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The Download: cancer-fighting bacteria, and ChatGPT in the classroom

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.

Bacteria can be engineered to fight cancer in mice. Human trials are coming.

The news: There are trillions of microbes living in and on our bodies—and we might be able to modify them to help us treat diseases. Scientists have altered the genomes of some of these bacteria, essentially engineering microbes that can prevent or treat cancer.

How they did it: The team chose a microbe that’s commonly found on human skin and modified it by inserting a new gene that codes for a protein that sits on the surface of some cancer cells. They applied it to heads of mice injected with skin cancer cells, and observed how the progression of the cancer was significantly slowed in mice that had been given the engineered microbe, compared to those who received a regular microbe.

What’s next: Although the team have to find a good candidate microbe they’re confident could trigger the same immune response in people, human trials are on the cards within the next few years. Read the full story.

—Jessica Hamzelou

Banning ChatGPT will do more harm than good

—Rohan Mehta is a high school senior at Moravian Academy in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.  

The release of ChatGPT has sent shock waves through the halls of education. Although universities have rushed to release guidelines on how it can be used, the notion of a measured response to the emergence of this powerful chatbot seems to have barely penetrated K–12 classrooms. Consequently, high schoolers across the country have been confronted with a silent coup of blocked AI websites.

That’s a shame. If educators actively engage with students about the technology’s capabilities and limitations—and work with them to define new academic standards—generative AI could both democratize and revitalize K–12 education on an unprecedented scale. Read the full story.

A test told me my brain and liver are older than they should be. Should I be worried?

Last year, our senior biotech writer Jessica Hamzelou took a test to find out her biological age. These tests, which involve assessing chemical markers on your DNA, aim to estimate how much wear and tear you’ve experienced so far—and, essentially, how many years of life are left in you.

Jessica’s results suggested that her biological age was 35, the same age she was when she took the test, indicating that she’s aging at a normal rate. But the company has since reanalyzed the results to give her an individual biological age for each of nine systems, including her brain, liver, heart, and blood. 

Jessica was disappointed with their findings. But how much should we really read into results like this? Read the full story.

—Jessica Hamzelou

Jessica’s story is from The Checkup, her weekly newsletter giving you the inside track on all things biotech. 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 Amazon is jumping on the generative AI hype train 
It’s hoping to cash in from its corporate web services customers. (WSJ $)
+ It’ll sell the tools businesses need to create their ChatGPT equivalent. (Wired $)
+ Generative AI is changing everything. But what’s left when the hype is gone? (MIT Technology Review)

2 The Discord channel leaker has been identified
The FBI arrested a 21-year old man in Massachusetts. (NYT $)
+ That doesn’t necessarily mean an end to the leaking, though. (Economist $)
+ Members of the Discord group have explained how the documents leaked. (WP $)

3 Intel wants to rise to the US’ chipmaking challenge
Now it’s up to the Biden administration to decide how much money to give it. (FT $)
+ The US is throwing cash at Taiwan chipmaking machines too. (Bloomberg $)
+ Chinese chips will keep powering your everyday life. (MIT Technology Review)

4 Children are vulnerable to abuse in the metaverse
Safety experts are urging Meta to pause plans to allow adolescents into virtual worlds. (Bloomberg $)
+ The metaverse has a groping problem already. (MIT Technology Review)

5 France is cracking down on shady influencers
A new law hopes to cull the scams plaguing social media platforms.(Motherboard)

6 Why ChatGPT isn’t as smart as it appears
Answering questions isn’t a true measure of intelligence, for one.(New Yorker $)
+ The model is an irresistible hacking target. (Wired $)
+ Cloning a group chat using AI is surprisingly easy. (The Verge)
+ The inside story of how ChatGPT was built from the people who made it. (MIT Technology Review)

7 Swatting services are available to hire on Telegram
They make bomb and shooting threats to the police using synthetic voices. (Motherboard)
+ AI voice cloning software is scarily convincing. (Slate $)

8 Latin America is reliant on WhatsApp to reach doctors
It means it’s not always clear what’s billable and what’s not. (Rest of World)

9 The rising price of childhood nostalgia
VHS tapes and pop culture memorabilia command big price tags online. (NYT $)

10 Those public phone charging points aren’t a security risk after all
‘Juice jacking’ isn’t the threat the FBI led us to believe. (Slate $)

Quote of the day

“They’ve fired everybody I know a couple of times. I operate as if I’ve already been fired.”

—Daniel Olayiwola, a gig worker for Amazon, explains what it’s like to work in an environment with exceedingly strict performance metrics to the New York Times.  

The big story

Psychedelics are having a moment and women could be the ones to benefit

August 2022

Psychedelics are having a moment. After decades of prohibition and vilification, they are increasingly being employed as therapeutics. Drugs like ketamine, MDMA, and psilocybin mushrooms are being studied in clinical trials to treat depression, substance abuse, and a range of other maladies. 

And as these long-taboo drugs stage a comeback in the scientific community, it’s possible they could be especially promising for women.

Is this the beginning of a brighter future for women’s health? While psychiatrists are optimistic, they are rightly concerned about the potential for abuse. Read the full story.

—Taylor Majewski

We can still have nice things

A place for comfort, fun and distraction in these weird times. (Got any ideas? Drop me a line or tweet ’em at me.)

+ The Super Mario Bros theme tune has become the first bit of video game music to be included in the US Library of Congress.
+ If you’re a Picard fan, see what you think of this ranking of every starship Enterprise.
+ This Twitter account documenting the origins of iconic images is endlessly entertaining—and informative.
+ There’s a lot going on on Floor796 (thanks Stefan!)
+ Let’s go hunting for some authentic maple syrup.

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