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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.

A few pieces of good news on climate change (and a reality check)

When it comes to the climate, the picture can look bleak.

Emissions of the greenhouse gasses that cause climate change are estimated to have reached new heights in 2022. Meanwhile, climate disasters, from record heat waves in China and Europe to devastating floods in Pakistan, seem to be hitting at a breakneck pace.

But a close look at global data shows that there are a few bright spots of good news, and a lot of potential progress ahead. Renewable sources make up a growing fraction of the energy supply, and they’re getting cheaper every year. Countries are also setting new targets for emissions reductions, and unprecedented public investments could unlock more technological advances.

So despite what can feel like a barrage of bad news, there are at least a few reasons to be hopeful. Read the full story.

—Casey Crownhart

These simple design rules could turn the chip industry on its head

Since the computer was invented, humans have devised many programming languages to command them to do our bidding. For a chip to execute your code, software must translate it into instructions a chip can use. So engineers designate specific binary sequences to prompt the hardware to perform certain actions, known as the computer’s instruction set.

For years, the chip industry has relied on a variety of proprietary instruction sets, which companies license for millions of dollars a pop.

Lately, though, many hardware and software companies worldwide have begun to converge around a publicly available instruction set known as RISC-V. It’s a shift that could radically change the chip industry, and empower smaller companies and budding entrepreneurs along the way. Read the full story.

—Sophia Chen

RISC-V is one of MIT Technology Review’s 10 Breakthrough Technologies of 2023. Explore the rest of the list, and tell us what you think the 11th technology should be by voting in our poll.

The economy is down, but AI is hot. Where do we go from here?

Over the past few weeks, the world’s richest tech companies have announced massive layoffs. From Alphabet, Amazon and Meta, to Microsoft and Twitter, the job losses are affecting not only individual AI researchers, but entire AI teams.

Economists predict the US economy may enter a recession this year amid a highly uncertain global economic outlook and big tech companies have started to feel the squeeze.

In the past, economic downturns have shut off the funding taps for AI research. These periods are called “AI winters.” But this time we’re seeing something totally different. AI research is still extremely hot, and it’s continuing to make big leaps in progress—even as tech companies have started tightening their belts. Read the full story.

—Melissa Heikkilä

Melissa’s story is from The Algorithm, her weekly newsletter giving you the inside track on all things AI. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Monday.

The must-reads

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

1 Elon Musk has defended his controversial tweet in court
He insists his proposal to take Tesla private at $420 a share wasn’t a weed joke. (The Verge) 
Tesla investors claim they lost billions because of the tweet. (WP $)
Musk says his SpaceX stake could have funded a buyout. (Reuters)
Meanwhile, Twitter is being sued over its UK HQ’s unpaid rent. (Bloomberg $)

2 Microsoft plans to invest billions into OpenAI
Just days after it confirmed plans to lay off 10,000 workers. (CNN)
It’s undeniably a major coup for Microsoft’s AI credentials. (Vox)
CEO Satya Nadella first invested in OpenAI back in 2019. (The Information $)
Here’s how Microsoft could use ChatGPT. (MIT Technology Review)

3 Silicon Valley has run out of cheap money 
It’s tough for even the biggest players at the moment. (NYT $)
All these layoffs are especially bad news for the metaverse. (Insider $) 
Spotify is the latest company to announce it’s cutting jobs. (Engadget)

4 Crypto investors are going it alone
They’re withdrawing their holdings from exchanges to their own wallets. (Reuters)
What it’s like to investigate super rich fraudsters. (The Guardian)

5 US banks’ green credentials are being assessed
The Federal Reserve wants to know how they’ll handle climate emergencies. (Vox)

6 The US Government is poised to sue Google
Over the company’s digital ad dominance. (Bloomberg $)

7 What will it take to make electric vehicles truly mainstream?
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By: Rhiannon Williams
Title: The Download: some good climate news, and a revolutionary new chip design
Sourced From: www.technologyreview.com/2023/01/24/1067237/download-good-climate-news-revolutionary-new-chip-design/
Published Date: Tue, 24 Jan 2023 13:10:00 +0000

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Divine economics

MA24 MIT Unknown jpg

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.”

MA24 MIT Unknown 1 jpg
Thompkins worked as an
intern to Senator John Kerry during graduate school. This group shot captures the senator
and her fellow interns.
MA24 MIT Unknown 8 jpg
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

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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

Did you miss our previous article…
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Brothers in arms

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William Warin Bainbridge Jr., Class of 1922, and Kenneth Tompkins Bainbridge, Class of 1926, grew up on Manhattan’s Riverside Drive, the eldest of three sons of an upwardly mobile stationer who dabbled in real estate. Both went to MIT. And both would play important roles in World War II—one on the front lines at Normandy and at the Battle of the Bulge, the other with J. Robert Oppenheimer in Los Alamos.

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William Warin Bainbridge Jr., Class of 1922COURTESY OF DAVID BAINBRIDGE

Before making their way to MIT, the brothers attended the Horace Mann School, where they participated in athletics and Ken wrote for the newspaper and the humor magazine. But while Bill was playing hockey, Ken was busy exploring the new medium of radio. “I had a radio with an antenna on the roof [of the family townhouse],” he recalled in 1991. “The antenna and ground were connected across the vibrating contacts, which energized a commercial ultraviolet unit. I must have violated every bandwidth law.” Ken’s five-watt ham radio station had just three call letters: 2WN.

In 1918, Bill arrived at the Institute, where he majored in engineering administration. He belonged to a dizzying number of organizations, including two fraternities (Alpha Tau Omega and Theta Tau), the football team, the wrestling team (which he managed), and the finance and budget committees. Ken joined Bill at MIT in the fall of 1921 to study electrical engineering, ultimately earning both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree through a co-op program with General Electric that required him to spend time at GE’s offices in Lynn, Massachusetts, and summers at the GE campus in Schenectady, New York. Ken, too, pledged Alpha Tau Omega, and he served on the board of MIT’s Voo Doo humor magazine. Master’s in hand, Ken and an MIT friend were admitted in 1926 to the doctoral program in physics at Princeton, where the dean reportedly told them, “You’re nice boys, but it’s too bad you never went to college.”

Despite the dean’s skepticism, Ken rose quickly in the academic ranks—first at Princeton, where he became a pioneering mass spectroscopist; then at Cambridge University’s Cavendish Labs on a Guggenheim fellowship; and then at Harvard, where he built cyclotrons. Along the way, he published the results of an experiment confirming Einstein’s most famous equation, EMC2. He returned to MIT in 1940 to help found the Radiation Laboratory and played a key role in recruiting scientists and developing radar.

But on September 22, 1943, a letter to the local War Office from President Karl Taylor Compton noted that Bainbridge was unavailable for new local work because his “services were urgently requested by another scientific project of extreme urgency and secrecy.” Since MIT couldn’t refuse, Compton wrote that “Bainbridge was released from the Radiation Laboratory to participate in this new activity.”

The “activity” was “Project Y” at Los Alamos National Laboratory, where Ken and his cyclotron helped develop the first nuclear bomb.

Ken settled at Los Alamos with his wife, Margaret, formerly a member of the Swarthmore College faculty, and their three children. Under Oppenheimer’s direction, he took charge of the Initiator Committee and joined the “high-explosives” group. Then he was given the enormous responsibility of leading the effort to test the atomic bomb, which required working through countless technical and theoretical challenges. He was named head of Group E-9, “to study full-scale implosion assemblies and prepare for the Trinity test,” and Group E-2, which developed instrumentation for the test. In October 1944, Ken became a member of the detonator committee.

The other members of the Bainbridge family also threw themselves into the war effort. Mae, the matriarch, volunteered for the American Red Cross. Youngest brother Don, a Cornell grad, became a lieutenant in the Army Corps of Engineers. Bill, who’d been working in construction for US Gypsum, was commissioned at age 39 as a first lieutenant of the 342nd Engineers (he’d served previously as a second lieutenant early in his career). He headed to the UK in 1942 to become a regimental operations officer, using his building experience to supervise road stabilization and work that required the use of heavy earthmoving machines. By year’s end he’d been promoted to captain, and in 1943 he was transferred to the 254th Engineer Combat Battalion, V Corps.

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By: Elisabeth C. Rosenberg
Title: Brothers in arms
Sourced From: www.technologyreview.com/2024/02/28/1087635/brothers-in-arms/
Published Date: Wed, 28 Feb 2024 12:00:00 +0000

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Why shiny, high-tech solutions won’t solve one of Africa’s worst crises

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Hainikoye hits Accept and a young woman greets him in Hausa, a gravelly language spoken across West Africa’s Sahel region. She has three new cows, and wants to know: Does he have advice on getting them through the lean season?

Hainikoye—a twentysomething agronomist who has “followed animals,” as Sahelians refer to herding, since he first learned to walk—opens an interface on his laptop and clicks on her village in southern Niger, where humped zebu roam the dipping hills and dried-up valleys that demarcate the northern desert from the southern savanna. He tells her where the nearest full wells are and suggests feeding the animals peanuts and cowpea leaves—cheap food sources with high nutritional value that, his screen confirms, are currently plentiful. They hang up after a few minutes, and Hainikoye waits for the phone to ring again.

Seven days a week at the Garbal call center, agents like Hainikoye offer what seems like a simple service, treating people to a bespoke selection of location-specific data: satellite-fed weather forecasts and reports of water levels and vegetation conditions along various herding routes, as well as practical updates on brushfires, overgrazed areas, nearby market prices, and veterinary facilities. But it’s also surprisingly innovative—and is providing critical support for Sahelian herders reeling from the effects of interrelated challenges ranging from war to climate change. Over the long term, the project’s supporters, as well as the herders connecting with it, hope it could even safeguard an ancient culture that functions as an economic lifeline for the entire region.

The glossy red cubicles of Garbal’s office in Niamey, Niger’s capital, are tucked away in the second-floor space the call center shares with the local headquarters of Airtel, an Indian telecom. It had only been open for a few weeks when I visited early last year. Bursts of fuchsia bougainvillea garlanded the entryway to the building, a welcome respite from the sand-colored landscape and sewage-infused scent of the rotting industrial district around it. One lot over sat a former Total gas station that has remained unbranded since a drug cartel bought it to launder money and removed the sign. Running across the zone was a boulevard commemorating a 1974 coup d’état, which has been followed by four more over the ensuing five decades, the latest in July 2023. In the middle of the boulevard sat a few dozen miles of decomposing railway tracks that had been “inaugurated” by a right-wing French billionaire in 2016. For decades, postcolonial elites, promising development, have pillaged one of Africa’s poorest countries.

In more recent years, various Western players touting tech trends like artificial intelligence and predictive analysis have swooped in with promises to solve the region’s myriad problems. But Garbal—named after the word for a livestock market in the language of the Fulani, an ethnic group that makes up the majority of the Sahel’s herders—aims to do things differently. Building on an approach pioneered by a 37-year-old American data scientist named Alex Orenstein, Garbal is focused on how humbler technologies might effectively support the 80% of Nigeriens who live off livestock and the land.

“There’s still this idea of ‘How can we use new tech?’ But the tech is already there—we just need to be more intentional in applying it,” Orenstein says, arguing that donor enthusiasm for shiny, complex solutions is often misplaced. “All of our big wins have come from taking some basic-ass shit and making it work.”

Garbal call center workers in red cubicles
Workers in the Garbal call center in Niamey are able to review data to help herders.HANNAH RAE ARMSTRONG

Garbal’s work comes down to data and, critically, who should have access to it. Recent advances in data collection—both from geosatellites and from herders themselves—have generated an abundance of information on ground cover quantity and quality, water availability, rain forecasts, livestock concentrations, and more. The resulting breakthroughs in forecasting can, in theory, help people anticipate—and protect herds from—droughts and other crises. But Orenstein believes it is not enough to extract data from

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By: Hannah Rae Armstrong
Title: Why shiny, high-tech solutions won’t solve one of Africa’s worst crises
Sourced From: www.technologyreview.com/2024/03/01/1089006/high-tech-solutions-garbal-call-centers-herding-conflict-africa-sahel/
Published Date: Fri, 01 Mar 2024 06:00:00 +0000

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