Sunday, June 16, 2024

The Download: rapid DNA analysis for disasters, and supercharged AI assistants

Computer scienceThe Download: rapid DNA analysis for disasters, and supercharged AI assistants


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.

This grim but revolutionary DNA technology is changing how we respond to mass disasters

Last August, a wildfire tore through the Hawaiian island of Maui. The list of missing residents climbed into the hundreds, as friends and families desperately searched for their missing loved ones. But while some were rewarded with tearful reunions, others weren’t so lucky.
Over the past several years, as fires and other climate-change-fueled disasters have become more common and more cataclysmic, the way their aftermath is processed and their victims identified has been transformed.

The grim work following a disaster remains—surveying rubble and ash, distinguishing a piece of plastic from a tiny fragment of bone—but landing a positive identification can now take just a fraction of the time it once did, which may in turn bring families some semblance of peace swifter than ever before. Read the full story.

—Erika Hayasaki

OpenAI and Google are launching supercharged AI assistants. Here’s how you can try them out.

This week, Google and OpenAI both announced they’ve built supercharged AI assistants: tools that can converse with you in real time and recover when you interrupt them, analyze your surroundings via live video, and translate conversations on the fly. 

Soon you’ll be able to explore for yourself to gauge whether you’ll turn to these tools in your daily routine as much as their makers hope, or whether they’re more like a sci-fi party trick that eventually loses its charm. Here’s what you should know about how to access these new tools, what you might use them for, and how much it will cost. 

—James O’Donnell

Last summer was the hottest in 2,000 years. Here’s how we know.

The summer of 2023 in the Northern Hemisphere was the hottest in over 2,000 years, according to a new study released this week.

There weren’t exactly thermometers around in the year 1, so scientists have to get creative when it comes to comparing our climate today with that of centuries, or even millennia, ago. 

Casey Crownhart, our climate reporter, has dug into how they figured it out. Read the full story.

This story is from The Spark, our weekly climate and energy newsletter. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Wednesday.

A wave of retractions is shaking physics

Recent highly publicized scandals have gotten the physics community worried about its reputation—and its future. Over the last five years, several claims of major breakthroughs in quantum computing and superconducting research, published in prestigious journals, have disintegrated as other researchers found they could not reproduce the blockbuster results. 

Last week, around 50 physicists, scientific journal editors, and emissaries from the National Science Foundation gathered at the University of Pittsburgh to discuss the best way forward. Read the full story to learn more about what they discussed.

—Sophia Chen

The must-reads

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

1 Google has buried search results under new AI features  
Want to access links? Good luck finding them! (404 Media)
+ Unfortunately, it’s a sign of what’s to come. (Wired $)
+ Do you trust Google to do the Googling for you? (The Atlantic $)
+ Why you shouldn’t trust AI search engines. (MIT Technology Review)

2 Cruise has settled with the pedestrian injured by one of its cars
It’s awarded her between $8 million and $12 million. (WP $)
+ The company is slowly resuming its test drives in Arizona. (Bloomberg $)
+ What’s next for robotaxis in 2024. (MIT Technology Review)

3 Microsoft is asking AI staff in China to consider relocating
Tensions between the countries are rising, and Microsoft worries its workers could end up caught in the cross-fire. (WSJ $)
+ They’ve been given the option to relocate to the US, Ireland, or other locations. (Reuters)
+ Three takeaways about the state of Chinese tech in the US. (MIT Technology Review)

4 Car rental firm Hertz is offloading its Tesla fleet
But people who snapped up the bargain cars are already running into problems. (NY Mag $)

5 We’re edging closer towards a quantum internet
But first we need to invent an entirely new device. (New Scientist $)
+ What’s next for quantum computing. (MIT Technology Review)

6 Making computer chips has never been more important
And countries and businesses are vying to be top dog. (Bloomberg $)
+ What’s next in chips. (MIT Technology Review)

7 Your smartphone lasts a lot longer than it used to
Keeping them in good working order still takes a little work, though. (NYT $)

8 Psychedelics could help lessen chronic pain
If you can get hold of them. (Vox)
+ VR is as good as psychedelics at helping people reach transcendence. (MIT Technology Review)

9 Scientists are plotting how to protect the Earth from dangerous asteroids
Smashing them into tiny pieces is certainly one solution. (Undark Magazine)
+ Earth is probably safe from a killer asteroid for 1,000 years. (MIT Technology Review)

10 Elon Musk still wants to fight Mark Zuckerberg 
The grudge match of the century is still rumbling on. (Insider $)

Quote of the day

“This road map leads to a dead end.” 

—Evan Greer, director of advocacy group Fight for the Future, is far from impressed with US Senators’ ‘road map’ for new AI regulations, they tell the Washington Post.

The big story

The two-year fight to stop Amazon from selling face recognition to the police 

June 2020

In the summer of 2018, nearly 70 civil rights and research organizations wrote a letter to Jeff Bezos demanding that Amazon stop providing Rekognition, its face recognition technology, to governments. 

Despite the mounting pressure, Amazon continued pushing Rekognition as a tool for monitoring “people of interest”. But two years later, the company shocked civil rights activists and researchers when it announced that it would place a one-year moratorium on police use of the software. Read the full story.

—Karen Hao

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 old school basketball animation is beyond cool. 🏀
+ Your search for the perfect summer read is over: all of these sound fantastic.
+ Analyzing the color theory in Disney’s Aladdin? Why not!
+ Never buy a bad cantaloupe again with these essential tips.



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