The Download: Marseille’s surveillance fightback, and the endless AI sentience debate
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.
Marseille’s battle against the surveillance state
Across the world, video cameras have become an accepted feature of urban life. Many cities in China now have dense networks of them, and London and New Delhi aren’t far behind.
Now France is playing catch-up. Since 2015, the year of the Bataclan terrorist attacks, the number of cameras in Paris has increased fourfold. The police have used such cameras to enforce pandemic lockdown measures and monitor protests.
Concerns have been raised throughout the country. But the surveillance rollout has met special resistance in Marseille, France’s second-biggest city. Last year, President Emmanuel Macron announced that 500 more security cameras would be given to the city council and placed in an area of the city that is home to high numbers of immigrants.
The boisterous, rebellious Mediterranean town sits on some of the fault lines that run through modern France. Known for hip bars, artist studios, and startup hubs, it is also notorious for drugs, poverty, and criminal activity. It’s unsurprising, perhaps, that activists are fighting back against the cameras, highlighting the surveillance system’s overreach and underperformance. But are they succeeding? Read the full story.
I’ve combed the internet to find you today’s most fun/important/scary/fascinating stories about technology.
1 One of Google’s engineers thinks its AI is sentient
It’s almost definitely not—but that hasn’t stopped a new round of speculation and debate in the research community. (WP $)
+ Google’s vice president thinks the network is striding towards consciousness. (Economist $)
+ Machine consciousness is the debate that never goes away. (MIT Technology Review)
+ Text-to-image AI DALL-E struggled to draw a self-portrait. (Motherboard)
2 The rise and rise of digital twins
Experimenting with digital copies of everything from vital organs to planet Earth can help simulate disasters. (BBC)
+ How digital twins help weather the world’s supply chain nightmare. (MIT Technology Review)
3 We’re making the world too bright
And it’s harming our wildlife. (The Atlantic $)
4 Leading a deep space mission is even more stressful than you imagine
New problems crop up every day. (Slate $)
+ A rocket carrying two NASA satellites failed to make it into orbit on Sunday. (Space)
5 Meta is investigating how Sheryl Sandberg used company resources
Mainly in relation to her own personal projects, including the promotion of her second book. (WSJ $)
6 A microchip that tests for more than 200 viruses could be on the horizon
Molecular electronics could accelerate drug discovery—if they work. (Neo.Life)
+ This startup wants to make electronics out of single molecules. (MIT Technology Review)
+ Doctor check-in software has been gathering user data for marketing. (WP $)
7 Even with a TV is turned off, some ads keep playing on streaming services
Which is a complete waste of money for advertisers. (WSJ $)
8 It’s tougher than ever to be a parent in America
But it’s worth remembering that children themselves are still incredibly resilient. (Vox)
9 Facebook groups are being used to couple up young Pakistanis
After the country banned more conventional dating apps, including Tinder. (Rest of World)
+ There’s a growing backlash against the apps around the world. (The Guardian)
10 Like it or not, we’re all influencers now
And the endless effort to appease the algorithm is making us anxious. (Real Life)
Quote of the day
“It took me hours to understand what it was, why I was weeping. I realized I was in grief. I was grieving for the destruction of the Earth.”
—William Shatner, Star Trek actor, was deeply moved by the sight of Earth from space during his trip to orbit last year, he tells CNN.
The big story
AI’s Language Problem
About halfway through a particularly tense game of Go held in Seoul, South Korea, between Lee Sedol, one of the best players of all time, and AlphaGo, an artificial intelligence created by Google, the AI program made a mysterious move that demonstrated an unnerving edge over its human opponent.
On move 37, AlphaGo chose to put a black stone in what seemed, at first, like a ridiculous position. It looked certain to give up substantial territory—a rookie mistake in a game that is all about controlling the space on the board. Two television commentators wondered if they had misread the move or if the machine had malfunctioned somehow. In fact, contrary to conventional wisdom, the Google program had effectively won the game using a move that no human would’ve come up with.
AlphaGo’s victory was particularly impressive because the ancient game of Go is often looked at as a test of intuitive intelligence, and it’s incredibly hard to play it well. Read the full story.
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.)
+ Struggling to remember the songs your favorite artist played at the last concert you went to? This handy website crowdsources setlists.
+ In a thoroughly British bit of news: this couple has collected more than 8,000 teapots.
+ This architectural project in Iceland is jaw dropping – although I bet that pool is freezing.
+ Do you think you could outrun a horse? This man did—over a grueling 22.5-mile race.
+ The Kardashians’ cream of wheat recipe is…groundbreaking.