The Download: the year’s most-read climate stories, and Amazon’s chatbot

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

A look back at the year’s most-read climate stories

2023 has been a big year for climate news. Wildfires, floods and heatwaves displaced and killed thousands of people across the world as extreme weather events worsened, and scientists have concluded the past 12 months were the hottest since records began.

But it’s not exclusively bad news. Our climate experts James Temple and Casey Crownhart have been covering the most promising technologies that could make a difference. Take a look back over some of MIT Technology Review’s most-read climate stories of the year—and make sure you keep up-to-date with all the latest news by subscribing to The Spark, our weekly climate and energy tech newsletter. 

+ This geothermal startup showed its wells can be used like a giant underground battery. If Fervo Energy’s field results work at commercial scale, it could become cheaper and easier to green the grid. Read the full story.

+ Helion Energy, a startup backed by Sam Altman, says its first fusion plant is five years away. Experts aren’t so sure.

+ Check out our handy explainer of how heat pumps work—and how they could save you money in the process.

+ Spraying iron particles above the ocean could help to fight climate change. But scientists say far more research still needs to be done. Read the full story.

+ Yes, we have enough materials to power the world with renewable energy. We won’t run out of key ingredients for climate action, but mining comes with social and environmental ramifications. Read the full story.

+ Nonprofits and academic groups are working to help climate-vulnerable regions take part in the high-stakes global debate over solar geoengineering.

+ We were promised smaller nuclear reactors. Where are they? Small modular reactors could be quicker and cheaper to build. Now, they’ve reached a major milestone. Read the full story.

The must-reads

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

1 Amazon has launched a new AI chatbot called Q
Not to be confused with OpenAI’s rumored Q* AI model. (NYT $)
+ It’s designed to help code and manage cloud software for businesses. (Wired $)

2 Elon Musk boosted the dangerous pizzagate conspiracy theory
It’s the latest in a string of long-debunked theories he’s given oxygen to on X. (WP $)
+ It’s no wonder the platform can’t keep its advertisers. (Motherboard)

3 Apple is winding down its Goldman Sachs credit card partnership
But it’s unclear whether this spells the end of Apple’s foray into finance or not. (WSJ $)

4 There’s no evidence the internet is harming your mental health
Contrary to popular opinion. (FT $)
+ Your kid’s phone probably isn’t causing depression. (MIT Technology Review)

5 Amazon is disrupting rural mail services across America
Postal workers have been instructed to prioritize the retail giant’s package deliveries, and customers aren’t happy about it. (WP $)

6 High-profile women in AI don’t want to join OpenAI’s all-male board 
The board reflects the wider problems within the AI industry. (Wired $)
+ A prominent female tech influencer’s accounts are run by a man. (404 Media)
+ Why can’t tech fix its gender problem? (MIT Technology Review)

7 America loves hydrogen 
It’s an attractive green energy—but only if it can be made efficiently. (The Atlantic $)
+ When hydrogen will help climate change—and when it won’t. (MIT Technology Review)

8 US soldiers are sharing their horrific barracks on a new app  
Hots&Cots is full of images of dirty lodgings and substandard living conditions. (Motherboard)
+ The future of military tech is heavily AI-based. (Vox)

9 The world’s first AI singer is no Taylor Swift
Her first release is deeply basic, to put it kindly. (Insider $)

10 Those Instagrammable offices aren’t fooling anyone
Workers don’t want to go back, and photogenic spaces won’t change that. (NYT $)

Quote of the day

“The list of abuses is endless…[X] has become a vast global sewer.”

—Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, explains why she’s leaving X after 14 years on the platform, Insider reports.

The big story

How robotic honeybees and hives could help the species fight back

October 2022

Something was wrong, but Thomas Schmickl couldn’t put his finger on it. It was 2007, and the Austrian biologist was spending part of the year at East Tennessee State University. During his daily walks, he realized that insects seemed conspicuously absent.

Schmickl, who now leads the Artificial Life Lab at the University of Graz in Austria, wasn’t wrong. Insect populations are indeed declining or changing around the world.

Robotic bees, he believes, could help both the real thing and their surrounding nature, a concept he calls ecosystem hacking. Read the full story.

—Elizabeth Preston

We can still have nice things

A place for comfort, fun and distraction in these weird times. (Got any ideas? Drop me a line or tweet ’em at me.)

+ Now the nights are drawing in, what could be better than snuggling up with a great book?
+ How to make a fictional brand a success in the real world.
+ The world’s toughest language to learn? That’ll be Navajo.
+ BRB, making a tiny bookshelf filled with all the books I’ve read this year.
+ Will you be tucking into a Christmas pudding this year?

The Download: COP28 controversy and the future of families

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 the UN climate talks are a moment of reckoning for oil and gas companies

The United Arab Emirates is one of the world’s largest oil producers. It’s also the site of this year’s UN COP28 climate summit, which kicks off later this week in Dubai. 

It’s a controversial host, but the truth is that there’s massive potential for oil and gas companies to help address climate change, both by cleaning up their operations and by investing their considerable wealth and expertise into new technologies.

The problem is that these companies also have a vested interest in preserving the status quo. If they want to be part of a net-zero future, something will need to change—and soon. Read the full story.

—Casey Crownhart

How reproductive technology can reverse population decline

Birth rates have been plummeting in wealthy countries, well below the “replacement” rate. Even in China, a dramatic downturn in the number of babies has officials scrambling, as its population growth turns negative.

So, what’s behind the baby bust and can new reproductive technology reverse the trend? MIT Technology Review is hosting a subscriber-only Roundtables discussion on how innovations from the lab could affect the future of families at 11am ET this morning, featuring Antonio Regalado, our biotechnology editor, and entrepreneur Martín Varsavsky, founder of fertility clinic Prelude Fertility. Don’t miss out—make sure you register now.

The must-reads

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

1 Instagram recommends sexual content to adults that follow kids 

Test accounts were served risqué posts and disturbing videos. (WSJ $)
+ Meta was aware it had millions of underage users, a complaint alleges. (NYT $)

2  The first transatlantic flight powered by alternative fuels has taken off
Waste fats and corn leftovers are fueling the flight between London and New York. (BBC)
+ Here are the key phrases you need to know to understand climate change. (Vox)
+ Everything you need to know about the wild world of alternative jet fuels. (MIT Technology Review)

3 The United Arab Emirates planned to strike oil deals during COP28 
Which doesn’t seem terribly climate-friendly. (BBC)
+ A UAE AI firm is believed to have covertly worked with Chinese companies. (NYT $)
+ China’s own carbon emissions are on course to peak soon. (Economist $)

4 Starlink can only operate in Gaza with Israel’s approval
That’s according to Elon Musk, who is visiting Israel currently. (FT $) 

5 Foxconn is struggling to build iPhones in India
So the manufacturer started shipping over skilled workers from China. (Rest of World)

6 The world’s banana supply is in serious trouble 🍌
A deadly fungus is sweeping through crops—and there’s no known cure. (Bloomberg $)

7 Digital car keys don’t always work the way they’re supposed to
Which is a major problem if you can’t guarantee your vehicle is secure. (The Verge)

8 It’s not just you—dating is tough
But these tips can help to make it a less harrowing experience. (WP $)
+ Here’s how the net’s newest matchmakers help you find love. (MIT Technology Review)

9 Big dogs don’t live that long 🐶
But biotech company Loyal is hoping to change that with an experimental drug. (Wired $)
+ These scientists are working to extend the life span of pet dogs—and their owners. (MIT Technology Review)

10 The quiet bliss of living in an internet-free home
And how you can achieve it, too. (The Atlantic $)
+ How to log off. (MIT Technology Review)

Quote of the day

“He ignored me royally, which is his privilege. And he lost almost all the money that he had invested.”

—Christine Lagarde, president of the European Central Bank, explains to students in Frankfurt how one of her sons lost his money on crypto, despite her repeated warnings, Reuters reports.

The big story

Are you ready to be a techno-optimist again?

February 2021

Back in 2001, MIT Technology Review picked 10 emerging areas of innovation that we promised would “change the world.” It was a time of peak techno-optimism.

We eschewed robotic exoskeletons and human cloning, as well as molecular nanomanufacturing and the dreaded gray goo of the nano doomsayers. Instead we focused on fundamental advances in information technology, materials, and biotech. Most of the technologies are still familiar: data mining, natural-language processing, microfluidics, brain-machine interfaces, biometrics, and robot design.

So how well did these technologies fulfill the dreams we had for them two decades ago? Here are a few lessons from the 2001 list. Read the full story.

—David Rotman

We can still have nice things

A place for comfort, fun and distraction in these weird times. (Got any ideas? Drop me a line or tweet ’em at me.)

+ Sign me up for the cosy life, please.
+ Push yourself out of your comfort zone with a pair of statement specs, a la Elton John.
+ How to improve your attention span over time—it’s not as tough as it seems.
+ There’s a delicate balance to be struck between too much and not enough protein.
+ What can sand drawings teach us about math? Quite a lot, actually.

Why the UN climate talks are a moment of reckoning for oil and gas companies

The United Arab Emirates is one of the world’s largest oil producers. It’s also the site of this year’s UN COP28 climate summit, which kicks off later this week in Dubai. 

It’s certainly a controversial location choice, but the truth is that there’s massive potential for oil and gas companies to help address climate change, both by cleaning up their operations and by investing their considerable wealth into new technologies and lending their expertise to growing fields. The problem is, of course, that these companies also have the power to slow progress on cutting emissions, and a vested interest in preserving the status quo.

The oil and gas industry employs nearly 12 million workers around the world and generates $3.5 trillion in revenue every year. It’s a massive part of the global economy, and also a massive source of greenhouse-gas emissions, which are generated when fossil fuels are burned.

If the world is going to reach net-zero greenhouse-gas emissions, demand for oil and gas could fall by 75% below today’s levels by 2050, according to projections in a new report from the International Energy Agency.

That means if they want to be part of a net-zero future, something will need to change for oil companies, and soon. “The oil and gas industry is facing a moment of truth at COP28 in Dubai,” said Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency, in a press release.  “Oil and gas producers around the world need to make profound decisions about their future place in the global energy sector.” 

Clean up after yourself

One way for companies to be part of the solution? Invest in cleaning up their own operations. 

There’s a profound need to cut the use of fossil fuels in the long term. However, we’re stuck with at least some of these fuels, especially for now.

Even in a scenario where the world reaches net-zero emissions in 2050 and new projects are limited, some oil and gas will be needed to provide fuel for sectors that are harder to clean up, like heavy industry. The good news is there are ways to make the fossil fuels we do use cleaner. 

The energy sector as a whole is responsible for roughly three-quarters of the world’s emissions. And extracting, processing, and transporting fossil fuels makes up about 15% of that number. This could be a whole lot lower, though. Companies can employ existing technologies to clean up methane leaks, use more electricity to power facilities, and add carbon capture technologies to power plants to help cut their emissions, according to the IEA report. 

(For the record, while some carbon removal is probably going to be essential to reaching climate goals, continuing with business as usual and just sucking carbon out of the atmosphere is not a feasible solution. The electricity required would be more than the entire global demand today. So take any pledges around carbon removal with a grain of salt.)

In order to be on track for net-zero emissions, the oil and gas industry will need to cut emissions from production and processing about 60% by 2030. That’s a huge jump, and one that will cost about $600 billion between now and the end of the decade. 

Slimming down production emissions won’t be enough to reach net-zero, though, so companies will also need to find ways to pivot and invest money and expertise into new technologies while ramping down fossil-fuel production.

Reaching the international climate goals set at the UN talks in Paris in 2015 will mean significant declines in demand for oil and gas. That means it’ll be necessary to cut investment into new projects and even shut down some existing ones. If oil and gas companies want to be part of an energy transition, or even to still exist a few decades from now, they need to rethink their focus and start investing in some new technologies. 

Today, oil and gas companies are responsible for just 1% of investment into clean energy, and the majority of that comes from just four companies. Yet the industry could be a massive player in growing fields like geothermal energy, offshore wind, and low-emissions hydrogen. 

Some of these fields have significant potential overlap with oil and gas. For example, technology developed for oil and gas extraction could be crucial in next-generation geothermal projects, as evidenced by startups like Fervo Energy that employ techniques similar to those used in the oil and gas industry.

Bigger stakes

But there’s a big difference between talking the talk and walking the walk when it comes to cutting emissions from fossil fuels. Take the head of COP28, Sultan Ahmed Al-Jaber, who in some recent media interviews comes off as a pragmatic realist on the state of climate change and the role of fossil fuels. 

“A phasedown of fossil fuels is inevitable, it is essential,” he told a reporter from Time in an interview published earlier this month. Sounds like someone on board with change, right? 

Yet the company that Al-Jaber helms is planning a huge expansion, to the tune of $150 billion over the next few years. Some of that will go toward renewables, but the company is also expanding its production capacity for crude oil. 

And according to new reporting from the BBC and the Centre for Climate Reporting, the UAE planned to use this year’s climate talks to make oil deals. Documents show talking points to be used in meetings with over a dozen countries that suggest plans to develop new fossil-fuel projects. One document suggested that the UAE’s national oil company and China were looking to jointly evaluate opportunities for liquefied-natural-gas products in countries including Mozambique and Australia. 

That revelation is exactly why a critical eye remains an absolute necessity when it comes to fossil-fuel companies’ promises around climate change. Yes, it’s true that oil and gas companies do have the potential to be part of the solution. And it’s probably going to be crucial for petrostates and the industry to participate in climate talks as we pursue goals that seem increasingly ambitious in a heating world. 

At the same time, however, there’s no guarantee that everyone is really on board with working toward a scenario where we can avoid the worst dangers of climate change. 

As the talks unfold over the next few weeks in Dubai, we’ll be watching for more indications of the UAE’s plans for fossil-fuel expansion and waiting to see how negotiations unfold around financing to help poorer nations deal with the worsening effects of climate change.

The Download: unpacking OpenAI Q* hype, and X’s financial woes

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.

Unpacking the hype around OpenAI’s rumored new Q* model

Ever since last week’s dramatic events at OpenAI, the rumor mill has been in overdrive about why the company’s board tried to oust CEO Sam Altman.

While we still don’t know all the details, there have been reports that researchers at OpenAI had made a “breakthrough” in AI that alarmed staff members. The claim is that they came up with a new way to make powerful AI systems and had created a new model, called Q* (pronounced Q star), that was able to perform grade-school level math.

Some at OpenAI reportedly believe this could be a breakthrough in the company’s quest to build artificial general intelligence, a much-hyped concept of an AI system that is smarter than humans.

So what’s actually going on? And why is grade-school math such a big deal? Our senior AI reporter Melissa Heikkilä called some experts to find out how big of a deal any such breakthrough would really be. Here’s what they had to say.

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

The must-reads

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

1 X is hemorrhaging millions in advertising revenue 
Internal documents show the company is in an even worse position than previously thought. (NYT $)
+ Misinformation ‘super-spreaders’ on X are reportedly eligible for payouts from its ad revenue sharing program. (The Verge)
It’s not just you: tech billionaires really are becoming more unbearable. (The Guardian)
2 The brakes seem to now be off on AI development 📈
With Sam Altman’s return to OpenAI, the ‘accelerationists’ have come out on top. (WSJ $)
Inside the mind of OpenAI’s chief scientist, Ilya Sutskever. (MIT Technology Review)
3 How Norway got heat pumps into two-thirds of its households
Mostly by making it the cheaper choice for people. (The Guardian)
Everything you need to know about the wild world of heat pumps. (MIT Technology Review)
4 How your social media feeds shape how you see the Israel-Gaza war
Masses of content are being pumped out, rarely with any nuance or historical understanding. (BBC)
China tried to keep kids off social media. Now the elderly are hooked. (Wired $)
5 US regulators have surprisingly little scope to enforce Amazon’s safety rules
As demonstrated by the measly $7,000 fine issued by Indiana after a worker was killed by warehouse machinery. (WP $)
6 How Ukraine is using advanced technologies on the battlefield 
The Pentagon is using the conflict as a testbed for some of the 800-odd AI-based projects it has in progress. (AP $)
Why business is booming for military AI startups. (MIT Technology Review)
7 Shein is trying to overhaul its image, with limited success
Its products seem too cheap to be ethically sourced—and it doesn’t take kindly to people pointing that out. (The Verge)
+ Why my bittersweet relationship with Shein had to end. (MIT Technology Review)
8 Every app can be a dating app now 💑
As people turn their backs on the traditional apps, they’re finding love in places like Yelp, Duolingo and Strava. (WSJ $)
+ Job sharing apps are also becoming more popular. (BBC)
9 People can’t get enough of work livestreams on TikTok
It’s mostly about the weirdly hypnotic quality of watching people doing tasks like manicures or frying eggs. (The Atlantic $)
10 A handy guide to time travel in the movies
Whether you prioritize scientific accuracy or entertainment value, this chart has got you covered. (Ars Technica)

Quote of the day

“It’s in the AI industry’s interest to make people think that only the big players can do this—but it’s not true.”

—Ed Newton-Rex, who just resigned as VP of audio at Stability.AI, says the idea that generative AI models can only be built by scraping artists’ work is a myth in an interview with The Next Web

The big story

The YouTube baker fighting back against deadly “craft hacks”

rainbow glue coming out of a hotglue gun onto a toothbrush, surrounded by caution tape

September 2022

Ann Reardon is probably the last person you’d expect to be banned from YouTube. A former Australian youth worker and a mother of three, she’s been teaching millions of subscribers how to bake since 2011. 

However, more recently, Reardon has been using her platform to warn people about dangerous new “craft hacks” that are sweeping YouTube, such as poaching eggs in a microwave, bleaching strawberries, and using a Coke can and a flame to pop popcorn.

Reardon was banned because she got caught up in YouTube’s messy moderation policies. In doing so, she exposed a failing in the system: How can a warning about harmful hacks be deemed dangerous when the hack videos themselves are not? Read the full story.

—Amelia Tait

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.)

+ London’s future skyline is looking increasingly like New York’s.
+ Whovians will never agree on who has the honor of being the best Doctor.
+ How to get into mixing music like a pro.
+ This Japanese sea worm has a neat trick up its sleeve—splitting itself in two in the quest for love.
+ Did you know there’s a mysterious tunnel under Seoul?

Unpacking the hype around OpenAI’s rumored new Q* model

This story is from The Algorithm, our weekly newsletter on AI. To get stories like this in your inbox first, sign up here.

Ever since last week’s dramatic events at OpenAI, the rumor mill has been in overdrive about why the company’s chief scientific officer, Ilya Sutskever, and its board decided to oust CEO Sam Altman.

While we still don’t know all the details, there have been reports that researchers at OpenAI had made a “breakthrough” in AI that had alarmed staff members. Reuters and The Information both report that researchers had come up with a new way to make powerful AI systems and had created a new model, called Q* (pronounced Q star), that was able to perform grade-school-level math. According to the people who spoke to Reuters, some at OpenAI believe this could be a milestone in the company’s quest to build artificial general intelligence, a much-hyped concept referring to an AI system that is smarter than humans. The company declined to comment on Q*. 

Social media is full of speculation and excessive hype, so I called some experts to find out how big a deal any breakthrough in math and AI would really be.

Researchers have for years tried to get AI models to solve math problems. Language models like ChatGPT and GPT-4 can do some math, but not very well or reliably. We currently don’t have the algorithms or even the right architectures to be able to solve math problems reliably using AI, says Wenda Li, an AI lecturer at the University of Edinburgh. Deep learning and transformers (a kind of neural network), which is what language models use, are excellent at recognizing patterns, but that alone is likely not enough, Li adds. 

Math is a benchmark for reasoning, Li says. A machine that is able to reason about mathematics, could, in theory, be able to learn to do other tasks that build on existing information, such as writing computer code or drawing conclusions from a news article. Math is a particularly hard challenge because it requires AI models to have the capacity to reason and to really understand what they are dealing with. 

A generative AI system that could reliably do math would need to have a really firm grasp on concrete definitions of particular concepts that can get very abstract. A lot of math problems also require some level of planning over multiple steps, says Katie Collins, a PhD researcher at the University of Cambridge, who specializes in math and AI. Indeed, Yann LeCun, chief AI scientist at Meta, posted on X and LinkedIn over the weekend that he thinks Q* is likely to be “OpenAI attempts at planning.”

People who worry about whether AI poses an existential risk to humans, one of OpenAI’s founding concerns, fear that such capabilities might lead to rogue AI. Safety concerns might arise if such AI systems are allowed to set their own goals and start to interface with a real physical or digital world in some ways, says Collins. 

But while math capability might take us a step closer to more powerful AI systems, solving these sorts of math problems doesn’t signal the birth of a superintelligence. 

“I don’t think it immediately gets us to AGI or scary situations,” says Collins.  It’s also very important to underline what kind of math problems AI is solving, she adds.

“Solving elementary-school math problems is very, very different from pushing the boundaries of mathematics at the level of something a Fields medalist can do,” says Collins, referring to a top prize in mathematics.  

Machine-learning research has focused on solving elementary-school problems, but state-of-the-art AI systems haven’t fully cracked this challenge yet. Some AI models fail on really simple math problems, but then they can excel at really hard problems, Collins says. OpenAI has, for example, developed dedicated tools that can solve challenging problems posed in competitions for top math students in high school, but these systems outperform humans only occasionally.  

Nevertheless, building an AI system that can solve math equations is a cool development, if that is indeed what Q* can do. A deeper understanding of mathematics could open up applications to help scientific research and engineering, for example. The ability to generate mathematical responses could help us develop better personalized tutoring, or help mathematicians do algebra faster or solve more complicated problems. 

This is also not the first time a new model has sparked AGI hype. Just last year, tech folks were saying the same things about Google DeepMind’s Gato, a “generalist” AI model that can play Atari video games, caption images, chat, and stack blocks with a real robot arm. Back then, some AI researchers claimed that DeepMind was “on the verge” of AGI because of Gato’s ability to do so many different things pretty well. Same hype machine, different AI lab. 

And while it might be great PR, these hype cycles do more harm than good for the entire field by distracting people from the real, tangible problems around AI. Rumors about a powerful new AI model might also be a massive own goal for the regulation-averse tech sector. The EU, for example, is very close to finalizing its sweeping AI Act. One of the biggest fights right now among lawmakers is whether to give tech companies more power to regulate cutting-edge AI models on their own. 

OpenAI’s board was designed as the company’s internal kill switch and governance mechanism to prevent the launch of harmful technologies. The past week’s boardroom drama has shown that the bottom line will always prevail at these companies. It will also make it harder to make a case for why they should be trusted with self-regulation. Lawmakers, take note.

The Download: OpenAI’s wild year, and tech’s cult of personality

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

Inside OpenAI’s wild year

Few companies can say they’ve had more of a rollercoaster year than OpenAI. At the beginning of 2023, the world’s hottest AI startup was riding high on the success of its ChatGPT chatbot. Now, it’s dusting itself off from an attempted coup which saw Sam Altman ousted and reinstated as the company’s CEO within a few short days.

Our AI experts have been following OpenAI’s every move throughout the year, often with exclusive access to the people building the revolutionary products and systems. Check out just some of the highlights from the past year—and what we think is coming next.

+ ChatGPT is everywhere. Here’s where it came from. While ChatGPT may have looked like an overnight sensation, it was actually built on decades of research.

+ Back in April, our senior AI editor Will Douglas Heaven had exclusive conversations with four OpenAI insiders to learn more about how they built the viral chatbot.

+ One of the year’s hottest topics was how ChatGPT was already changing education—from cutting corners for science homework, to writing entire theses. But some teachers believe that generative AI could actually make learning better. (Bonus: check out high school senior Rohan Mehta’s robust defense of ChatGPT in the classroom)

+ OpenAI’s hunger for data is coming back to bite it. The company’s AI services may be breaking data protection laws, and there is no resolution in sight. Read the full story.

+ Ilya Sutskever, OpenAI’s chief scientist, was one of the key executives to turn against and try to overthrow CEO Sam Altman in the recent OpenAI revolt. When Will Douglas Heaven met him earlier this year, Sutskever told him about his new priority—figuring out how to stop an artificial superintelligence from going rogue. Read the full story.

+ What’s next for OpenAI. Read our timeline of how the recent drama unfolded, and what it means for the AI industry at large. Read the full story.

The must-reads

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

1 X and OpenAI are cults of personality
While both companies claim to be reshaping the world, they each really answer to one man. (WP $)
+ We shouldn’t miss the chance to hold OpenAI accountable. (FT $)
+ Wall Street still sees an opportunity to make money, though. (Motherboard)
+ AI is a real capitalist’s game these days. (NYT $)

2 Pro-China foreign influencers are Beijing’s latest propaganda tool
Vloggers based in the US are doing the Chinese government’s job for them. (FT $)
+ China’s young workers are embracing the digital nomad dream. (Reuters)

3 No, AI isn’t human
It’s important to keep reminding ourselves that no matter how convincingly its systems mimic us, they aren’t rational beings. (Vox)
+ We’re living in the age of uncensored AI. (The Atlantic $)
+ AI just beat a human test for creativity. What does that even mean? (MIT Technology Review)

4 Australia doesn’t exist
That’s according to Microsoft’s Bing search results, fueled by conspiracy theories. (The Guardian)

5 India’s powerful influencers could sway its elections 
Marketing firms are racing to hire the social media personalities with the biggest followings. (Wired $)

6 Keep an eye on these retail bots this Black Friday
Some are a lot more helpful than others. (WSJ $)

7 Crypto pig butchering schemes are a billion-dollar industry 
But we still know next to nothing about the criminals orchestrating them. (Reuters)
+ Crypto’s biggest beasts are falling, one by one. (NY Mag $)
+ The involuntary criminals behind pig-butchering scams. (MIT Technology Review)

8 Social media these days is seriously depressing
Negative news doesn’t just affect us—it changes society, too. (Wired $)
+ It’s not just you—Zoom meetings really are exhausting. (IEEE Spectrum)
+ How to log off. (MIT Technology Review)

9 Your messy bedroom’s days are numbered
This laundry-grasping robot is ready to pick up the slack—and stinky socks. (New Scientist $)

10 It’s time to read Napoleon’s sprawling Wikipedia page
Because Ridley Scott, his latest biographer, certainly won’t have. (Slate $)
+ The new biopic is a surprising lol-fest. (The Atlantic $)

Quote of the day

“When Sam didn’t have a home, Microsoft gave him one without hesitation — and when the whole company didn’t have a home, Microsoft gave them one.”

—Barry Briggs, a former Microsoft executive, tells the Financial Times how Satya Nadella’s savvy handling of the OpenAI drama is likely to further cement the relationship between the two companies.

The big story

California’s coming offshore wind boom faces big engineering hurdles

December 2022

The state of California has an ambitious goal: building 25 gigawatts of offshore wind by 2045. That’s equivalent to nearly a third of the state’s total generating capacity today, or enough to power 25 million homes.

But the plans are facing a daunting geological challenge: the continental shelf drops steeply just a few miles off the California coast. They also face enormous engineering and regulatory obstacles. Read the full story.

—James Temple

We can still have nice things

A place for comfort, fun and distraction in these weird times. (Got any ideas? Drop me a line or tweet ’em at me.)

+ I wish a tiny orchestra jogged after me playing the Rocky theme every time I go running.
+ What I wouldn’t give for a Mrs Doubtfire documentary.
+ Add some dramatic flair to your day with these suspense accents.
+ Take a relaxing vacation—from the comfort of your own home.
+ Here’s some smart ways to use up those Thanksgiving leftovers.

The Download: how to talk about climate tech, and Sam Altman’s past

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.

Your guide to talking about climate tech over Thanksgiving

Ah, the holidays. Time for good food, quality moments with family, and hard questions about climate change … or is that just us?

Our climate reporter Casey Crownhart has been in the middle of plenty of heated conversations around the dinner table. And although you might be tempted to sneak away or change the subject, it might be worth sticking around and helping people to cut through the confusing things they’ve heard on TV, or the internet, or from their friends.

If you decide to do that, we’ve got you covered. Let’s dig into a few questions about climate change, and especially climate technology, that might come up over the course of the holidays. Read the full story.

This story is from The Spark, our weekly newsletter giving you the inside track on all things energy and climate change. 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 Sam Altman’s past hints at why OpenAI’s board tried to fire him
The very qualities some admire deeply rankle others. (WP $)
Who is in and who is out on OpenAI’s board. (NYT $)
Behind the scenes of the OpenAI showdown. (WSJ $)
Who won? The money men. (NYT $)
Some OpenAI customers have been considering switching to rival companies. (CNBC)
But the development of AI is now controlled by a tiny cadre of firms. (NBC)
You can now voice chat with ChatGPT. (Engadget)

2 Binance users have withdrawn at least $1 billion in the last 24 hours
With the CEO pleading guilty to various criminal charges, can you really blame them? (CNBC)
One of the perks Binance offered VIP customers was a heads-up if they were being investigated by law enforcement. (CNBC)
But does all this drama mean crypto might be about to become… boring? (Wired $)
What’s next for crypto. (MIT Technology Review)

3 Gazans are desperately trying to stay online
Even before the siege, internet connectivity was poor. Now the situation is dire. (Vice)

4 Digital hate has a long, dark history in India 
And we can expect things to get much worse with an election looming early next year. (Wired $)

5 AI-generated photos are proliferating on stock image sites
It’s harder than ever before to tell fact from fiction. (WP $)
Text-to-image AI models can be tricked into generating disturbing images. (MIT Technology Review)

6 A judge ruled that Elon Musk ignored Tesla Autopilot’s fatal flaws
Between this and the mess at Cruise, it’s a pretty bad week for the autonomous vehicle sector. (Ars Technica)
Cruise claims it’s likely to relaunch soon in Texas or Arizona. (Axios)
A race for autopilot dominance is giving China the edge in autonomous driving. (MIT Technology Review)

7 TikTokers are posting videos of strangers gossiping about people
While, uh, potentially harming everyone involved in the process. (The Guardian

8 We’re getting better at using tech to smell stuff 👃
But ‘e-noses’ are complex to calibrate, and extremely expensive. (BBC)
New research aims to bring odors into virtual worlds. (MIT Technology Review)

9 Just go ahead and use your smartphone this Thanksgiving 
Sure, you don’t want to be glued to it, but it might be a handy piece of distraction. (WSJ $)

10 Paris Hilton’s company joined a long list of advertisers abandoning X
It’s becoming an ‘X-odus’ (sorry.) (CNN)

Quote of the day

“You could parachute him into an island full of cannibals and come back in 5 years and he’d be the king.”

—Paul Graham on his fellow Y Combinator co-founder Sam Altman in a blog post from 2008. 

The big story

The FBI accused him of spying for China. It ruined his life.

" "

June 2021

In April 2018, Anming Hu, a Chinese-Canadian associate professor at the University of Tennessee, received an unexpected visit from the FBI. The agents wanted to know whether he’d been involved in a Chinese government “talent program,” offering overseas researchers incentives to bring their work back to Chinese universities.

Not too long ago, American universities encouraged their academics to build ties with Chinese institutions, but the US government is now suspicious of these programs, seeing them as a spy recruitment tool. Despite Hu’s denial he was involved in such programs, a little less than two years later, they showed up again—this time to arrest him. Read the full story.

—Karen Hao & Eileen Guo

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.)

+ These hip horses are rockin’ all over the world 🐴 
+ Having a baby and need to settle on a name that works in two languages? MixedName is here to help.
+ Aww, the very shy Attenborough’s long-beaked echidna has been caught on camera for the first time.
+ What’s more appropriate for Thanksgiving than an espresso martini? Nothing, that’s what.
+ Eli Roth’s Thanksgiving slasher movie is a box office hit for a reason.

Your guide to talking about climate tech over the holidays

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

Ah, the holidays. Time for good food, quality moments with family, and hard questions about climate change … or is that last one just something that happens to me?

I’m a climate reporter, so at parties I’m often peppered with questions about my job, and more broadly about climate change and climate technology. Sometimes these questions can spark a heated conversation, and I have to admit, I often change the subject or sneak away for a cookie. But all these conversations have shown me that a lot of people have heard confusing things about climate change on cable news or the internet or from their friend in book club, and they want to know more. 

With Thanksgiving and other big holidays coming up, you might find yourself in a similar position. So grab some green bean casserole (made with canned green beans, of course) and let’s dig into a few questions about climate technology that might come up. 

Touchy Climate Topic #1: I’ve heard EVs are worse for the environment than regular cars—the power has to come from somewhere, after all. 

In almost every case today, battery-powered vehicles produce fewer emissions than those with internal-combustion engines. The exact size of those differences does depend on where you are in the world, what is powering the electrical grid, and what sort of vehicle you’re driving in the first place. 

Regional differences can be significant, as catalogued in a 2021 study from the International Council on Clean Transportation. In the US and Europe, an electric car will cut emissions by between 60% and 70% relative to a gas-powered one. In places like China and India, where the grid is powered by a higher fraction of fossil fuels like coal, the savings are lower—20% to 35% in India and 35% to 45% in China. 

Vehicle size matters here too. If you really stack the deck, it’s true that some vehicles with batteries in them can wind up being worse for the planet than some vehicles with combustion engines. Take, for instance, the Hummer EV, a monstrosity that is responsible for 341 grams of carbon dioxide per mile driven. That’s more than a Toyota Corolla running on gasoline (269 grams), according to a 2022 analysis by Quartz research.

One crucial point to remember is that there’s a clear path for EVs to keep getting even better in the future. Batteries are getting more efficient. Recycling efforts are underway (more on this later). And grids around the world are seeing more power coming from low-carbon sources like wind, solar, hydro, and nuclear. That all adds up to EVs that will continue to get cleaner over time. 

Touchy Climate Topic #2: What about all that mining for the materials that make clean tech? Isn’t that going to destroy the planet? 

This one is tough, and there’s a lot of complexity when it comes to all the stuff (yes, that’s the technical term) that we need to address climate change. There are very real environmental and human rights issues around mining of all sorts. 

We’ll need to mine a lot in order to build all the technology required to address climate change: about 43 million metric tons of minerals by 2040 in order to be on track for net-zero goals, according to the International Energy Agency.

The volume of mining is even higher if you take into account that some minerals are present in pretty low concentrations. Take copper, for example—a common material used for everything from transmission lines to EV batteries. Getting one ton of copper can require moving over 500 tons of rock, since sites mined today tend to have concentrations of copper below 1%. 

However, even if you take into account all that waste rock, the energy transition is likely going to involve less mining than the fossil-fuel economy does today. The details will depend on how much recycling we can do, as well as how technologies evolve. If you want more details, I’d highly recommend this stellar analysis from Hannah Ritchie for a comparison.

Any mining can be harmful for the environment and for people living near mines. So it’s still worth paying careful attention to how these projects are progressing, and how we can lighten the burden of new technologies. But climate technology isn’t going to create a brand-new level of mining. 

Touchy Climate Topic # 3: I heard they’re stacking wind turbine blades, solar panels, and EV batteries in landfills. Isn’t the waste from all this “clean” tech going to be a big problem? 

Manufacturers are racing to get more clean energy technologies built and running, which means that in a few decades many will be reaching the end of their useful lives, and we’ll need to figure out what to do with them.

Take solar panels, for example. In 2050, we could see as much as 160 million metric tons of cumulative waste from solar panels. Sounds like a lot—and it is—but there’s a bigger problem. By then we’ll have generated a total of about 1.8 billion metric tons of e-waste, and plastic waste will top 12 billion metric tons. (For other comparisons, check out this Inside Climate News story, and the original article those numbers come from in Nature Physics.)

Overall, waste from climate tech is likely to be a facet of a much more substantial problem. Even so, there are still plenty of good reasons not to just throw old technology into the landfill. Many of the materials needed to make these items are expensive and could be reused to alleviate the need for more mining. 

The good news is, widespread efforts are underway to recycle solar panels, lithium-ion batteries, and even wind turbine blades. So yes, there’s a waste problem looming, but there’s plenty of opportunity to address that now and in the future. 

In the end, if you’re going to talk about climate tech at your holiday meal, remember that some people are more interested in fighting than in having a conversation, so it’s okay to just change the subject sometimes! If you’re looking for something else to talk about, I’d suggest you bring up the fact that crabs have evolved independently so many times there’s a word for the process. (It’s called carcinization.)

Enjoy your conversations about crabs and/or climate tech, and have some mashed potatoes for me!

Related reading

For more on EVs, and specifically the topic of hybrids, check out this story from last year. And for my somewhat conflicted defense of huge EVs, give this one a read.

On mining, I’d recommend this interview my colleague James Temple did with a Department of Energy official on the importance of critical minerals for clean energy. I’ll also point you to this newsletter I wrote earlier this year busting three myths about mining for clean energy. 

And if you’re curious to read about recycling, here are recent stories I’ve written about recycling wind turbine blades, solar panels, and batteries

Another thing

The power grid is getting more complicated, but AI might be able to help. AI could make the grid faster and more resilient in a range of ways, from allowing operators to make faster decisions to making EVs part of the solution. Check out the latest from my colleague June Kim for more!

Keeping up with climate  

New York has purchased 30,000 heat pumps for public housing units. The appliances could help save energy, cut costs, and address climate change, and these and other trials will be key in finding units that work for renters, a common barrier for the technology. (The Verge)

In related news, the US Department of Energy just announced $169 million in federal funding for domestic heat pump manufacturing. (Wired)

→ This is how heat pumps work. (MIT Technology Review)

A $100 billion promise from nearly 15 years ago is still having effects on climate negotiations, including the upcoming UN climate talks. (Grist)

How to get more people into EVs? Pay them to turn in their old gas-guzzlers. New programs in Colorado, Vermont, and California are testing out the approach. (Bloomberg)

Pumping water up and down hills can be a cheap and effective way to store energy. But there’s a growing question about where the water for new storage projects will come from. (Inside Climate News)

Electricity supplies are changing around the world, and these charts reveal how. I loved the world map showing where fossil fuels are declining (the US, most of Europe, Japan) and where they’re still growing. (New York Times)

→ Here’s which countries are most responsible for climate change. (MIT Technology Review)

Eat Just, a maker of vegan eggs and lab-grown meat, is in a tricky financial spot. The company has faced lawsuits and difficulties paying its vendors on time, according to a new investigation. (Wired

The country of Portugal produced more than enough renewable electricity to serve all its customers for six straight days earlier this fall. (Canary Media)