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>In 1959, in a short essay called “The Great Game to Come,” a little-known Dutch visual artist named Constant Nieuwenhuys described a new utopian city—one that he was soon to dub “New Babylon.” “The technical inventions that humanity has at its disposal today,” he presciently stated, “will play a major role in the construction of the ambiance-cities of the future.”

Like nearly every imagined future utopia, New Babylon was never built. It was manifested only in architectural drawings, sketches, maps, collages, and experimental films. Its creator, generally known as Constant, envisioned his city as a complex network where artificial and natural spaces would be linked together by communication infrastructures; “recourse to a computer” would be necessary to resolve such a complex organizational problem. But New Babylon was to be something even more radical: a place where new technologies would replace the drudgery of labor by automatic processes, enabling the city’s inhabitants to experience a “nomadic life of creative play.”

Today, Constant’s pronouncement seems prophetic. No doubt computers would also have been needed to achieve his visionary concept of an environment in which “each person can at any moment, in any place, alter the ambiance by adjusting the sound volume, the brightness of the light, the olfactive ambiance or the temperature.” Above all, electronic technologies would enable complete transformations of sound, light, and the organization of space in New Babylon. These transformations would be accomplished by what Constant called “the most sophisticated behind-the-scenes automation,” while electronics themselves “would be part of the visible scenery.” Spaces in New Babylon would somehow need to be “aware” of the activities taking place in them so that the environment could know when to change its appearance and behavior. 

Constant was soon to achieve international renown as one of founding members of the Situationist International (1957–1972)—a group of artists, writers, and philosophers who aimed to apply Marxism to contemporary urban society. Like many of his SI compatriots, Constant viewed the post-WWII city as a site for both critique and intervention. He and a Situationist collaborator, the cultural critic Guy Debord, declared as much in setting forth a concept they dubbed “Unitary Urbanism,” which considered the city not as an agglomeration of faceless architecture and bureaucratic processes but as a set of creative social practices.

New Babylon took shape during the two-year period that Constant was a member of the SI. It was not so much an architectural planning project as it was “a way of thinking, of imagining, of looking on things and on life.” Although echoing other technology-charged 1960s utopian city visions such as Archigram’s “Walking City” or the performative “Villa Rosa–Pneumatic Living Unit” from the Austrian avant-garde collective Coop Himmelb(l)au, New Babylon began to gel in, of all places, the countryside. In 1959, the artist participated in an experimental-urbanism workshop in the Italian town of Alba at the base of the Piedmont Mountains. Sympathetic to the presence of nomadic Roma camped out by the Tamaro River, he began working on a concept to create a “permanent encampment” for the migrants “where under one roof, with the aid of moveable elements, a shared temporary, constantly remodeled living area is built.”

New Babylon would gestate in Constant’s mind for two decades. In his vision, land would be collectively owned, social systems would be hyper-connected, and automation would create a life of leisure for its citizens. To achieve a new “social organization of the city,” Constant imagined a vast hierarchy of local sites (what he called “sectors”) connected globally (“networks”). Groupings of interlinked platforms were envisioned as being completely transformable so as to create dynamic relations between inhabitants (“New Babylonians”) and their surroundings. With interwoven levels of transport networks and spaces all linked by communications infrastructure, New Babylon defied traditional cartography. Clearly the artist knew, however, that running such a complex, interconnected system would require help from the emerging technologies of computational management and control. Though he had neither the ability to construct New Babylon nor an interest in actually doing so, his concept seemed like an idea whose time would come.

Rise of the smart city

In 1974, the same year that Constant ceased working on New Babylon, a little-known report was published by the Los Angeles Community Analysis Bureau (CAB), titled “The State of the City: A Cluster Analysis of Los Angeles.” The report offered the typical stuff of urban research—statistical analysis, demographic data, and housing assessments. But what was not apparent was how the CAB had gathered the data. 

While urban theorists somewhat

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By: Chris Salter
Title: The smart city is a perpetually unrealized utopia
Sourced From: www.technologyreview.com/2022/06/24/1053969/smart-city-unrealized-utopia/
Published Date: Fri, 24 Jun 2022 09:00:00 +0000

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This US startup makes a crucial chip material and is taking on a Japanese giant

Thintronics PCB jpg

It can be dizzying to try to understand all the complex components of a single computer chip: layers of microscopic components linked to one another through highways of copper wires, some barely wider than a few strands of DNA. Nestled between those wires is an insulating material called a dielectric, ensuring that the wires don’t touch and short out. Zooming in further, there’s one particular dielectric placed between the chip and the structure beneath it; this material, called dielectric film, is produced in sheets as thin as white blood cells.

For 30 years, a single Japanese company called Ajinomoto has made billions producing this particular film. Competitors have struggled to outdo them, and today Ajinomoto has more than 90% of the market in the product, which is used in everything from laptops to data centers.

But now, a startup based in Berkeley, California, is embarking on a herculean effort to dethrone Ajinomoto and bring this small slice of the chipmaking supply chain back to the US.

Thintronics is promising a product purpose-built for the computing demands of the AI era—a suite of new materials that the company claims have higher insulating properties and, if adopted, could mean data centers with faster computing speeds and lower energy costs. 

The company is at the forefront of a coming wave of new US-based companies, spurred by the $280 billion CHIPS and Science Act, that is seeking to carve out a portion of the semiconductor sector, which has become dominated by just a handful of international players. But to succeed, Thintronics and its peers will have to overcome a web of challenges—solving technical problems, disrupting long-standing industry relationships, and persuading global semiconductor titans to accommodate new suppliers.

“Inventing new materials platforms and getting them into the world is very difficult,” Thintronics founder and CEO Stefan Pastine says. It is “not for the faint of heart.”

The insulator bottleneck

If you recognize the name Ajinomoto, you’re probably surprised to hear it plays a critical role in the chip sector: the company is better known as the world’s leading supplier of MSG seasoning powder. In the 1990s, Ajinomoto discovered that a by-product of MSG made a great insulator, and it has enjoyed a near monopoly in the niche material ever since.

But Ajinomoto doesn’t make any of the other parts that go into chips. In fact, the insulating materials in chips rely on dispersed supply chains: one layer uses materials from Ajinomoto, another uses material from another company, and so on, with none of the layers optimized to work in tandem. The resulting system works okay when data is being transmitted over short paths, but over longer distances, like between chips, weak insulators act as a bottleneck, wasting energy and slowing down computing speeds. That’s recently become a growing concern, especially as the scale of AI training gets more expensive and consumes eye-popping amounts of energy. (Ajinomoto did not respond to requests for comment.)

None of this made much sense to Pastine, a chemist who sold his previous company, which specialized in recycling hard plastics, to an industrial chemicals company in 2019. Around that time, he started to believe that the chemicals industry could be slow to innovate, and he thought the same pattern was keeping chipmakers from finding better insulating materials. In the chip industry, he says, insulators have “kind of been looked at as the redheaded stepchild”—they haven’t seen the progress made with transistors and other chip components.

He launched Thintronics that same year, with the hope that cracking the code on a better insulator could provide data centers with faster computing speeds at lower costs. That idea wasn’t groundbreaking—new insulators are constantly being researched and deployed—but Pastine believed that he could find the right chemistry to deliver a breakthrough.

Thintronics PCB 1 jpg

Thintronics says it will manufacture different insulators for all layers of the chip, for a system designed to swap into existing manufacturing lines. Pastine tells me the materials are now being tested with a number of industry players. But he declined to provide names, citing nondisclosure agreements, and

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By: James O’Donnell
Title: This US startup makes a crucial chip material and is taking on a Japanese giant
Sourced From: www.technologyreview.com/2024/04/11/1091143/thintronics-ajinomoto-dielectric-chip-semiconductor-competition/
Published Date: Thu, 11 Apr 2024 16:04:55 +0000

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The Download: AI is making robots more helpful, and the problem with cleaning up pollution

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.

Is robotics about to have its own ChatGPT moment?

Henry and Jane Evans are used to awkward houseguests. For more than a decade, the couple, who live in Los Altos Hills, California, have hosted a slew of robots in their home.

In 2002, at age 40, Henry had a massive stroke, which left him with quadriplegia and an inability to speak. While they’ve experimented with many advanced robotic prototypes in a bid to give Henry more autonomy, it’s one recent model that works in tandem with AI models that has made the biggest changes—helping to brush his hair, and opening up his relationship with his granddaughter.

A new generation of scientists and inventors believes that the previously missing ingredient of AI can give robots the ability to learn new skills and adapt to new environments faster than ever before. This new approach, just maybe, can finally bring robots out of the factory and into our homes. Read the full story.

—Melissa Heikkilä

Melissa’s story is from the next magazine issue of MIT Technology Review, set to go live on April 24, on the theme of Build. If you don’t subscribe already, sign up now to get a copy when it lands.

The inadvertent geoengineering experiment that the world is now shutting off

The news: When we talk about climate change, the focus is usually on the role that greenhouse-gas emissions play in driving up global temperatures, and rightly so. But another important, less-known phenomenon is also heating up the planet: reductions in other types of pollution.

In a nutshell: In particular, the world’s power plants, factories, and ships are pumping much less sulfur dioxide into the air, thanks to an increasingly strict set of global pollution regulations. Sulfur dioxide creates aerosol particles in the atmosphere that can directly reflect sunlight back into space or act as the “condensation nuclei” around which cloud droplets form. More or thicker clouds, in turn, also cast away more sunlight. So when we clean up pollution, we also ease this cooling effect.

Why it matters: Cutting air pollution has unequivocally saved lives. But as the world rapidly warms, it’s critical to understand the impact of pollution-fighting regulations on the global thermostat as well. Read the full story.

—James Temple

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 Election workers are worried about AI 
Generative models could make it easier for election deniers to spam offices. (Wired $)
Eric Schmidt has a 6-point plan for fighting election misinformation. (MIT Technology Review)

2 Apple has warned users in 92 countries of mercenary spyware attacks
It said it had high confidence that the targets were at genuine risk. (TechCrunch)

3 The US is in desperate need of chip engineers
Without them, it can’t meet its lofty semiconductor production goals. (WSJ $)
Taiwanese chipmakers are looking to expand overseas. (FT $)
How ASML took over the chipmaking chessboard. (MIT Technology Review)

4 Meet the chatbot tutors
Tens of thousands of gig economy workers are training tomorrow’s models. (NYT $)
Adobe is paying photographers $120 per video to train its generator. (Bloomberg $)
The next wave of AI coding tools is emerging. (IEEE Spectrum)
The people paid to train AI are outsourcing their work… to AI. (MIT Technology Review)

5 The Middle East is rushing to build AI infrastructure
Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE see sprawling data centers as key to becoming the region’s AI superpower. (Bloomberg $)

6 Political content creators and activists are lobbying Meta
They claim the company’s decision to limit the reach of ‘political’ content is threatening their livelihoods. (WP $)

7 The European Space Agency is planning an artificial solar eclipse
The mission, due to launch later this year, should provide essential insight into the sun’s atmosphere. (IEEE Spectrum)

8 How AI is helping to recover Ireland’s marginalized voices
Starting with the dung queen of Dublin. (The Guardian)
How AI is helping historians better understand our past. (MIT Technology Review)

9 Video game history is vanishing before our eyes
As consoles fall out of use, their games are consigned to history too. (FT $)

10 Dating apps are struggling to make looking for love fun
Charging users seems counterintuitive, then. (The Atlantic $)
Here’s how the net’s newest matchmakers help you find love. (MIT Technology Review)

Quote of the day

“We’re women sharing

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By: Rhiannon Williams
Title: The Download: AI is making robots more helpful, and the problem with cleaning up pollution
Sourced From: www.technologyreview.com/2024/04/11/1091100/the-download-ai-is-making-robots-more-helpful-and-the-problem-with-cleaning-up-pollution/
Published Date: Thu, 11 Apr 2024 12:10:00 +0000

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Scaling individual impact: Insights from an AI engineering leader

team with flag

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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