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Every academic field has its superstars. But a rare few achieve superstardom not just by demonstrating individual excellence but also by consistently producing future superstars. A notable example of such a legendary doctoral advisor is the Princeton physicist John Archibald Wheeler. A dissertation was once written about his mentorship, and he advised Richard Feynman, Kip Thorne, Hugh Everett (who proposed the “many worlds” theory of quantum mechanics), and a host of others who could collectively staff a top-tier physics department. In ecology, there is Bob Paine, who discovered that certain “keystone species” have an outsize impact on the environment and started a lineage of influential ecologists. And in journalism, there is John McPhee, who has taught generations of accomplished journalists at Princeton since 1975.

Computer science has its own such figure: Manuel Blum, who won the 1995 Turing Award—the Nobel Prize of computer science. Blum’s métier is theoretical computer science, a field that often escapes the general public’s radar. But you certainly have come across one of Blum’s creations: the “Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart,” better known as the
captcha—a test designed to distinguish humans from bots online.

“I don’t know what his secret has been. But he has been a tremendously successful advisor,” says Michael Sipser, a theoretical computer scientist at MIT who was advised by Blum, referring to the “extraordinary number of PhD students” who have worked with him and then gone on to make an impact in the field. “It is extraordinary in the literal sense of that word—outside the ordinary.”

Three of Blum’s students have also won Turing Awards; many have received other high honors in theoretical computer science, such as the Gödel Prize and the Knuth Prize; and more than 20 hold professorships at top computer science departments. There are five, for example, at MIT and three at Carnegie Mellon University (where there were four until one left to found Duolingo).

Blum is also distinguished by the great plurality of subfields that his students work in. When Mor Harchol-Balter, a professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon, arrived at the University of California, Berkeley, as a PhD student, she quickly realized that she wanted to work with him. “Manuel was warm, smiling, and just immediately emanated kindness,” Harchol-Balter told me. Her specialty, queueing theory, had little overlap with Blum’s, but he took her on. “Every professor I know, if you start working on what’s way out of their area, they would tell you to go find somebody else,” she said. “Not Manuel.”

A few months ago, as I was reading about some of the most significant yet counterintuitive ideas in modern theoretical computer science, I realized that the vast majority of the researchers responsible for that work had been advised by Blum. I wondered whether there might be some formula to his success. Of course, it’s presumptuous to think such an intimately human process can be distilled into an algorithm. However, conversations with his students gave me a sense of his approach and revealed consistent themes. Many spoke warmly of him: I often heard some version of “I could talk about Manuel all day” or “Manuel is my favorite topic of conversation.” The finer points of mentorship aside, what I learned was at least proof that kindness can beget greatness.

Slow beginning

Manuel Blum is married to Lenore Blum, an accomplished mathematician and computer scientist, who has also been at the forefront of promoting diversity in math and computing (among other things, she founded America’s first computer science department at a women’s college and helped CMU’s computer science department achieve 50-50 gender parity). They are both now emeritus professors at CMU and Manuel Blum is an emeritus professor at UC Berkeley; they split their time between the two coasts.

One day in August, I joined the couple for breakfast at their house in Pittsburgh. Breezy in his manner, Blum, at 85, still has a schoolboy’s smile and frequently erupts into a resonant laugh; he is charismatic in a way typical of people who are utterly oblivious to their charisma. (When he says “WON-derful,” which he frequently does, you can practically hear “WON” in all caps.)

The Blums, who recently celebrated their 62nd anniversary, still shuttlecock research ideas, enthuse over emails from their former students, and complete each other’s memories—some dating from their life in Venezuela, where they met as kids.

Manuel Blum was born in 1938 in Caracas to Jewish parents who had moved from Romania. His first language was German, which his parents spoke at home. But when they moved to the Bronx, his family realized that people did not want to hear German spoken. The year was 1942, and the country was at war. After switching to

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By: Sheon Han
Title: How this Turing Award–winning researcher became a legendary academic advisor
Sourced From: www.technologyreview.com/2023/10/24/1081478/manuel-blum-theoretical-computer-science-turing-award-academic-advisor/
Published Date: Tue, 24 Oct 2023 09:15:00 +0000

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The cost of building the perfect wave

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For nearly as long as surfing has existed, surfers have been obsessed with the search for the perfect wave. It’s not just a question of size, but also of shape, surface conditions, and duration—ideally in a beautiful natural environment.

While this hunt has taken surfers from tropical coastlines reachable only by boat to swells breaking off icebergs, these days—as the sport goes mainstream—that search may take place closer to home. That is, at least, the vision presented by developers and boosters in the growing industry of surf pools, spurred by advances in wave-­generating technology that have finally created artificial waves surfers actually want to ride.

Some surf evangelists think these pools will democratize the sport, making it accessible to more communities far from the coasts—while others are simply interested in cashing in. But a years-long fight over a planned surf pool in Thermal, California, shows that for many people who live in the places where they’re being built, the calculus isn’t about surf at all.

Just some 30 miles from Palm Springs, on the southeastern edge of the Coachella Valley desert, Thermal is the future home of the 118-acre private, members-only Thermal Beach Club (TBC). The developers promise over 300 luxury homes with a dazzling array of amenities; the planned centerpiece is a 20-plus-acre artificial lagoon with a 3.8-acre surf pool offering waves up to seven feet high. According to an early version of the website, club memberships will start at $175,000 a year. (TBC’s developers did not respond to multiple emails asking for comment.)

That price tag makes it clear that the club is not meant for locals. Thermal, an unincorporated desert community, currently has a median family income of $32,340. Most of its residents are Latino; many are farmworkers. The community lacks much of the basic infrastructure that serves the western Coachella Valley, including public water service—leaving residents dependent on aging private wells for drinking water.

Just a few blocks away from the TBC site is the 60-acre Oasis Mobile Home Park. A dilapidated development designed for some 1,500 people in about 300 mobile homes, Oasis has been plagued for decades by a lack of clean drinking water. The park owners have been cited numerous times by the Environmental Protection Agency for providing tap water contaminated with high levels of arsenic, and last year, the US Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against them for violating the Safe Drinking Water Act. Some residents have received assistance to relocate, but many of those who remain rely on weekly state-funded deliveries of bottled water and on the local high school for showers.

Stephanie Ambriz, a 28-year-old special-needs teacher who grew up near Thermal, recalls feeling “a lot of rage” back in early 2020 when she first heard about plans for the TBC development. Ambriz and other locals organized a campaign against the proposed club, which she says the community doesn’t want and won’t be able to access. What residents do want, she tells me, is drinkable water, affordable housing, and clean air—and to have their concerns heard and taken seriously by local officials.

Despite the grassroots pushback, which twice led to delays to allow more time for community feedback, the Riverside County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved the plans for the club in October 2020. It was, Ambriz says, “a shock to see that the county is willing to approve these luxurious developments when they’ve ignored community members” for decades. (A Riverside County representative did not respond to specific questions about TBC.)

The desert may seem like a counterintuitive place to build a water-intensive surf pool, but the Coachella Valley is actually “the very best place to possibly put one of these things,” argues Doug Sheres, the developer behind DSRT Surf, another private pool planned for the area. It is “close to the largest [and] wealthiest surf population in the world,” he says, featuring “360 days a year of surfable weather” and mountain and lake views in “a beautiful resort setting” served by “a very robust aquifer.”

In addition to the two planned projects, the Palm Springs Surf Club (PSSC) has already opened locally. The trifecta is turning the Coachella Valley into “the North Shore of wave pools,” as one aficionado described it to Surfer magazine.

The effect is an acute cognitive dissonance—one that I experienced after spending a few recent days crisscrossing the valley and trying out the waves at PSSC. But as odd as this setting may seem, an analysis by MIT Technology Review reveals that the Coachella Valley is not the exception. Of an estimated 162 surf pools that have been built or announced around the world, as tracked by the industry publication Wave Pool Magazine, 54 are in areas considered by the nonprofit World Resources Institute

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By: Eileen Guo
Title: The cost of building the perfect wave
Sourced From: www.technologyreview.com/2024/06/17/1093388/surf-pools-ocean-climate-change-water-scarcity/
Published Date: Mon, 17 Jun 2024 09:00:00 +0000

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The Download: artificial surf pools, and unfunny AI

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.

The cost of building the perfect wave

For nearly as long as surfing has existed, surfers have been obsessed with the search for the perfect wave.

While this hunt has taken surfers from tropical coastlines to icebergs, these days that search may take place closer to home. That is, at least, the vision presented by developers and boosters in the growing industry of surf pools, spurred by advances in wave-­generating technology that have finally created artificial waves surfers actually want to ride.

But there’s a problem: some of these pools are in drought-ridden areas, and face fierce local opposition. At the core of these fights is a question that’s also at the heart of the sport: What is the cost of finding, or now creating, the perfect wave—and who will have to bear it? Read the full story.

—Eileen Guo

This story is from the forthcoming print issue of MIT Technology Review, which explores the theme of Play. It’s set to go live on Wednesday June 26, so if you don’t already, subscribe now to get a copy when it lands.

What happened when 20 comedians got AI to write their routines

AI is good at lots of things: spotting patterns in data, creating fantastical images, and condensing thousands of words into just a few paragraphs. But can it be a useful tool for writing comedy?

New research from Google DeepMind suggests that it can, but only to a very limited extent. It’s an intriguing finding that hints at the ways AI can—and cannot—assist with creative endeavors more generally. Read the full story.

—Rhiannon Williams

The must-reads

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

1 Meta has paused plans to train AI on European user data
Data regulators rebuffed its claims it had “legitimate interests” in doing so. (Ars Technica)
Meta claims it sent more than two billion warning notifications. (TechCrunch)
How to opt out of Meta’s AI training. (MIT Technology Review)

2 AI assistants and chatbots can’t say who won the 2020 US election
And that’s a major problem as we get closer to the 2024 polls opening. (WP $)
Online conspiracy theorists are targeting political abuse researchers. (The Atlantic $)
Asking Meta AI how to disable it triggers some interesting conversations. (Insider $)
Meta says AI-generated election content is not happening at a “systemic level.” (MIT Technology Review)

3 A smartphone battery maker claims to have made a breakthrough
Japanese firm TDK says its new material could revolutionize its solid-state batteries. (FT $)
And it’s not just phones that could stand to benefit. (CNBC)
Meet the new batteries unlocking cheaper electric vehicles. (MIT Technology Review)

4 What should AI logos look like?
Simple, abstract and non-threatening, if these are anything to go by. (TechCrunch)

5 Radiopharmaceuticals fight cancer with molecular precision
Their accuracy can lead to fewer side effects for patients. (Knowable Magazine)

6 UK rail passengers’ emotions were assessed by AI cameras 
Major stations tested surveillance cameras designed to predict travelers’ emotions. (Wired $)
The movement to limit face recognition tech might finally get a win. (MIT Technology Review)

7 The James Webb Space Telescope has spotted dozens of new supernovae
Dating back to the early universe. (New Scientist $)

8 Rice farming in Vietnam has had a hi-tech makeover
Drones and AI systems are making the laborious work a bit simpler. (Hakai Magazine)
How one vineyard is using AI to improve its winemaking. (MIT Technology Review)

9 Meet the researchers working to cool down city parks
Using water misters, cool tubes, and other novel techniques. (Bloomberg $)
Here’s how much heat your body can take. (MIT Technology Review)

10 The latest generative AI viral trend? Pregnant male celebrities.
The stupider and weirder the image, the better. (Insider $)

Quote of the day

“It’s really easy to get people addicted to things like social media or mobile games. Learning is really hard.”

—Liz Nagler, senior director of product management at language app Duolingo, tells the Wall Street Journal it’s far trickier to get people to go back to the app every day than you might think.

The big story

The big new idea for making self-driving cars that can go anywhere

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May 2022

When Alex

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By: Rhiannon Williams
Title: The Download: artificial surf pools, and unfunny AI
Sourced From: www.technologyreview.com/2024/06/17/1093925/the-download-artificial-surf-pools-and-unfunny-ai/
Published Date: Mon, 17 Jun 2024 12:10:00 +0000

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These board games want you to beat climate change

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It’s game night,and I’m crossing my fingers, hoping for a hurricane.

I roll the die and it clatters across the board, tumbling to a stop to reveal a tiny icon of a tree stump. Bad news: I just triggered deforestation in the Amazon. That seals it. I failed to stop climate change—at least this board-game representation of it.

The urgent need to address climate change might seem like unlikely fodder for a fun evening. But a growing number of games are attempting to take on the topic, including a version of the bestseller Catan released this summer.

As a climate reporter, I was curious about whether games could, even abstractly, represent the challenge of the climate crisis. Perhaps more crucially, could they possibly be any fun?

My investigation started with Daybreak, a board game released in late 2023 by a team that includes the creator of Pandemic (infectious disease—another famously light topic for a game). Daybreak is a cooperative game where players work together to cut emissions and survive disasters. The group either wins or loses as a whole.

When I opened the box, it was immediately clear that this wouldn’t be for the faint of heart. There are hundreds of tiny cardboard and wooden pieces, three different card decks, and a surprisingly thick rule book. Setting it up, learning the rules, and playing for the first time took over two hours.

the components of the game Daybreak which has Game cards depicting Special Drawing Rights, Clean Electricity Plants, and Reforestation themed play cards
Daybreak, a cooperative board game about stopping climate change.COURTESY OF CMYK

Daybreak is full of details, and I was struck by how many of them it gets right. Not only are there cards representing everything from walkable cities to methane removal, but each features a QR code players can use to learn more.

In each turn, players deploy technologies or enact policies to cut climate pollution. Just as in real life, emissions have negative effects. Winning requires slashing emissions to net zero (the point where whatever’s emitted can be soaked up by forests, oceans, or direct air capture). But there are multiple ways for the whole group to lose, including letting the global average temperature increase by 2 °C or simply running out of turns.

In an embarrassing turn of events for someone who spends most of her waking hours thinking about climate change, nearly every round of Daybreak I played ended in failure. Adding insult to injury, I’m not entirely sure that I was having fun. Sure, the abstract puzzle was engaging and challenging, and after a loss, I’d be checking the clock, seeing if there was time to play again. But once all the pieces were back in the box, I went to bed obsessing about heat waves and fossil-fuel disinformation. The game was perhaps representing climate change a little bit too well.

I wondered if a new edition of a classic would fare better. Catan, formerly Settlers of Catan, and its related games have sold over 45 million copies worldwide since the original’s release in 1995. The game’s object is to build roads and settlements, setting up a civilization.

In late 2023, Catan Studios announced that it would be releasing a version of its game called New Energies, focused on climate change. The new edition, out this summer, preserves the same central premise as the original. But this time, players will also construct power plants, generating energy with either fossil fuels or renewables. Fossil fuels are cheaper and allow for quicker expansion, but they lead to pollution, which can harm players’ societies and even end the game early.

Before I got my hands on the game, I spoke with one of its creators, Benjamin Teuber, who developed the game with his late father, Klaus Teuber, the mastermind behind the original Catan.

To Teuber, climate change is a more natural fit for a game than one might expect. “We believe that a good game is always around a dilemma,” he told me. The key is to simplify the problem sufficiently, a challenge that took the team dozens of iterations while developing New Energies. But he also thinks there’s a need to be at least somewhat encouraging. “While we have a severe topic, or maybe even especially because we have a severe topic, you can’t scare off the

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By: Casey Crownhart
Title: These board games want you to beat climate change
Sourced From: www.technologyreview.com/2024/06/14/1093384/catan-climate-change-board-games/
Published Date: Fri, 14 Jun 2024 09:00:00 +0000

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