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When Greg unboxed a new Roomba robot vacuum cleaner in December 2019, he thought he knew what he was getting into.

He would allow the preproduction test version of iRobot’s Roomba J series device to roam around his house, let it collect all sorts of data to help improve its artificial intelligence, and provide feedback to iRobot about his user experience.

He had done this all before. Outside of his day job as an engineer at a software company, Greg had been beta-testing products for the past decade. He estimates that he’s tested over 50 products in that time—everything from sneakers to smart home cameras.

“I really enjoy it,” he says. “The whole idea is that you get to learn about something new, and hopefully be involved in shaping the product, whether it’s making a better-quality release or actually defining features and functionality.”

But what Greg didn’t know—and does not believe he consented to—was that iRobot would share test users’ data in a sprawling, global data supply chain, where everything (and every person) captured by the devices’ front-facing cameras could be seen, and perhaps annotated, by low-paid contractors outside the United States who could screenshot and share images at their will.

Greg, who asked that we identify him only by his first name because he signed a nondisclosure agreement with iRobot, is not the only test user who feels dismayed and betrayed.

Nearly a dozen people who participated in iRobot’s data collection efforts between 2019 and 2022 have come forward in the weeks since MIT Technology Review published an investigation into how the company uses images captured from inside real homes to train its artificial intelligence. The participants have shared similar concerns about how iRobot handled their data—and whether those practices conform with the company’s own data protection promises. After all, the agreements go both ways, and whether or not the company legally violated its promises, the participants feel misled.

“There is a real concern about whether the company is being deceptive if people are signing up for this sort of highly invasive type of surveillance and never fully understand … what they’re agreeing to,” says Albert Fox Cahn, the executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project.

The company’s failure to adequately protect test user data feels like “a clear breach of the agreement on their side,” Greg says. It’s “a failure … [and] also a violation of trust.”

Now, he wonders, “where is the accountability?”

The blurry line between testers and consumers

Last month MIT Technology Review revealed how iRobot collects photos and videos from the homes of test users and employees and shares them with data annotation companies, including San Francisco–based Scale AI, which hire far-flung contractors to label the data that trains the company’s artificial-intelligence algorithms.

We found that in one 2020 project, gig workers in Venezuela were asked to label objects in a series of images of home interiors, some of which included individuals—their faces visible to the data annotators. These workers then shared at least 15 images—including shots of a minor and of a woman sitting on the toilet—to social media groups where they gathered to talk shop. We know about these particular images because the screenshots were subsequently shared with us, but our interviews with data annotators and researchers who study data annotation suggest they are unlikely to be the only ones that made their way online; it’s not uncommon for sensitive images, videos, and audio to be shared with labelers.

Shortly after MIT Technology Review contacted iRobot for comment on the photos last fall, the company terminated its contract with Scale AI.

Nevertheless, in a LinkedIn post in response to our story, iRobot CEO Colin Angle said the mere fact that these images, and the faces of test users, were visible to human gig workers was not a reason for concern. Rather, he wrote, making such images available was actually necessary to train iRobot’s object recognition algorithms: “How do our robots get so smart? It starts during the development process, and as part of that, through the collection of data to train machine learning algorithms.” Besides, he pointed out, the images came not from customers but from “paid data collectors and employees” who had signed consent agreements.

In the LinkedIn post and in statements to MIT Technology Review, Angle and iRobot have repeatedly emphasized that no customer data was shared and that “participants are informed and acknowledge how the data will be collected.”

This attempt to clearly delineate between customers and beta testers—and how those people’s data will be treated—has been confounding to many testers, who say they consider themselves part of iRobot’s broader

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By: Eileen Guo
Title: Roomba testers feel misled after intimate images ended up on Facebook
Sourced From: www.technologyreview.com/2023/01/10/1066500/roomba-irobot-robot-vacuum-beta-product-testers-consent-agreement-misled/
Published Date: Tue, 10 Jan 2023 10:00:00 +0000

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The Download: inside the first CRISPR treatment, and smarter robots

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 lucky break behind the first CRISPR treatment

The world’s first commercial gene-editing treatment is set to start changing the lives of people with sickle-cell disease. It’s called Casgevy, and it was approved last month in the UK. US approval is pending this week.

The treatment, which will be sold in the US by Vertex Pharmaceuticals, employs CRISPR, which can be easily programmed by scientists to cut DNA at precise locations they choose.

But where do you aim CRISPR, and how did the researchers know what DNA to change? That’s the lesser-known story of the sickle-cell breakthrough, which doesn’t rely on fixing the genes responsible for the mutation that leaves patients’ hemoglobin molecules misshapen. Instead, it’s a kind of molecular bank shot—thankfully, one with a happy ending. Read the full story.

—Antonio Regalado

Read more about the sickle-cell breakthrough:

+ I received the new gene-editing drug for sickle cell disease. It changed my life. As a patient enrolled in a clinical trial for Vertex’s new exa-cel treatment, Jimi Olaghere was among the first to experience CRISPR’s transformative effects. Read the full story.

+ The first CRISPR cure might kick-start the next big patent battle. Vertex Pharmaceuticals plans to sell a gene-editing treatment for sickle-cell disease. A patent on CRISPR could stand in the way. Read the full story.

These robots know when to ask for help

The news: A new robot training model, dubbed “KnowNo,” aims to teach robots to ask for our help when orders are unclear. At the same time, it ensures they seek clarification only when necessary, minimizing needless back-and-forth. The result is a smart assistant that tries to make sure it understands what you want without bothering you too much.

Why it matters: While robots can be powerful in many specific scenarios, they are often bad at generalized tasks that require common sense. That’s something large language models could help to fix, because they have a lot of common-sense knowledge baked in. Read the full story.

—June Kim

Medical microrobots that travel inside the body are (still) on their way

The human body is a labyrinth of vessels and tubing, full of barriers that are difficult to break through. That poses a serious hurdle for doctors. Illness is often caused by problems that are hard to visualize and difficult to access. But imagine if we could deploy armies of tiny robots into the body to do the job for us. They could break up hard-to-reach clots, deliver drugs to even the most inaccessible tumors, and even help guide embryos toward implantation.

We’ve been hearing about the use of tiny robots in medicine for years, maybe even decades. And they’re still not here. But experts are adamant that medical microbots are finally coming, and that they could be a game changer for a number of serious diseases. Read the full story.

—Cassandra Willyard

This story is from The Checkup, our weekly biotech newsletter. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Thursday.

The must-reads

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

1 Use of deepfake pornography apps is soaring  
Links to the disturbing AI ‘nudifying’ services are rife on X and Reddit. (Bloomberg $)
The viral AI avatar app Lensa undressed me—without my consent. (MIT Technology Review)

2 TikTok is embarking on an anti-hate speech campaign
Spurred by the criticism the platform received over Israel-Hamas videos (The Information $)
TikTok’s algorithm means everyone’s feed is siloed, though. (The Verge)
The conflict has forced Meta’s oversight board to investigate two posts. (Wired $)
Republicans are repeating bogus claims to try and get TikTok banned. (Motherboard)

3 A major Abu Dhabi-based AI company is cutting ties with China
G42 is ditching its Chinese hardware contracts in favor of US suppliers. (FT $)

4 We’re learning more about how vaping affects us
It’s better than smoking. But that doesn’t mean it’s good for you, either. (New Scientist $)
Social media is full of posts promoting vaping to young users. (The Guardian)

5 The US wants to build the next revolutionary particle collider
But it could take years to get the project off the ground. (NYT $)

6 The Milky Way is likely to devour the galaxies surrounding it
It’s looking like dark matter could have something to do with it. (Ars Technica)

7 Our microbiomes aren’t diverse enough
And our sedentary lifetimes and antibiotics are to blame. (Proto.Life)
We’re learning a lot more about the vaginal microbiome. (Scientific American $)
How gene-edited microbiomes could

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By: Rhiannon Williams
Title: The Download: inside the first CRISPR treatment, and smarter robots
Sourced From: www.technologyreview.com/2023/12/08/1084760/the-download-inside-the-first-crispr-treatment-and-smarter-robots/
Published Date: Fri, 08 Dec 2023 13:10:00 +0000

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The lucky break behind the first CRISPR treatment

dr. stuart orkin analyzing chromosomal spectra march 1985 crop jpg

The world’s first commercial gene-editing treatment is set to start changing the lives of people with sickle-cell disease. It’s called Casgevy, and it was approved last month in the UK. US approval is pending this week.

The treatment, which will be sold in the US by Vertex Pharmaceuticals, employs CRISPR, the Nobel-winning molecular scissors that have had journalists scrambling for metaphors: “Swiss Army knife,” “molecular scalpel,” or DNA copy-and-paste. Indeed, CRISPR is revolutionary because scientists can so easily program it to cut DNA at precise locations they choose.

But where do you aim CRISPR? That’s the lesser-known story of the sickle-cell breakthrough. The disease is caused by faulty hemoglobin, the molecule that carries oxygen in the blood. To cure it, though, Vertex and its partner company, CRISPR Therapeutics, aren’t fixing the genes responsible for the mutation that leaves those molecules misshapen. Instead, the new treatment involves a kind of molecular bank shot—an edit that turns on fetal hemoglobin, a second form of the molecule which we have in the womb but lose as adults.

You can think of how the edit works as a kind of double negative. It adds a misspelling to the turbo-booster of another gene, BCL11A, that is itself what inhibits the production of fetal hemoglobin in adult bodies. Without that booster, there’s less inhibition, and more fetal hemoglobin. Got it?

“When you inhibit the enhancer, you inhibit the inhibitor,” says Daniel Bauer, a professor at Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard University, who helped work it out. “It is kind of complicated.”

The important thing is a happy ending—and this edit really works. Some patients say they lived in fear of dying, either from an acute attack of sickling (when their red blood cells start blocking vessels) or from slow, insidious organ damage. Now early volunteers say they’re grateful—and, after living with disease their whole lives, even a little shocked—to be cured.

Newborn theory

The idea that fetal hemoglobin can protect against the disease is an old one. Sickle-cell is most common in people with African ancestry. A doctor on Long Island, Janet Watson, had noticed in 1948 that newborns never showed its signs—the main one being misshapen, crescent-shaped red blood cells. That was pretty odd for an inborn condition.

“Sickle-cell disease should occur in infancy as often as later in life,” Watson wrote. But since it didn’t, Watson hypothesized that the fetal form of the molecule, active in the womb, was protecting babies for a few months after birth, until it was replaced by the adult version: “The theory that at once presents itself is that fetal hemoglobin is unable to produce sickling.”

She was right. But it took another six decades to learn how the switch-over worked—and how to flip it back. Many of those discoveries were made in the laboratory of Stuart Orkin, a Harvard researcher who published his first paper in 1967 and who’s lived through several eras of research on blood diseases, starting near the dawn of molecular biology.

“I am one of the last men standing,” Orkin told me with a grin when I met him for a corned-beef sandwich.

Dr. Stuart Orkin analyzing chromosomal spectra
Stuart Orkin analyzing DNA from individuals with blood disorders in his lab in 1985.BOSTON CHILDREN’S HOSPITAL

He’s a clever scientist who a long time ago decided to study how the blood system is regulated. Logistically, it was a great topic; blood cells are easy to get hold of and study.

“I like to solve a problem, and here is a problem that could be solved,” Orkin says. “How does the system work, and then can you do anything about it?”

Special sauce

Bill Lundberg, the former chief scientific officer of CRISPR Therapeutics, the biotech that first started developing the treatment eight years ago (Vertex later joined as a partner), says the company’s sickle-cell project directly made use of Orkin’s findings. “Stu’s role is really underappreciated,

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By: Antonio Regalado
Title: The lucky break behind the first CRISPR treatment
Sourced From: www.technologyreview.com/2023/12/07/1084629/lucky-break-crispr-vertex/
Published Date: Thu, 07 Dec 2023 14:00:09 +0000

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The Download: Google’s Gemini is here, and Sundar Pichai talks 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.

Google DeepMind’s new Gemini model looks amazing—but could signal peak AI hype

Hype about Gemini, Google DeepMind’s long-rumored response to OpenAI’s GPT-4, has been building for months. Now, the company has finally revealed what it has been working on in secret all this time. Was the hype justified? Yes—and no.

Gemini is Google’s biggest AI launch yet—its push to take on competitors OpenAI and Microsoft in the race for AI supremacy. There is no doubt that the model is pitched as best-in-class across a wide range of capabilities—an “everything machine.”

But while it’s a big step for Google, but not necessarily a giant leap for the field as a whole. Judging from its demos, it does many things very well—but few things that we haven’t seen before. Read the full story.

—Melissa Heikkiläa & Will Douglas Heaven

Google CEO Sundar Pichai on Gemini and the coming age of AI

This last year has largely been defined by the AI releases from one company: OpenAI. The rollout of DALL-E and GPT-3.5 last year, followed by GPT-4 this year, dominated the sector and kicked off an arms race between startups and tech giants alike

Now, with the release of Gemini, Google has thrown its hat into the ring. The new AI model reflects years of efforts from inside Google, overseen and driven by its CEO, Sundar Pichai.

Our editor-in-chief Mat Honan sat down with Pichai at Google’s offices in Mountain View, California, on the eve of Gemini’s launch to discuss what it will mean for the company, its products, AI, and society writ large. Read the full interview.

How carbon removal technology is like a time machine

By burning fossil fuels, we’ve released greenhouse gases by the gigaton. There’s a lot we can (and need to) do to slow and eventually stop these planet-warming emissions. But carbon removal technology has a different promise: turning the clock back.

Well, sort of. Carbon removal can’t literally take us back in time. But this time-machine analogy for thinking about carbon removal—specifically when it comes to the scale that will be needed to make a significant dent in our emissions—is a favorite of climate scientist David Ho.

Casey Crownhart, our climate reporter, has taken a look at what it might take for carbon removal to take us back far enough in time to reverse our mistakes—well, the emissions-related ones, anyway. 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.

The must-reads

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

1 The EU is racing to regulate AI 
Meanwhile, it seems like the US Congress is forging a very different regulatory path. (WP $)
EU lawmakers are believed to have made a provisional deal. (Reuters)
AI advances far more rapidly than policy. (NYT $)

2 Celebrities have been tricked into recording Russian propaganda
Trolls paid famous faces to record supportive clips for ‘Vladimir’ over the Cameo app. (WSJ $)
The clips rapidly spread across Russian networks and news organizations. (NYT $)

3 Startups are imploding all over the place
Once-promising multi-million dollar ventures are failing—and it’s only getting worse. (NYT $)

4 This man blew the whistle on Amazon’s abuse of teenager labor
But four years on, nothing has changed. (FT $)

5 A load of EVs are due to lose their tax credits
Cars with battery materials sourced from China will lose out on the $7,500 credit. (The Verge)
Ford doesn’t think its Mustang electric cars will qualify. (Reuters)+ EV tax credits could stall out on lack of US battery supply. (MIT Technology Review)

6 Building a gaming empire is seriously hard work
Just ask the TV streaming giants who are trying, and failing. (The Information $)

7 Forget microplastics—it’s time to worry about nanoplastics
Because they’re even smaller, they’re potentially even worse for our health. (Motherboard)
Microplastics are everywhere. What does that mean for our immune systems? (MIT Technology Review)

8 It’s time to revive the humble dry stone wall
Concrete isn’t great for the environment. Can stone walls take over? (The Atlantic $)
Inside a high-tech cement laboratory. (MIT Technology Review)

9 An AI drive-thru needed humans to handle 70% of its orders
It raises questions over how capable AI really is at these kinds of tasks. (Bloomberg $)
Even McDonald’s wants a slice of the generative AI pie. (The Verge)

10 Space telescopes are getting even bigger 
Move over JWST—the Extremely Large Telescope is here. (Economist $)

Quote of the day

“Even if Musk were

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————

By: Rhiannon Williams
Title: The Download: Google’s Gemini is here, and Sundar Pichai talks AI
Sourced From: www.technologyreview.com/2023/12/07/1084648/the-download-googles-gemini-is-here-and-sundar-pichai-talks-ai/
Published Date: Thu, 07 Dec 2023 13:10:00 +0000

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