The Download: tech help for herders, and bacteria clean-ups

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.

Why shiny, high-tech solutions won’t solve one of Africa’s worst crises

Herding— one of humanity’s most foundational ways of life—is a pillar of survival in West Africa’s Sahel.

Migratory herders usher cattle between seasonal pastures, since they rarely own land. However, these traditional ways of doing things are becoming increasingly impossible, thanks to a complex mix of climate change, politics and war.

In more recent years, various Western players touting tech trends like artificial intelligence and predictive analysis have swooped in with promises to solve the region’s myriad problems.

But some think there could be a much simpler solution, that puts real data directly into the herders’ hands.

Recent advances in data collection—both from geosatellites and from herders themselves—have generated an abundance of information on ground cover quantity and quality, water availability, rain forecasts, livestock concentrations, and more. The resulting breakthroughs in forecasting could help people anticipate droughts and other crises. 

The work couldn’t be more urgent. The region’s herders face an existential crisis that has already started to shred the very fabric of society. Read the full story.

—Hannah Rae Armstrong

How bacteria are cleaning up our messy water supply

Some bacteria are evolving in a way that could help, rather than hurt us. That’s good news, because the US has made a real mess of its water supply. 

Scientists first detected pharmaceuticals in water more than 40 years ago. But concern has increased dramatically in the past 20 years, as a dizzying array of medications and personal care products swill into the water supply. 

Luckily, there might be a way to tackle it: using bacteria which get rid of these tiny pollutants. Read our story to find out how. 

—Cassandra Willyard

This story is from The Checkup, our weekly newsletter all about biotech and health. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Thursday.

The must-reads

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

1 AI is unleashing a data center goldrush
It could rise from 2% of the global data center footprint to 10% by 2025. (NYT $)
AI’s carbon footprint is bigger than you think. (MIT Technology Review)

2 Emissions reached a record high in 2023
A big driver of that increase was extreme drought, which cut hydropower production in some countries. (Bloomberg $)
And forecasters predict we’re in for a very hot 2024. (The Verge)
ExxonMobil is suing investors who want quicker climate action. (NPR)

3 GoFundMe donations to campaigns in Gaza keep being frozen
Legitimate concerns over money laundering and terrorist financing are blocking desperate civilians from getting aid. (The Verge)

4 Can we control AI’s hallucinations?
It’s possible that we can’t. And in that scenario, it’ll remain risky to use AI for any important tasks. (The Economist $)
Google’s problem isn’t that its AI is ‘woke’. It’s that it’s being rushed out into products too quickly. (Bloomberg $)
The SEC is investigating whether OpenAI misled investors. (WSJ $)
Generative AI is challenging the very notion of copyright. (The Atlantic $)
Your posts are being used to train AI. Yes, even the ones you would imagine are safe. (Vox)

5 A humanoid robots startup got $675 million from tech investors 🤖
But can it really succeed where so many others have failed? (FT $)

6 More than one billion people now have obesity 
It’s shocking how big this public health problem has become now. (Axios)
+ However, weight loss drugs are poised to potentially help alleviate it. (MIT Technology Review)

7 Conspiracists are obsessing over Kate Middleton online
These people seem to just have way too much time on their hands. (The Atlantic $)

8 The FBI is using push alerts to catch suspects
But it’s a privacy nightmare, and could include people seeking abortions. (WP $)

9 A viral photo of a guy smoking in McDonald’s was made by AI
There are ways to tell, but they’re tricky to spot at a glance. (Quartz)

10 Zuckerberg is having a bit of a PR moment
Enjoy it while it lasts, Mark. (Axios)

Quote of the day

“I’m totally 100%, sadly addicted to this.”

—Artist and musician Laurie Anderson tells The Guardian she can’t stop talking to an AI version of her late husband Lou Reed.

The big story

Inside the billion-dollar meeting for the mega-rich who want to live forever

Longevity Prize winner celebrates with raised arms as confetti falls and she receives an oversized check
LONGEVITY INVESTORS CONFERENCE

November 2022

Back in September 2022, Jessica Hamzelou, our senior biotech reporter, traveled to Gstaad, a swanky ski-resort town in the Swiss Alps, to attend the first in-person Longevity Investors Conference.

Over the two-day event, scientists and biotech founders made the case for various approaches to prolonging the number of years we might spend in good health. The majority of them were trying to win over deep-pocketed investors.

As the field of longevity attempts to define itself as scientifically sound, plenty of “anti-aging treatments” based on little-to-no human evidence continue to enter the market. But can billions of investor money—some of it from ethically dubious sources—ever offer a concrete path to evidence-based life extension? Read the full story.

We can still have nice things

A place for comfort, fun and distraction to brighten up your day. (Got any ideas? Drop me a line or tweet ’em at me.)

+ I’d love to visit this pub conjured up by George Orwell.
+ Happy St David’s Day (that’s ‘Dydd Gŵyl Dewi Hapus’ in Welsh) to all who celebrate!
+ Now this is my kind of macaroni cheese. 
+ Hmm, sounds like a dream job to me.

How some bacteria are cleaning up our messy water supply

This article first appeared in The Checkup, MIT Technology Review’s weekly biotech newsletter. To receive it in your inbox every Thursday, and read articles like this first, sign up here.

The diabetes medication metformin has been touted as a miracle drug. Not only does it keep diabetes in check, but it can reduce inflammation, curb cancer, stave off the worst effects of covid, and perhaps even slow the aging process. No wonder it’s so popular. In the US, the number of metformin prescriptions has more than doubled in less than two decades, from 40 million in 2004 to 91 million in 2021.

Worldwide, we consume more than 100 million kilograms of metformin a year.  That’s staggering.

All that metformin enters the body. But it also exits largely unchanged and ends up in our wastewater. The quantities found there are tiny—tens of micrograms per liter—and not likely to harm humans. But even small amounts can affect aquatic organisms that are literally swimming in it. 

Lawrence Wackett, a biochemist at the University of Minnesota, got interested in this issue about a decade ago. Researchers had observed that at some wastewater treatment plants, the amount of metformin entering was much larger than the amount leaving. In 2022, Wackett’s team and two other groups identified the bacteria responsible for metabolizing the drug and sequenced their genomes. But Wackett still wondered which genes were responsible.

Now he knows. This week, he and his colleagues reported that they have identified two genes encoding proteins that can break down metformin. The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. These proteins are produced by at least five species of bacteria found in wastewater sludge across three continents. But here’s what struck me: This isn’t a coincidence. These bacteria evolved the ability to metabolize metformin. They saw an opportunity to capitalize on the ubiquity of the drug in their environment, and they seized it. “This happens all the time,” Wackett says. “Microbes adapt to the chemicals that we make.”

Here’s another example. In the 1960s, farmers began using a new weed killer called atrazine. For about a decade, scientists reported that the chemical appeared to degrade slowly in soil. But about a decade later, that changed. “Everybody was reporting, ‘No, it’s going away really fast—in weeks or a month.” That’s because bacteria evolved the capacity to metabolize atrazine to extract nitrogen. “There is selective pressure,” Wackett says. “The bacteria that figured out how to get that nitrogen out have a big selective advantage.”

This kind of bacterial evolution shouldn’t come as a surprise. We’ve all heard about how the rampant use of antibiotics in people and livestock is driving an antimicrobial resistance crisis. But for some reason, it never occurred to me that bacteria might be evolving in a way that could help us rather than harm us.

That’s good news. Because we have made a real mess of our water supply.

Let’s take a step back. This problem isn’t new. Scientists first detected pharmaceuticals in water more than 40 years ago. But concern has increased dramatically in the past 20 years. In 2008, the Associated Press reported that drinking water in the US was tainted with a wide variety of medications—everything from antibiotics to antidepressants to sex hormones.

It’s not just medicines. A dizzying number of personal care products also end up in the sewers—coconut shampoos and hydrating body washes and expensive face serums and … well, the list goes on and on. Wastewater treatment facilities were never designed to deal with these so-called micropollutants. “For the first 100 years or so of wastewater treatment, you know, the big thing was to prevent infectious diseases,” Wackett says.

Today, many wastewater treatment plants mix wastewater and air in a tank to form an activated sludge—a process that helps bacteria break down pollutants. This system was originally designed to remove nitrogen, phosphates, and organic matter—not pharmaceuticals. When bacteria in the sludge do metabolize drugs like metformin, it’s a happy accident, not the result of intentional design.

Certain technologies that rely on bacteria can do a better job of getting rid of these tiny pollutants. For example, membrane biological reactors combine activated sludge with microfiltration, while biofilm reactors rely on bacteria grown on the surface of membranes. There are even anaerobic “sludge blankets” (worst name ever), in which microbes convert contaminants to biogas in an oxygen-poor environment. But these technologies are expensive, and treatment facilities aren’t required to ensure that treated water is free of these contaminants. At least not in the US.

The European Commission is on its way to adopting new rules stipulating that by 2045, larger wastewater treatment facilities will have to remove a whole host of micropollutants. And in this case, the polluters—pharmaceutical and cosmetics companies—will pay 80% of the cost. The pharmaceutical industry is not a fan of this idea. Trade groups say the new rules will likely result in drug shortages.  

In the US, the federal government is still trying to figure out how to deal with these pollutants. It’s tricky, because it’s not entirely clear what impact small quantities of pharmaceuticals in water will have on the environment and human health. And the risk varies depending on the medication in question. Some pose a clear threat. Oral contraceptives, for example, have caused fertility issues and sex switching in fish. 

Could bacteria save us from estrogen too? Maybe. More than 100 estrogen-degrading microbes have been identified. We just need to find a way to harness them.


Now read the rest of The Checkup

Read more from MIT Technology Review’s archive

In a 2023 issue of The Checkup, my colleague Jessica Hamzelou introduced us to the scientists who study the exposome—all the chemicals we eat, drink, inhale, and digest. Here’s the story.

Hamzelou also wrote about another pervasive pollutant: microplastics. They’re everywhere, and we still don’t really understand what they’re doing to us.  

Microbes aren’t just for cleaning up wastewater. They can also help break down food. And some companies hope to build anaerobic digesters to help them do just that, reported Casey Crownhart last year.

Saima Sidik dove into the fascinating history of how MIT’s innovations in wastewater treatment helped stop the spread of infectious diseases. 

From around the web

Long read: Jane Burns has devoted her life to solving the mystery of Kawasaki disease, a lethal childhood illness that comes on without warning. Now Burns and her oddball team of collaborators have the tools they need to pinpoint the cause.  (NYT)

Older adults should get another covid booster this spring, according to new CDC recommendations. (Washington Post)

Public health officials are “flummoxed” about the Florida surgeon general’s lackluster response to a measles outbreak in the state. (NPR)

After decades of little innovation, biotech finally has a bevy of new drug candidates to treat psychiatric illnesses. “This is a renaissance in neuroscience.” (Stat)

The tech that helps these herders navigate drought, war, and extremists

Hainikoye hits Accept and a young woman greets him in Hausa, a gravelly language spoken across West Africa’s Sahel region. She has three new cows and wants to know: Does he have advice on getting them through the lean season?

Hainikoye—a twentysomething agronomist who has “followed animals,” as Sahelians refer to herding, since he first learned to walk—opens an interface on his laptop and clicks on her village in southern Niger, where humped zebu roam the dipping hills and dried-up valleys that demarcate the northern desert from the southern savanna. He tells her where the nearest full wells are and suggests feeding the animals peanuts and cowpea leaves—cheap food sources with high nutritional value that, his screen confirms, are currently plentiful. They hang up after a few minutes, and Hainikoye waits for the phone to ring again.

Seven days a week at the Garbal call center, agents like Hainikoye offer what seems like a simple service, treating people to a bespoke selection of location-specific data: satellite-fed weather forecasts and reports of water levels and vegetation conditions along various herding routes, as well as practical updates on brushfires, overgrazed areas, nearby market prices, and veterinary facilities. But it’s also surprisingly innovative—and is providing critical support for Sahelian herders reeling from the effects of interrelated challenges ranging from war to climate change. Over the long term, the project’s supporters, as well as the herders connecting with it, hope it could even safeguard an ancient culture that functions as an economic lifeline for the entire region.

The glossy red cubicles of Garbal’s office in Niamey, Niger’s capital, are tucked away in the second-floor space the call center shares with the local headquarters of Airtel, an Indian telecom. It had only been open for a few weeks when I visited early last year. Bursts of fuchsia bougainvillea garlanded the entryway to the building, a welcome respite from the sand-colored landscape and sewage-infused scent of the rotting industrial district around it. One lot over sat a former Total gas station that has remained unbranded since a drug cartel bought it to launder money and removed the sign. Running across the zone was a boulevard commemorating a 1974 coup d’état, which has been followed by four more over the ensuing five decades, the latest in July 2023. In the middle of the boulevard sat a few dozen miles of decomposing railway tracks that had been “inaugurated” by a right-wing French billionaire in 2016. For decades, postcolonial elites, promising development, have pillaged one of Africa’s poorest countries.

In more recent years, various Western players touting tech trends like artificial intelligence and predictive analysis have swooped in with promises to solve the region’s myriad problems. But Garbal—named after the word for a livestock market in the language of the Fulani, an ethnic group that makes up the majority of the Sahel’s herders—aims to do things differently. Building on an approach pioneered by a 37-year-old American data scientist named Alex Orenstein, Garbal is focused on how humbler technologies might effectively support the 80% of Nigeriens who live off livestock and the land.

“There’s still this idea of ‘How can we use new tech?’ But the tech is already there—we just need to be more intentional in applying it,” Orenstein says, arguing that donor enthusiasm for shiny, complex solutions is often misplaced. “All of our big wins have come from taking some basic-ass shit and making it work.”

Garbal call center workers in red cubicles
Workers in the Garbal call center in Niamey are able to review data to help herders.
HANNAH RAE ARMSTRONG

Garbal’s work comes down to data and, critically, who should have access to it. Recent advances in data collection—both from geosatellites and from herders themselves—have generated an abundance of information on ground cover quantity and quality, water availability, rain forecasts, livestock concentrations, and more. The resulting breakthroughs in forecasting can, in theory, help people anticipate—and protect herds from—droughts and other crises. But Orenstein believes it is not enough to extract data from herders, as has been the focus of numerous efforts over the past decade. It must be distributed to them.

The work couldn’t be more urgent. The region’s herders face an existential crisis that has already started to shred the very fabric of society.

Herding—prestigious, high risk, and one of humanity’s most foundational ways of life—is a pillar of survival in the Sahel. In Niger, for instance, known across the continent for its succulent steak, animal production accounts for 40% of the agricultural GDP. Migratory herders usher between 70% and 90% of the cattle population between seasonal pastures, since they rarely own land. These pastoralists have historically relied on common resources, in coordination with local communities.

But the traditional ways are becoming next to impossible. The crisis stems, in part, from the changing climate: as the desert creeps south, and as the dry season stretches longer and the rains come in shorter and more volatile intervals, water, pasture, and other renewable resources are increasingly erratic. But the strain is also political: brutal fighting between pro-government forces and local groups with links to Boko Haram, Al-Qaeda, and the Islamic State has turned major transit hubs, cow superhighways, and wetlands into battlegrounds. Making matters worse, herders tend to be underrepresented within state institutions, whose land-use policies favor farmers, and overrepresented within jihadist groups, which appeal to this exclusion to draw recruits from herding communities. A common lack of schooling among children of herders further deepens this exclusion.

Herders driving cattle along Badagry-Mile 2 Express Road, Lagos Nigeria.
In their long journeys, herders sometimes drive cattle near or through urban land.
ALAMY

The result is that tens of millions of Sahelian herders who depend upon free movement are increasingly penned in. Things are especially dire for Fulani herders, who get scapegoated as troublemaking outsiders. So addressing the multidimensional crisis would not only help herders; it could remove an intractable driver of one of Africa’s worst wars.

“Ensuring that herders have land and water rights, and working out their access to these through dialogue, is an important part of the solution to conflict in the Sahel,” says Adam Higazi, a researcher at the University of Amsterdam and Nigeria’s Modibbo Adam University, whose 2018 report on pastoralism and conflict for the UN’s West Africa office remains a key reference in the field.

The question now is whether Garbal and a handful of other tech-driven projects can in fact deliver on promises to help stabilize herders experiencing rising precarity.

Aliou Samba Ba, who leads a regional pastoralist organization that has teamed up with Orenstein to get data to Senegalese herders, says he’s optimistic, largely because Orenstein is turning traditional interventions upside down: “We say he looks with the eye of the herder as well as with the eye of the satellite.”

When institutions fail

The Sahel stretches from Senegal’s Atlantic coastline across Africa to the Red Sea, bounded by the Sahara to the north and by verdant forests and savanna to the south. Much of the region has been ravaged by drought and insurgencies over the past few decades, but rural Senegal is still home to the types of spaces that herders elsewhere are fighting for: maintained, not overdetermined; protected, not overpoliced. There is climate change here, but no war.

Last September, I drove deep into the Ferlo, a pastoral reserve roughly the size of New Jersey, to meet with a Fulani herder named Salif Sow.

It was the height of the rainy season, and the Sahel was having a great one. The environment that greeted me was a miracle and a mirage—a desert burst into bloom. Tall, bony Fulani herders scrambled to keep up with throngs of lambs, goats, cows, and camels spread out over a seemingly infinite expanse of green grass and lushly foliated trees. The Ferlo was brimming with carefully maintained wells, abundantly filled seasonal ponds, and clearly marked pastoralist corridors, with the country’s biggest wholesale livestock market just a few hours’ ride by donkey cart. There were no paved roads, no commercial farmland, and no extremist recruiters for hundreds of miles in any direction.

A woman and two young boys astride cattle seen through the horns of a cow on the water to a watering hole
Herders have to make complex calculations when choosing where to take their cows to wait out the dry season.
SVEN TORFINN/PANOS PICTURES/REDUX

Not that the herding was easy work. “A herder’s life is difficult,” Sow said, welcoming me to his compound with sweet tea and a calabash filled with fresh milk. “There is not one day of rest.”

In a few months’ time, the rains would stop, the herds would exhaust the pastures, and the grassland would revert back to desert. And Sow would again face the difficult decision he faces every year: whether to stay and buy livestock feed to tide his animals over until next year’s rains or to lead his cows on a journey, and if so, where.

A lot of complex spatial calculations go into choosing where to take hundreds of hungry cows to wait out the dry season on the edge of the world’s largest subtropical desert, while making sure they have enough to eat along the way. Observing these deliberations filled Orenstein with wonder more than a decade ago, when he started surveying herders in Chad for a food security project with the French NGO Action Against Hunger (ACF).

In 2014, Orenstein helped ACF develop an early-warning system, mining new data sources using remote sensing—observing the conditions of grazing pastures from space via satellite imagery and, in some cases, with the use of drones. He also worked with pastoralist organizations to gather information about diverse conditions on the ground, ranging from wildfire locations to the spread of animal disease. He then began making maps using open-access sources; passing the data through an algorithm that he developed to treat and filter imagery, he created detailed and accessible illustrations of rainfall levels and vegetation that became a rare reliable resource for herders and their allies. Aid workers in war zones would print out his maps and pass them around to herders.

It was part of a system designed to extract data, analyze it, and send it up the chain to institutions, including national ministries, UN agencies, and donors. Being able to see crises coming, the thinking went, would give institutional actors more time and power to prepare their response and assign their resources. Being able to deploy emergency programming earlier would in turn afford herders a bit more protection.

In practice, that’s not always how it worked.

At the start of the rainy season in the early summer of 2017, Orenstein was tracking rainfall patterns and felt a knot in his stomach. The first rains had hit too hard, washing the dormant seeds out of the soil; a dry spell followed that lasted for several weeks. When the rains did return, the grassland growth was stunted. Drought was coming.

By mid-August, Orenstein was scribbling reports and ringing journalists to warn that disaster was imminent. But when presented with this evidence, the regional body with the authority to declare an emergency did not act. By the time it finally did, in April 2018—eight months after initial warnings were sounded—it was far too late to respond effectively to what turned out to be the worst drought in 20 years.

Alex and three other men crowded around a table with a large map of Nigeria
Data scientist Alex Orenstein marks up areas during a field mapping exercise.
COURTESY OF ALEX ORENSTEIN

Two months after that, in June 2018, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs urgently warned that 1.6 million children faced severe acute malnutrition, up more than 50% from the previous year.

That blighted season was also brutal for Sow. In March, his entire village sent its animals south to escape the drought—the first time anyone could remember doing so that early in the dry season. But Sow lingered, unwilling to take his sons out of school to help him. Nonetheless, he also could not afford to stay and buy several tons of animal feed per month at inflated prices. By the time Sow finally hired a few assistants and headed south with his cattle, sands had engulfed the grasslands.

They marched across the desert like soldiers at war, covering 18 miles a day. On the 10th day, they reached the Tambacounda region by the Malian border, where the cows would spend the rest of the lean season grazing on savanna woodlands and lush forest. Not all the herd survived the trek, and the cows that did were emaciated and more prone to insect-borne tropical diseases. By season’s end, a quarter of the herd had dropped dead—a defeat from which Sow still hasn’t recovered.

Democratizing data

Driving through the Ferlo in 2018, Orenstein was distraught to see the rail-thin Fulani herders trailing behind their withering cows. Across the Sahel, anti-Fulani pogroms were on the rise; some West Africans were taking to Twitter to call for their extermination. As weather, food, and protection systems broke down, it was easier to scapegoat the drifting “foreigner” than to demand accountability from anyone responsible.

The combination of starvation and ethnic massacres reminded Orenstein of the stories his grandfather used to tell of surviving Auschwitz. What good were early warnings if institutions were not willing to act on them? Not that the drought could have been prevented. But declaring an emergency sooner would have facilitated measures to soften its impact on herders. For example, governments could have sent cash transfers and distributed food for both humans and livestock at strategic transit locations.

From that point on, Orenstein decided to do things differently. If institutions could not be trusted to make good use of new data, why not get it directly to herders?

But delivering data to herders would prove extremely challenging. The centralized, vertically oriented systems traditionally used for data collection and analysis are better adapted to those institutions, usually located in capital cities, than to herders dispersed across thousands of miles of desert. What’s more, Sahelian herders are some of the world’s least reachable, least connected people. Many of them don’t have cell phones or access to internet or strong cellular service.

Still, the timing was good—aid workers and donors were increasingly hopeful that technology could solve stubborn problems. In 2018, Orenstein secured a $250,000 grant for ACF to broadcast data reports to herders in northern Senegal via text message and community radio.

The project launched several months later, though by then Orenstein was already working on another one: the Garbal call centers. Even more than community radio, the call centers, which are a collaboration with the Netherlands Development Organization, could offer data tailored to individuals in very specific locations over a wider remit. The first center launched in Bamako, Mali, in 2018. Another, in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, followed in 2019.

Orenstein and the Garbal team—roughly a dozen local data analysts, project managers, digital finance experts, and tele-agents with degrees in livestock management and applied agriculture—have designed different tools for herders’ needs. For example, they’ve offered ways to connect with veterinarians, compare market prices for animal feed, and use satellite data to find seasonal migration corridors and track brushfires. Crucially, the team has also engaged directly with pastoralist organizations, training and equipping herders to send back field data about vegetation quality in different zones—a piece of critical information that is undetectable via satellite.

screenshot of the STAMP+ Interface showing a map of the area around Kokolorou. An info panel on the left shows other data about the area including a chart of current animal and cereal prices, vegetation levels and button for a 7 day weather forecast
A screenshot of a tool developed by Orenstein and others that call center agents use to provide herders with location-specific data.

Orenstein himself went into the field as often as he could to hold focus groups with herders and ensure that the way information was delivered would be adapted to their epistemic culture. “Instead of asking them, ‘Do you need rainfall information?’ I would say, ‘What kind of information do you need? And how do you measure it?’” he recalls. “Otherwise, the system would tell them to expect 25 millimeters of rain. Math is not how they measure. So instead, I would hold consultations on pond fullness, for example, and define rain strength in those terms—terms they can use.”

Samba Ba, the Senegalese herder, notes how effective this work has been in bridging the gulf between what tech had promised and what he and his peers actually needed. “Orenstein would help us forecast in September what the vegetation would be like the following year, so we could plan the next seasonal migration,” he says. “He came to us in the field, took into account our customs, habits, and knowledge, and used technology to give us a clearer idea of the grazing situation.”

Still, the most popular Garbal service has been its weather forecasting for rural zones. Previously, reliable information was severely lacking, in part because there were not enough ground stations and in part because satellite data was available only for urban areas. (Mali, for instance, has just 13 active weather stations, compared with 200 in Germany—a country one-third its size.)

Orenstein came up with a way to make rural forecasts more readily available. “We had the coordinates for every village in Burkina Faso. Why couldn’t we just plug those into an API?” he remembers thinking, referring to an application programming interface, a kind of intermediary that allows applications to interact with one another. “Suddenly, we were getting weather forecasts for places that weren’t listed anywhere.”

The API has enabled Garbal tele-agents to click on remote pastoral zones on a map and receive tables showing weekly, daily, and hourly forecasts that are updated with fresh satellite data every three hours. Honoré Zidouemba, the project manager for the Ouagadougou call center, estimates that during the rainy season, his center receives 2,000 to 3,000 calls a day about the weather. “Herders and farmers used to derive information from natural cues,” he says, “but with climate change, those are more and more perturbed.”

false color image of a 3 Period Timescan Cropland Monitor built with Earth Engine Apps
A tool created by Orenstein and collaborators allows a user to highlight the presence of active cropland across time.

It’s simple and inexpensive—costing under $100 a month to use—but of all the team’s technological innovations, the API has made the biggest impact. And it’s a far cry from the kinds of higher-tech applications NGOs and development organizations have been promoting.

Since 2015, the World Bank has committed half a billion dollars to a two-phase project to support Sahelian herders’ “resilience” through strategies that include developing technological tools to map pastoral infrastructure. A senior humanitarian-agency staffer working with herders and technology, who requested anonymity to speak frankly, says the resulting databases have not been shared with herders; he calls the approach, which is geared more toward informing institutions than informing herders, “very technocratic.” (The World Bank did not respond to a request for comment.)

Meanwhile, ACF, the French NGO Orenstein previously worked with, got international attention in 2020 for reportedly using AI to help herders, a claim several people involved in the project say was simply incorrect. (“ACF does not use self-learning for its Pastoral Early Warning System. Presently, the analysis is done ‘manually’ by human expertise,” says Erwann Fillol, a data analysis expert at the organization.)

drone shot of cattle immersed in brown muddy water
Climate change is making herding routes, like this one across the Niger River, increasingly volatile.
ALAMY

Other groups are experimenting with using predictive analytics to forecast displacements and herders’ movements.  A pilot project from the Danish Refugee Council in Burkina Faso, for example, predicts subnational displacement three to four months into the future, allowing aid workers to pre-position relief. “Anticipatory action in response to climate hazards can be more timely, dignified, and cost effective than alternatives,” says Alexander Kjaerum, an expert on data and predictive analytics with the organization. “AI is a last option when other things fail. And then it does add value.”

Still, some argue these kinds of projects have missed the point. “How are high technology and AI going to address land access issues for pastoralists? It is questionable if there are technological fixes to what are political, socioeconomic, and ecological pressures,” says Higazi, the pastoralist expert.

Blama Jalloh, a herder from Burkina Faso who heads the influential regional pastoralist organization Billital Maroobé, echoes this broad sentiment, arguing that big-budget, high-tech efforts mainly just produce studies, not innovation.

Taking matters into its own hands, in 2022 Billital Maroobé organized the first hackathon designed by and for Sahelian herders. Jalloh says the hackathon aimed to narrow the gap between herders and tech developers who lack familiarity with herding lifestyles. It granted up to $8,000 to startups from Mauritania and Mali to track animals and introduce digital ID cards for herders, which could help them cross borders more seamlessly.

An uncertain future

With three call centers now open, and Orenstein serving as a remote technical advisor from the US, the Garbal team is striving to stay focused and make their work sustainable.

Nevertheless, the fate of the project is far beyond its supporters’ control. The region’s slide into violence shows no sign of stopping. As a result, even though more of the herders that Garbal set out to support have started carrying smartphones charged with battery packs, they are increasingly being pushed out of cell range.

drone view of a city block with people standing near multiple fires burning in the streets after a protest
Protesters fill the streets of Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, where nearly 10% of the population has been displaced in recent years.
AP IMAGES

Between 2018 and 2022, Burkina Faso witnessed one of the world’s fastest-growing displacement crises, with the number of internally displaced people exploding from 50,000 to 1.8 million—almost 10% of the population. Fulanis in particular were targeted for killing by security forces and government-backed vigilantes, and in some areas that are home to significant Fulani herding communities, militants destroyed as many as half the mobile-phone antennas. One tele-agent says the herders who did manage to call in from war zones told her how happy they were to reach the center. When I visited the Ouagadougou call center last year, a tele-agent named Dousso, a 24-year-old with a livestock degree who speaks French, Gourmantche, Dioula, and Moré, told me that “all of the coups,” as well as incidents in which jihadists took over markets, were also making it increasingly difficult to get certain types of data.

This can make the service even more meaningful where it’s still available, says Catherine Le Come, a Garbal cofounder, pointing to Mali, where Garbal is still accessible in some parts of the country that are now cut off from the state.

Yet Garbal, just like other efforts to get data to herders, faces the always pressing issue of how to fund this work consistently over time.

Nonprofit projects like ACF’s community radio and SMS bulletin alerts are pegged to funding cycles that run out after a few years. In March 2021, for instance, as Sow marched his cows 140 miles east toward the Senegal River, he relied on geospatial data he received by community radio and text message from two different NGOs, informing him where pastures were plentiful. But just three months later, both projects ran out of money and stopped supplying information.

Fulani herder dtanding near a body of water with his cattle, using his cell phone
Traditionally, Sahelian herders have been some of the least-connected individuals. But now more are carrying smartphones charged by battery packs.
THOMAS GRABKA/LAIF/REDUX

The Garbal call centers are trying to build a more sustainable model. The plan is to phase out NGO sponsorship by 2026 and operate as a public-private partnership between the state and telephone operators. Garbal charges callers a modest fee—the equivalent of five cents a minute—and has plans to roll out online marketplaces and financial products to generate revenue.

“Technology in itself has lots of potential,” says Le Come. “But it is the private sector that must believe and invest in innovation. And the risks it faces innovating in a context as fragile as the Sahel must be shared with a public sector that sees user impact.” (Cedric Bernard, a French agro-economist who has worked with ACF, firmly disagrees; he insists that the information should be free, and that trying to be profitable “is going the wrong way.”) Furthermore, the for-profit model means that Garbal—which set out to help vulnerable herders—is already pivoting toward providing services to farmers, who make more reliable customers because they are easier to reach and better connected. Zidouemba, the Ouagadougou project manager, says that its callers are now overwhelmingly farmers; herders, he estimates, account for just 20% of the calls to the Burkina Faso center.

Sow standing with his cattle in the Ferlo
In 2018, a quarter of Salif Sow’s herd dropped dead in a severe drought. But that season he made a sacrifice that is finally paying off: his son recently started studying abroad in Paris.
HANNAH RAE ARMSTRONG

As the tides of data that reach them ebb and flow, the herders themselves are aware that the real work needed to keep their way of life going is a longer-term political effort. As I prepared to leave the Ferlo this fall, the landscape still resplendent from the rainy season, Sow pulled me aside. He was a modest man, but there was something he wanted me to know. That very night, he said shyly, his eldest son, Abdoulsalif, was leaving Dakar for Paris to begin graduate studies at the Sorbonne, where he had received a scholarship—a fruit of the sacrifice that Sow made during the year of the terrible drought.

I reached Abdoulsalif over WhatsApp a few weeks later, by which time he had learned that Sciences Po was more prestigious than the Sorbonne and enrolled there instead. He is studying public policy and plans to seek work on pastoralist policy in the Sahel after graduation.

“Herding is a beautiful way of life, a space where I feel very happy,” Abdoulsalif told me. “It is extraordinary to see, so far away, the animals in their vast spaces. Far more beautiful than to live in a place with four walls. Even in Paris, I feel nostalgic for this life, this space of herders.”

Hannah Rae Armstrong is a writer and policy adviser on the Sahel and North Africa. She lives in Dakar, Senegal.  

The Download: quantum squeezing, and a game-building AI model

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 scientists are using quantum squeezing to push the limits of their sensors

When two black holes spiral inward and collide, they shake the very fabric of space, producing ripples in space-time that can travel for hundreds of millions of light-years. Since 2015, scientists have been observing these so-called gravitational waves to help them study fundamental questions about the cosmos, including the origin of heavy elements such as gold and the rate at which the universe is expanding. 

But detecting gravitational waves isn’t easy. By the time they reach Earth, the ripples have dissipated into near silence. Our detectors must sense motions on the scale of one ten-thousandth the width of a proton to stand a chance. And making them more sensitive is a huge challenge. Physicists say a new approach could help: quantum squeezing. 

The technique could also help create ​​more precise magnetometers, gyroscopes, and clocks with potential applications for navigation. Creators of commercial and military technology have begun dabbling in quantum squeezing, too: the Canadian startup Xanadu uses it in its quantum computers, and last fall, DARPA announced Inspired, a program for developing quantum squeezing technology on a chip. Find out more.

—Sophia Chen

Google DeepMind’s new generative model makes Super Mario-like games from scratch

The news: OpenAI’s stunning generative model Sora is pushing the envelope of what’s possible with text-to-video. Now, Google DeepMind is bringing us text-to-video games.

How it works: The new model, called Genie, can take a short description, a hand-drawn sketch or a photo and turn it into a playable video game in the style of classic 2D platformers like Super Mario Bros. But don’t expect anything fast-paced. The games run at one frame per second, compared to the typical 30-60 frames per second of most modern games.

Why it matters: While Genie won’t be released, it could one day be turned into a game-making tool. It could also potentially help advance the field of robotics. Read the full story.

—Will Douglas Heaven

Why concerns over the sustainability of carbon removal are growing

There’s a looming problem in the carbon removal space.

By one count, nearly 800 companies around the world are exploring ways to draw planet-warming greenhouse gas out of the atmosphere and storing it away or putting it to use, a gigantic leap from the five startups I could have named in 2019

Globally, venture investors poured more than $4 billion into this sector between 2020 and the end of last year, according to data provided by PitchBook.

The trouble is, carbon dioxide removal is a very expensive product that, strictly speaking, no one needs right now. It’s waste management for invisible garbage, a public good that nobody is eager to pay for. Some climate experts even argue it’s an outright fantasy, and a dangerously distracting one at that. Read the full story

—James Temple

This story is from The Spark, our weekly newsletter about how tech could help to combat the climate crisis. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Wednesday.

The must-reads

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

1 Inside the weird world of AI-generated videos 
These models have gotten better at making human hands. But cats’ paws? That’s another story. (WP $)
Welcome to the new surreal: How AI-generated video is changing film. (MIT Technology Review)

2 Selective forgetting can help AI to learn better
This new approach could also help us to better grasp how these models understand language. (Quanta)
AI is creating new kinds of software bugs. (Axios)
Use AI tools for brainstorming. Not for truth-seeking. (WP $)

3 A Pornhub chatbot stopped people searching for child abuse videos 
When people searched terms linked to abuse, a warning message popped up urging them to get help. (Wired $)

4 The US is investigating Chinese cars
It’s citing security risks, but the real fear is likely of being out-competed. (WP $)
The US car giants simply cannot win against Chinese automakers. (NYT $)
Why Apple abandoned its car project. (NYT $)

5 Tech billionaires keep buying up land on Hawaii 
Much to the detriment of the locals living there already. (NPR)

6 Why recorded music never measures up to seeing it live
It’s to do with how our brain responds. (The Economist $)

7 What it’s like to use the Vision Pro for a month
Honestly? It sounds kinda lonely. (WSJ $) 

8 Elon Musk really wants you to know he’s never been to therapy
Bless him—as if we hadn’t figured that out already. (Gizmodo)

9 The Winklevoss twins are returning $1 billion to their crypto customers
But only after being ordered to by a judge, to be clear. (BBC)

10 Wendy’s is giving up on introducing surge pricing
Outraged people on the internet forced it to backtrack. And rightly so! (Gizmodo)

Quote of the day

The worst part of all? There was no chocolate.”

—Father-of-three Stuart Sinclair tells the New York Times how he was one of many people duped by AI-generated ads into attending an underwhelming WIlly Wonka-themed event in Glasgow last weekend. 

The big story

A day in the life of a Chinese robotaxi driver

baidu worker (left) and autonomous vehicle driving on highway (right)
COURTESY OF BAIDU

July 2022

When Liu Yang started his current job, he found it hard to go back to driving his own car: “I instinctively went for the passenger seat. Or when I was driving, I would expect the car to brake by itself,” says the 33-year-old Beijing native, who joined the Chinese tech giant Baidu in January 2021 as a robotaxi driver.

Robotaxi driver is an occupation that only exists in our time, the result of an evolving technology that’s advanced enough to get rid of a driver—most of the time, in controlled environments— but not good enough to convince authorities that they can do away with human intervention altogether. 

Liu is one of the hundreds of safety operators employed by Baidu, “driving” five days a week in Shougang Park. But despite having only worked for the company for 19 months, he already has to think about his next career move, as his job will likely be eliminated within a few years. Read the full story.

—Zeyi Yang

We can still have nice things

A place for comfort, fun and distraction to brighten up your day. (Got any ideas? Drop me a line or tweet ’em at me.)

+ Today is a leap day! Did you know that people born on leap years are called leaplings
+ Once you’ve seen the giant chihuahua in the Dune 2 poster, there’s no unseeing it. 
+ There are hardcore spinning classes, and then there’s….this
+ Love this story about turning music into a scent. (NYT $)

Google DeepMind’s new generative model makes Super Mario–like games from scratch

OpenAI’s recent reveal of its stunning generative model Sora pushed the envelope of what’s possible with text-to-video. Now Google DeepMind brings us text-to-video games.

The new model, called Genie, can take a short description, a hand-drawn sketch, or a photo and turn it into a playable video game in the style of classic 2D platformers like Super Mario Bros. But don’t expect anything fast-paced. The games run at one frame per second, versus the typical 30 to 60 frames per second of most modern games.

“It’s cool work,” says Matthew Guzdial, an AI researcher at the University of Alberta, who developed a similar game generator a few years ago. 

Genie was trained on 30,000 hours of video of hundreds of 2D platform games taken from the internet. Others have taken that approach before, says Guzdial. His own game generator learned from videos to create abstract platformers. Nvidia used video data to train a model called GameGAN, which could produce clones of games like Pac-Man.

But all these examples trained the model with input actions (such as button presses on a controller), as well as video footage: a video frame showing Mario jumping was paired with the Jump action, and so on. Tagging video footage with input actions takes a lot of work, which has limited the amount of training data available. 

In contrast, Genie was trained on video footage alone. It then learned which of eight possible actions would cause the game character in a video to change its position. This turned countless hours of existing online video into potential training data. 

example of game generated from a crayon sketch
Genie can generate simple games from hand-drawn sketches
GOOGLE DEEPMIND

Genie generates each new frame of the game on the fly depending on the action the player takes. Press Jump, and Genie updates the current image to show the game character jumping; press Left and the image changes to show the character moved to the left. The game ticks along action by action, each new frame generated from scratch as the player plays. 

Future versions of Genie could run faster. “There is no fundamental limitation that prevents us from reaching 30 frames per second,” says Tim Rocktäschel, a research scientist at Google DeepMind who leads the team behind the work. “Genie uses many of the same technologies as contemporary large language models, where there has been significant progress in improving inference speed.” 

Genie learned some common visual quirks found in platformers. Many games of this type use parallax, where the foreground moves sideways faster than the background. Genie often adds this effect to the games it generates.  

While Genie is an in-house research project and won’t be released, Guzdial notes that the Google DeepMind team says it could one day be turned into a game-making tool—something he’s working on too. “I’m definitely interested to see what they build,” he says.

Virtual playgrounds

But the Google DeepMind researchers are interested in more than just game generation. The team behind Genie works on open-ended learning, where AI-controlled bots are dropped into a virtual environment and left to solve various tasks by trial and error (a technique known as reinforcement learning). 

In 2021, a different DeepMind team developed a virtual playground called XLand, in which bots learned how to cooperate on simple tasks such as moving obstacles. Sandboxes like XLand will be crucial for training future bots on a range of different challenges before pitting them against real-world scenarios. The video-game examples prove that Genie could be used to generate such virtual playgrounds.

Others have developed similar world-building tools. For example, David Ha at Google Brain and Jürgen Schmidhuber at the AI lab IDSIA in Switzerland developed a tool in 2018 that trained bots in game-based virtual environments called world models. But again, unlike Genie, these required the training data to include input actions. 

The team demonstrated how this ability is useful in robotics, too. When Genie was shown videos of real robot arms manipulating a variety of household objects, the model learned what actions that arm could do and how to control it. Future robots could learn new tasks by watching video tutorials.  

“It is hard to predict what use cases will be enabled,” says Rocktäschel. “We hope projects like Genie will eventually provide people with new tools to express their creativity.”

Correction: This article has been updated to clarify that Genie and XLand were developed by different teams.

Why concerns over the sustainability of carbon removal are growing

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

There’s a looming problem in the carbon removal space.

By one count, nearly 800 companies around the world are exploring a wide variety of methods for drawing planet-warming greenhouse gas out of the atmosphere and storing it away or putting it to use, a gigantic leap from the five startups I could have named in 2019. Globally, venture investors poured more than $4 billion into this sector between 2020 and the end of last year, according to data provided by PitchBook. 

The trouble is, carbon dioxide removal (CDR) is a very expensive product that, strictly speaking, no one needs right now. It’s not a widget; it’s waste management for invisible garbage, a public good that nobody is eager to pay for.

“CDR is a pure cost, and we’re trying to force it to be something that’s profitable—and the only way you can do that is with public money or through voluntary markets,” says Emily Grubert, an associate professor at Notre Dame, who previously served as deputy assistant secretary in the US Energy Department’s Office of Carbon Management.

Both of those are playing a part to certain degrees. So far, the main markets for carbon removal come from government procurement, which is limited; government subsidies, which don’t cover the cost; and voluntary purchases by corporations and individuals, which are restricted to those willing to pay the true cost of high-quality, reliable removal. You can also use the CO2 as a feedstock in other products, but then you’re generally starting with a high-cost version of a cheap commodity.

Given these market challenges, some investors are scratching their heads as they witness the huge sums flowing into the space.

In a report last summer, the venture capital firm DCVC said that all of the approaches it evaluated faced “multiple feasibility constraints.” It noted that carbon-sucking direct-air-capture factories are particularly expensive, charging customers hundreds of dollars per ton.

“That will still likely be the case in five, seven, even 10 years—which is why we at DCVC are somewhat surprised to see hundreds of millions of dollars in capital flowing into early-stage direct air capture companies,” the authors wrote.

Rachel Slaybaugh, a DCVC partner, said of direct-air capture in the report: “I’m not saying we won’t need it. And I’m not saying there won’t eventually be good businesses here. I’m saying right now the markets are very nascent, and I don’t see how you can possibly make a venture return.” 

In background conversations, several industry insiders I’ve spoken with acknowledge that the number of carbon removal companies is simply unsustainable, and that a sizable share will flame out at some point.

The sector has taken off, in part, because a growing body of studies has found that a huge amount of carbon removal will be needed to keep rising temperatures in check. By some estimates, nations may have to remove 10 billion tons of carbon dioxide a year by midcentury to keep the planet from blowing past 2 °C of warming, or to pull it back into safer terrain.

On top of that, companies are looking for ways to meet their net-zero commitments. For now, some businesses are willing to pay the really high current costs for carbon removal, in part to help the sector scale up. These include Microsoft and companies participating in the $1 billion Frontier program

At the moment, I’m told, corporate demand is outstripping the availability of reliable forms of carbon removal. There are only a handful of direct-air-capture plants, which take years to construct, and companies are still testing out or scaling up other approaches, like burying biochar and pumping bio-oil deep underground.

Costs are sure to come down, but it’s always going to be relatively expensive to do this well, and there are only so many corporate customers that will be willing to pay the true cost, observers say. So as carbon removal capacity catches up with that corporate demand, the fate of the industry will increasingly depend on how much more help governments are willing to provide—and on how thoughtfully they craft any accompanying rules.

Countries may support the emerging industry through carbon trading markets, direct purchases, mandates on polluters, fuel standards, or other measures. 

It seems safe to assume that nations will continue to dangle more carrots or wield bigger sticks to help the sector along. Notably, the European Commission is developing a framework for certifying carbon dioxide removal, which could allow countries to eventually use various approaches to work toward the EU goal of climate neutrality by 2050. But it’s far from clear that such government support will grow as much and as quickly as investors hope or as entrepreneurs need.

Indeed, some observers argue it’s a “fantasy” that nations will ever fund high-quality carbon removal—on the scale of billions of tons a year—just because climate scientists said they should (see: our decades of inaction on climate change). To put it in perspective, the DCVC report notes that removing 100 billion tons at $100 a ton would add up to $10 trillion—“more than a tenth of global GDP.”

Growing financial pressures in the sector could play out in a variety of worrisome ways. 

“One possibility is there’s a bubble and it pops and a lot of investors lose their shirts,” says Danny Cullenward, a climate economist and research fellow with the Institute for Responsible Carbon Removal at American University. 

If so, that could shut down the development of otherwise promising carbon removal methods before we’ve learned how well and affordably they work (or not). 

The other danger is that when an especially frothy sector fizzles, it can turn public or political sentiment against the space and kill the appetite for further investment. This, after all, is precisely what played out after the cleantech 1.0 bubble burst. Conservatives assailed government lending to green startups, and VCs, feeling burned, backed away for the better part of a decade.

But Cullenward fears another possibility even more. As funding runs dry, startups eager to bring in revenue and expand the market may resort to selling cheaper, but less reliable, forms of carbon removal—and lobbying for looser standards to allow them.

He sees a scenario where the sector replicates the sort of widespread credibility problems that have occurred with voluntary carbon offsets, building up big marketplaces that move a lot of money around but don’t achieve all that much for the atmosphere.


Now read the rest of The Spark

Related reading

In December, I highlighted an essay by Grubert and another former DOE staffer, in which they warned that sucking down greenhouse gas to cancel out corporate emissions could come at the expense of more pressing public needs.

In an earlier piece, I explored how the energy, attention, and money flowing into carbon removal could feed unrealistic expectations about how much we can rely on it—and thus how much we can carry on emitting.

My colleague and former editor David Rotman recently dug into the hard lessons of the cleantech 1.0 boom and bust—and the high stakes of the current investment wave.

Keeping up with climate 

In a story out today, Tech Review’s Casey Crownhart explains why hydrogen vehicles may be lurching toward a dead end, as vehicle sales stagnate and fueling stations shut down. (MIT Technology Review)

A Trump victory would be bad news for climate change. In particular, I took a hard look at what it might mean for Joe Biden’s landmark law, the Inflation Reduction Act. (Short answer: nothing good.) (MIT Technology Review)

The Inflation Reduction Act includes a little-known methane fee, which kicks into effect for excess emissions in 2024. Grist reports that the US’s largest oil and gas companies could be on the hook for more than $1 billion, based on recent emissions patterns—marking another reason why, as I reported, Trump would likely try to rescind the provision. (Grist)

The US Securities and Exchange Commission could release long-awaited climate rules as soon as next week, requiring companies to disclose their corporate emissions and exposure to climate risks. Heatmap explores why the SEC is doing this and what it may mean for businesses, climate progress, and the cottage industry forming to conduct emissions accounting.  (Heatmap)

How scientists are using quantum squeezing to push the limits of their sensors

When two black holes spiral inward and collide, they shake the very fabric of space, producing ripples in space-time that can travel for hundreds of millions of light-years. Since 2015, scientists have been observing these so-called gravitational waves to help them study fundamental questions about the cosmos, including the origin of heavy elements such as gold and the rate at which the universe is expanding. 

But detecting gravitational waves isn’t easy. By the time they reach Earth and the twin detectors of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), in Louisiana and Washington state, the ripples have dissipated into near silence. LIGO’s detectors must sense motions on the scale of one ten-thousandth the width of a proton to stand a chance. 

LIGO has confirmed 90 gravitational wave detections so far, but physicists want to detect more, which will require making the experiment even more sensitive. And that is a challenge. 

“The struggle of these detectors is that every time you try to improve them, you actually can make things worse, because they are so sensitive,” says Lisa Barsotti, a physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Nevertheless, Barsotti and her colleagues recently pushed past this challenge, creating a device that will allow LIGO’s detectors to detect far more black hole mergers and neutron star collisions. The device belongs to a growing class of instruments that use quantum squeezing—a practical way for researchers dealing with systems that operate by the fuzzy rules of quantum mechanics to manipulate those phenomena to their advantage. 

Physicists describe objects in the quantum realm in terms of probabilities—for example, an electron is not located here or there but has some likelihood of being in each place, locking into one only when its properties are measured. Quantum squeezing can manipulate the probabilities, and researchers are increasingly using it to exert more control over the act of measurement, dramatically improving the precision of quantum sensors like the LIGO experiment.  

“In precision sensing applications where you want to detect super-small signals, quantum squeezing can be a pretty big win,” says Mark Kasevich, a physicist at Stanford University who applies quantum squeezing to make more precise magnetometers, gyroscopes, and clocks with potential applications for navigation. Creators of commercial and military technology have begun dabbling in the technique as well: the Canadian startup Xanadu uses it in its quantum computers, and last fall, DARPA announced Inspired, a program for developing quantum squeezing technology on a chip. Let’s take a look at two applications where quantum squeezing is already being used to push the limits of quantum systems.

Taking control of uncertainty

The key concept behind quantum squeezing is the phenomenon known as Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. In a quantum-mechanical system, this principle puts a fundamental limit on how precisely you can measure an object’s properties. No matter how good your measurement devices are, they will suffer a fundamental level of imprecision that is part of nature itself. In practice, that means there’s a trade-off. If you want to track a particle’s speed precisely, for example, then you must sacrifice precision in knowing its location, and vice versa. “Physics imposes limits on experiments, and especially on precision measurement,” says John Robinson, a physicist at the quantum computing startup QuEra. 

By “squeezing” uncertainty into properties they aren’t measuring, however, physicists can gain precision in the property they want to measure. Theorists proposed using squeezing in measurement as early as the 1980s. Since then, experimental physicists have been developing the ideas; over the last decade and a half, the results have matured from sprawling tabletop prototypes to practical devices. Now the big question is what applications will benefit. “We’re just understanding what the technology might be,” says Kasevich. “Then hopefully our imagination will grow to help us find what it’s really going to be good for.” 

LIGO is blazing a trail to answer that question, by enhancing the detectors’ ability to measure extremely tiny distances. The observatory registers gravitational waves with L-shaped machines capable of sensing tiny motions along their four-kilometer-long arms. At each machine, researchers split a laser beam in two, sending a beam down each arm to reflect off a set of mirrors. In the absence of a gravitational wave, the crests and troughs of the constituent light waves should completely cancel each other out when the beams are recombined. But when a gravitational wave passes through, it will alternately stretch and compress the arms so that the split light waves are slightly out of phase.

The resulting signals are subtle, though—so subtle that they risk being drowned out by the quantum vacuum, the irremovable background noise of the universe, caused by particles flitting in and out of existence. The quantum vacuum introduces a background flicker of light that enters LIGO’s arms, and this light pushes the mirrors, shifting them on the same scale as the gravitational waves LIGO aims to detect.

Barsotti’s team can’t get rid of this background flicker, but quantum squeezing allows them to exert limited control over it. To do so, the team installed a 300-meter-long cavity in each of LIGO’s two L-shaped detectors. Using lasers, they can create an engineered quantum vacuum, in which they can manipulate conditions to increase their level of control over either how bright the flicker can be or how randomly it occurs in time. Detecting higher-frequency gravitational waves is harder when the rhythm of the flickering is more random, while lower-frequency gravitational waves get drowned out when the background light is brighter. In their engineered vacuum, noisy particles still show up in their measurements, but in ways that don’t do as much to disturb the detection of gravitational waves.“ You can [modify] the vacuum by manipulating it in a way that is useful to you,” she explains. 

The innovation was decades in the making: through the 2010s, LIGO incorporated incrementally more sophisticated forms of quantum squeezing based on theoretical ideas developed in the 1980s. With these latest squeezing innovations, installed last year, the collaboration expects to detect gravitational waves up to 65% more frequently than before.

Quantum squeezing has also improved precision in timekeeping. Working at the University of Colorado Boulder with physicist Jun Ye, a pioneer in atomic clock technology, Robinson and his team made a clock that will lose or gain at most a second in 14 billion years. These super-precise clocks tick slightly differently in different gravitational fields, which could make them useful for sensing how Earth’s mass redistributes itself as a result of seismic or volcanic activity. They could also potentially be used to detect certain proposed forms of dark matter, the hypothesized substance that physicists think permeates the universe, pulling on objects with its gravity. 

The clock Robinson’s team developed, a type called an optical atomic clock, uses 10,000 strontium atoms. Like all atoms, strontium emits light at specific signature frequencies as electrons around the atom’s nucleus jump between different energy levels. A fixed number of crests and troughs in one of these light waves corresponds to a second in their clock. “You’re saying the atom is perfect,” says Robinson. “The atom is my reference.” The “ticking” of this light is far steadier than the vibrating quartz crystal in a wristwatch, for example, which expands and contracts at different temperatures to tick at different rates.

In practice, the tick in the Robinson team’s clock comes not from the light the electrons emit but from how the whole system evolves over time. The researchers first put each strontium atom in a “superposition” of  two states: one in which the atom’s electrons are all at their lowest energy levels and another in which one of the electrons is in an excited state. This means each atom has some probability of being in either state but is not definitively in either one—similar to how a coin flipping in the air has some probability of being either heads or tails, but is neither.

Then they measure how many atoms are in each state. The act of measurement puts the atoms definitively in one state or the other, equivalent to letting the flipping coin land on a surface. Before they measure the atoms, even if they intend to wind up with a 50-50 mixture, they cannot precisely dictate how many atoms will end up in each state. That’s because in addition to the system’s change over time, there is also inherent uncertainty in the state of the individual atoms. Robinson’s team uses quantum squeezing to more reliably determine their final states by reducing these intrinsic fluctuations. Specifically, they manipulate the uncertainties in the direction of each atom’s spin, a property of many quantum particles that has no classical counterpart. Squeezing improved the clock’s precision by a factor of 1.5.

To be sure, gravitational waves and ultra-precise clocks are niche academic applications. But there is interest in adapting the approach to other, potentially more mainstream uses, including quantum computers, navigation, and microscopy.

The increased use of quantum squeezing is part of a wider technological trend toward higher precision—one that encompasses cramming more transistors on chips, studying the universe’s most elusive particles, and clocking the fleeting time it takes for an electron to leave a molecule. Squeezing benefits only measurements so subtle that the randomness of quantum mechanics contributes significant noise. But it turns out that physicists have more control than they think. They may not be able to remove the randomness, but they can engineer where it shows up.

Roundtables: An Inside Look at the 10 Breakthrough Technologies 2024

Recorded on January 16, 2024

SKIP TO 2:00 FOR START OF SESSION

An Inside Look at the 10 Breakthrough Technologies 2024

Speakers: Amy Nordrum, Executive editor of operations, Rachel Courtland, Commissioning editor, and Abby Ivory-Ganja, Senior engagement editor

Every year for the past 20+ years, MIT Technology Review has selected a list of the breakthrough technologies that will have the greatest impact on how we live and work in the future. This event will include a full walk-through of the items on the list, a deep dive into what you need to know about several items, and an in-depth look at how the list was made.

Related Coverage

See more ondemand videos of the Roundtables series and upcoming session details.

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The Download: introducing the Hidden Worlds issue

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.

Introducing: the Hidden Worlds issue 

A hidden world is fundamentally different from the undiscovered. We know the hidden world is there. We just can’t see it or reach it. 

Hidden worlds exist in the great depths of the ocean and high above us in the planets of the night sky. But they are also all around us in the form of waves and matter and microbes. 

Technology has long played the spoiler to these worlds in hiding. We have used ships, airplanes, and rockets to shrink distances. Telescopes, cameras, satellites, drones, and radar help us peer into and map the places we cannot go ourselves. AI increasingly plays a role, too. 

If this all fascinates you as much as us, you’ll love the latest issue of MIT Technology Review. It’s all about using technology to explore and expose those hidden worlds, whether they are in the ocean depths, in the far reaches of our galaxy, or swirling all around us, unseen. 

Check out these stories from the magazine:

+ Why Jupiter’s icy moon, Europa, is being investigated as a potential host for life. 

+ Meet the intrepid divers experimenting with breathing hydrogen as part of an effort to reach depths no diver has ever been before. 

+ Inside the hunt for new physics at the Large Hadron Collider, which hasn’t seen any new particles since the discovery of the Higgs boson in 2012.

+ As AI develops at breakneck speed, this comic explains what we can all learn from the Luddites. 

+ Here’s a job title you perhaps haven’t heard before, but will hear more in future: climate equity specialist

This is just a small selection of what’s on offer. I urge you to dive in and enjoy the whole thing, when you find the time. Enjoy!

The first-ever mission to pull a dead rocket out of space has just begun

More than 9,000 metric tons of human-made metal and machinery are orbiting Earth, including satellites, shrapnel, and the International Space Station. But a significant bulk of that mass comes from one source: the nearly a thousand dead rockets that have been discarded in space since the space age began.

Now, for the first time, a mission has begun to remove one of those dead rockets. Funded by the Japanese space agency JAXA, it was launched on Sunday, February 18, and is currently on its way to rendezvous with such a rocket in the coming weeks.

It’ll inspect it and then work out how a follow-up mission might be able to pull the dead rocket back into the atmosphere. If it succeeds, it could demonstrate how we could remove large, dangerous, and uncontrolled pieces of space junk from orbit—objects that could cause a monumental disaster if they collided with satellites or spacecraft. Read the full story

—Jonathan O’Callaghan

Why hydrogen is losing the race to power cleaner cars

Imagine a car that doesn’t emit any planet-warming gases—or any pollution at all, for that matter. Unlike the EVs on the roads today, it doesn’t take an hour or more to charge—just fuel up and go.

It sounds too good to be true, but it’s the reality of vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells. And almost nobody wants one. 

Don’t get me wrong: hydrogen vehicles are sold around the world. But they appear to be lurching toward something of a dead end, with fuel prices going up, vehicle sales stagnating, and fueling stations shutting down. Read our story to find out why that is, and what we’d need to get these cars on the road.

—Casey Crownhart

The story above is for subscribers-only. But subscriptions start from just $8 a month to get access to all of MIT Technology Review’s award-winning journalismwhy not try it out

Why Chinese apps chose to film super-short soap operas in Southeast Asia

A handful of Chinese companies are betting that short videos can disrupt the movie and TV industry. These “soap operas for the TikTok age” have found a huge audience in China, creating a market worth $5 billion. Now, they’re betting that these shows, once adapted, can appeal to an American audience. 

But rather than just jumping straight into the US, many of these firms are using Southeast Asia as both a testing ground, and a production hub. And they’re treading a well-worn path for using that region as the first frontier for expansion outside China. Read the full story

—Zeyi Yang

This story is from China Report, our weekly newsletter about China’s tech scene and how it interacts with the world. 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 Apple is killing its electric car project
Execs say they’ll get the 2,000-odd employees working on it to focus on generative AI instead. (Bloomberg $)
+ This is why they axed it. (Wired $)
Despite never selling a single vehicle, Apple still managed to exert an impact on the car industry. (The Atlantic $)

2 Google’s big AI push is coming back to bite it
The problems with generative AI keep being laid bare for all to see, in real time. (WSJ $)
+ Apple’s shareholders are trying to force it to be more transparent about the risks associated with AI. (FT $)

3 How the Pentagon uses targeted ads to find its targets
Including Vladimir Putin. No, really. (Wired $)
Nowhere online is safe from ads these days. (The Atlantic $)

4 AI is coming for the porn industry 
But porn companies believe some people will pay a premium to interact with a real human being. (WP $)

5 An out-of-control fire is forcing mass evacuations in Texas 
It’s more than doubled in size since igniting on Monday afternoon. (CNN)
The quest to build wildfire-resistant homes. (MIT Technology Review)

6 A pharma company posted positive results for another weight loss drug 
Viking Therapeutics, a smaller player from San Diego, has joined the goldrush. (Quartz $)
These drugs are wildly popular and effective. But their long-term health impacts are still unknown. (MIT Technology Review)

7 Delivery drivers have to contend with off-the-charts air pollution 
It’s such a big problem in South Asia that some of them are forced to take sick days as a result. (Rest of World)

8 Crypto miners blocked legal efforts to reveal how much energy they use
A federal judge granted a temporary restraining order which will prevent the Department of Energy from collecting the data. (The Verge)
Bitcoin’s value hit a two-year high. (Quartz)

9 Some advice: don’t use ChatGPT for your taxes
Or, frankly, anything important. (CNET)

10 Want to feel sad? Ask TikTok how old you look 
I have… zero temptation to do this. (NYT $)

Quote of the day

“I feel so powerless in this state.”

—Lochrane Chase, a 36-year-old lifelong resident of Birmingham, Alabama, tells Wired how she’s having to put her plans to pursue IVF on hold due to the Alabama Supreme Court’s February 16 ruling, which stated that embryos are “unborn children.”

The big story

This artist is dominating AI-generated art. And he’s not happy about it.

snaky dragon comes up behind a wizard with a malformed face. A glowing dragon-shaped fireball is in background, and something that looks like a cross between a sword and a pterodactyl is in the foreground.
MS TECH VIA STABLE DIFFUSION

September 2022

Greg Rutkowski is a Polish digital artist who uses classical painting styles to create dreamy fantasy landscapes. His distinctive illustration style has been used in some of the world’s most popular fantasy games, including Dungeons and Dragons and Magic: The Gathering. 

Now he’s become a hit in the new world of text-to-image AI generation, becoming one of the most commonly used prompts in the open-source AI art generator Stable Diffusion.

But this and other open-source programs are built by scraping images from the internet, often without permission and proper attribution to artists. As a result, they are raising tricky questions about ethics and copyright. And artists like Rutkowski have had enough. Read the full story.

—Melissa Heikkilä

We can still have nice things

A place for comfort, fun and distraction to brighten up your day. (Got any ideas? Drop me a line or tweet ’em at me.)

+  There are so many ways to say “drunk” in English. Drunkonyms, if you will. 
+ Some amazing close-up photographs on display here.
+ Look after your joints, and they’ll look after you. 
+ A philanthropist has donated $1 billion to ensure students at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx will get free tuition “in perpetuity.”