Artificial Intelligence

The Download: medical ethics, and AI watermarks


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.

Who gets to decide who receives experimental medical treatments?

There has been a trend toward lowering the bar for new medicines, and it is becoming easier for people to access treatments that might not help them—and could even harm them. Anecdotes appear to be overpowering evidence in decisions on drug approval. As a result, we’re ending up with some drugs that don’t work. 

We urgently need to question how these decisions are made. Who should have access to experimental therapies? And who should get to decide? Such questions are especially pressing considering how quickly biotechnology is advancing. We’re not just improving on existing classes of treatments—we’re creating entirely new ones.

For many, especially those with severe diseases, an experimental treatment may be better than nothing. But if companies struggle to get funding following a bad outcome, it can delay progress in an entire research field. Read the full story.

—Jessica Hamzelou

This story is from the next upcoming issue of our print magazine, which is all about ethics. If you don’t subscribe already, sign up to receive a copy when it publishes.

Why watermarking AI-generated content won’t guarantee trust online

—Claire Leibowicz is the Head of the AI and Media Integrity Program at the Partnership on AI and a doctoral candidate at Oxford studying AI governance and synthetic media.

In late May, the Pentagon appeared to be on fire. 

A few miles away, White House aides and reporters scrambled to figure out whether a viral online image of the exploding building was in fact real. It wasn’t. It was AI-generated. Yet it had real impact: it not only caused panic and confusion but led to a dip in financial markets. 

Whether to promote election integrity, protect evidence, reduce misinformation, or preserve historical records, it’s increasingly clear that we ought to know when content has been manipulated or generated with AI. 

Disclosure methods like watermarks are a good start. However, they’re complicated to put into practice, and they aren’t a quick fix. Here are six initial questions that could help us evaluate their usefulness.

Inside MIT’s nuclear reactor laboratory

Our climate and energy reporter Casey Crownhart got a chance to tour MIT’s nuclear reactor last week. It was built in the 1950s, and its purpose has shifted over the decades. At various points, it’s been used to study everything from nuclear physics to medical therapies, alongside its consistent use for teaching the next generation of nuclear scientists.

Now, it’s poised to take on a new purpose: as a testbed for the growing number of startups seeking to use molten salt as an alternative to water for cooling nuclear reactors. Read the full story

Casey’s story is from The Spark, her weekly newsletter explaining the tech that could combat the climate crisis. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Wednesday.

The must-reads

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

1 Ukraine is unleashing regular drone attacks on Moscow
Some seem to have been intercepted—but not all. (NYT $)
Mass-market military drones have changed the way wars are fought. (MIT Technology Review)

2 Biden signed a measure limiting US investment in Chinese tech
The order targets advanced semiconductors and quantum computers. (WSJ $)
China’s internet giants are rushing to stockpile billions of dollars worth of chips ahead of potential restrictions. (FT $)
+ The US-China chip war is still escalating. (MIT Technology Review)

3 Inside the race to rescue the world’s DNA 🧬
More than 40,000 species are categorized as threatened. The true figure will be much higher. New Yorker $)

4 People are using AI to give voices to dead children
Hard to see any benefit to this whatsoever, and it deeply hurts bereaved parents. (WP $)
+ This company is struggling to stop its deepfake tech being used for misinformation. (Wired $)
+ Digital clones of the people we love could forever change how we grieve. (MIT Technology Review)

5 Twitter is being forced to hand over Trump’s data
After being held in contempt of court and fined $350,000. (Politico)
+ Trump’s tweets are coming back to bite him. (The Atlantic $)

6 Tons of work is being plowed into hydrogen planes ✈
It’s early days, but if technical challenges can be overcome, they could be a promising part of decarbonizing aviation.  (Ars Technica)
Hydrogen-powered planes take off with a startup’s test flight. (MIT Technology Review)

7 There’s a decent chance you’re oversharing if you’re on Venmo
Everyone can see your contacts list, for example. (NYT $)

8 How to make Slack work for you
Being driven mad by non-stop notifications? You need to read this. (WP $)
Slack is about to undergo its biggest redesign yet. (The Verge)

9 Apple Maps is better than it used to be
But, I mean… Google’s already won. (The Guardian)

10 Heat is Enemy Number One for your smartphone’s battery
Something to bear in mind before sitting and scrolling in the blazing sunshine. (WSJ $)

Quote of the day

“I don’t think the U.S. Treasury or the [Biden] administration planned it this way, but this is spectacularly bad timing for China.”

—Eswar Prasad, a professor in international trade at Cornell University, tells CNBC that the latest limits on US investment in China come as the country is already grappling with low growth, deflation and other economic problems. 

The big story

What does breaking up Big Tech really mean?

Big Tech concept

ANDREA DAQUINO

June 2021

For Apple, Amazon, Facebook, and Alphabet, covid-19 was an economic blessing. Even as the pandemic sent the global economy into a deep recession and cratered most companies’ profits, these companies—often referred to as the “Big Four” of technology—not only survived but thrived.

Yet at the same time, they have come under unprecedented attack from politicians and government regulators in the US and Europe, in the form of new lawsuits, proposed bills, and regulations. There’s no denying that the pressure is building to rein in Big Tech’s power. But what would that entail? Read the full story.

—James Surowiecki

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.)

+ If you struggle with sleep too, check out these tips. TL;DR? Stop fighting.
+ Eating these gyozas at Gyozanomise Okei has gone straight onto my bucket list. 
+ Still can’t get over this headline
+ Fashions come and go, but cottage cheese will always be a nifty ingredient. ($)