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The Download April 19, 2022: Neo-colonial AI, and aging clocks

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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.

South Africa’s private surveillance machine is fueling a digital apartheid

Johannesburg, the sprawling megacity once home to Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, is now birthing a uniquely South African surveillance model. In the last five years, the city has become host to a centralized, coordinated, entirely privatized mass surveillance operation. Vumacam, the company building the nationwide CCTV network, already has over 6,600 cameras and counting, more than 5,000 of which are concentrated in Johannesburg. The video footage it takes feeds into security rooms around the country, which then use all manner of AI tools like license plate recognition to track population movement and trace individuals. These tools have been enthusiastically adopted by the local security industry, grappling with the pressures of a high-crime environment.

Civil rights activists worry the new surveillance is fueling a digital apartheid and unraveling people’s democratic liberties, but a growing chorus of experts say the stakes are even higher. They argue that the impact of artificial intelligence is repeating the patterns of colonial history, and here in South Africa, where colonial legacies abound, the unfettered deployment of AI surveillance offers just one case study in how a technology that promised to bring societies into the future is threatening to send them back to the past. Read the full story.

—Karen Hao and Heidi Swart

This is the first part of our series on AI colonialism, digging into how the technology is impoverishing the communities and countries that don’t have a say in its development. Parts 2—4 are coming later in the week, and you can read Karen Hao’s introductory essay here.

How we can fix AI’s inequality problem

The economy is being transformed by digital technologies, especially in artificial intelligence, that are rapidly changing how we live and work. But this transformation poses a troubling puzzle: these technologies haven’t done much to grow the economy, and income inequality is worsening. Productivity growth, which economists consider essential to improving living standards, has largely been sluggish since at least the mid-2000s in many countries.

Why are these technologies failing to produce more economic growth? Why aren’t they fueling more widespread prosperity? To find an answer, some leading economists and policy experts are looking more closely at how we invent and deploy AI and automation—and identifying ways we can make better choices. Read the full story.

—David Rotman

Aging clocks aim to predict how long you’ll live

Age is much more than the number of birthdays you’ve clocked. Stress, sleep, and diet all influence how our organs cope with the wear and tear of everyday life, which could make you age faster or slower than people born on the same day. That means your biological age could be quite different from your chronological age—the number of years you’ve been alive.

Your biological age is likely a better reflection of your physical health and even your own mortality than your chronological age. But calculating it isn’t nearly as straightforward, which is why scientists have spent the last decade developing tools called aging clocks that assess markers in your body to reveal your biological age and predict how many healthy years you have left. Proponents of aging clocks are already trying to use them to show that anti-aging interventions can make individuals biologically younger. But it’s unclear that they’re accurate or reliable enough to make such claims. Read the full story.

—Jessica Hamzelou

Aging clocks emerged as the clear winner for Tech Review’s 11th breakthrough technology of 2022. More than 10,000 readers voted—if you were one of them, thank you!

Quote of the day

“It’s like packing bikinis for Siberia, using chopsticks to eat steak, teaching an eagle how to swim.”

—An anonymous Shanghai resident details the frustrations of living in the city’s extreme zero-covid lockdown while cases continue to soar for The Guardian.

The must-reads

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

1 Russian soldiers are attacking a 300-mile front in Ukraine
The aim is to take full control of the Donbas region in the country’s east. (NYT $)
+ Putin’s desire to conquer Donbas is symbolic. (BBC) + The State Department has condemned Russian airstrikes as a “campaign of terror.” (WP $)
+ The siege of Mariupol appears to be drawing to an end. (FT $)

2 Crypto hackers are stealing ever-larger sums
And it’s mainly down to vulnerable, poorly-managed open-source code.(TR)
+ Bitcoin mining has devastated the city of Plattsburgh in New York. (TR)
+ The case for keeping cash. (TR)

3 Even democracies use controversial spyware
NSO has paved the way for this sort of surveillance to become terrifyingly commonplace. (New Yorker $)
+ The UK prime minister’s office has allegedly been hit with an NSO spyware attack. (The Guardian)
+ The hacker-for-hire industry is now too big to fail. (TR)

4 Facebook investing in Nigerian internet infrastructure comes at a price
Yep, you guessed it. User data. (The Guardian)
+ It’s been accused of failing to moderate misinformation in Africa. (The Guardian)

5 Intel claims its AI can read students’ emotions
Plot spoiler: it can’t. Not accurately, anyway.  (Protocol
+ Emotion AI researchers say overblown claims give their work a bad name. (TR)

6 How serious is Elon Musk about owning Twitter, really?
And should we be worried? (The Atlantic $)
+ Twitter’s board is trying hard to avoid a scenario where he buys 100% of the company.  (Bloomberg $)
+ Twitter’s edit button might show how the tweet originally appeared. (TechCrunch)

7 Food in the metaverse isn’t very good
Because—shocker—you can’t actually eat it! (Insider)
+ Here’s how to let a metaverse die with dignity. (Polygon)

8 A former Dollar General worker is using TikTok to push for union representation
Instead of listening to her concerns, the company fired her. But she’s not going quietly. (NYT $)
+ Amazon’s warehouse in New Jersey is the latest to get a union vote. (WP $)

9 Online white supremacist communities are preying on teenagers
Even the anti-racist material to combat it has been weaponized. (The Atlantic $)

10 Here’s how you should be texting
Sorry, grammar sticklers! (WP $)

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.)

+ This video of Peter Mayhew (Chewbacca) speaking English on the Star Wars set to help Harrison Ford react to his lines is hilarious.
+ I have a grudging respect for this unpleasant-looking Is It Cake?
+ Yet another Wordle clone, Redactle forces you to guess the redacted words from Wikipedia articles.
+ The Terrible Maps Twitter account may not be terribly useful, but it is funny.
+ This profile of mob chef David Ruggerio is completely mind-boggling.
+ Read Molly and David’s sweet story of meeting in the pandemic while he was shielding.
+ Comedian Munya’s assessment of what it’s like in the UK the second the sun comes out is spot on.



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The Download: a curb on climate action, and post-Roe period tracking

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The US Supreme Court just gutted federal climate policy


Why’s it so controversial?: Geoengineering was long a taboo topic among scientists, and some argue it should remain one. There are questions about its potential environmental side effects, and concerns that the impacts will be felt unevenly across the globe. Some feel it’s too dangerous to ever try or even to investigate, arguing that just talking about the possibility could weaken the need to address the underlying causes of climate change.

But it’s going ahead?: Despite the concerns, as the threat of climate change grows and major nations fail to make rapid progress on emissions, growing numbers of experts are seriously exploring the potential effects of these approaches. Read the full story.

—James Temple

The must-reads

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

1 The belief that AI is alive refuses to die
People want to believe the models are sentient, even when their creators deny it. (Reuters)
+ It’s unsurprising wild religious beliefs find a home in Silicon Valley. (Vox)
+ AI systems are being trained twice as quickly as they were just last year. (Spectrum IEEE)

2 The FBI added the missing cryptoqueen to its most-wanted list
It’s offering a $100,000 reward for information leading to Ruja Ignatova, whose crypto scheme defrauded victims out of more than $4 billion. (BBC)
+ A new documentary on the crypto Ponzi scheme is in the works. (Variety)

3 Social media platforms turn a blind eye to dodgy telehealth ads
Which has played a part in the prescription drugs abuse boom. (Protocol)
+ The doctor will Zoom you now. (MIT Technology Review)

4 We’re addicted to China’s lithium batteries
Which isn’t great news for other countries building electric cars. (Wired $)
+ This battery uses a new anode that lasts 20 times longer than lithium. (Spectrum IEEE)
+ Quantum batteries could, in theory, allow us to drive a million miles between charges. (The Next Web)

5 Far-right extremists are communicating over radio to avoid detection
Making it harder to monitor them and their violent activities. (Slate $)
+ Many of the rioters who stormed the Capitol were carrying radio equipment. (The Guardian)

6 Bro culture has no place in space 🚀
So says NASA’s former deputy administrator, who’s sick and tired of misogyny in the sector. (CNN)

7 A US crypto exchange is gaining traction in Venezuela
It’s helping its growing community battle hyperinflation, but isn’t as decentralized as they believe it to be. (Rest of World)
+ The vast majority of NFT players won’t be around in a decade. (Vox)
+ Exchange Coinbase is working with ICE to track and identify crypto users. (The Intercept)
+ If RadioShack’s edgy tweets shock you, don’t forget it’s a crypto firm now. (NY Mag)

8 It’s time we learned to love our swamps
Draining them prevents them from absorbing CO2 and filtering out our waste. (New Yorker $)
+ The architect making friends with flooding. (MIT Technology Review) 

9 Robots love drawing too 🖍️
Though I’ll bet they don’t get as frustrated as we do when they mess up. (Input)

10 The risky world of teenage brains
Making potentially dangerous decisions is an important part of adolescence, and our brains reflect that. (Knowable Magazine)

Quote of the day

“They shamelessly celebrate an all-inclusive pool party while we can’t even pay our rent!”

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The US government is developing a solar geoengineering research plan

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The US government is developing a solar geoengineering research plan


The move, which has not been previously reported on, marks the first federally coordinated US effort of this kind. It could set the stage for more funding and research into the feasibility, benefits, and risks of such interventions. The effort may also contribute to the perception that geoengineering is an appropriate and important area of research as global temperatures rise.

Solar geoengineering encompasses a range of different approaches. The one that’s gained the most attention is using planes or balloons to disperse tiny particles in the stratosphere. These would then—in theory—reflect back enough sunlight to ease warming, mimicking the effect of massive volcanic eruptions in the past. Some research groups have also explored whether releasing certain particles could break up cirrus clouds, which trap heat against the Earth, or make low-lying marine clouds more reflective.

The 2022 federal appropriations act, signed by President Biden in March, directs his Office of Science and Technology Policy to develop a cross-agency group to coordinate research on such climate interventions, in partnership with NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the Department of Energy. 

The measure calls for the group to create a research framework to “provide guidance on transparency, engagement, and risk management for publicly funded work in solar geoengineering research.” Specifically, it directs NOAA to support the Office of Science and Technology Policy in developing a five-year plan that will, among other things, define research goals for the field, assess the potential hazards of such climate interventions, and evaluate the level of federal investments required to carry out that work. 

Geoengineering was long a taboo topic among scientists, and some argue it should remain one. There are questions about potential environmental side effects, and concerns that the impacts will be felt unevenly in different parts of the globe. It’s not clear how the world will grapple with tricky questions regarding global governance, including who should make decisions about whether to deploy such powerful tools and what global average temperatures we should aim for. Some feel that geoengineering is too dangerous to ever try or even to investigate, arguing that just talking about the possibility could make the need to address the underlying causes of climate change feel less urgent.

But as the threat of climate change grows and major nations fail to make rapid progress on emissions, more researchers, universities, and nations are seriously exploring the potential effects of these approaches. A handful of prominent scientific groups, in turn, have called for stricter standards to guide that work, more money to do it, or both. That includes the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, which last year recommended setting up a US solar geoengineering research program with an initial investment of $100 million to $200 million over five years. 

Proponents of geoengineering research, while stressing that cutting emissions must remain the highest priority, say we should explore these possibilities because they may meaningfully reduce the dangers of climate change. They note that as heat waves, droughts, famines, wildfires, and other extreme events become more common or severe, these sorts of climate interventions may be among the few means available to rapidly ease widespread human suffering or ecological calamities. 

Setting standards

In a statement, the Office of Science and Technology Policy confirmed that it has created an interagency working group, as called for under the federal funding bill. It includes representatives of 10 research and mission agencies, including NOAA, NASA, and the Department of Energy.  

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How to track your period safely post-Roe

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How to track your period safely post-Roe


Why use a period tracker?

Stress or dietary changes, among other factors, can make periods irregular and unpredictable. Tracking them can help expose underlying health issues, such as fibroids, which are noncancerous uterine growths. It can also help people spot patterns in mood and energy, which can often be affected by ovulation. People trying to get pregnant often use period trackers to figure out when they’re most fertile. 

So why are people panicking?

The overturning of Roe v. Wade in the US triggered laws that made abortion illegal in 13 states, and more states are likely to ban abortion in the coming months. In states that have banned abortions, people could now be prosecuted if they are alleged to have had one. The worry is that their digital data footprint could be used to build such a case. Missing your period is not a crime, but evidence of it could be subpoenaed and used to bolster a case against someone suspected of an abortion. 

What do companies that make period-tracking apps have to say about this?

We reached out to some of the major period-tracking apps—Flo, Clue, and SpotOn (an app from Planned Parenthood)—for comment on what their privacy settings are and whether they would turn information over to authorities in states where abortion is illegal. Clue and SpotOn did not respond, though Clue stated on Twitter that because it is based in the European Union, it is not permitted to share data with authorities in the US: 

“We would have a primary legal duty under European law not to disclose any private health data. We repeat: we would not respond to any disclosure request or attempted subpoena of our users’ health data by US authorities. But we would let you and the world know if they tried.”

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