, Mark Tuan, one of the biggest K-pop stars in the world. Mark is just one of these people who’s incredibly time-poor. You know, he never has enough time to interact with his fans in the way that he wants to be able to interact with his fans. So this becomes a way in which he can do that without him having to always be there. 

Jennifer: This might sound familiar to fans of the tv show, Black Mirror… where a popstar, portrayed by real-life singer Miley Cyrus, uses AI to create a digital version of her personality.

Announcer: Now you can be best friends with your favorite pop star! 

Young girl: Ashley, wake up. 

Ashley Too: Hey, there I’m Ashley Too!

Announcer: An all new intelligent companion based on Ashley O’s actual personality.

Jennifer: Soul Machines captures the physical look and expressions of someone they’re digitizing… then, the real work begins. 

Greg Cross: In the case of synthetic voices, we work with partners to recreate these voices and, and these voices can be trained based on existing audio content with, uh, Carmello Anthony, Camelo recently released a book. He recorded the  audio book op version of the book. So we use the audio book version to create his synthetic voice. But here’s the thing. We just don’t create a synthetic voice in English, you know, in his natural voice, we can create a synthetic voice in Japanese and Mandarin and Korean, you know, Carmello can now speak any one of 15 languages in his own natural voice.

Jennifer: And despite being called a digital twin… which in every other industry means an exact copy of something… these digital celebrities aren’t necessarily the same as their human counterparts. For example, celebrities might choose to create a less anxious or more chatty version of themselves for fans.

Greg Cross: One of the things that we’re exploring particularly with Carmello is, I mean, Jack wants digital Jack to be a representation of who he was at that age. Carmello actually wants his digital twin to have a different personality so that they can play off each other and they can interact with each other and have fun with each other. One of the things you don’t want to do is you don’t want to connect a celebrity to the internet because you know, you do that and you’re going to end up with TikTok videos where the content is not appropriate or not consistent with their brand or their image. So content in the digital realm has to be curated, you know, in the same way that celebrities curate their content in social media, they have to do the same with their digital twins as well.  

Jennifer: Though, some companies do hand that curation off to an algorithm.

FN Meka: Big sticks like I’m marching band. (Boom, boom!)

Too deep like clowns in minivan (Clown)

50 said it best. It ain’t many men (many men)

When you steppin’ on me, come get me, man (Grrah)

Jennifer: This is a song partly composed by FN Meka, an AI created by the company Factory New… which describes itself as a record label specializing in virtual artists. 

The system analyzes popular songs from specific genres and generates the building blocks of new songs… such as melody, and tempo… with vocals performed by a real human. 

FN Meka was designed and marketed to represent a kind of digital rapper… His TikTok videos—showing him in designer clothes and luxury cars with an edgy haircut and plenty of attitude—they generated… more than a billion views on the platform. 

In August, it was announced that the digital human had been signed to one of the most powerful music labels in the world: Capitol Records—which retains rights to the works of artists like ABBA and Katy Perry. 

Then… this happened

Billboard News Anchor: From stepping into the virtual future to back on the proverbial streets, the AI rapper everybody has been talking about has been dropped from his label. 

Jennifer: In addition to his virtual jewels and custom Tesla cybertruck, FN Meka is depicted as a black man… something its human creators are not. 

The system was soon called into question by the group “Industry Blackout”… an organization representing black people in the music industry. 

WFAA News Anchor: In a statement on Twitter the group said the rapper is “an offensive caricature and a direct insult to the black community and our culture.” 

Jennifer: In the hours following the statement, Capitol Records severed ties with the AI and issued an apology to the black community. FN Meka’s music was quickly removed from streaming services and as for his viral TikTok content… it’s pretty much vanished. 

And Kyle the Hooligan—the black rapper whose real voice was used for the system—is taking legal action against the company.

Kyle the Hooligan: Basically, my lawyer’s been reaching out to them and their attorneys, but we haven’t heard back as of yet. Well, at the time… like, I was young, you know what I’m saying? I had no representation. So… and they didn’t really have the money behind it as of yet. So they promised me equity. It basically was like a collaboration. So we could do this together and just like build it up instead of like upfront money and stuff like that. 

Jennifer: But he says that didn’t happen. 

Kyle the Hooligan: So I wanna kind of shed light on that and show that it’s not cool just to use the culture and just ghost people and not compensate them. Cause this, I know it’s… this industry that happens a lot. So that’s basically what I would like to happen. Be compensated and shine light on the situation. 

Hitmaka: I think it’s a disservice to the culture. Like it’s, it’s some of the most disrespectful stuff I’ve seen in a long time.

Jennifer: This is Grammy nominated rapper and producer Hitmaka, in an interview with TMZ. 

Hitmaka: You know, how many layers and contracts and things that had to happen to get to this point. So the legal department, the A and R team, the high level execs, everybody agreed with this. If this would’ve went under the radar, they would’ve been making hundreds of millions of dollars from this. And nobody would’ve said nothing. So it’s just ridiculous, man, for real.

[MUSIC]

Jennifer: You can find links to our reporting in the show notes… and you can support our journalism by going to tech review dot com slash subscribe.

We’ll be back… right after this.

[MIDROLL]

[scoring in]

Jennifer: It’s not just celebrities looking to use digital replicas… 

This technology is being trialed in everything from customer service to law enforcement… 

Mao Lin Liao: So, this project is about a virtual girl that has been used to attract pedophiles online

Jennifer: This is Mao Lin Liao, speaking at a conference. He’s the CEO of REBLIKA—a designer of digital humans.

Mao Lin Liao: And this whole story was very, uh, important for us because it was helping the world become a safer place. 

Jennifer: The project was codenamed Sweetie. It’s a computer model created to look and move like a real girl. Sweetie was deployed across a number of online chat rooms where she appears to be sitting in front of a webcam in the Philippines. In reality, a team of sleuths were operating the system from a warehouse in Amsterdam.  

Sweetie AI: My name is Sweetie. I’m 10 years old. I live in the Philippines. Every day I have to sit in front of the webcam and talk to men, just like tens of thousands of other kids. The men ask me to take off my clothes. But what they don’t know, I’m not real. I’m a computer model made piece by piece to track down this man who do this. 

Jennifer: In just 10 weeks, the team identified a thousand predators from 71-different countries… thanks in no small part to the system’s ability to replicate the subtle, physical nuances that come with talking to a real person. 

It’s those same nuances, like a shifting gaze or returned smile, that underpins the realism of digital humans created by Soul Machines.  

Digital Jack: Hi, how are you?

Greg Cross: I’m good thanks, Jack. 

Digital Jack: I’m glad to hear it. I’m Jack Nicholas coming to you circa 1978. I’m here to tell you about my life as a professional golfer. Where should we begin? 

Greg Cross: So I’ve just muted Jack at this point. So you can see Jack’s on the screen. He’s looking at me. You know, if you look up close, you can see my hand reflection going across.  

Jennifer: That’s CEO Greg Cross giving a demo of golfer Jack Nicklaus’ digital twin… The system uses the computer’s microphone and webcam to seemingly hear and see the real human on the other end. And it has the contextual awareness to know it’s supposed to be chatting as if on a video call.  

Jennifer Strong: When you say his name, he smiles a little bit. 

Greg Cross: Yeah, of course and if I smile at him.

Greg Cross: He’ll smile back. I mean, that’s a natural.. that’s the natural reaction. So how this works is, if I smile at you, your eyes are seeing the smile and your brain then, or the limbic system in your brain, which is our emotional connection system that secretes dopamine and serotonin, the happy drugs, sends electrical signals from your brain to your facial muscles, through your nervous system and you smile back. And that’s the natural human reaction to a smile. And so Jack’s digital brain is actually working in exactly the same way. So if you know, you get concerned or worried.

Jennifer Strong: I see. 

Greg Cross: He will respond by looking a little bit more empathetic. You know, so these are some of the ways in which we are, you know, using Jack’s digital brain to bring him to life in, in real time. 

Greg Cross: Can you tell us about the 1978 British open 

Digital Jack: In 1978, the British open returned to its most traditional location. The old course of St. I fell in love with St. Andrews on my first visit in 1964. And from there, my attachment only group. Have you ever been to Scotland?

Greg Cross: Yes, I have.

Digital Jack: It’s truly something. The birthplace of golf and so much more. Needless to say, playing St. Andrews again in 1978 was a dream, but the months prior to the term were anything but ideal. Have you ever tried to deal with a problem only to watch it grow? The more you try to fix it?

Greg Cross: No, I don’t have any problems, Jack. 

Digital Jack: Really, you’re pretty darn lucky then.  

Greg Cross: In time, we might end up building a number of different versions of digital Jack. I mean, Jack selected that age. He wanted to be 38. He considered himself to be playing the finest golf of his career at that age, so that’s why he chose it. But we might do, you know, in 1962, I mean, Jack was a, you know, a very handsome young golfer with movie star looks. So we might do that version of Jack or, you know, we might even do a current, you know, um, Jack as he was, when he was in his seventies as well. So these are all different ways in which we can develop the concept as we move forward.

Jennifer: And the team has also been exploring how these digital twins can be useful beyond the 2D world of a video conference. 

Greg Cross: I guess the.. the big, you know, shift that’s coming right at the moment is the move from the 2D world of the internet, into the 3D world of the metaverse. So, I mean, and that, and that’s something we’ve always thought about and we’ve always been preparing for, I mean, Jack exists in full 3D, um, You know, Jack exists as a full body. So I mean, Jack can, you know, today we have, you know, we’re building augmented reality, prototypes of Jack walking around on a golf course. And, you know, we can go and ask Jack, how, how should we play this hole? Um, so these are some of the things that we are starting to imagine in terms of the way in which digital people, the way in which digital celebrities. Interact with us as we move into the 3D world.

Jennifer: And he thinks this technology can go a lot further.

Greg Cross: Healthcare and education are two amazing applications of this type of technology. And it’s amazing because we don’t have enough real people to deliver healthcare and education in the real world. So, I mean, so you can, you know, you can imagine how you can use a digital workforce to augment. And, and extend the skills and capability, not replace, but extend the skills and, and capabilities of real people. 

Jennifer: This episode was produced by Anthony Green with help from Emma Cillekens. It was edited by me and Mat Honan, mixed by Garret Lang… with original music from Jacob Gorski.   

If you have an idea for a story or something you’d like to hear, please drop a note to podcasts at technology review dot com.

Thanks for listening… I’m Jennifer Strong.

Amazon has a new plan for its home robot Astro: to guard your life

Amazon’s home robot, Astro, will be getting a slew of major updates aimed at further embedding it in homes—and in our daily lives, the firm announced on Wednesday.

Broadly speaking, the new features offer more home monitoring. The capabilities include some standard fare: Astro will be able to watch pets and send a video feed of their activities to users, for example. But Astro will also be able to wander around the house to keep an eye on rooms and entry points.

“This will start with doors and windows, so that Astro can alert you if something was left open that shouldn’t have been,” Ken Washington, vice president of consumer robotics at Amazon, said in a presentation on new Amazon devices and services. 

Amazon also announced a new collaboration between Astro and the Ring home security camera system, called Virtual Security Guard, which would protect areas outside the home from possible break-ins. Amazon, which bought Ring in 2018, pitched the pairing as a way to further guard small businesses from break-ins, by videotaping intrusions and calling the authorities (though it seems like homeowners should be able to use that capability as well). 

Ring’s approach to surveillance hasn’t been without controversy. As my colleague Eileen Guo reported last year, Ring marketed itself as a tool to protect domestic violence survivors, but it simultaneously provided access into survivors’ lives. Ring has also been called out for racial profiling and privacy violations. It’s reasonable to ask whether combining Astro’s ability to roam around a house with Ring’s established surveillance system, might create even more surveillance problems than either product did in their previous iterations.

Astro’s evolution as a security guard is a notable one. Astro was introduced nearly a year ago, and since then, reviews of the home robot have been limited. That’s because potential customers had to be invited to test the robot (Amazon offered Astro for $999 to early invitees, but it has since raised the cost to $1,450). The robot, with its big eyes and R2-D2-like structure, was undeniably cute.  But even those limited user reviews were mixed. Many people found that Astro was incapable of doing much more than delivering objects between rooms. It also hit snags in mapping rooms, and some users found its intense focus in following a person around almost creepy.

Still, last year’s pitch was that Astro would make home life more comfortable and entertaining—a sort of adorable, bumbling sidekick. This year, Amazon has recast Astro as a device with a much more serious mission: to provide another set of eyes on our pets, our homes, and our livelihoods. 

As with any surveillance technology you invite into your life, using Astro will require an element of trust. This time, however, you would be extending that trust to a robot capable of moving through your home. That might seem like a small change, but makes a huge difference not only in how people interact with and view home robots but also in how involved Amazon is in our private lives. (In a statement, Amazon said that privacy was folded into Astro’s design: “We know that customer trust is paramount, which is why we’ve taken a privacy-by-design approach with Astro since the beginning of its development.”)

Nevertheless, Maya Cakmak, an assistant professor at the University of Washington and head of the Human-Centered Robotics Lab, says Astro’s compatibility with other aspects of Amazon’s home surveillance ecosystem, Ring and Alexa, could well set it up for success. “Astro can provide these services seamlessly,” says Cakmak.

Amazon doesn’t hide its goal: to know everything it can about your daily life, part of the company’s vision for a home filled with “ambient intelligence.” Amazon’s Washington told Wired the company recognizes that standard security cameras are offputting and threatening. Astro could be different, he said: “If you’ve got a mobile robot, it can be this smart glue for this future vision.” If it gains traction, it’s a vision that’s bound to change our relationship to the spaces we inhabit. Astro walks a line between Ring’s all-knowing eyes and Alexa’s chirpy helpfulness, making it potentially the most powerful, invasive home robot we’ve seen thus far.

This piece has been updated with comment from Amazon.

A bionic pancreas could solve one of the biggest challenges of diabetes

In a recent trial, a bionic pancreas that automatically delivers insulin proved more effective than pumps or injections at lowering blood glucose levels in people with type 1 diabetes.

Type 1 diabetes is a serious condition that causes a person’s level of glucose, or sugar, to become too high because the pancreas can’t produce enough insulin, a hormone that keeps blood glucose under control. People with type 1 diabetes need to monitor their glucose levels and take insulin every day. 

The bionic pancreas, a credit card-sized device called an iLet, monitors a person’s levels around the clock and automatically delivers insulin when needed through a tiny cannula, a thin tube inserted into the body. It is worn constantly, generally on the abdomen. The device determines all insulin doses based on the user’s weight, and the user can’t adjust the doses. 

A Harvard Medical School team has submitted its findings from the study, described in the New England Journal of Medicine, to the FDA in the hopes of eventually bringing the product to market in the US. While a team from Boston University and Massachusetts General Hospital first tested the bionic pancreas in 2010, this is the most extensive trial undertaken so far.

The Harvard team, working with other universities, provided 219 people with type 1 diabetes who had used insulin for at least a year with a bionic pancreas device for 13 weeks. The team compared their blood sugar levels with those of 107 diabetic people who used other insulin delivery methods, including injection and insulin pumps, during the same amount of time. 

The blood sugar levels of the bionic pancreas group fell from 7.9% to 7.3%, while the standard care group’s levels remained steady at 7.7%. The American Diabetes Association recommends a goal of less than 7.0%, but that’s only met by approximately 20% of people with type 1 diabetes, according to a 2019 study

Other types of artificial pancreas exist, but they typically require the user to input information before they will deliver insulin, including the amount of carbohydrates they ate in their last meal. Instead, the iLet takes the user’s weight and the type of meal they’re eating, such as breakfast, lunch, or dinner, added by the user via the iLet interface, and it uses an adaptive learning algorithm to deliver insulin automatically.

That means if the person’s glucose levels are too high, the system will adjust itself to provide a higher dose of insulin, and if the levels are too low, it will deliver less. 

The device could remove the need for a person with diabetes to calculate the amount of carbohydrates in a meal, which is a significant benefit, says Duane Mellor, the lead for nutrition and evidence-based medicine at Aston Medical School, in Birmingham, UK, who was not involved in the study.

“Being able to take carbohydrate counting out of the equation is a really big advantage, because it’s a burden,” he says. “On the flip side, they have to relinquish control [of determining the insulin dose], which could be difficult for people who’ve had diabetes for a long time.”

The aim of the project is to democratize good glucose control, says Steven Russell, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, who led the study.

“There are plenty of people who are struggling right now because they don’t have the right tools, and I think the iLet could help a lot of them have much better glucose control,” he says. 

“This will reduce their risk of diabetes complications in the long run, and is also going to make their life easier.” 

The Download: China’s non-coup, and building better batteries

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.

How the false rumor of a Chinese coup went viral

If you’re on Twitter and follow news about China, you likely have heard a pretty wild rumor recently: that President Xi Jinping was under house arrest and that there was about to be a major power grab in the country.

First of all, let’s be very clear: this report is false and should not be taken seriously. No credible sources on China have bought it. It’s wishful thinking at best, and intentional disinformation at worst.

But it’s interesting to dissect how a ridiculous rumor could be elevated and spread so widely that it made it to Twitter’s deeply flawed trending list over the weekend, thanks to influencer translation and amplification from accounts based in India. Read the full story.

—Zeyi Yang

This story is from China Report, MIT Technology Review’s new newsletter giving you the inside scoop on what’s happening in China. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Tuesday.

How robots and AI are helping develop better batteries

The news: At the start of this year, Carnegie Mellon researchers used a robotic system to run dozens of experiments designed to generate electrolytes to charge lithium-ion batteries faster, addressing one of the major obstacles to the widespread adoption of electric vehicles.

How they did it: A system of automated pumps, valves, and instruments mixed various solvents, salts, and other chemicals together, then measured how the solution performed on critical battery benchmarks. Those results were then fed into a machine-learning system, known as Dragonfly, that used the data to propose different combinations that might work even better.

Why it matters: Developing better electrolytes is crucial for improving the performance, safety, and cost of batteries. Faster-charging batteries are especially important for making electric cars and trucks more appealing. Read the full story.

—James Temple

The must-reads

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

1 The US and Europe are running out of weapons to send to Ukraine 
Scaling up production is no mean feat, and supplies are running short. (CNBC)
+ The Biden administration says supply conversations are “ongoing.” (WP $)
+ The EU is threatening Russia with sanctions over its referendums. (BBC)
+ Putin’s grip on power is loosening. (New Statesman $)

2 Podcasters are racking up fake listens through mobile games 
In many cases, the podcasts only play for a few seconds. (Bloomberg $)

3 China’s dating apps are flourishing
But not all their users are after romance. (NYT $)
+ Meta has taken down a China-based influence network ahead of the US midterms. (WP $)
+ China’s yuan has hit an all-time-low against the US dollar. (BBC)

4 US libraries are being targeted by right wing groups 📚
They’re being forced to cancel LQBTQ events over safety concerns, amid rows over book bans. (Motherboard)
+ How conservative Facebook groups are changing what books children read in school. (MIT Technology Review)

5 Amazon’s robots are getting faster
While the company maintains they’ll work in tandem with humans, robotics experts aren’t so sure. (Vox)
+ Voice assistants like Alexa could hinder child development. (The Guardian)

6 What Neanderthals’ artifacts can tell us about how they thought
From tar glue to early spears. (New Scientist $)

7 How a secretive Dutchman revolutionized the microscope 🔬
Antonie Van Leeuwenhoek’s lens design opened a new world into microorganisms. (Wired $)

8 Why Japan is so committed to outdated technology 📠
Its new digital minister wants to shake up the country’s bureaucracy. (Rest of World)
+ Protestors have demonstrated against Shinzo Abe’s state funeral. (FT $)

9 Video games are breathing new life into cards
And capturing new generations of fans in the process. (FT $)
+ “Magic: The Gathering” is officially the world’s most complex game. (MIT Technology Review)

10 It’s not clear who smart thermostats are really helping 
It should be the customer. It’s often not. (The Atlantic $)

Quote of the day

“If you are live ten hours a day, you’re a zombie after that”

—Livestreaming superstar Ludwig Ahgren tells the Washington Post why livestreamers are starting to plan their content, instead of just going with the flow.

The big story

The hunt for hidden signs of consciousness in unreachable patients

August 2021

At first glance, there’s nothing remarkable about the low-rise hospital on the west side of Milan. But two floors up, on an isolated wing of the Don Carlo Gnocchi IRCCS Centro S. Maria Nascente, an uncommunicative man with a severe brain injury is hooked up to a technology suite that researchers here believe can tell them if he’s conscious.

A neuroscientist and the patient’s neurologist watch on a laptop as complicated blue squiggles representing brain waves fill the screen in close to real time. What the scientists see in them is the faintest sign of a liminal, maybe dreamlike, consciousness.

Such a breakthrough represents the most accurate consciousness meter ever seen in medicine (even if it is still crude, rudimentary, and unrefined)—with wide reaching medical implications. Read the full story.

—Russ Juskalian

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.)

+ Bob Marley and The Wailers’ Redemption Song is still as powerful today as it was when it was released 42 years ago (thanks Niall!)
+ Short on time? TikTokers are squishing Hollywood blockbusters into minutes-long clips.
+ Everyone loves a bit of trivia.
+ Emo bingo looks like an intense night out.
+ Watching this ribbon eel swim is mesmerizing.

The pandemic created a “perfect storm” for Black women at risk of domestic violence

Starr Davis was smitten when she met a handsome stranger with flawless skin and a wide smile during a brief trip to Houston in March 2020. He was charming and persistent; she gave him her phone number and they started talking.

Their whirlwind romance took a major turn when she told him that she was pregnant. His aggressive behavior started to make her uncomfortable. But he was the father of her child. So, with some reservations, she packed up her life in New York City and moved to Texas. She hadn’t had much of a relationship with her own dad—maybe things could be different for her firstborn.

Being able to work remotely at her job at the onset of the covid-19 pandemic made the transition easier. She got an apartment and he moved in, and she hoped for the best. But he became physically abusive a few weeks in and then forbade her from setting foot outside. He’d say it was to protect her and their unborn child from covid. With no friends or close family nearby for support, she suffered in silence, her partner watching her every move. Oftentimes her only refuge was hiding out in the small walk-in closet in their bedroom.

“I took naps in the closet. I cried in the closet,” Davis tearfully recalls. “I tried to kill myself in the closet.”

Davis suspects her abuser’s challenges predated their relationship. But she believes the stresses of the pandemic exacerbated them. And she suspects those circumstances affected her decision-making too. “If there was not a pandemic going on, I would have left,” she says. “I definitely would have left.” 

Covid seems to have made things worse for many women experiencing violence at home. Data on domestic violence during the pandemic is hard to come by—especially since cases often go unreported. But anti-domestic-violence advocates point to dramatic increases in calls to shelters and support groups. 

“We will see the fallout of the hidden abuse for years to come.”

Kandee Lewis

Many care workers see indications that this increase in domestic violence seems to have disproportionately affected Black women like Davis. The health and financial challenges of the pandemic, which also disproportionately affected Black women, likely made the situation worse by creating a pressure cooker of stressors related to health and housing, employment, and financial insecurity.

Jacqueline Willett, a licensed clinical social worker, describes the pandemic as a “perfect storm” that left many women, including Black women, feeling trapped in their homes, unable to escape their abusers. “A lot of folks have been made to stay or remain in the home with folks who are violating them,” says Willett, who until earlier this year served as intake and well-being coordinator for Coburn Place in Indianapolis, which offers transitional housing and other support for domestic violence survivors. 

It was difficult to seek and find support, especially in the early days of the pandemic. Many women were afraid of contracting covid, says Kandee Lewis, CEO of Positive Results Center, a nonprofit in Gardena, California, that focuses on preventing domestic violence and sexual assault. And in some cases there was nowhere for them to go. “Because isolation orders were in place, there were many doors closed to victims,” she says. “We know the violence continued, in some cases escalating.” 

As the pandemic continued, some organizations found ways to use technology to safely reach people stuck at home. Others expanded their capacity or created new services, including apps and secure messaging channels, in response to special needs that emerged during the pandemic.

But more than two and half years after the pandemic began, there remains a significant gap between the needs of Black women experiencing domestic violence and the care they’re able to access. “We will see the fallout of the hidden abuse for years to come,” Lewis says.

Editor’s note: If you live in the US and are experiencing domestic violence, you can contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline through their website, by texting START to 88788, or by calling 1-800-799-7233.

A “perfect storm”

Even before the pandemic, Black women faced a crisis of violence. Data from a 2017 study by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concluded that Black women were significantly more likely than white women to be killed by an acquaintance. More than half of all homicides among women—about 55%—were related to intimate partner violence, or IPV (domestic violence perpetrated by a spouse or romantic partner). And a report by a gun safety advocacy group, based on FBI data from the years 2013 to 2017, found that Black women were twice as likely to be shot and killed by an intimate partner as white women—and Black women between the ages of 18 and 34 were almost three times as likely. US Census data suggests that the pandemic affected Black households more than white households in terms of the cumulative effects of job loss, food insufficiency, and financial insecurity. 

Economic and health disparities can put someone at greater risk for domestic violence and make it harder to get help, says Karma Cottman, who helms the National Center on Violence Against Women in the Black Community (also known as Ujima), based in Washington, DC. “What we saw, and to some degree still are seeing, are the layers of vulnerability that exist for Black women and for the Black community that were underscored by the pandemic,” Cottman says. 

It is unclear how many Black women have been affected by domestic violence during the pandemic. But support advocates see an alarming signal in FBI statistics, which showed a sharp increase in murders of Black women and girls. At least four Black women and girls were murdered per day in the US in 2020, adding up to 405 more murders than the previous year, according to those statistics. 

Rhonda Vonshay Sharpe, who is founder and president of the Women’s Institute for Science, Equity, and Race in Mechanicsville, Virginia, says there is a troubling dearth of federal data available about the relationship between the pandemic and domestic violence, especially for people from marginalized groups.

Sharpe points out that the Household Pulse Survey, a weekly household survey distributed by the US Census Bureau to track the pandemic’s impact on American households, doesn’t include questions about people’s experience with violence. 

A Census Bureau spokesperson says the agency does not track data on domestic violence directly and pointed to the US National Crime Victimization Survey compiled by the US Department of Justice. That survey suggests that rates of both domestic violence and intimate partner violence dropped in 2020 compared with 2019, but the survey also found that the proportion of reported cases of intimate partner violence fell from 58% to 41% over the same period. The survey also showed that Black people experienced higher rates of violent crime than white or Hispanic people, although the data on domestic violence specifically was not broken out by race. 

A preliminary report from the CDC examined emergency room visits related to suspected cases of intimate partner violence, finding that they peaked just before the pandemic began and dropped by as much as a third in ensuing months. The authors acknowledge that covid mitigation measures may have played a role in the decline. And those figures were also not broken down by race or ethnicity. Collecting data in more detail is complicated, explains CDC spokesperson Cassie Strawn. “The main issue is related to accurately measuring IPV without compromising the safety, privacy, and confidentiality of IPV victims,” Strawn says.

For now, much of the information available on domestic violence against Black women is from nonprofits and government agencies that many women contacted directly for help. And many people working in those areas say they have seen a rise in cases or requests for help.  

District court judge Katrina Ross, who oversees domestic violence cases in Jefferson County, Alabama, a jurisdiction that is 44% Black, says she observed an increase in domestic violence cases with Black women as victims during the pandemic. Coburn Place, the center in Indianapolis, which has a clientele that is more than 60% Black women, served 50% more people between March and December 2020 than it had in all of 2019, according to the Indianapolis Recorder

And workers at Jenesse Center, a domestic violence intervention and prevention center in Los Angeles with a sizable clientele of Black women and children, say they saw a similar surge in 2020. At one point its staff was helping more than 200 additional people, forcing the team to offer overflow housing services at a local hotel. And they saw injuries “like we had never seen before” in both number and severity, says Charmine Davis, a clinical psychologist who leads Jenesse’s family wellness department.

Creative outreach

At a time when Black women were likely more vulnerable to domestic violence, the pandemic also created unprecedented outreach challenges. Many organizations charged with supporting domestic violence survivors scrambled to find new ways to deliver services and perform outreach that was previously carried out in person at schools, houses of worship, and other public spaces. 

Zoom, texting, chat and messaging apps, social media, and email became critical lifelines for those in need.

“We very rapidly kind of transitioned into being more creative in the way we provide services, doing things virtually,” says Angela Beatty, chief officer of domestic violence victim services for the YWCA in Oklahoma City. “So [we were] meeting with clients virtually, whether that be over the phone or through Zoom.” 

Beatty’s staff set up Google Voice phone numbers and dedicated social media accounts to create more ways for their clients to safely communicate with their support team. In Los Angeles, the Jenesse Center doubled down on promoting its Jenesse4Hope smartphone app, which allows users to schedule counseling appointments, journal, and access a “get help” feature that dials 911 straight from the app if they have it open during an emergency.

“I think that the stress of the pandemic in that moment made it easier for him to hit me.”

Jamie R. Wright

Jamie R. Wright, a Houston-based Black mother of two grown daughters, believes a Zoom call saved her life after her new husband snapped one morning in April 2020. “He pushed me up against the bathroom sink, choking my neck. Then he hit me in the face,” she says. 

Wright called the police after the violence continued, and the responding officers left pamphlets about nearby domestic violence support services. But it wasn’t until her pastor noticed her bruised and swollen face during a Zoom counseling session that she decided to leave. “In that moment, he told me I had to make the decision to value myself and my life and do what was best for me,” Wright says.

She drove to a nearby domestic violence shelter with only an overnight bag and ended up staying for three months until she saved up enough money to move into an apartment of her own. When Wright looks back, she can’t help but feel that covid played a role in her abuse. “I think that the stress of the pandemic in that moment made it easier for him to hit me,” she says. 

Although some Black women like Wright were able to use technologies like Zoom and Google Voice to get help during the pandemic, advocates say better support is needed for those who do reach out. Lewis says many Black women who’ve received services from her organization have reported feeling mistreated and disrespected at some domestic violence shelters. 

“As Black women, they [feel that they] are judged harsher, often made to feel like they traded one abuse for another,” says Lewis. “They report being asked stereotypical questions that women of other ethnicities are not.” The lack of culturally sensitive support that Black women report shows up in big and small ways. For example, many shelters fail to provide products that work best for Black women’s skin and hair.

Lewis and Willett of Coburn Place say some of those gaps in support could be addressed by more diversity training to help staffers learn about cultural differences and norms that may affect how Black women respond to abuse. For example, many have a very valid fear of involving law enforcement and social services agencies. Consider the case of Florida mother Marissa Alexander, who spent time in prison for firing a warning shot after her husband allegedly attacked and threatened to kill her.

“I’ve seen it myself, you know, where minority survivors will call for help and somehow get things switched on them, and now they have a case [against them],” says Willett of Coburn Place. 

Starr Davis says she never felt comfortable calling the police out of fear she “might [end up] dead too” or get arrested. “It almost felt like a risk factor to call the police,” she says. But two months after her daughter’s birth, she summoned up the courage to leave her abuser, a complicated and terrifying process that she’s still amazed she survived. She has since relocated to another state, started a new job, and begun writing poetry. Therapy has helped her work through her painful experience and recognize internal issues that often keep Black women like her in abusive relationships, and she hopes speaking publicly about it will help others in similar situations. 

“That ‘strong Black woman’ trope—yeah, I think that’s what pretty much what stops us from getting help,” she says. “Like, [we’re] just carrying that cross every time and not really knowing that it’s okay to just be vulnerable human beings that need help, just like anybody else.”

Chandra Thomas Whitfield is an award-winning freelance writer and multimedia journalist based in Colorado. 

This article was supported by the Heising-Simons Foundation, a family foundation based in San Francisco and Los Altos, California, that works to advance sustainable solutions in climate and clean energy, enable groundbreaking research in science, enhance the education of our youngest learners, and support human rights for all people.

It was published through MIT Technology Review’s covid inequality fellowships supporting journalism focused on the pandemic’s disparate impacts. For more on this topic, read about the racial disparities of long covid and Native communities that are using pandemic relief funds to upgrade their telecom networks.

How the false rumor of a Chinese coup went viral

Hi, and welcome back to China Report!

If you are on Twitter and follow news about China, you likely have heard a pretty wild rumor recently: that President Xi Jinping was under house arrest and that there was about to be a major power grab in the country.

First of all, let me be very clear: this report is false and should not be taken seriously. No credible sources on China have bought it. It’s wishful thinking at best, and intentional disinformation at worst.

But it’s interesting to dissect how a ridiculous rumor could be elevated and spread so widely that it made it to Twitter’s deeply flawed trending list over the weekend. So today I’ll trace it back to its roots and unpack how it gained traction. 

The story basically went through three stages, brewing in Chinese circles before being translated into English by influencers opposed to the Chinese government and finally being amplified by Indian Twitter accounts.

Stage 1: It’s not rare to see such salacious political rumors if you follow a lot of Chinese-language Twitter accounts. There’s a whole world of commentators and anonymous accounts openly speculating about every faint signal coming out of China’s state media, magnifying every word and gesture, and interpreting it as something groundbreaking.

The rumor that’s going around this time had the benefit of coinciding with a few real news events that were combined into a narrative that may look plausible to people unfamiliar with China. Here are the things that actually happened: (1) a Chinese general, Li Qiaoming, left his commander post after five years, and it hasn’t been reported where he’s heading; (2) a 105-year-old retired high-ranking politician made a rare media appearance to talk about respecting the elders; (3) domestic flights in China were experiencing high cancellation rates—as high as 60% last week; (4) Xi hadn’t appeared in public since he returned from Uzbekistan on September 16.

These were all the materials that conspiracy theorists needed to somehow conclude that Xi must have been under house arrest initiated by the general and the party elder. That story first started circulating among Chinese-language accounts on September 22.

(All these real goings-on likely have much more boring explanations. For example, spiking flight cancellations have actually been common this year, as many Chinese cities have experienced unpredictable covid-related lockdowns. In the three weeks before the rumor started, the weekly flight cancellation rates were 60.1%, 69.0%, and 64.1%, according to a Chinese flight tracker app. But for people who aren’t familiar with how badly daily life has been disrupted in China, the rates seemed like an abnormality right before the 20th National Congress, an event organized every five years to elect the top officials of the Chinese Community Party.)

Stage 2: On September 23, the story broke out of Chinese-language Twitter when it was translated into English by Jennifer Zeng, an activist and self-proclaimed journalist, who has a track record of spreading rumors and misattributed videos. 

As a TV host for New Tang Dynasty Television and a contributor to the Epoch Times, both of which are backed by the anti-China religious group Falun Gong, Zeng is a key player in a media network that plays an increasingly important role in conspiracies about China and also about elections in the US. She’s been careful to consistently present the coup story as a “rumor,” but she has since put out over a dozen tweets about it, continuing to drum up speculation. 

Stage 3: This is perhaps the most interesting development. Several separate analyses of Twitter activities on the #ChinaCoup hashtag found that starting September 24, a large number of Indian Twitter accounts picked up the report and spread it far and wide. 

For example, one analysis of over 32,000 Twitter interactions by Marc Owen Jones, an assistant professor at Hamad bin Khalifa University in Qatar, who researches disinformation and digital media, shows that @Indiatvnews, the account of the Indian nationalist TV channel, is the largest disseminator of the coup rumor. Subramanian Swamy, a prominent Indian politician followed by 10 million people, also talked about the story in several tweets on September 24, describing it as “new rumor to be checked out.” 

India has the third-largest number of Twitter users in the world. Considering the long-standing geopolitical tensions between India and China, plus the relative lack of knowledge that average Indians likely have about Chinese politics and how to discern Falun Gong–backed media accounts, it’s not necessarily surprising that they fell for and spread the rumor.

Despite several recent reports on the rise of bot activity originating in India, there’s not yet enough evidence to determine whether this was a coordinated effort to push the coup rumor. There are suspicious signs, like “a lot of new accounts as well as the fact some of the key influencers now [are] suspended,” Jones told me. “This does not necessarily point to it being state-backed—just a lot of inauthentic activities.”

Of course, since this is Twitter, many other accounts are capitalizing on the popularity of this discourse and in turn further amplifying the story. This includes people intentionally trolling unsuspecting users by pairing old videos with the new rumor, and some users in Africa are hijacking the hashtag to gain visibility for their own content—apparently a long-practiced trick among users in Nigeria and Kenya.

By Monday, the rumor had mostly died down. While Xi still hadn’t shown up, recent documents reaffirmed his participation and influence in the coming party congress, demonstrating that he’s very much still in power. 

The fact that a completely unsubstantiated rumor, one that basically happens every other month in Chinese Twitter circles, could grow so big and have tricked so many people is both funny and depressing. The bottom line: Social media is still a mess full of misinformation—but you may not notice that mess if you are not familiar with the issue being discussed. 

What’s your thought on the development of this rumor? Write to me at zeyi@technologyreview.com

Catch up with China

More than 1,400 US-trained Chinese scientists left their US institutions for Chinese ones in 2021—a 22% jump from the year before. (Wall Street Journal $)

  • A major reason they’ve left has been the “China Initiative,” a discontinued effort by the US Department of Justice to go after academics for suspected espionage risks. (MIT Technology Review)

One of the first businesses to feel the weight of Queen Elizabeth II’s passing? China-based flag producers. (Associated Press)

Hong Kong officially ended its mandatory hotel quarantine policy, hoping to regain its status as Asia’s financial center. (BBC)

A bipartisan group of US lawmakers is working to ban YMTC, a Chinese company that makes chips for flash drives and hard drives. (Financial Times $)

  • This could complicate things for Apple, which has confirmed it is considering sourcing flash memory chips from YMTC. (Financial Times $)

China’s top livestream e-commerce influencer has quietly resumed streaming to his 60 million followers after a political controversy. (What’s on Weibo)

  • I wrote about his mishap in June; it was the latest development in a year-long power reshuffle that saw three of the top Chinese influencers disappear for regulatory reasons. (MIT Technology Review)

The US and Russia are neck-and-neck in a battle over whose candidate will lead the obscure but incredibly important International Telecommunication Union for the next four years. Unsurprisingly, China is throwing its support behind Russia’s pick. (The Interpreter)

Lost in Translation

The death of a unicorn 

As a deep dive in the Chinese business publication LatePost documented this summer, it only took 10 years for the Chinese flexible-screen startup Royole to rise to an $8 billion valuation and then fall to the brink of bankruptcy. Founded by Liu Zihong, Royole was once a star to investors and the technological leader in flexible and foldable screens, which you’ve probably seen recently in fancy smartphones from Samsung or Motorola. But the company could never quite crack the demand issue. It also made the mistake of trying to become a smartphone brand itself; its smartphone model—technically “the first foldable-screen phone in the world”—was a big failure and made the company a weak competitor rather than a key supplier to other phone makers. Instead of a startup fairytale, Royole became a cautionary tale for other wannabe tech unicorns that could be dreaming too big.

One More Thing

You can now get a degree in metaverse studies in China. On September 23, the Nanjing University of Information Science & Technology officially renamed its Information Engineering Department the Metaverse Engineering Department. This is the first university in China to do so, and the school says it’s planning to offer master’s and doctoral degrees in metaverse studies too. Maybe by the time the first wave of PhDs graduate, we will finally have legs in the metaverse.

Photo of the announcement of the name change, pinned on a physical message board.
The university announced the name change on September 23. Credit: Weibo user Wei Tianchen.