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The Download: How AI capitalizes on catastrophe, and the Bitcoin cities of Central America

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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.

How the AI industry profits from catastrophe

It was meant to be a temporary side job—a way to earn some extra money. Oskarina Fuentes Anaya signed up for Appen, an AI data-labeling platform, when she was still in college studying to land a well-paid position in the oil industry.

But then the economy tanked in Venezuela. Inflation skyrocketed, and a stable job, once guaranteed, was no longer an option. Her side gig was now full time; the temporary now the foreseeable future.

Today Fuentes lives in Colombia, one of millions of Venezuelan migrants and refugees who have left their country in search of better opportunities. But she’s trapped at home—both by a chronic illness that developed after delayed access to health care and by opaque algorithms that dictate when she works and how much she earns.

Despite threats from Appen to retaliate against her, she chose to go on the record as a named source. She wants people to understand what her life is like to be a critical part of the global AI development pipeline yet for the beneficiaries of her work to also mistreat her and make her invisible. She wants the people who do this work to be seen. Read the full story

—Karen Hao and Andrea Paola Hernández

This is the second part of our series investigating AI colonialism, shining a light on how the technology is impoverishing the communities and countries that don’t have a say in its development. Parts 3 and 4 are coming later in the week, but you can read the first part here and Karen Hao’s introductory essay here.

Crypto millionaires are pouring money into Central America to build their own cities

El Salvador’s Conchagua Volcano, home to a lush ecotourism retreat amid its sun-dappled forest, is set to host a glittering new Bitcoin City, the country’s president announced in November 2021. A vast construction project to remodel virgin forest into a vibrant metropolis could soon be underway.

While some politicians and residents believe in crypto’s potential to jump-start the economy, others see history repeating itself. As El Salvador’s experiment takes shape in the form of Bitcoin City, a similar development is already underway in Honduras—but backlash from locals has put its future in jeopardy. Proponents hope to spawn a hundred more Bitcoin Cities, but others question who these projects are really for, and whether the countries serving as test beds will truly benefit. Read the full story.

—Laurie Clarke

Quote of the day

“Hugs for everyone!”

—A Disney employee celebrates costumed characters being able to hug Disneyland visitors after dropping its enforced no-hugs ban, according to The New York Times.

The must-reads

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

1 Ukraine’s ‘internet army’ is pressurizing Western brands to exit Russia
And their campaigns seem to be working. (WSJ $)
+ More than one in four people in Ukraine have left their homes. (WSJ $)
+ The US and its allies are sending more weapons to Ukraine. (BBC)

2 What has the zero-covid policy taught China?
It’s saved countless lives, but it is becoming harder and harder to enforce. (The Atlantic $)
+ Moderna is optimistic that its new vaccine will offer better protection against variants. (NYT $)

3 NASA wants to charter a mission to Uranus
We know surprisingly little about the distant planet. (The Atlantic $)
+ Why have we been so focused on sending humans to Mars? (Slate $)
+ Maybe we should be sending robots instead of astronauts. (Wired $)

4 People are canceling their Netflix subscriptions in their droves
And sneakily sharing passwords between households. (Variety $)
+ Netflix may start running ads, too. (Hollywood Reporter)

5 Twitter may be preparing to turn down Elon Musk’s offer to buy it
Which would force him to reconsider his position. (WSJ $)
+ Regardless of the outcome, Musk’s proposition could ultimately be good for the company. (FT $)
+ A crypto billionaire wants to get involved, too. (Bloomberg $)
+ Here’s what making Twitter’s algorithm public could entail. (CNN

6 Maybe the tech bubble really is impenetrable after all
Or maybe we’re just bored of hearing it’s about to burst. (NYT $)
+ There may be trouble ahead for the UK’s startups. (The Times $)

7 Unmasking the woman behind the Libs of TikTok Twitter account 
A Brooklyn real estate agent has played an outsized role pushing hateful anti-LGBTQ+ narratives in the US. (WP $)

8 Getting sober is about more than just stopping drinking
Sober influencers are reframing our thinking around alcohol. That’s not always a positive thing. (Wired $) 
+ Does paying people to stop drinking keep them sober in the long-term? (Boston Globe $)

9 Why it’s so hard to build unbiased AI
For starters, bias is in the eye of the beholder. (Vox)
+ AI might reduce the number of car crashes. (NYT $)
+ Motorists using self-driving cars in the UK might soon be allowed to watch TV behind the wheel. (The Times $)

10 This Twitter account spots writers’ tics
Because you can’t keep repeating yourself. Or can you? (New Yorker $)

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.)
+ Congratulations to TobyKeith, who at 21-years old has become the world’s oldest living dog.
+ Louis Theroux isn’t just an award-winning documentary maker. He also spits some sick bars (Thanks Tania!)
+ These easy recipes for sweet treats are speaking my language.
+ If you’re starting to worry about what to buy for Mother’s Day, this list is a great starting point.
+ The US government funded research into invisibility cloaks, which seems a worthwhile endeavor to me.
+ Would you consider talking your cat out on a leash?
+ The world’s oldest unopened Easter egg will make you grateful that Easter is over.

Tech

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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Tech

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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