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Traditionally, moving up in an organization has meant leading increasingly large teams of people, with all the business and operational duties that entails. As a leader of large teams, your contributions can become less about your own work and more about your team’s output and impact. There’s another path, though. The rapidly evolving fields of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) have increased demand for engineering leaders who drive impact as individual contributors (ICs). An IC has more flexibility to move across different parts of the organization, solve problems that require expertise from different technical domains, and keep their skill set aligned with the latest developments (hopefully with the added benefit of fewer meetings).

team with flag 1

In an executive IC role as a technical leader, I have a deep impact by looking at the intersections of systems across organizational boundaries, prioritize the problems that really need solving, then assemble stakeholders from across teams to create the best solutions.

Driving influence through expertise

People leaders typically have the benefit of an organization that scales with them. As an IC, you scale through the scope, complexity, and impact of the problems you help solve. The key to being effective is getting really good at identifying and structuring problems. You need to proactively identify the most impactful problems to solve—the ones that deliver the most value but that others aren’t focusing on—and structure them in a way that makes them easier to solve.

People skills are still important because building strong relationships with colleagues is fundamental. When consensus is clear, solving problems is straightforward, but when the solution challenges the status quo, it’s crucial to have established technical credibility and organizational influence.

And then there’s the fun part: getting your hands dirty. Choosing the IC path has allowed me to spend more time designing and building AI/ML systems than other management roles would—prototyping, experimenting with new tools and techniques, and thinking deeply about our most complex technical challenges.

A great example I’ve been fortunate to work on involved designing the structure of a new ML-driven platform. It required significant knowledge at the cutting edge and touched multiple other parts of the organization. The freedom to structure my time as an IC allowed me to dive deep in the domain, understand the technical needs of the problem space, and scope the approach. At the same time, I worked across multiple enterprise and line-of-business teams to align appropriate resources and define solutions that met the business needs of our partners. This allowed us to deliver a cutting-edge solution on a very short timescale to help the organization safely scale a new set of capabilities.

Being an IC lets you operate more like a surgeon than a general. You focus your efforts on precise, high-leverage interventions. Rapid, iterative problem-solving is what makes the role impactful and rewarding.

The keys to success as an IC executive

In an IC executive role, there are key skills that are essential. First is maintaining deep technical expertise. I usually have a couple of different lines of study going on at any given time, one that’s closely related to the problems I’m currently working on, and another that takes a long view on foundational knowledge that will help me in the future.

Second is the ability to proactively identify and structure high-impact problems. That means developing a strong intuition for where AI/ML can drive the most business value, and leveraging the problem in a way that achieves the highest business results.

Determining how the problem will be formulated means considering what specific problem you are trying to solve and what you are leaving off the table. This intentional approach aligns the right complexity level to the problem to meet the organization’s needs with the minimum level of effort. The next step is breaking down the problem into chunks that can be solved by the people or teams aligned to the effort.

Doing this well requires building a diverse network across the organization. Building and nurturing relationships in different functional areas is crucial to IC success, giving you the context to spot impactful problems

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By: Grant Gillary
Title: Scaling individual impact: Insights from an AI engineering leader
Sourced From: www.technologyreview.com/2024/04/11/1090504/scaling-individual-impact-insights-from-an-ai-engineering-leader/
Published Date: Thu, 11 Apr 2024 14:00:00 +0000

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The Download: milk beyond cows, and geoengineering’s funding boom

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.

Biotech companies are trying to make milk without cows

The outbreak of avian influenza on US dairy farms has started to make milk seem a lot less wholesome. Milk that’s raw, or unpasteurized, can actually infect mice that drink it, and a few dairy workers have already caught the bug.

The FDA says that commercial milk is safe because it is pasteurized, killing the germs. Even so, it’s enough to make a person ponder a life beyond milk—say, taking your coffee black or maybe drinking oat milk.

But for those of us who can’t do without the real thing, it turns out some genetic engineers are working on ways to keep the milk and get rid of the cows instead. Here’s how they’re doing it.

—Antonio Regalado

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

This London non-profit is now one of the biggest backers of geoengineering research

A London-based nonprofit is poised to become one of the world’s largest financial backers of solar geoengineering research. It’s just one of a growing number of foundations eager to support scientists exploring whether the world could ease climate change by reflecting away more sunlight.

The uptick in funding will offer scientists in the controversial field far more support than they’ve enjoyed in the past. This will allow them to pursue a wider array of lab work, modeling, and potentially even outdoor experiments that could improve our understanding of the benefits and risks of such interventions. Read the full story.

—James Temple

How to opt out of Meta’s AI training

If you post or interact with chatbots on Facebook, Instagram, Threads, or WhatsApp, Meta can use your data to train its generative AI models beginning June 26, according to its recently updated privacy policy.

Internet data scraping is one of the biggest fights in AI right now. Tech companies argue that anything on the public internet is fair game, but they are facing a barrage of lawsuits over their data practices and copyright. It will likely take years until clear rules are in place.

In the meantime, if you’re uncomfortable with having Meta use your personal information and intellectual property to train its AI models, consider opting out. Here’s how to do it.

—Melissa Heikkila

The must-reads

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

1 The US Supreme Court has upheld access to the abortion pill
It’s the most significant ruling since it overturned Roe v Wade in 2022. (FT $)
The decision represents the aversion of a major crisis for reproductive health. (Wired $)
But states like Kansas are likely to draw out legal arguments over access. (The Guardian)

2 Amazon is struggling to revamp Alexa
It’s repeatedly missed deadlines and is floundering to catch up with its rivals. (Fortune)
OpenAI has stolen a march on Amazon’s AI assistant ambitions. (MIT Technology Review)

3 Clearview AI has struck a deal to end a privacy class action
If your face was scraped as facial recognition data, you may be entitled to a stake in the company. (NYT $)
The startup doesn’t have the funds to settle the lawsuit. (Reuters)
It was fined millions of dollars for its practices back in 2022. (MIT Technology Review)

4 What’s next for nanotechnology
Molecular machines to kill bacteria aren’t new—but they are promising. (New Yorker $)

5 The Pope is a surprisingly influential voice in the AI safety debate
Pope Francis will address G7 leaders who have gathered today to discuss AI regulation. (WP $)
Smaller startups are lobbying to be acquired by bigger fish. (Bloomberg $)
What’s next for AI regulation in 2024? (MIT Technology Review)

6 Keeping data centers cool uses colossal amounts of power
Dunking servers in oil could be a far more environmentally-friendly method. (IEEE Spectrum)

7 UK voters can back an AI-generated candidate in next month’s election
How very Black Mirror. (NBC News)

8 How to tell if your boss is spying on you
Checking your browser extensions is a good place to start. (WP $)

9We don’t know much about how the human body reacts to space
But with the rise of space tourism, scientists are hoping to find out. (TechCrunch)
This startup wants to find out if humans can have babies in space. (MIT Technology Review)

10 This platform is a who’s-who of rising internet stars
Famous Birthdays is basically a directory of hugely successful teenagers you’ve never heard of. (Economist $)

Quote of the day

“If it’s somebody on the right, I reward them. If it’s somebody

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By: Rhiannon Williams
Title: The Download: milk beyond cows, and geoengineering’s funding boom
Sourced From: www.technologyreview.com/2024/06/14/1093797/the-download-milk-beyond-cows-and-geoengineerings-funding-boom/
Published Date: Fri, 14 Jun 2024 12:10:00 +0000

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How gamification took over the world

It’s a thought that occurs to every video-game player at some point: What if the weird, hyper-focused state I enter when playing in virtual worlds could somehow be applied to the real one?

Often pondered during especially challenging or tedious tasks in meatspace (writing essays, say, or doing your taxes), it’s an eminently reasonable question to ask. Life, after all, is hard. And while video games are too, there’s something almost magical about the way they can promote sustained bouts of superhuman concentration and resolve.

For some, this phenomenon leads to an interest in flow states and immersion. For others, it’s simply a reason to play more games. For a handful of consultants, startup gurus, and game designers in the late 2000s, it became the key to unlocking our true human potential.

In her 2010 TED Talk, “Gaming Can Make a Better World,” the game designer Jane McGonigal called this engaged state “blissful productivity.” “There’s a reason why the average World of Warcraft gamer plays for 22 hours a week,” she said. “It’s because we know when we’re playing a game that we’re actually happier working hard than we are relaxing or hanging out. We know that we are optimized as human beings to do hard and meaningful work. And gamers are willing to work hard all the time.”

McGonigal’s basic pitch was this: By making the real world more like a video game, we could harness the blissful productivity of millions of people and direct it at some of humanity’s thorniest problems—things like poverty, obesity, and climate change. The exact details of how to accomplish this were a bit vague (play more games?), but her objective was clear: “My goal for the next decade is to try to make it as easy to save the world in real life as it is to save the world in online games.”

While the word “gamification” never came up during her talk, by that time anyone following the big-ideas circuit (TED, South by Southwest, DICE, etc.) or using the new Foursquare app would have been familiar with the basic idea. Broadly defined as the application of game design elements and principles to non-game activities—think points, levels, missions, badges, leaderboards, reinforcement loops, and so on—gamification was already being hawked as a revolutionary new tool for transforming education, work, health and fitness, and countless other parts of life.

Instead of liberating us, gamification turned out to be just another tool for coercion, distraction, and control.

Adding “world-saving” to the list of potential benefits was perhaps inevitable, given the prevalence of that theme in video-game storylines. But it also spoke to gamification’s foundational premise: the idea that reality is somehow broken. According to McGonigal and other gamification boosters, the real world is insufficiently engaging and motivating, and too often it fails to make us happy. Gamification promises to remedy this design flawby engineering a new reality, one that transforms the dull, difficult, and depressing parts of life into something fun and inspiring. Studying for exams, doing household chores, flossing, exercising, learning a new language—there was no limit to the tasks that could be turned into games, making everything IRL better.

Today, we live in an undeniably gamified world. We stand up and move around to close colorful rings and earn achievement badges on our smartwatches; we meditate and sleep to recharge our body batteries; we plant virtual trees to be more productive; we chase “likes” and “karma” on social media sites and try to swipe our way toward social connection. And yet for all the crude gamelike elements that have been grafted onto our lives, the more hopeful and collaborative world that gamification promised more than a decade ago seems as far away as ever. Instead of liberating us from drudgery and maximizing our potential, gamification turned out to be just another tool for coercion, distraction, and control.

Con game

This was not an unforeseeable outcome. From the start, a small but vocal group of journalists and game designers warned against the fairy-tale thinking and facile view of video games that they saw in the concept of gamification. Adrian Hon, author of You’ve Been Played, a recent book that chronicles its dangers, was one of them.

“As someone who was building so-called ‘serious games’ at the time the concept was taking off, I knew that a lot of the claims being made around the possibility of games to transform people’s behaviors and change the world were completely overblown,” he says.

Hon isn’t some knee-jerk polemicist. A trained neuroscientist who switched to a career in game design and development, he’s the co-creator of Zombies, Run!—one of the most popular gamified fitness apps in the world. While he still believes games can benefit and enrich aspects of our nongaming lives, Hon says a one-size-fits-all

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By: Bryan Gardiner
Title: How gamification took over the world
Sourced From: www.technologyreview.com/2024/06/13/1093375/gamification-behaviorism-npcs-video-games/
Published Date: Thu, 13 Jun 2024 09:00:00 +0000

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Why we need to shoot carbon dioxide thousands of feet underground

This article is from The Spark, MIT Technology Review’s weekly climate newsletter. To receive it in your inbox every Wednesday, sign up here

There’s often one overlooked member in a duo. Peanut butter outshines jelly in a PB&J every time (at least in my eyes). For carbon capture and storage technology, the storage part tends to be the underappreciated portion.

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) tech has two main steps (as you might guess from the name). First, carbon dioxide is filtered out of emissions at facilities like fossil-fuel power plants. Then it gets locked away, or stored.

Wrangling pollution might seem like the important bit, and there’s often a lot of focus on what fraction of emissions a CCS system can filter out. But without storage, the whole project would be pretty useless. It’s really the combination of capture and long-term storage that helps to reduce climate impact.

Storage is getting more attention lately, though, and there’s something of a carbon storage boom coming, as my colleague James Temple covered in his latest story. He wrote about what a rush of federal subsidies will mean for the CCS business in the US, and how supporting new projects could help us hit climate goals or push them further out of reach, depending on how we do it. 

The story got me thinking about the oft-forgotten second bit of CCS. Here’s where we might store captured carbon pollution, and why it matters.

When it comes to storage, the main requirement is making sure the carbon dioxide can’t accidentally leak out and start warming up the atmosphere.

One surprising place that might fit the bill is oil fields. Instead of building wells to extract fossil fuels, companies are looking to build a new type of well where carbon dioxide that’s been pressurized until it reaches a supercritical state—in which liquid and gas phases don’t really exist—is pumped deep underground. With the right conditions (including porous rock deep down and a leak-preventing solid rock layer on top), the carbon dioxide will mostly stay put.

Shooting carbon dioxide into the earth isn’t actually a new idea, though in the past it’s largely been used by the oil and gas industry for a very different purpose: pulling more oil out of the ground. In a process called enhanced oil recovery, carbon dioxide is injected into wells, where it frees up oil that’s otherwise tricky to extract. In the process, most of the injected carbon dioxide stays underground. 

But there’s a growing interest in sending the gas down there as an end in itself, sparked in part in the US by new tax credits in the Inflation Reduction Act. Companies can rake in $85 per ton of carbon dioxide that’s captured and permanently stored in geological formations, depending on the source of the gas and how it’s locked away.

In his story, James took a look at one proposed project in California, where one of the state’s largest oil and gas producers has secured draft permits from federal regulators. The project would inject carbon dioxide about 6,000 feet below the surface of the earth, and the company’s filings say the project could store tens of millions of tons of carbon dioxide over the next couple of decades. 

It’s not just land-based projects that are sparking interest, though. State officials in Texas recently awarded a handful of leases for companies to potentially store carbon dioxide deep underwater in the Gulf of Mexico.

And some companies want to store carbon dioxide in products and materials that we use, like concrete. Concrete is made by mixing reactive cement with water and material like sand; if carbon dioxide is injected into a fresh concrete mix, some of it will get involved in the reactions, trapping it in place. I covered how two companies tested out this idea in a newsletter last year.

Products we use every day, from diamonds to sunglasses, can be made with captured carbon dioxide. If we assume that those products stick around for a long time and don’t decompose (how valid this assumption is depends a lot on the product), one might consider these a form of long-term storage, though these markets probably aren’t big enough to make a difference in the grand scheme of climate change. 

Ultimately, though of course we need to emit less, we’ll still need to lock carbon away if we’re going to meet our climate goals.  

Now read the rest of The Spark

Related reading

For all the details on what to expect in the coming carbon storage boom, including more on the potential benefits and hazards of CCS, read James’s full story here.

This facility in Iceland uses mineral storage deep underground to lock away carbon dioxide that’s been vacuumed out of the atmosphere. See all the photos in this story from 2022. 

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By: Casey Crownhart
Title: Why we need to shoot carbon dioxide thousands of feet underground
Sourced From: www.technologyreview.com/2024/06/13/1093635/carbon-dioxide-storage/
Published Date: Thu, 13 Jun 2024 10:00:00 +0000

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