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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 chatbot helped more people access mental-health services

The news: An AI chatbot helped increase the number of patients referred for mental-health services through England’s National Health Service (NHS), particularly among underrepresented groups who are less likely to seek help, new research has found.

What happened: The new study from the AI company Limbic, examined data from 129,400 people visiting websites to refer themselves to 28 mental health services across England, half of which used the chatbot on their website and half of which did not. The number of referrals from services using the Limbic chatbot rose by 15% during the study’s three-month time period, compared with a 6% rise in referrals for the services that weren’t using it. Read the full story.

—Rhiannon Williams

We are having the wrong debate about Biden’s decision on liquefied natural gas

—Arvind P. Ravikumar is a research associate professor in the Hildebrand Department of Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin and a senior associate with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Late last month, the Biden administration announced it’s suspending permit applications for exporting liquefied natural gas (LNG) as it reevaluates the economic, environmental, and climate impacts of the fuel.

LNG is produced by cooling natural gas into a liquid state, making it easier to store and ship to overseas markets. Natural gas itself has been a core but controversial part of the clean-energy debate for decades. When burned, it emits about half as much greenhouse gas as coal. But it’s mostly made of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. Methane leaks along the supply chain, threatening to erode the benefits natural gas offers as a cleaner-burning fuel.

Immediate reactions to the government decision have been predictable. Some environmental organizations hailed the announcement as a much-needed course correction, arguing that it could help the US meet its global climate commitments. Industry trade groups insist it’s a counterproductive way to cut greenhouse-gas emissions.

Who is right? Turns out we are asking the wrong question.Read the full story.

What babies can teach AI

Human babies are fascinating creatures. They have an innate understanding of the physics of our world and can learn new concepts and languages quickly, even with limited information.

Even the most powerful AI systems we have today lack those abilities. Language models that power systems like ChatGPT, for example, are great at predicting the next word in a sentence but don’t have anything even close to the common sense of a toddler.

But what if an AI could learn like a baby? Researchers at New York University wanted to see what such models could do when they were trained on a much smaller data set: the sights and sounds experienced by a curious child learning to talk. Their findings are just one example of how babies could take us a step closer to teaching computers to learn like humans—and ultimately build AI systems that are as intelligent as we are. Read the full story.

—Melissa Heikkilä

This story is from The Algorithm, our weekly AI newsletter. 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 China is forging ahead in the global chip race
Its companies are on course to mass produce the next wave of processors, in spite of US sanctions. (FT $)
Demand for chips is starting to fall in certain sectors, though. (Bloomberg $)
Huawei’s 5G chip breakthrough needs a reality check. (MIT Technology Review)

2 Whatever you do, don’t forget your Vision Pro passcode
There’s currently no way for you to reset it without the help of Apple staff. (Bloomberg $)
Please don’t wear the Vision Pro while driving, either. (The Guardian)
A YouTube app for the headset is on its way, apparently. (The Verge)
These minuscule pixels are poised to take augmented reality by storm. (MIT Technology Review)+ The Vision Pro is one of our 10 Breakthrough Technologies for 2024. (MIT Technology Review)

3 The US is banning visas for spyware abusers
And it’s going after the manufacturers that make the software, too. (Reuters)

4 We’re still vaccinating against a rarely-seen form of flu
In fact, it hasn’t been spotted since March 2020. (The Atlantic $)
The next generation of mRNA vaccines is on its way.  (MIT Technology Review)

5 Why Big Tech keeps cutting jobs
Firms are funneling the money saved into building AI systems. (NYT $)
Snap is the latest firm to let staff go. (The

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By: Rhiannon Williams
Title: The Download: using AI to access mental health services, and the natural gas debate
Sourced From: www.technologyreview.com/2024/02/06/1087797/the-download-using-ai-to-access-mental-health-services-and-the-natural-gas-debate/
Published Date: Tue, 06 Feb 2024 13:10:00 +0000

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Balloons will surf wind currents to track wildfires

240717 microballoon embed1 scaled

This August, strange balloons will drift high above Colorado. These airy aircraft, launched from the back of a pickup truck, will be equipped with sensors that can measure heat on the ground, pinpointing new wildfire outbreaks from above.

The company behind the balloons, called Urban Sky, also plans to use them to understand conditions on the ground before fires start. Approximately 237,500 acres burn in Colorado annually, according to 2011–2020 data from the Rocky Mountain Area Coordination Center. The hope is that this new high-altitude tool might allow humans to manage—or at least understand—those blazes better.

“Wildfire is a natural part of ecosystems,” says Michael Falkowski, manager of the wildland fire programs at NASA. But climate change has proved to be an accelerant, rendering fires bigger, more intense, and more frequent. At the same time, more people are living closer to wild spaces, and the US’s history of fire suppression, which has crowded forests and left old and dead vegetation sitting around, is fanning the flames.

To deal with modern fires, Falkowski says, researchers and fire agencies have to gather data before those fires start and after they’re done smoldering, not just as they’re burning. That makes it possible to understand the risks ahead of time and try to mitigate them, track ongoing blazes, and understand the threats fires pose to communities and the environment.

Before a fire takes hold, researchers can map vegetation and estimate how wet or dry it is. During a fire, they can map where and how hot the activity is. When it’s all over, they can assess the severity of the burn and track air quality.

Pass Fire (New Mexico) 3.5m Infrared Sample from Urban Sky Microballoon.
An infrared image of the 2023 Pass Fire in New Mexico, taken by an Urban Sky balloon.COURTESY URBAN SKY

Still, the most acute phase is obviously the one when the fire is actually burning. In the heat of that moment, it can be hard to get a handle on when and where, exactly, the fire is taking hold. Satellites do some of that work, surveying large areas all at once. But the primary governmental satellites produce pictures with pixels around 300 meters across, and they can’t always get a super timely look at a given spot, since their view is limited by their orbit.

Airplanes and helicopters can map a fire’s extent in more detail, but they’re expensive to operate and dangerous to fly. They have to coordinate with other aircraft and have smaller views, being closer to the ground. They’re also a limited resource. 

Urban Sky aims to combine the advantages of satellites and aircraft by using relatively inexpensive high-altitude balloons that can fly above the fray—out of the way of airspace restrictions, other aircraft, and the fire itself. The system doesn’t put a human pilot at risk and has an infraredsensor system called HotSpot that provides a sharp, real-time picture, with pixels 3.5 meters across. “We targeted that resolution with the goal of being able to see a single burning tree,” says Jared Leidich, chief technology officer at Urban Sky. “And so that would show up essentially as one pixel—one hot pixel.” The company has some competition: Others, like Aerostar and LUX Aerobot, also make balloons that can monitor wildfires.

The Urban Sky team has launched balloons in previous tests, but in August, the technology will monitor potential fires for an actual (unspecified) customer. Sending the balloon-lofted HotSpot up will be a surprisingly simple affair, thanks to the balloon’s relatively small size: While the company makes several sizes, the original is about as big as a van at launch, inflating to the size of a small garage once it’s aloft and surrounded by lower-pressure air. The Urban Sky team uses weather software to calculate where to launch a balloon so that it will drift over the fire at the right elevation. Then the team packs one up, along with compressed helium or hydrogen gas, and drives a truck out to that location. The balloon is hooked onto a mast jutting from the vehicle, filled up with the lighter-than-air molecules,

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By: Sarah Scoles
Title: Balloons will surf wind currents to track wildfires
Sourced From: www.technologyreview.com/2024/07/19/1095125/balloons-will-surf-wind-currents-to-track-wildfires/
Published Date: Fri, 19 Jul 2024 09:00:00 +0000

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The Download: Windows’ CrowdStrike outage, and wildfire-tracking balloons

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 widespread Windows outage is affecting airlines, banks, and TV broadcasters

What’s happening? Windows PCs have crashed around the world, bringing airlines, major banks, TV broadcasters, healthcare providers and other businesses to a standstill. Airlines including United Airlines, Delta, and American Airlines have been forced to ground and delay flights, stranding passengers in airports, while UK broadcaster Sky News was temporarily pulled off air.

Banking customers in Europe, Australia and India have been unable to access their online accounts, and traders have been unable to operate as normal.

What caused it? The issue originates from a faulty update from cybersecurity provider CrowdStrike, which has knocked affected servers and PCs offline and caused Windows workstations to display ‘blue screens of death’ when users attempt to boot them. Mac and Linux hosts are not affected.

When will it be fixed?

George Kurtz, CEO of Crowdstrike, said that the company was actively working with customers impacted by the defect, found in a single content update for Windows hosts.

“This is not a security incident or cyberattack,” he said in a statement on X. “The issue has been identified, isolated and a fix has been deployed. We refer customers to the support portal for the latest updates and will continue to provide complete and continuous updates on our website.”

However, that doesn’t appear to help computers that are already affected, meaning that companies’ IT teams may have to follow a manual workaround that CrowdStrike sent to its customers earlier this morning, Reuters reports.

—Rhiannon Williams

Balloons will surf wind currents to track wildfires

This August, strange balloons will drift high above Colorado. These airy aircraft will be equipped with sensors that can measure heat on the ground, pinpointing new wildfire outbreaks from above.

The company behind the balloons, called Urban Sky, also plans to use them to understand conditions on the ground before fires start. The hope is that this new high-altitude tool might allow us to better manage—or at least understand—these worsening wildfires better. Read the full story.

—Sarah Scoles

Why we need safeguards against genetic discrimination

Tens of millions of people have shipped their DNA off to companies offering to reveal clues about their customers’ health or ancestry, or had genetic tests as part of their clinical care.

It isn’t always clear how secure this data is, or who might end up getting their hands on it—and how that information might affect people’s lives. Scientists, ethicists and legal scholars aren’t clear on the matter either. They are still getting to grips with what genetic discrimination entails—and how we can defend against it. Read the full story.

—Jessica Hamzelou

This story is from The Checkup, our weekly health and 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 The US has created satellite-jamming devices to combat Russia and China 
Its Space Force has developed 24 ground-based jammers to deploy. (Bloomberg $)

2 OpenAI is considering making a new AI chip
Which is unlikely to please its biggest chip supplier, Nvidia. (The Information $)
Demand for AI chips is still outstripping supply, according to TSMC. (The Register)
What’s next in chips. (MIT Technology Review)

3 You have the right to opt out of airport facial recognition
The next time you’re traveling, remember you don’t have to consent. (Vox)
The movement to limit face recognition tech might finally get a win. (MIT Technology Review)

4 We’re running out of data to train AI models
We’re staring down the barrel of a ‘crisis in content.’ (NYT $)
We’ve been aware of the problem for years. (MIT Technology Review)

5 Meta is betting big on smart glasses
It’s considering a stake in the luxury sunglasses firm EssilorLuxottica. (FT $)

6 Scientists have uncovered a surprising source of nitrogen
Microbes at sea work together to produce the vital nutrient. (Quanta Magazine)

7 Jailbreaking AI models could be legalized
It’s something the US government is weighing up to make models safer. (404 Media)

8 Small drugmakers are snapping up biotech companies
Normally, it’s only big pharma that can afford to wade in. (WSJ $)

9 You should check your Venmo privacy settings
The payment platform can reveal a surprising amount of data. (WP $)
J.D Vance’s public Venmo transactions are pretty revealing, for example. (Wired $)

10 This robot dog

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By: Rhiannon Williams
Title: The Download: Windows’ CrowdStrike outage, and wildfire-tracking balloons
Sourced From: www.technologyreview.com/2024/07/19/1095149/the-download-windows-crowdstrike-outage-and-wildfire-tracking-balloons/
Published Date: Fri, 19 Jul 2024 12:10:00 +0000

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Companies need to stop taking the easy way out on climate goals

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

Corporate climate claims can be confusing—and sometimes entirely unintuitive.

Tech giants Amazon and Google both recently released news about their efforts to clean up their climate impact. Both were a mixed bag, but one bit of news in particular made me prick up my ears. Google’s emissions have gone up, and the company stopped claiming to be “net zero” (we’ll dig into this term more in a moment). Sounds bad, right? But in fact, one might argue that Google’s apparent backslide might actually represent progress for climate action.

My colleague James Temple dug into this news, along with the recent Amazon announcement, for a story this week. Let’s take a sneak peek at what he found and untangle why corporate climate efforts can be so tricky to wrap your head around. 

To make sense of these recent announcements, the most important phrase to understand is “net-zero emissions.”

Companies produce greenhouse-gas emissions by making products, transporting them around, or just using electricity. Some corporate leaders may want to reduce those emissions so they can be a smaller part of the climate-change problem (or brag about their progress). Net-zero emissions refers to the point at which the emissions a company produces are canceled out by those it eliminates. But very different paths can all lead to that point.

One way to get rid of emissions is to take actions to reduce them in your operations. Imagine, for example, Amazon replacing its delivery trucks with EVs or building solar panels on warehouses.

This sort of direct action tends to be hard and expensive, and it’s probably impossible for any company to totally wipe out all its emissions right now, given that so much of our economy still relies on fossil fuels. So to reach net zero, many companies choose to disappear their emissions with math instead.

A company might buy carbon credits or renewable-energy credits, essentially paying someone to make up for its own climate impact. That might mean giving a nonprofit money to plant some trees, which suck up and store carbon, or funneling funds to developers and claiming that more renewables projects will get built as a result.

Not all credits are all bad—but often, carbon offsets and renewable-energy credits reflect big claims with little to back them up. And if companies are going after a net-zero label for their business, they may be incentivized to buy cheap credits, even if they don’t actually deliver on claims. 

As James puts it in his story, “Corporate sustainability officers often end up pursuing the quickest, cheapest ways of cleaning up a company’s pollution on paper, rather than the most reliable ways of reducing its emissions in the real world.”

This sort of issue is why I tend to be suspicious of companies that claim to have already achieved net-zero emissions or 100% renewable energy. Cleaning up emissions is hard, and if you’ve already claimed victory, I’d say the odds are good that you’re taking an easy way out.

Which brings us to Google’s news. Google has claimed that its operations have operated with net-zero emissions since 2007. Now it’s not claiming that anymore—not really because it suddenly decided to take huge steps back in how it operates, but because it’s stopped buying carbon offsets on a massive scale. Instead, it’s focusing on investing in other ways to tackle emissions.

So what’s the next step for big companies looking to have a material impact on climate action? James has us covered again: In a 2022 story, he laid out six potential ways to rethink corporate climate goals. 

Instead of buying up credits, companies can instead put that money toward investing in permanent carbon removal. Developing more reliable methods of pulling climate pollution out of the atmosphere and locking it away might be more expensive, but investing in those efforts will help the market mature and support companies that need commitments. 

Companies can also contribute money to research and development for areas that are difficult to decarbonize—think aviation, shipping, steel, and cement. Those sectors touch basically every industry, so helping them make progress could be a worthy use of dollars. 

If there’s one takeaway in this tangle of news, I’d say that we could all ask more questions and dig a little deeper into claims from big corporations. Remember, if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.  

Now read the rest of The Spark

Related reading

Read more about Big Tech climate action, including why Amazon’s renewable-energy claims might be more complicated than they appear at first glance, in James’s latest story.

And here’s his piece on six

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By: Casey Crownhart
Title: Companies need to stop taking the easy way out on climate goals
Sourced From: www.technologyreview.com/2024/07/18/1095086/corporate-net-zero-goals/
Published Date: Thu, 18 Jul 2024 10:00:00 +0000

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