The Download: milk beyond cows, and geoengineering’s funding boom

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.

Biotech companies are trying to make milk without cows

The outbreak of avian influenza on US dairy farms has started to make milk seem a lot less wholesome. Milk that’s raw, or unpasteurized, can actually infect mice that drink it, and a few dairy workers have already caught the bug. 

The FDA says that commercial milk is safe because it is pasteurized, killing the germs. Even so, it’s enough to make a person ponder a life beyond milk—say, taking your coffee black or maybe drinking oat milk.

But for those of us who can’t do without the real thing, it turns out some genetic engineers are working on ways to keep the milk and get rid of the cows instead. Here’s how they’re doing it.

—Antonio Regalado

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

This London non-profit is now one of the biggest backers of geoengineering research

A London-based nonprofit is poised to become one of the world’s largest financial backers of solar geoengineering research. It’s just one of a growing number of foundations eager to support scientists exploring whether the world could ease climate change by reflecting away more sunlight.

The uptick in funding will offer scientists in the controversial field far more support than they’ve enjoyed in the past. This will allow them to pursue a wider array of lab work, modeling, and potentially even outdoor experiments that could improve our understanding of the benefits and risks of such interventions. Read the full story.

—James Temple

How to opt out of Meta’s AI training

If you post or interact with chatbots on Facebook, Instagram, Threads, or WhatsApp, Meta can use your data to train its generative AI models beginning June 26, according to its recently updated privacy policy. 

Internet data scraping is one of the biggest fights in AI right now. Tech companies argue that anything on the public internet is fair game, but they are facing a barrage of lawsuits over their data practices and copyright. It will likely take years until clear rules are in place. 

In the meantime, if you’re uncomfortable with having Meta use your personal information and intellectual property to train its AI models, consider opting out. Here’s how to do it.

—Melissa Heikkila

The must-reads

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

1 The US Supreme Court has upheld access to the abortion pill
It’s the most significant ruling since it overturned Roe v Wade in 2022. (FT $)
+ The decision represents the aversion of a major crisis for reproductive health. (Wired $)
+ But states like Kansas are likely to draw out legal arguments over access. (The Guardian)

2 Amazon is struggling to revamp Alexa
It’s repeatedly missed deadlines and is floundering to catch up with its rivals. (Fortune)
+ OpenAI has stolen a march on Amazon’s AI assistant ambitions. (MIT Technology Review)

3 Clearview AI has struck a deal to end a privacy class action
If your face was scraped as facial recognition data, you may be entitled to a stake in the company. (NYT $)
+ The startup doesn’t have the funds to settle the lawsuit. (Reuters)
+ It was fined millions of dollars for its practices back in 2022. (MIT Technology Review)

4 What’s next for nanotechnology
Molecular machines to kill bacteria aren’t new—but they are promising. (New Yorker $)

5 The Pope is a surprisingly influential voice in the AI safety debate
Pope Francis will address G7 leaders who have gathered today to discuss AI regulation. (WP $)
+ Smaller startups are lobbying to be acquired by bigger fish. (Bloomberg $)
+ What’s next for AI regulation in 2024? (MIT Technology Review)

6 Keeping data centers cool uses colossal amounts of power
Dunking servers in oil could be a far more environmentally-friendly method. (IEEE Spectrum)

7 UK voters can back an AI-generated candidate in next month’s election
How very Black Mirror. (NBC News)

8 How to tell if your boss is spying on you
Checking your browser extensions is a good place to start. (WP $)

9 We don’t know much about how the human body reacts to space
But with the rise of space tourism, scientists are hoping to find out. (TechCrunch)
+ This startup wants to find out if humans can have babies in space. (MIT Technology Review)

10 This platform is a who’s-who of rising internet stars
Famous Birthdays is basically a directory of hugely successful teenagers you’ve never heard of. (Economist $)

Quote of the day

“If it’s somebody on the right, I reward them. If it’s somebody on the left, I punish them.”

—Christopher Blair, a self-confessed liberal troll social justice warrior, explains the methods he uses to spread fake news on Facebook to the New York Times.

The big story

The quest to build wildfire-resistant homes

April 2023

With each devastating wildfire in the US West, officials consider new methods or regulations that might save homes or lives the next time.

In the parts of California where the hillsides meet human development, and where the state has suffered recurring seasonal fire tragedies, that search for new means of survival has especially high stakes.

Many of these methods are low cost and low tech, but no less truly innovative. In fact, the hardest part to tackle may not be materials engineering, but social change. Read the full story.

—Susie Cagle

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.)

+ Why AI-generated album covers can’t hold a candle to human-made art.
+ This chicken caesar salad recipe looks pretty great.
+ Sign me up for a trip to Spain’s unspoiled Ribeira Sacra region!
+ How to nap like a pro 😴

These board games want you to beat climate change

It’s game night, and I’m crossing my fingers, hoping for a hurricane. 

I roll the die and it clatters across the board, tumbling to a stop to reveal a tiny icon of a tree stump. Bad news: I just triggered deforestation in the Amazon. That seals it. I failed to stop climate change—at least this board-game representation of it.

The urgent need to address climate change might seem like unlikely fodder for a fun evening. But a growing number of games are attempting to take on the topic, including a version of the bestseller Catan released this summer.

As a climate reporter, I was curious about whether games could, even abstractly, represent the challenge of the climate crisis. Perhaps more crucially, could they possibly be any fun? 

My investigation started with Daybreak, a board game released in late 2023 by a team that includes the creator of Pandemic (infectious disease—another famously light topic for a game). Daybreak is a cooperative game where players work together to cut emissions and survive disasters. The group either wins or loses as a whole.

When I opened the box, it was immediately clear that this wouldn’t be for the faint of heart. There are hundreds of tiny cardboard and wooden pieces, three different card decks, and a surprisingly thick rule book. Setting it up, learning the rules, and playing for the first time took over two hours.

the components of the game Daybreak which has Game cards depicting Special Drawing Rights, Clean Electricity Plants, and Reforestation themed play cards
Daybreak, a cooperative board game about stopping climate change.
COURTESY OF CMYK

Daybreak is full of details, and I was struck by how many of them it gets right. Not only are there cards representing everything from walkable cities to methane removal, but each features a QR code players can use to learn more.

In each turn, players deploy technologies or enact policies to cut climate pollution. Just as in real life, emissions have negative effects. Winning requires slashing emissions to net zero (the point where whatever’s emitted can be soaked up by forests, oceans, or direct air capture). But there are multiple ways for the whole group to lose, including letting the global average temperature increase by 2 °C or simply running out of turns.

 In an embarrassing turn of events for someone who spends most of her waking hours thinking about climate change, nearly every round of Daybreak I played ended in failure. Adding insult to injury, I’m not entirely sure that I was having fun. Sure, the abstract puzzle was engaging and challenging, and after a loss, I’d be checking the clock, seeing if there was time to play again. But once all the pieces were back in the box, I went to bed obsessing about heat waves and fossil-fuel disinformation. The game was perhaps representing climate change a little bit too well.

I wondered if a new edition of a classic would fare better. Catan, formerly Settlers of Catan, and its related games have sold over 45 million copies worldwide since the original’s release in 1995. The game’s object is to build roads and settlements, setting up a civilization. 

In late 2023, Catan Studios announced that it would be releasing a version of its game called New Energies, focused on climate change. The new edition, out this summer, preserves the same central premise as the original. But this time, players will also construct power plants, generating energy with either fossil fuels or renewables. Fossil fuels are cheaper and allow for quicker expansion, but they lead to pollution, which can harm players’ societies and even end the game early.

Before I got my hands on the game, I spoke with one of its creators, Benjamin Teuber, who developed the game with his late father, Klaus Teuber, the mastermind behind the original Catan.

To Teuber, climate change is a more natural fit for a game than one might expect. “We believe that a good game is always around a dilemma,” he told me. The key is to simplify the problem sufficiently, a challenge that took the team dozens of iterations while developing New Energies. But he also thinks there’s a need to be at least somewhat encouraging. “While we have a severe topic, or maybe even especially because we have a severe topic, you can’t scare off the people by making them just have a shitty evening,” Teuber says.

In New Energies, the first to gain 10 points wins, regardless of how polluting that player’s individual energy supply is. But if players collectively build too many fossil-fuel plants and pollution gets too high, the game ends early, in which case whoever has done the most work to clean up their own energy supply is named the winner.

That’s what happened the first time I tested out the game. While I had been lagging in points, I ended up taking the win, because I had built more renewable power plants than my competitors.

This relatively rosy ending had me conflicted. On one hand, I was delighted, even if it felt like a consolation prize. 

But I found myself fretting over the messages that New Energies will send to players. A simple game that crowns a winner may be more playable, but it doesn’t represent how complicated the climate crisis is, or how urgently we need to address it. 

I’m glad climate change has a spot on my game shelf, and I hope these and other games find their audiences and get people thinking about the issues. But I’ll understand the impulse to reach for other options when game night rolls around, because I can’t help but dwell on the fact that in the real world, we won’t get to reset the pieces and try again.

Biotech companies are trying to make milk without cows

The outbreak of avian influenza on US dairy farms has started to make milk seem a lot less wholesome. Milk that’s raw, or unpasteurized, can actually infect mice that drink it, and a few dairy workers have already caught the bug. 

The FDA says that commercial milk is safe because it is pasteurized, killing the germs. Even so, it’s enough to make a person ponder a life beyond milk—say, taking your coffee black or maybe drinking oat milk.

But for those of us who can’t do without the real thing, it turns out some genetic engineers are working on ways to keep the milk and get rid of the cows instead. They’re doing it by engineering yeasts and plants with bovine genes so they make the key proteins responsible for milk’s color, satisfying taste, and nutritional punch.

The proteins they’re copying are casein, a floppy polymer that’s the most abundant protein in milk and is what makes pizza cheese stretch, and whey, a nutritious combo of essential amino acids that’s often used in energy powders.

It’s part of a larger trend of replacing animals with ingredients grown in labs, steel vessels, or plant crops. Think of the Impossible burger, the veggie patty made mouthwatering with the addition of heme, a component of blood that’s produced in the roots of genetically modified soybeans.

One of the milk innovators is Remilk, an Israeli startup founded in 2019, which has engineered yeast so it will produce beta-lactoglobulin (the main component of whey). Company cofounder Ori Cohavi says a single biotech factory of bubbling yeast vats feeding on sugar could in theory “replace 50,000 to 100,000 cows.” 

Remilk has been making trial batches and is testing ways to formulate the protein with plant oils and sugar to make spreadable cheese, ice cream, and milk drinks. So yes, we’re talking “processed” food—one partner is a local Coca-Cola bottler, and advising the company are former executives of Nestlé, Danone, and PepsiCo.

But regular milk isn’t exactly so natural either. At milking time, animals stand inside elaborate robots, and it looks for all the world as if they’re being abducted by aliens. “The notion of a cow standing in some nice green scenery is very far from how we get our milk,” says Cohavi. And there are environmental effects: cattle burp methane, a potent greenhouse gas, and a lactating cow needs to drink around 40 gallons of water a day

“There are hundreds of millions of dairy cows on the planet producing greenhouse waste, using a lot of water and land,” says Cohavi. “It can’t be the best way to produce food.”  

For biotech ventures trying to displace milk, the big challenge will be keeping their own costs of production low enough to compete with cows. Dairies get government protections and subsidies, and they don’t only make milk. Dairy cows are eventually turned into gelatin, McDonald’s burgers, and the leather seats of your Range Rover. Not much goes to waste.

At Alpine Bio, a biotech company in San Francisco (also known as Nobell Foods), researchers have engineered soybeans to produce casein. While not yet cleared for sale, the beans are already being grown on USDA-sanctioned test plots in the Midwest, says Alpine’s CEO, Magi Richani

Richani chose soybeans because they’re already a major commodity and the cheapest source of protein around. “We are working with farmers who are already growing soybeans for animal feed,” she says. “And we are saying, ‘Hey, you can grow this to feed humans.’ If you want to compete with a commodity system, you have to have a commodity crop.”

Alpine intends to crush the beans, extract the protein, and—much like Remilk—sell the ingredient to larger food companies.

Everyone agrees that cow’s milk will be difficult to displace. It holds a special place in the human psyche, and we owe civilization itself, in part, to domesticated animals. In fact, they’ve  left their mark in our genes, with many of us carrying DNA mutations that make cow’s milk easier to digest.  

But that’s why it might be time for the next technological step, says Richani. “We raise 60 billion animals for food every year, and that is insane. We took it too far, and we need options,” she says. “We need options that are better for the environment, that overcome the use of antibiotics, and that overcome the disease risk.”

It’s not clear yet whether the bird flu outbreak on dairy farms is a big danger to humans. But making milk without cows would definitely cut the risk that an animal virus will cause a new pandemic. As Richani says: “Soybeans don’t transmit diseases to humans.”


Now read the rest of The Checkup

Read more from MIT Technology Review’s archive

Hungry for more from the frontiers of fromage? In the Build issue of our print magazine, Andrew Rosenblum tasted a yummy brie made only from plants. Harder to swallow was the claim by developer Climax Foods that its cheese was designed using artificial intelligence.

The idea of using yeast to create food ingredients, chemicals, and even fuel via fermentation is one of the dreams of synthetic biology. But it’s not easy. In 2021, we raised questions about high-flying startup Ginkgo Bioworks. This week its stock hit an all-time low of $0.49 per share as the company struggles to make … well, anything.

This spring, I traveled to Florida to watch attempts to create life in a totally new way: using a synthetic embryo made in a lab. The action involved cattle at the animal science department of the University of Florida, Gainesville.


From around the web

How many human bird flu cases are there? No one knows, because there’s barely any testing. Scientists warn we’re flying blind as US dairy farms struggle with an outbreak. (NBC)  

Moderna, one of the companies behind the covid-19 shots, is seeing early success with a cancer vaccine. It uses the same basic technology: gene messages packed into nanoparticles. (Nature)

It’s the covid-19 theory that won’t go away. This week the New York Times published an op-ed arguing that the virus was the result of a lab accident. We previously profiled the author, Alina Chan, who is a scientist with the Broad Institute. (NYTimes)

Sales of potent weight loss drugs, like Ozempic, are booming. But it’s not just humans who are overweight. Now the pet care industry is dreaming of treating chubby cats and dogs, too. (Bloomberg)

This London non-profit is now one of the biggest backers of geoengineering research

A London-based nonprofit is poised to become one of the world’s largest financial backers of solar geoengineering research. And it’s just one of a growing number of foundations eager to support scientists exploring whether the world could ease climate change by reflecting away more sunlight.

Quadrature Climate Foundation, established in 2019 and funded through the proceeds of the investment fund Quadrature Capital, plans to provide $40 million for work in this field over the next three years, Greg De Temmerman, the organization’s chief science officer, told MIT Technology Review

That’s a big number for this subject—double what all foundations and wealthy individuals provided from 2008 through 2018 and roughly on par with what the US government has offered to date. 

“We think we can have a very strong impact in accelerating research, making sure it’s happening, and trying to unlock some public money at some point,” De Temmerman says.

Other nonprofits are set to provide tens of millions of dollars’ worth of additional grants to solar geoengineering research or related government advocacy work in the coming months and years. The uptick in funding will offer scientists in the controversial field far more support than they’ve enjoyed in the past and allow them to pursue a wider array of lab work, modeling, and potentially even outdoor experiments that could improve our understanding of the benefits and risks of such interventions. 

“It just feels like a new world, really different from last year,” says David Keith, a prominent geoengineering researcher and founding faculty director of the Climate Systems Engineering Initiative at the University of Chicago.

Other nonprofits that have recently disclosed funding for solar geoengineering research or government advocacy, or announced plans to provide it, include the Simons Foundation, the Environmental Defense Fund, and the Bernard and Anne Spitzer Charitable Trust. 

In addition, Meta’s former chief technology officer, Mike Schroepfer, told MIT Technology Review he is spinning out a new nonprofit, Outlier Projects. He says it will provide funding to solar geoengineering research as well as to work on ocean-based carbon removal and efforts to stabilize rapidly melting glaciers.

Outlier has already issued grants for the first category to the Environmental Defense Fund, Keith’s program at the University of Chicago, and two groups working to support research and engagement on the subject in the poorer, hotter parts of the world: the Degrees Initiative and the Alliance for Just Deliberation on Solar Geoengineering.

Researchers say that the rising dangers of climate change, the lack of progress on cutting emissions, and the relatively small amount of government research funding to date are fueling the growing support for the field.

“A lot of people are recognizing the obvious,” says Douglas MacMartin, a senior research associate in mechanical and aerospace engineering at Cornell, who focuses on geoengineering. “We’re not in a good position with regard to mitigation—and we haven’t spent enough money on research to be able to support good, wise decisions on solar geoengineering.”

Scientists are exploring a variety of potential methods of reflecting away more sunlight, including injecting certain particles into the stratosphere to mimic the cooling effect of volcanic eruptions, spraying salt toward marine clouds to make them brighter, or sprinkling fine dust-like material into the sky to break up heat-trapping cirrus clouds.

Critics contend that neither nonprofits nor scientists should support studying any of these methods, arguing that raising the possibility of such interventions eases pressure to cut emissions and creates a “slippery slope” toward deploying the technology. Even some who support more research fear that funding it through private sources, particularly from wealthy individuals who made their fortunes in tech and finance, may allow studies to move forward without appropriate oversight and taint public perceptions of the field.

The sense that we’re “putting the climate system in the care of people who have disrupted the media and information ecosystems, or disrupted finance, in the past” could undermine public trust in a scientific realm that many already find unsettling, says Holly Buck, an assistant professor at the University of Buffalo and author of After Geoengineering.

‘Unlocking solutions’

One of Quadrature’s first solar geoengineering grants went to the University of Washington’s Marine Cloud Brightening Program. In early April, that research group made headlines for beginning, and then being forced to halt, small-scale outdoor experiments on a decommissioned aircraft carrier sitting off the coast of Alameda, California. The effort entailed spraying a mist of small sea salt particles into the air. 

Quadrature was also one of the donors to a $20.5 million fund for the Washington, DC, nonprofit SilverLining, which was announced in early May. The group pools and distributes grants to solar geoengineering researchers around the world and has pushed for greater government support and funding for the field. The new fund will support that policy advocacy work as well as efforts to “promote equitable participation by all countries,” Kelly Wanser, executive director of SilverLining, said in an email.

She added that it’s crucial to accelerate solar geoengineering research because of the rising dangers of climate change, including the risk of passing “catastrophic tipping points.”

“Current climate projections may even underestimate risks, particularly to vulnerable populations, highlighting the urgent need to improve risk prediction and expand response strategies,” she wrote.

Quadrature has also issued grants for related work to Colorado State University, the University of Exeter, and the Geoengineering Model Intercomparison Project, an effort to run the same set of modeling experiments across an array of climate models. 

The foundation intends to direct its solar geoengineering funding to advance efforts in two main areas: academic research that could improve understanding of various approaches, and work to develop global oversight structures “to enable decision-making on [solar radiation modification] that is transparent, equitable, and science based.”

“We want to empower people to actually make informed decisions at some point,” De Temmerman says, stressing the particular importance of ensuring that people in the Global South are actively involved in such determinations. 

He says that Quadrature is not advocating for specific outcomes, taking no position on whether or not to ultimately use such tools. It also won’t support for-profit startups. 

In an emailed response to questions, he stressed that the funding for solar geoengineering is a tiny part of the foundation’s overall mission, representing just 5% of its $930 million portfolio. The lion’s share has gone to accelerate efforts to cut greenhouse-gas pollution, remove it from the atmosphere, and help vulnerable communities “respond and adapt to climate change to minimize harm.”

Billionaires Greg Skinner and Suneil Setiya founded both the Quadrature investment fund as well as the foundation. The nonprofit’s stated mission is unlocking solutions to the climate crisis, which it describes as “the most urgent challenge of our time.” But the group, which has 26 employees, has faced recent criticism for its benefactors’ stakes in oil and gas companies. Last summer, the Guardian reported that Quadrature Capital held tens of millions of dollars in investments in dozens of fossil-fuel companies, including ConocoPhillips and Cheniere Energy.

In response to a question about the potential for privately funded foundations to steer research findings in self-interested ways, or to create the perception that the results might be so influenced, De Temmerman stated: “We are completely transparent in our funding, ensuring it is used solely for public benefit and not for private gain.”

More foundations, more funds 

To be sure, a number of wealthy individuals and foundations have been providing funds for years to solar geoengineering research or policy work, or groups that collect funds to do so.

A 2021 paper highlighted contributions from a number of wealthy individuals, with a high concentration from the tech sector, including Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates, Facebook cofounder Dustin Moskovitz, Facebook alum and venture capitalist Matt Cohler, former Google executive (and extreme skydiver) Alan Eustace, and tech and climate solutions investors Chris and Crystal Sacca. It noted a number of nonprofits providing grants to the field as well, including the Hewlett Foundation, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, and the Blue Marble Fund.

But despite the backing of those high-net-worth individuals, the dollar figures have been low. From 2008 through 2018, total private funding only reached about $20 million, while government funding just topped $30 million. 

The spending pace is now picking up, though, as new players move in.

The Simons Foundation previously announced it would provide $50 million to solar geoengineering research over a five-year period. The New York–based nonprofit invited researchers to apply for grants of up to $500,000, adding that it “strongly” encouraged scientists in the Global South to do so. 

The organization is mostly supporting modeling and lab studies. It said it would not fund social science work or field experiments that would release particles into the environment. Proposals for such experiments have sparked heavy public criticism in the past.

Simons recently announced a handful of initial awards to researchers at Harvard, Princeton, ETH Zurich, the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, the US National Center for Atmospheric Research, and elsewhere.

“For global warming, we will need as many tools in the toolbox as possible,” says David Spergel, president of the Simons Foundation. 

“This was an area where there was a lot of basic science to do, and a lot of things we didn’t understand,” he adds. “So we wanted to fund the basic science.”

In January, the Environmental Defense Fund hosted a meeting at its San Francisco headquarters to discuss the guardrails that should guide research on solar geoengineering, as first reported by Politico. EDF had already provided some support to the Solar Radiation Management Governance Initiative, a partnership with the Royal Society and other groups set up to “ensure that any geoengineering research that goes ahead—inside or outside the laboratory—is conducted in a manner that is responsible, transparent, and environmentally sound.” (It later evolved into the Degrees Initiative.)

But EDF has now moved beyond that work and is “in the planning stages of starting a research and policy initiative on [solar radiation modification],” said Lisa Dilling, associate chief scientist at the environmental nonprofit, in an email. That program will include regranting, which means raising funds from other groups or individuals and distributing them to selected recipients, and advocating for more public funding, she says. 

Outlier also provided a grant to a new nonprofit, Reflective. This organization is developing a road map to prioritize research needs and pooling philanthropic funding to accelerate work in the most urgent areas, says its founder, Dakota Gruener. 

Gruener was previously the executive director of ID2020, a nonprofit alliance that develops digital identification systems. Cornell’s MacMartin is a scientific advisor to the new nonprofit and will serve as the chair of the scientific advisory board.

Government funding is also slowly increasing. 

The US government started a solar geoengineering research program in 2019, funded through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, that currently provides about $11 million a year.

In February, the UK’s Natural Environment Research Council announced a £10.5 million, five-year research program. In addition, the UK’s Advanced Research and Invention Agency has said it’s exploring and soliciting input for a research program in climate and weather engineering.

Funding has not been allocated as yet, but the agency’s programs typically provide around £50 million.

‘When, not if’

More funding is generally welcome news for researchers who hope to learn more about the potential of solar geoengineering. Many argue that it’s crucial to study the subject because the technology may offer ways to reduce death and suffering, and prevent the loss of species and the collapse of ecosystems. Some also stress it’s crucial to learn what impact these interventions might have and how these tools could be appropriately regulated, because nations may be tempted to implement them unilaterally in the face of extreme climate crises.

It’s likely a question of “when, not if,” and we should “act and research accordingly,” says Gernot Wagner, a climate economist at Columbia Business School, who was previously the executive director of Harvard’s Solar Geoengineering Research Program. “In many ways the time has come to take solar geoengineering much more seriously.”

In 2021, a National Academies report recommended that the US government create a solar geoengineering research program, equipped with $100 million to $200 million in funding over five years.

But there are differences between coordinated government-funded research programs, which have established oversight bodies to consider the merit, ethics, and appropriate transparency of proposed research, and a number of nonprofits with different missions providing funding to the teams they choose. 

To the degree that they create oversight processes that don’t meet the same standards, it could affect the type of science that’s done, the level of public notice provided, and the pressures that researchers feel to deliver certain results, says Duncan McLaren, a climate intervention fellow at the University of California, Los Angeles.

“You’re not going to be too keen on producing something that seems contrary to what you thought the grant maker was looking for,” he says, adding later: “Poorly governed research could easily give overly optimistic answers about what [solar geoengineering] could do, and what its side effects may or may not be.”

Whatever the motivations of individual donors, Buck fears that the concentration of money coming from high tech and finance could also create optics issues, undermining faith in research and researchers and possibly slowing progress in the field.

“A lot of this is going to backfire because it’s going to appear to people as Silicon Valley tech charging in and breaking things,” she says. 

Cloud controversy

Some of the concerns about privately funded work in this area are already being tested.

By most accounts, the Alameda experiment in marine cloud brightening that Quadrature backed was an innocuous basic-science project, which would not have actually altered clouds. But the team stirred up controversy by moving ahead without wide public notice.

City officials quickly halted the experiments, and earlier this month the city council voted unanimously to shut the project down.

Alameda mayor Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft has complained that city staffers received only vague notice about the project up front. They were then inundated with calls from residents who had heard about it in the media and were concerned about the health implications, she said, according to CBS News.

In response to a question about the criticism, SilverLining’s Wanser said in an email: “We worked with the lease-holder, the USS Hornet, on the process for notifying the city of Alameda. The city staff then engaged experts to independently evaluate the health and environmental safety of the … studies, who found that they did not pose any environmental or health risks to the community.”

Wanser, who is a principal of the Marine Cloud Brightening Program, stressed they’ve also received offers of support from local residents and businesses.

“We think that the availability of data and information on the nature of the studies, and its evaluation by local officials, was valuable in helping people consider it in an informed way for themselves,” she added.

Some observers were also concerned that the research team said it selected its own six-member board to review the proposed project. That differs from a common practice with publicly funded scientific experiments, which often include a double-blind review process, in which neither the researchers nor the reviewers know each other’s names. The concern with breaking from that approach is that scientists could select outside researchers who they believe are likely to greenlight their proposals, and the reviewers may feel pressure to provide more favorable feedback than they might offer anonymously.

Wanser stressed that the team picked “distinguished researchers in the specialized field.”

“There are different approaches for different programs, and in this case, the levels of expertise and transparency were important features,” she added. “They have not received any criticism of the design of the studies themselves, which speaks to their robustness and their value.”

‘Transparent and responsible’

Solar geoengineering researchers often say that they too would prefer public funding, all things being equal. But they stress that those sources are still limited and it’s important to move the field forward in the meantime, so long as there are appropriate standards in place.

“As long as there’s clear transparency about funding sources, [and] there’s no direct influence on the research by the donors, I don’t precisely see what the problem is,” MacMartin says. 

Several nonprofits emerging or moving into this space said that they are working to create responsible oversight structures and rules.

Gruener says that Reflective won’t accept anonymous donations or contributions from people whose wealth comes mostly from fossil fuels. She adds that all donors will be disclosed, that they won’t have any say over the scientific direction of the organization or its chosen research teams, and that they can’t sit on the organization’s board. 

“We think transparency is the only way to build trust, and we’re trying to ensure that our governance structure, our processes, and the outcomes of our research are all public, understandable, and readily available,” she says.

In a statement, Outlier said it’s also in favor of more publicly supported work: “It’s essential for governments to become the leading funders and coordinators of research in these areas.” It added that it’s supporting groups working to accelerate “government leadership” on the subject, including through its grant to EDF. 

Quadrature’s De Temmerman stresses the importance of public research programs as well, noting that the nonprofit hopes to catalyze much more such funding through its support for government advocacy work. 

“We are here to push at the beginning and then at some point just let some other forms of capital actually come,” he says.

How to opt out of Meta’s AI training

MIT Technology Review’s How To series helps you get things done. 

If you post or interact with chatbots on Facebook, Instagram, Threads, or WhatsApp, Meta can use your data to train its generative AI models beginning June 26, according to its recently updated privacy policy. Even if you don’t use any of Meta’s platforms, it can still scrape data such as photos of you if someone else posts them.

Internet data scraping is one of the biggest fights in AI right now. Tech companies argue that anything on the public internet is fair game, but they are facing a barrage of lawsuits over their data practices and copyright. It will likely take years until clear rules are in place. 

In the meantime, they are running out of training data to build even bigger, more powerful models, and to Meta, your posts are a gold mine. 

If you’re uncomfortable with having Meta use your personal information and intellectual property to train its AI models in perpetuity, consider opting out. Although Meta does not guarantee it will allow this, it does say it will “review objection requests in accordance with relevant data protection laws.” 

What that means for US users

Users in the US or other countries without national data privacy laws don’t have any foolproof ways to prevent Meta from using their data to train AI, which has likely already been used for such purposes. Meta does not have an opt-out feature for people living in these places. 

A spokesperson for Meta says it does not use the content of people’s private messages to each other to train AI. However, public social media posts are seen as fair game and can be hoovered up into AI training data sets by anyone. Users who don’t want that can set their account settings to private to minimize the risk. 

The company has built in-platform tools that allow people to delete their personal information from chats with Meta AI, the spokesperson says.

How users in Europe and the UK can opt out 

Users in the European Union and the UK, which are protected by strict data protection regimes, have the right to object to their data being scraped, so they can opt out more easily. 

If you have a Facebook account:

1. Log in to your account. You can access the new privacy policy by following this link. At the very top of the page, you should see a box that says “Learn more about your right to object.” Click on that link, or here

Alternatively, you can click on your account icon at the top right-hand corner. Select “Settings and privacy” and then “Privacy center.” On the left-hand side you will see a drop-down menu labeled “How Meta uses information for generative AI models and features.” Click on that, and scroll down. Then click on “Right to object.” 

2. Fill in the form with your information. The form requires you to explain how Meta’s data processing affects you. I was successful in my request by simply stating that I wished to exercise my right under data protection law to object to my personal data being processed. You will likely have to confirm your email address. 

3. You should soon receive both an email and a notification on your Facebook account confirming if your request has been successful. I received mine a minute after submitting the request.

If you have an Instagram account: 

1. Log in to your account. Go to your profile page, and click on the three lines at the top-right corner. Click on “Settings and privacy.”

2. Scroll down to the “More info and support” section, and click “About.” Then click on “Privacy policy.” At the very top of the page, you should see a box that says “Learn more about your right to object.” Click on that link, or here

3. Repeat steps 2 and 3 as above. 

The Download: the rise of gamification, and carbon dioxide storage

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 gamification took over the world

It’s a thought that occurs to every video-game player at some point: What if the weird, hyper-focused state I enter when playing in virtual worlds could somehow be applied to the real one?

Often pondered during especially challenging or tedious tasks in meatspace (writing essays, say, or doing your taxes), it’s an eminently reasonable question to ask. Life, after all, is hard. And while video games are too, there’s something almost magical about the way they can promote sustained bouts of superhuman concentration and resolve.

For some, this phenomenon leads to an interest in flow states and immersion. For others, it’s simply a reason to play more games. For a handful of consultants, startup gurus, and game designers in the late 2000s, it became the key to unlocking our true human potential. But instead of liberating us, gamification turned out to be just another tool for coercion, distraction, and control. Read the full story.

—Bryan Gardiner

This piece is from the forthcoming print issue of MIT Technology Review, which explores the theme of Play. It’s set to go live on Wednesday June 26, so if you don’t already, subscribe now to get a copy when it lands.

Why we need to shoot carbon dioxide thousands of feet underground

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) tech has two main steps. First, carbon dioxide is filtered out of emissions at facilities like fossil-fuel power plants. Then it gets locked away, or stored.  

Wrangling pollution might seem like the important bit, and there’s often a lot of focus on what fraction of emissions a CCS system can filter out. But without storage, the whole project would be pretty useless. It’s really the combination of capture and long-term storage that helps to reduce climate impact. 

Storage is getting more attention lately, though, and there’s something of a carbon storage boom coming, as my colleague James Temple covered in his latest storyRead on to find out where we might store captured carbon pollution, and why it matters

—Casey Crownhart

This story is from The Spark, our weekly climate and energy newsletter. 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 How Microsoft is building an AI empire
Its early investment in OpenAI helped it to leapfrog its old rival Google. (WSJ $)
+ OpenAI has lobbying regulators on its mind. (FT $)
+ Microsoft’s bet is paying off: OpenAI’s revenue has doubled. (The Information $)
+ Behind Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella’s push to get AI tools in developers’ hands. (MIT Technology Review)

2 Rapid tests to target antimicrobial resistance are on the rise
Fast and easy analysis of common infections would stop doctors resorting to antibiotics. (FT $)
+ How bacteria-fighting viruses could go mainstream. (MIT Technology Review)

3 Stable Diffusion’s new release is generating horrifying bodies
Its mangled generations inspire revulsion and amusement in equal measure. (Ars Technica)
+ Text-to-image AI models can be tricked into generating disturbing images. (MIT Technology Review)

4 A hacker broke into Tile’s location tracking system
And they’re holding customer data to ransom. (404 Media)

5 Inside the lucrative black market for Silicon Valley’s stolen bicycles 🚲
One man made it his mission to unveil the theft pipeline. (Wired $) 

6 What’s going on with Apple’s Vision Pro?
Analyst estimates suggest it hasn’t sold as well as expected. (NYT $)
+ It’s changing disabled users’ lives for the better. (NY Mag $)

7 Drone mapping is protecting slums from climate disasters
Because informal settlements aren’t visible on standard internet maps. (Bloomberg $)

8 The Excel World Championship is here
Spreadsheet fans, unite! (The Verge

9 This humanoid robot can drive a car 🚗
That’s one solution to the problems posed by driverless cars. (TechCrunch)
+ Is robotics about to have its own ChatGPT moment? (MIT Technology Review)

10 America’s new cricket superstars are also tech workers 🏏
Saurabh Netravalkar, a software engineer for Oracle, is turning his hobby into a global spectacle. (WP $)

Quote of the day

“We desire more of the world than what’s available on 20cm of glass.”

—David Sax, author of the book The Revenge of Analog, tells the Guardian why some people are starting to turn their backs on smartphones.

The big story

The search for extraterrestrial life is targeting Jupiter’s icy moon Europa

February 2024

Europa, Jupiter’s fourth-largest moon, is nothing like ours. Its surface is a vast saltwater ocean, encased in a blanket of cracked ice, one that seems to occasionally break open and spew watery plumes into the moon’s thin atmosphere. 

For these reasons, Europa captivates planetary scientists. All that water and energy—and hints of elements essential for building organic molecules —point to another extraordinary possibility. Jupiter’s big, bright moon could host life. 

And they may eventually get some answers. Later this year, NASA plans to launch Europa Clipper, the largest-­ever craft designed to visit another planet. Scheduled to reach Jupiter in 2030, it will spend four years analyzing this moon to determine whether it could support life. Read the full story.

—Stephen Ornes

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.)

+ Boston’s newest sport, cliff diving, is attracting a lot of attention.
+ Why brat green has taken over the internet.
+ The annual Gloucestershire cheese-rolling race is bigger, and more perilous, than ever. 🧀
+ Relaxing summer vibes? Say no more

Why we need to shoot carbon dioxide thousands of feet underground

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 often one overlooked member in a duo. Peanut butter outshines jelly in a PB&J every time (at least in my eyes). For carbon capture and storage technology, the storage part tends to be the underappreciated portion. 

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) tech has two main steps (as you might guess from the name). First, carbon dioxide is filtered out of emissions at facilities like fossil-fuel power plants. Then it gets locked away, or stored.  

Wrangling pollution might seem like the important bit, and there’s often a lot of focus on what fraction of emissions a CCS system can filter out. But without storage, the whole project would be pretty useless. It’s really the combination of capture and long-term storage that helps to reduce climate impact. 

Storage is getting more attention lately, though, and there’s something of a carbon storage boom coming, as my colleague James Temple covered in his latest story. He wrote about what a rush of federal subsidies will mean for the CCS business in the US, and how supporting new projects could help us hit climate goals or push them further out of reach, depending on how we do it. 

The story got me thinking about the oft-forgotten second bit of CCS. Here’s where we might store captured carbon pollution, and why it matters. 

When it comes to storage, the main requirement is making sure the carbon dioxide can’t accidentally leak out and start warming up the atmosphere.

One surprising place that might fit the bill is oil fields. Instead of building wells to extract fossil fuels, companies are looking to build a new type of well where carbon dioxide that’s been pressurized until it reaches a supercritical state—in which liquid and gas phases don’t really exist—is pumped deep underground. With the right conditions (including porous rock deep down and a leak-preventing solid rock layer on top), the carbon dioxide will mostly stay put. 

Shooting carbon dioxide into the earth isn’t actually a new idea, though in the past it’s largely been used by the oil and gas industry for a very different purpose: pulling more oil out of the ground. In a process called enhanced oil recovery, carbon dioxide is injected into wells, where it frees up oil that’s otherwise tricky to extract. In the process, most of the injected carbon dioxide stays underground. 

But there’s a growing interest in sending the gas down there as an end in itself, sparked in part in the US by new tax credits in the Inflation Reduction Act. Companies can rake in $85 per ton of carbon dioxide that’s captured and permanently stored in geological formations, depending on the source of the gas and how it’s locked away. 

In his story, James took a look at one proposed project in California, where one of the state’s largest oil and gas producers has secured draft permits from federal regulators. The project would inject carbon dioxide about 6,000 feet below the surface of the earth, and the company’s filings say the project could store tens of millions of tons of carbon dioxide over the next couple of decades. 

It’s not just land-based projects that are sparking interest, though. State officials in Texas recently awarded a handful of leases for companies to potentially store carbon dioxide deep underwater in the Gulf of Mexico.

And some companies want to store carbon dioxide in products and materials that we use, like concrete. Concrete is made by mixing reactive cement with water and material like sand; if carbon dioxide is injected into a fresh concrete mix, some of it will get involved in the reactions, trapping it in place. I covered how two companies tested out this idea in a newsletter last year.

Products we use every day, from diamonds to sunglasses, can be made with captured carbon dioxide. If we assume that those products stick around for a long time and don’t decompose (how valid this assumption is depends a lot on the product), one might consider these a form of long-term storage, though these markets probably aren’t big enough to make a difference in the grand scheme of climate change. 

Ultimately, though of course we need to emit less, we’ll still need to lock carbon away if we’re going to meet our climate goals.  


Now read the rest of The Spark

Related reading

For all the details on what to expect in the coming carbon storage boom, including more on the potential benefits and hazards of CCS, read James’s full story here.

This facility in Iceland uses mineral storage deep underground to lock away carbon dioxide that’s been vacuumed out of the atmosphere. See all the photos in this story from 2022

On the side of a road stands a gogoro power station with an enel x system box on the side. Each of the four network station units holds 30 batteries.
GOGORO

Another thing

When an earthquake struck Taiwan in April, the electrical grid faced some hiccups—and an unlikely hero quickly emerged in the form of battery-swap stations for electric scooters. In response to the problem, a group of stations stopped pulling power from the grid until it could recover. 

For more on how Gogoro is using battery stations as a virtual power plant to support the grid, check out my colleague Zeyi Yang’s latest story. And if you need a catch-up, check out this explainer on what a virtual power plant is and how it works

Keeping up with climate  

New York was set to implement congestion pricing, charging cars that drove into the busiest part of Manhattan. Then the governor put that plan on hold indefinitely. It’s a move that reveals just how tightly Americans are clinging to cars, even as the future of climate action may depend on our loosening that grip. (The Atlantic)

Speaking of cars, preparations in Paris for the Olympics reveal what a future with fewer of them could look like. The city has closed over 100 streets to vehicles, jacked up parking rates for SUVs, and removed tens of thousands of parking spots. (NBC News)

An electric lawnmower could be the gateway to a whole new world. People who have electric lawn equipment or solar panels are more likely to electrify other parts of their homes, like heating and cooking. (Canary Media)

Companies are starting to look outside the battery. From massive moving blocks to compressed air in caverns, energy storage systems are getting weirder as the push to reduce prices intensifies. (Heatmap)

Rivian announced updated versions of its R1T and R1S vehicles. The changes reveal the company’s potential path toward surviving in a difficult climate for EV makers. (Tech Crunch)

First responders in the scorching southwestern US are resorting to giant ice cocoons to help people suffering from extreme heat. (New York Times)

→ Here’s how much heat your body can take. (MIT Technology Review)

One oil producer is getting closer to making what it calls “net-zero oil” by pumping captured carbon dioxide down into wells to get more oil out. The implications for the climate and the future of fossil fuels in our economy are … complicated. (Cipher)

How gamification took over the world

It’s a thought that occurs to every video-game player at some point: What if the weird, hyper-focused state I enter when playing in virtual worlds could somehow be applied to the real one? 

Often pondered during especially challenging or tedious tasks in meatspace (writing essays, say, or doing your taxes), it’s an eminently reasonable question to ask. Life, after all, is hard. And while video games are too, there’s something almost magical about the way they can promote sustained bouts of superhuman concentration and resolve.

For some, this phenomenon leads to an interest in flow states and immersion. For others, it’s simply a reason to play more games. For a handful of consultants, startup gurus, and game designers in the late 2000s, it became the key to unlocking our true human potential.

In her 2010 TED Talk, “Gaming Can Make a Better World,” the game designer Jane McGonigal called this engaged state “blissful productivity.” “There’s a reason why the average World of Warcraft gamer plays for 22 hours a week,” she said. “It’s because we know when we’re playing a game that we’re actually happier working hard than we are relaxing or hanging out. We know that we are optimized as human beings to do hard and meaningful work. And gamers are willing to work hard all the time.”

McGonigal’s basic pitch was this: By making the real world more like a video game, we could harness the blissful productivity of millions of people and direct it at some of humanity’s thorniest problems—things like poverty, obesity, and climate change. The exact details of how to accomplish this were a bit vague (play more games?), but her objective was clear: “My goal for the next decade is to try to make it as easy to save the world in real life as it is to save the world in online games.”

While the word “gamification” never came up during her talk, by that time anyone following the big-ideas circuit (TED, South by Southwest, DICE, etc.) or using the new Foursquare app would have been familiar with the basic idea. Broadly defined as the application of game design elements and principles to non-game activities—think points, levels, missions, badges, leaderboards, reinforcement loops, and so on—gamification was already being hawked as a revolutionary new tool for transforming education, work, health and fitness, and countless other parts of life. 

Instead of liberating us, gamification turned out to be just another tool for coercion, distraction, and control.

Adding “world-saving” to the list of potential benefits was perhaps inevitable, given the prevalence of that theme in video-game storylines. But it also spoke to gamification’s foundational premise: the idea that reality is somehow broken. According to McGonigal and other gamification boosters, the real world is insufficiently engaging and motivating, and too often it fails to make us happy. Gamification promises to remedy this design flawby engineering a new reality, one that transforms the dull, difficult, and depressing parts of life into something fun and inspiring. Studying for exams, doing household chores, flossing, exercising, learning a new language—there was no limit to the tasks that could be turned into games, making everything IRL better.

Today, we live in an undeniably gamified world. We stand up and move around to close colorful rings and earn achievement badges on our smartwatches; we meditate and sleep to recharge our body batteries; we plant virtual trees to be more productive; we chase “likes” and “karma” on social media sites and try to swipe our way toward social connection. And yet for all the crude gamelike elements that have been grafted onto our lives, the more hopeful and collaborative world that gamification promised more than a decade ago seems as far away as ever. Instead of liberating us from drudgery and maximizing our potential, gamification turned out to be just another tool for coercion, distraction, and control. 

Con game

This was not an unforeseeable outcome. From the start, a small but vocal group of journalists and game designers warned against the fairy-tale thinking and facile view of video games that they saw in the concept of gamification. Adrian Hon, author of You’ve Been Played, a recent book that chronicles its dangers, was one of them. 

“As someone who was building so-called ‘serious games’ at the time the concept was taking off, I knew that a lot of the claims being made around the possibility of games to transform people’s behaviors and change the world were completely overblown,” he says. 

Hon isn’t some knee-jerk polemicist. A trained neuroscientist who switched to a career in game design and development, he’s the co-creator of Zombies, Run!—one of the most popular gamified fitness apps in the world. While he still believes games can benefit and enrich aspects of our nongaming lives, Hon says a one-size-fits-all approach is bound to fail. For this reason, he’s firmly against both the superficial layering of generic points, leaderboards, and missions atop everyday activities and the more coercive forms of gamification that have invaded the workplace.

three snakes in concentric circles
SELMAN DESIGN

Ironically, it’s these broad and varied uses that make criticizing the practice so difficult. As Hon notes in his book, gamification has always been a fast-moving target, varying dramatically in scale, scope, and technology over the years. As the concept has evolved, so too have its applications, whether you think of the gambling mechanics that now encourage users of dating apps to keep swiping, the “quests” that compel exhausted Uber drivers to complete just a few more trips, or the utopian ambition of using gamification to save the world.

In the same way that AI’s lack of a fixed definition today makes it easy to dismiss any one critique for not addressing some other potential definition of it, so too do gamification’s varied interpretations. “I remember giving talks critical of gamification at gamification conferences, and people would come up to me afterwards and be like, ‘Yeah, bad gamification is bad, right? But we’re doing good gamification,’” says Hon. (They weren’t.) 

For some critics, the very idea of “good gamification” was anathema. Their main gripe with the term and practice was, and remains, that it has little to nothing to do with actual games.

“A game is about play and disruption and creativity and ambiguity and surprise,” wrote the late Jeff Watson, a game designer, writer, and educator who taught at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. Gamification is about the opposite—the known, the badgeable, the quantifiable. “It’s about ‘checking in,’ being tracked … [and] becoming more regimented. It’s a surveillance and discipline system—a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Beware its lure.”

Another game designer, Margaret Robertson, has argued that gamification should really be called “pointsification,” writing: “What we’re currently terming gamification is in fact the process of taking the thing that is least essential to games and representing it as the core of the experience. Points and badges have no closer a relationship to games than they do to websites and fitness apps and loyalty cards.”

For the author and game designer Ian Bogost, the entire concept amounted to a marketing gimmick. In a now-famous essay published in the Atlantic in 2011, he likened gamification to the moral philosopher Harry Frankfurt’s definition of bullshit—that is, a strategy intended to persuade or coerce without regard for actual truth. 

“The idea of learning or borrowing lessons from game design and applying them to other areas was never the issue for me,” Bogost told me. “Rather, it was not doing that—acknowledging that there’s something mysterious, powerful, and compelling about games, but rather than doing the hard work, doing no work at all and absconding with the spirit of the form.” 

Gaming the system

So how did a misleading term for a misunderstood process that’s probably just bullshit come to infiltrate virtually every part of our lives? There’s no one simple answer. But gamification’s meteoric rise starts to make a lot more sense when you look at the period that gave birth to the idea. 

The late 2000s and early 2010s were, as many have noted, a kind of high-water mark for techno-­optimism. For people both inside the tech industry and out, there was a sense that humanity had finally wrapped its arms around a difficult set of problems, and that technology was going to help us squeeze out some solutions. The Arab Spring bloomed in 2011 with the help of platforms like Facebook and Twitter, money was more or less free, and “____ can save the world” articles were legion (with ____ being everything from “eating bugs” to “design thinking”).

This was also the era that produced the 10,000-hours rule of success, the long tail, the four-hour workweek, the wisdom of crowds, nudge theory, and a number of other highly simplistic (or, often, flat-out wrong) theories about the way humans, the internet, and the world work. 

“All of a sudden you had VC money and all sorts of important, high-net-worth people showing up at game developer conferences.”

Ian Bogost, author and game designer

Adding video games to this heady stew of optimism gave the game industry something it had long sought but never achieved: legitimacy. Even with games ascendant in popular culture—and on track to eclipse both the film and music industries in terms of revenue—they still were largely seen as a frivolous, productivity-­squandering, violence-encouraging form of entertainment. Seemingly overnight, gamification changed all that. 

“There was definitely this black-sheep mentality in the game development community—the sense that what we had been doing for decades was just a joke to people,” says Bogost. “All of a sudden you had VC money and all sorts of important, high-net-worth people showing up at game developer conferences, and it was like, ‘Finally someone’s noticing. They realize that we have something to offer.’”

This wasn’t just flattering; it was intoxicating. Gamification took a derided pursuit and recast it as a force for positive change, a way to make the real world better. While  enthusiastic calls to “build a game layer on top of reality” may sound dystopian to many of us today, the sentiment didn’t necessarily have the same ominous undertones at the end of the aughts. 

Combine the cultural recasting of games with an array of cheaper and faster technologies—GPS, ubiquitous and reliable mobile internet, powerful smartphones, Web 2.0 tools and services—and you arguably had all the ingredients needed for gamification’s rise. In a very real sense, reality in 2010 was ready to be gamified. Or to put it a slightly different way: Gamification was an idea perfectly suited for its moment. 

Gaming behavior

Fine, you might be asking at this point, but does it work? Surely, companies like Apple, Uber, Strava, Microsoft, Garmin, and others wouldn’t bother gamifying their products and services if there were no evidence of the strategy’s efficacy. The answer to the question, unfortunately, is super annoying: Define work.

Because gamification is so pervasive and varied, it’s hard to address its effectiveness in any direct or comprehensive way. But one can confidently say this: Gamification did not save the world. Climate change still exists. As do obesity, poverty, and war. Much of generic gamification’s power supposedly resides in its ability to nudge or steer us toward, or away from, certain behaviors using competition (challenges and leaderboards), rewards (points and achievement badges), and other sources of positive and negative feedback. 

Gamification is, and has always been, a way to induce specific behaviors in people using virtual carrots and sticks.

On that front, the results are mixed. Nudge theory lost much of its shine with academics in 2022 after a meta-analysis of previous studies concluded that, after correcting for publication bias, there wasn’t much evidence it worked to change behavior at all. Still, there are a lot of ways to nudge and a lot of behaviors to modify. The fact remains that plenty of people claim to be highly motivated to close their rings, earn their sleep crowns, or hit or exceed some increasingly ridiculous number of steps on their Fitbits (see humorist David Sedaris). 

Sebastian Deterding, a leading researcher in the field, argues that gamification can work, but its successes tend to be really hard to replicate. Not only do academics not know what works, when, and how, according to Deterding, but “we mostly have just-so stories without data or empirical testing.” 

8bit carrot dangling from a stick
SELMAN DESIGN

In truth, gamification acolytes were always pulling from an old playbook—one that dates back to the early 20th century. Then, behaviorists like John Watson and B.F. Skinner saw human behaviors (a category that for Skinner included thoughts, actions, feelings, and emotions) not as the products of internal mental states or cognitive processes but, rather, as the result of external forces—forces that could conveniently be manipulated. 

If Skinner’s theory of operant conditioning, which doled out rewards to positively reinforce certain behaviors, sounds a lot like Amazon’s “Fulfillment Center Games,” which dole out rewards to compel workers to work harder, faster, and longer—well, that’s not a coincidence. Gamification is, and has always been, a way to induce specific behaviors in people using virtual carrots and sticks. 

Sometimes this may work; other times not. But ultimately, as Hon points out, the question of efficacy may be beside the point. “There is no before or after to compare against if your life is always being gamified,” he writes. “There isn’t even a static form of gamification that can be measured, since the design of coercive gamification is always changing, a moving target that only goes toward greater and more granular intrusion.” 

The game of life

Like any other art form, video games offer a staggering array of possibilities. They can educate, entertain, foster social connection, inspire, and encourage us to see the world in different ways. Some of the best ones manage to do all of this at once.

Yet for many of us, there’s the sense today that we’re stuck playing an exhausting game that we didn’t opt into. This one assumes that our behaviors can be changed with shiny digital baubles, constant artificial competition, and meaningless prizes. Even more insulting, the game acts as if it exists for our benefit—promising to make us fitter, happier, and more productive—when in truth it’s really serving the commercial and business interests of its makers. 

Metaphors can be an imperfect but necessary way to make sense of the world. Today, it’s not uncommon to hear talk of leveling up, having a God Mode mindset, gaining XP, and turning life’s difficulty settings up (or down). But the metaphor that resonates most for me—the one that seems to neatly capture our current predicament—is that of the NPC, or non-player character.  

NPCs are the “Sisyphean machines” of video games, programmed to follow a defined script forever and never question or deviate. They’re background players in someone else’s story, typically tasked with furthering a specific plotline or performing some manual labor. To call someone an NPC in real life is to accuse them of just going through the motions, not thinking for themselves, not being able to make their own decisions. This, for me, is gamification’s real end result. It’s acquiescence pretending to be empowerment. It strips away the very thing that makes games unique—a sense of agency—and then tries to mask that with crude stand-ins for accomplishment.

So what can we do? Given the reach and pervasiveness of gamification, critiquing it at this point can feel a little pointless, like railing against capitalism. And yet its own failed promises may point the way to a possible respite. If gamifying the world has turned our lives into a bad version of a video game, perhaps this is the perfect moment to reacquaint ourselves with why actual video games are great in the first place. Maybe, to borrow an idea from McGonigal, we should all start playing better games. 

Bryan Gardiner is a writer based in Oakland, California. 

The Download: Apple’s AI plans, and a carbon storage boom

This is today’s edition of The Download, our weekday newsletter that provides a daily dose of what’s going on in the world of technology.

Apple is promising personalized AI in a private cloud. Here’s how that will work.

At its Worldwide Developer Conference on Monday, Apple for the first time unveiled its vision for supercharging its product lineup with artificial intelligence. The key feature, which will run across virtually all of its product line, is Apple Intelligence, a suite of AI-based capabilities that promises to deliver personalized AI services while keeping sensitive data secure. It represents Apple’s largest leap forward in using our private data to help AI do tasks for us. 

To make the case it can do this without sacrificing privacy, the company says it has built a new way to handle sensitive data in the cloud. The pitch offers an implicit contrast with the likes of Alphabet, Amazon, or Meta, which collect and store enormous amounts of personal data. So how will it work? Read our story to find out.

—James O’Donnell

The world’s on the verge of a carbon storage boom

A growing number of carbon storage projects are on the way across California, the US, and the world—a trend driven by growing government subsidies, looming national climate targets, and declining revenue and growth in traditional oil and gas activities.

Proponents hope it’s the start of a sort of oil boom in reverse, kick-starting a process through which the world will eventually bury more greenhouse gas than it adds to the atmosphere. 

However, opponents insist these efforts will prolong the life of fossil-fuel plants, allow air and water pollution to continue, and create new health and environmental risks that could disproportionately harm disadvantaged communities surrounding the projects. Read the full story.

—James Temple

How Gogoro’s swap-and-go scooter batteries can strengthen the grid

If you’ve ever been to Taiwan, you’ve likely run into Gogoro’s green-and-white battery-swap stations. With 12,500 stations around the island, it’s built a sweeping network that allows users of electric scooters to drop off an empty battery and get a fully charged one immediately. 

Back in April, Gogoro’s network reacted to emergency blackouts after a 7.4 magnitude earthquake. Zeyi Yang, our China reporter, spoke to Horace Luke, Gogoro’s cofounder and CEO, to understand how it helped to boost the grid’s resilience in the face of disaster. Read the full story.

This story is from China Report, our weekly newsletter covering tech in China. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Tuesday.

The must-reads

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

1 Elon Musk has dropped his lawsuit against OpenAI
Just hours ahead of a scheduled hearing in San Francisco. (CNBC)
+ Musk had argued that OpenAI had breached its commitment to investors. (WP $)+ The billionaire is locked in an ongoing dispute with Sam Altman. (FT $)

2 A far-right TikTok star is set on governing France
He uses the platform to normalize his party’s toxic policies for younger voters. (FT $)

3 Adderall is still in short supply across the US
Americans are hiring workers in the Philippines to source scarce prescriptions. (404 Media)

4 This startup 3D-printed an entire rocket engine
Within just 72 hours. (IEEE Spectrum)

5 Ozempic seems to have numerous health benefits beyond weight loss
But we’re not really sure why. (The Atlantic $)
+ Weight-loss injections have taken over the internet. But what does this mean for people IRL? (MIT Technology Review)

6 Meet the Spanish women taking on Wikipedia’s gender gap
They’re dedicated to publishing pages focused on unsung female heroes. (The Guardian)

7 The secret to a safe space flight? Software engineers
They’re essential to keeping missions on an even keel. (WP $)

8 Temu is threatening to dethrone eBay
The Chinese retail site is now attracting more repeat shoppers. (Bloomberg $)
+ This obscure shopping app is now America’s most downloaded. (MIT Technology Review)

9 How media companies became hooked on games
Blame Wordle. (NYT $)

10 The internet isn’t actually more toxic than it used to be
It just feels that way. (Bloomberg $)
+ How to fix the internet. (MIT Technology Review)

Quote of the day

“It’s the nail in the coffin for future creators launching a blog.”

—Amber Venz Box, co-founder of social shopping app LTK, warns would-be bloggers to reconsider now that Google has launched its AI Overviews summary feature, she tells The Information.

The big story

The world is moving closer to a new cold war fought with authoritarian tech

September 2022

Despite President Biden’s assurances that the US is not seeking a new cold war, one is brewing between the world’s autocracies and democracies—and technology is fueling it.

Authoritarian states are following China’s lead and are trending toward more digital rights abuses by increasing the mass digital surveillance of citizens, censorship, and controls on individual expression.

And while democracies also use massive amounts of surveillance technology, it’s the tech trade relationships between authoritarian countries that’s enabling the rise of digitally enabled social control. Read the full story.

—Tate Ryan-Mosley

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.)

+ This tiny driftfish is a master of disguise.
+ Why the USA’s national forests are every bit as amazing as its national parks.
+ Follow these tips and you’ll be producing barista-level coffee in no time at all.
+ Feeling burnt out? Try playing these fun, short video games.

How Gogoro’s swap-and-go scooter batteries can strengthen the grid

This story first appeared in China Report, MIT Technology Review’s newsletter about technology in China. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Tuesday.

If you’ve ever been to Taiwan, you’ve likely run into Gogoro’s green-and-white battery-swap stations in one city or another. With 12,500 stations around the island, Gogoro has built a sweeping network that allows users of electric scooters to drop off an empty battery and get a fully charged one immediately. Gogoro is also found in China, India, and a few other countries.
 
This morning, I published a story on how Gogoro’s battery-swap network in Taiwan reacted to emergency blackouts after the 7.4 magnitude earthquake there this April. I talked to Horace Luke, Gogoro’s cofounder and CEO, to understand how in three seconds, over 500 Gogoro battery-swap locations stopped drawing electricity from the grid, helping stabilize the power frequency.
 
Gogoro’s battery stations acted like something called a virtual power plant (VPP), a new idea that’s becoming adopted around the world as a way to stitch renewable energy into the grid. The system draws energy from distributed sources like battery storage or small rooftop solar panels and coordinates those sources to increase supply when electricity demand peaks. As a result, it reduces the reliance on traditional coal or gas power plants.
 
There’s actually a natural synergy between technologies like battery swapping and virtual power plants (VPP). Not only can battery-swap stations coordinate charging times with the needs of the grid, but the idle batteries sitting in Gogoro’s stations can also become an energy reserve in times of emergency, potentially feeding energy back to the grid. If you want to learn more about how this system works, you can read the full story here.

Two graphs showing how Gogoro's battery-swap charging stopped consuming electricity when the power frequency dropped below normal levels in April.
Statistics shared by Gogoro and Enel X show how its battery-swap stations automatically stopped charging batteries on April 3 and April 15, when there were power outages caused by the earthquake.
GOGORO

When I talked to Gogoro’s Luke for this story, I asked him: “At what point in the company’s history did you come up with the idea to use these batteries for VPP networks?”
 
To my surprise, Luke answered: “Day one.”
 
As he explains, Gogoro was actually not founded to be an electric-scooter company; it was founded to be a “smart energy” company. 

“We started with the thesis of how smart energy, through portability and connectivity, can enable many use case scenarios,” Luke says. “Transportation happens to be accounting for something like 27% or 28% of your energy use in your daily life.” And that’s why the company first designed the batteries for two-wheeled vehicles, a popular transportation option in Taiwan and across Asia.
 
Having succeeded in promoting its scooters and the battery-swap charging method in Taiwan, it is now able to explore other possible uses of these modular, portable batteries—more than 1.4 million of which are in circulation at this point. 
 
“Think of smart, portable, connected energy like a propane tank,” Luke says. Depending on their size,  propane tanks can be used to cook in the wild or to heat a patio. If lithium batteries can be modular and portable in a similar way, they can also serve many different purposes.

Using them in VPP programs that protect the grid from blackouts is one; beyond that, in Taipei City, Gogoro has worked with the local government to build energy backup stations for traffic lights, using the same batteries to keep the lights running in future blackouts. The batteries can also be used as backup power storage for critical facilities like hospitals. When a blackout happens, battery storage can release electricity much faster than diesel generators, keeping the impact at a minimum.

None of this would be possible without the recent advances that have made batteries more powerful and efficient. And it was clear from our conversation that Luke is obsessed with batteries—the long way the technology has come, and their potential to address a lot more energy use cases in the future.

“I still remember getting my first flashlight when I was a little kid. That button just turned the little lightbulb on and off. And that was what was amazing about batteries at the time,” says Luke. “Never did people think that AA batteries were going to power calculators or the Walkman. The guy that invented the alkaline battery never thought that. We’ll continue to take that creativity and apply it to portable energy, and that’s what inspires us every day.”

What other purposes do you think portable lithium batteries like the ones made by Gogoro could have? Let me know your ideas by writing to zeyi@technologyreview.com.


Now read the rest of China Report

Catch up with China

1. Far-right parties won big in the latest European Parliament elections, which could push the EU further toward a trade war with China. (Nikkei Asia $)
 
2. Volvo has started moving some of its manufacturing capacity from China to Belgium in order to avoid the European Union tariffs on Chinese imports. (The Times $)
 
3. Some major crypto exchanges have withdrawn from applying for business licenses in Hong Kong after the city government clarified that it doesn’t welcome businesses that offer crypto services to mainland China. (South China Morning Post $)
 
4. NewsBreak, the most downloaded news app in the US, does most of its engineering work in China. The app has also been found to use AI tools to make up local news that never happened. (Reuters $)
 
5. The Australian government ordered a China-linked fund to reduce its investment in an Australian rare-earth-mining company. (A/symmetric)
 
6. China just installed the largest offshore wind turbine in the world. It’s designed to generate enough power in a year for around 36,000 households. (Electrek)
 
7. Four college instructors from Iowa were stabbed on a visit to northern China. While the motive and identity of the assailant are still unknown, the incident has been quickly censored on the Chinese internet. (BBC)

Lost in translation

Qian Zhimin, a Chinese businesswoman who fled the country in 2017 after raising billions of dollars from Chinese investors in the name of bitcoin investments, was arrested in London and is facing a trial in October this year, according to the Chinese publication Caijing. In the early 2010s, when the cryptocurrency first became known in China, Qian’s company lured over 128,000 retail investors, predominantly elderly people, to buy fraudulent investment products that bet on the price of bitcoins and gadgets like smart bracelets that allegedly could also mine bitcoins. 
 
After the scam was exposed, Qian escaped to the UK with a fake passport. She controls over 61,000 bitcoins, now worth nearly $4 billion, and has been trying to liquidate them by buying properties in London. But those attempts caught the attention of anti-money-laundering authorities in the UK. With her trial date approaching, the victims in China are hoping to work with the UK jurisdiction to recover their assets.

One more thing

I know one day we will see self-driving vehicles racing each other and cutting each other off, but I didn’t expect it to happen so soon with two package delivery robots in China. Maybe it’s just their look, but it seems cuter than when human drivers do the same thing?