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.
Why engineers are working to build better pulse oximeters
Visit any health-care facility, and one of the first things they’ll do is clip a pulse oximeter to your finger. These devices, which track heart rate and blood oxygen, offer vital information about a person’s health.
But they’re also flawed. For people with dark skin, pulse oximeters can overestimate just how much oxygen their blood is carrying. That means that a person with dangerously low oxygen levels might seem, according to the pulse oximeter, fine.
The US Food and Drug Administration is still trying to figure out what to do about this problem. Last week, an FDA advisory committee met to mull over better ways to evaluate the performance of these devices in people with a variety of skin tones. But engineers have been thinking about this problem too. Cassandra Willyard has dug into why they are biased and what technological fixes might be possible. Take a look at what she found out.
This story is from The Checkup, our weekly biotech and health newsletter. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Thursday.
I’ve combed the internet to find you today’s most fun/important/scary/fascinating stories about technology.
1 OpenAI is planning to turn the chip industry on its head
By sinking trillions of dollars into an ambitious new project. (WSJ $)
AMD also has plans to break Nvidia’s chip chokehold. (Economist $)
OpenAI’s COO is molding the startup into a commercial powerhouse. (Bloomberg $)
The company has hurtled past the $2 billion revenue mark. (FT $)
Why China is betting big on chiplets. (MIT Technology Review)
2 US regulators have outlawed AI-generated robocalls
In a bid to get ahead of audio deepfakes disrupting the Presidential election. (AP News)
That doesn’t mean the calls won’t keep coming, though. (TechCrunch)
Iranian hackers infiltrated UAE streaming services with a deepfake newsreader. (The Guardian)
3 Electric vehicles are getting smaller
America can’t get enough of big cars. Can it fall in love with slimmed-down ones? (IEEE Spectrum)
Why getting more EVs on the road is all about charging. (MIT Technology Review)
4 How AI is changing the way we code
There’s no indication humans will be edged out anytime soon. (Wired $)
How AI assistants are already changing the way code gets made. (MIT Technology Review)
5 Crypto is pivoting to loyalty schemes
Good luck trying to work out what the rewards are. (Bloomberg $)
How did a crypto book crack the NYT best seller list? (Motherboard)
6 Yandex, Russia’s answer to Google, has a new owner
Following 18 months of tense negotiations against the backdrop of war. (Reuters)
The uneasy coexistence of Yandex and the Kremlin. (MIT Technology Review)
7 Here’s what Elon Musk’s Neuralink is up against
The brain-computer interface device field is surprisingly crowded. (Insider $)
Elon Musk wants more bandwidth between people and machines. Do we need it? (MIT Technology Review)
8 Why the way we argue online is so conspiratorial
Nothing happens in isolation—everything gets slotted into a wider, overarching narrative. (The Atlantic $)
9 TikTok’s search suggestions are riling creators
The recommendations range from the provocative to the downright professionally damaging. (WP $)
10 This couple fell in love thanks to an AI lip-dubbing app
Why use Google Translate when you can shoot a video of yourself speaking perfect Spanish? (NYT $)
Quote of the day
“Is it still uncanny and creepy? Yeah, but I don’t look like Stalin anymore.”
—YouTuber Quinn Nelson reflects on the improvements Apple has made to its ghostly Vision Pro customizable avatars, Insider reports.
The big story
El Paso was “drought-proof.” Climate change is pushing its limits.
El Paso has long been a model for water conservation. It’s done all the right things—it’s launched programs to persuade residents to use less water and deployed technological systems, including desalination and wastewater recycling, to add to its water resources. A former president of the water utility once famously declared El Paso “drought-proof.”
Now, though, even El Paso’s careful plans are being challenged by intense droughts. As the pressure ratchets up, El Paso, and places like it, force us to ask just how far adaptation can go. Read the full story.
We can still have nice things
By: Rhiannon Williams
Title: The Download: how to improve pulse oximeters, and OpenAI’s chip plans
Sourced From: www.technologyreview.com/2024/02/09/1087962/the-download-how-to-improve-pulse-oximeters-and-openais-chip-plans/
Published Date: Fri, 09 Feb 2024 13:10:00 +0000
The world’s most famous concert pianos got a major tech upgrade
At a showroom in a Boston suburb, Patrick Elisha sat down and began to play the opening measures of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto #2 to demonstrate why Steinway & Sons grand pianos are celebrated in concert halls around the world.
Steinways are meticulously crafted instruments: it takes around 250 workers a year to assemble each grand piano’s 12,000 individual parts. Everything, from the hand-bent rims (made of more than a dozen layers of rock maple, each heated and shaped to form a grand piano’s classic curves) to the small felt rollers in the piano’s action (which help dictate how much pressure it takes to play an individual note), is crafted to produce clarion, resonant tones that range from the pianissimo bell-like chimes that open the concerto to the thundering fortissimo chords that seem to rise from the depths over its next eight measures.
Elisha, who runs the education division of M. Steinert & Sons, the world’s oldest Steinway dealer, is an award-winning pianist and composer—but I wanted to hear how the piano handled a virtuoso like Lang Lang going to town on, say, “We Don’t Talk About Bruno,” Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit from the Disney film Encanto.
No problem: Elisha called up a video of Lang performing in New York’s Steinway Hall on a nearby wide-screen TV. Once he hit Play on the video, whatever Lang played was perfectly reproduced on the piano in front of me. When Lang’s right hand flew up the keyboard to produce the opening flourish in the “Bruno” video, the keys on the piano in the room where I stood were depressed with precisely the same velocity for precisely the same amount of time.
This was, I realized, the first time I had ever heard a truly lossless recording. Acoustically, I was getting the equivalent of a private concert from one of the most famous pianists alive, courtesy of Steinway’s Spirio. It’s a thoroughly modern take on the player piano—a device, popular in the early 20th century, that used rolls of paper with holes punched in them to play specific tunes, no pianist required.
Roughly half of all new Steinways sold last year included Spirio technology, which adds between $29,000 and $48,000 to what is already a $150,000 instrument. The most recent addition to the line is the Spirio | r, which has recording, editing, and playback technology. A pianist who’s learning a new piece can play it, record the effort, and then essentially watch the piano play it back—making it possible to pick up on nuances in timing and tone that might be harder to discern from an audio recording alone.
The Spirio, which launched in 2015, added an entirely new set of engineering challenges to what was already one of the most deliberately constructed instruments in history. Before it came to market, Steinway had to ensure that the Spirio tech was, as Elisha puts it, “non-parasitic.” In other words, adding pressure sensors and anything else that could cause friction between the musician and the instrument was verboten; altering the feel in any way would destroy what makes a Steinway a Steinway.
Instead, performances are recorded by dozens of gray-scale optical sensors mounted behind the keyboard that calculate the velocity at which hammers strike the piano wires whenever any of the piano’s 88 keys is pressed. (The sensors have 1,020 levels of sensitivity and can take 800 measurements per second.) A different set of sensors underneath the piano measures the pedal-guided dampers; playback of both the keys and the pedals is controlled by solenoid plungers.
Each Spirio comes with a dedicated iPad; with a couple of swipes, Spirio | r users can edit their performances in an almost infinite number of ways. Everything from individual notes to entire chords can be erased or transposed, elongated or shortened, made louder or softer—if you can imagine it, you can hear what it will sound like as it’s played back to you.
But it’s the constantly updated Spirio library, which currently includes more than 4,000 recordings and more than 100 videos, that really makes this an instrument like no
By: Seth Mnookin
Title: The world’s most famous concert pianos got a major tech upgrade
Sourced From: www.technologyreview.com/2024/02/28/1088268/steinway-spirio-concert-pianos-performance-upgrade/
Published Date: Wed, 28 Feb 2024 10:00:00 +0000
I’m a beaver. You’re a beaver. We are beavers all.
For more than 20 million years, beavers have been, well, busy. They’ve been felling trees for that long, and building dams and lodges for at least the last few million years, earning a well-deserved reputation for industriousness and ingenuity. It seemed only fitting, then, that MIT saw fit to claim the beaver as its mascot in 1914. By 1921, The Tech reported that gray beaver hats had become “the distinguishing mark of an Institute man” at college gatherings. The toothy, mainly nocturnal rodent has appeared on every rendition of the MIT class ring—now lovingly called the brass rat—since it was introduced in 1929.
Read on to learn more about Castor canadensis, the remarkable four-legged engineers.
The North American beaver is the largest rodent in the Northern Hemisphere, typically weighing in at 35 to 65 pounds. (Only the South American capybara weighs more.) They make their homes in ponds, rivers, streams, and wetlands throughout most of North America.
They are one of the few species in the world that typically mate for life. Their offspring, known as kits, can swim within days of birth, but their childhoods are among the longest in the animal world. They generally live for two years with their parents, which both take part in raising them. It takes that long for the parents and older siblings to show them, by example, how to build dams and lodges, how to plan and dig channels, and how to select food, harvest it, and store it for the winter. It’s kind of like going to engineering school. Beavers then move on to form their own families, often building their own colonies. They typically live to age 10 or 12 in the wild.
Beavers are vegetarians but with a twist. They favor the inner bark of certain tree species, including willow, poplar, aspen, birch, and maple, feasting on the cambium, the soft, sap-laden layer immediately under the outer bark. Conifers, however, are not considered a delicacy. Beavers eat them only rarely, and tend to fell them mainly for dam building and to encourage growth of things they’d rather eat. In summer they consume readily available grasses, leaves, herbs, fruit, and aquatic plants. To prepare for winter in cold climates, they create an underwater cache of sticks and logs they’ve gnawed from trees they’ve felled. First they assemble a floating raft of not-so-delicious branches above a deep part of their pond; then they stash their preferred branches beneath them. The pile absorbs water and sinks to the bottom, with the less-favored branches often freezing in the ice at the surface and acting as a protective covering that secures the more-desirable lower branches, which remain accessible below the ice. The cold water preserves the nutritional value of the branches.
While humans can’t digest cellulose, beavers have a small sac between the large and small intestines containing microorganisms that ferment this material, helping them digest up to 30% of it.
chieving the perfect pelt
Forget mink, ermine, and sable. Of all fur-bearing animals, beavers have the coat that is rated the warmest. So it’s no surprise that European demand for hats made of warm, water-resistant, and durable beaver felt led to lucrative trapping and fur-trading ventures in North America. In the 17th and 18th centuries, as many as 200,000 North American beaver pelts were exported annually to Europe. (Fierce competition to monopolize the fur trade led to a series of so-called Beaver Wars between 1628 and the Treaty of Montreal in 1701: the Iroquois Confederation, backed by the Dutch and British, battled the Huron Confederation, backed by France.) These enterprises gave rise to many European settlements and trading centers in North America—and nearly wiped out the continent’s beaver population.
On January 17, 1914, MIT President Richard Maclaurin accepted the Technology Club of New York’s proposal that the beaver—nature’s engineer—serve as MIT’s mascot. In 1977, TIM the beaver first showed up on campus to celebrate the 50th reunion of the Class of 1927
By: William Miller ’51, SM ’52
Title: I’m a beaver. You’re a beaver. We are beavers all.
Sourced From: www.technologyreview.com/2024/02/28/1087624/im-a-beaver-youre-a-beaver-we-are-beavers-all/
Published Date: Wed, 28 Feb 2024 12:00:00 +0000
Did you miss our previous article…
Allison V. Thompkins, PhD ’11, used to spend her days steeped in statistical analysis, digging into economic data to understand how the world works. These days, you’re more likely to find her writing about how to modify prayer or meditation practices to make them more accessible for people with disabilities.
From the outside, the shift from economic policy research to a career writing and teaching about spirituality might seem like a substantial one. But for Thompkins, the instincts behind both pursuits flow from the same place.
“From my perspective, the main connecting thread of economics and spirituality is their power to improve the world,” she says.
That drive to transform the world around her into a more equitable and just place has been with Thompkins for as long as she can remember. As a kid living with cerebral palsy, she was involved in disability advocacy from a young age. At age six, she was interviewed by PBS about her love for Martin Luther King Jr. as an example of someone who fought for people’s rights, and as a nine-year-old she wrote an essay about the need for disability representation in radio programming.
As an adult, that same drive led her to MIT to study under labor economists David Autor and Joshua Angrist, both of whom are Ford professors of economics. She was one of the first people with cerebral palsy and the first power-chair user to earn a PhD from the Institute. While working on her dissertation, which focused on disability policy, she also began consulting for the World Bank. Upon graduating, she found work in economic policy at the research firm Mathematica.
When her health required that she take a step back from full-time work, she decided to share her growing spiritual practice, first on her blog and then in the form of a book, Spirituality Is for Every Body: 8 Accessible, Inclusive Ways to Connect with the Divine When Living with Disability, which was published in February.
“People are most likely more accustomed to thinking about the role of spirituality or the Divine when speaking about professions such as singing or painting or writing poetry, rather than professions that are data driven … [But] for me, the goal of practicing economics was always to improve the world,” she says. The goal of making life better for others—not just oneself—is, in her view, also “the most important reason to engage in spirituality.”
Thompkins worked as an
intern to Senator John Kerry during graduate school. This group shot captures the senator
and her fellow interns.
Thompkins prepares for
a run during an MIT Snowriders ski trip.
Thompkins has always looked for meaningful patterns where others might see only randomness and chance. As an economist, she takes unruly piles of numbers and transforms them into useful data that can inform things like microlending programs for people living with disabilities in India. As a spiritual seeker, she’s adopted the perspective that everything happens for a reason.
All of this has imbued her life with a deep sense of purpose, whether she’s working on disability policy or writing about meditation.
“Love and beauty—I know you don’t always hear those [words] when discussing economics,” she says with a smile on a Zoom call. “But whatever I do, I seek to allow the love and the light that I have to shine through whatever thing I choose.”
The road to economics
Thompkins’s experiences as a youth advocate set her up to dream big about what she might accomplish on behalf of the disabled community. Her hope as a teenager had been to go to law school and become a disability rights attorney—that is, until she surprised herself by falling in love with an economics course in high school. She majored in mathematical economics at Scripps College. And by the time she arrived on MIT’s campus
By: Whitney Bauck
Title: Divine economics
Sourced From: www.technologyreview.com/2024/02/28/1087629/divine-economics/
Published Date: Wed, 28 Feb 2024 12:00:00 +0000
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