TechnologyThe Download

The Download: super-efficient solar cells, and helpful robots

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.

Super-efficient solar cells: 10 Breakthrough Technologies 2024

In November 2023, a buzzy solar technology broke yet another world record for efficiency. The previous record had existed for only about five months—and it likely won’t be long before it too is obsolete.

This astonishing acceleration in efficiency gains comes from a special breed of next-­generation solar technology: perovskite tandem solar cells. These cells layer the traditional silicon with materials that share a unique crystal structure.

But there’s just one problem—perovskites have stumbled when it comes to actual deployment. While silicon solar cells can last for decades, few perovskite tandem panels have even been tested outside. Read the full story.

—Emma Foehringer Merchant

Super-efficient solar cells are just one of MIT Technology Review’s 10 Breakthrough Technologies for 2024. Check out the rest of the list and vote for the final 11th breakthrough—we’ll reveal the winner in April.

+ To learn more about the promises of the next-generation of solar technology and the race to bring it to market, check out Emma Foehringer Merchant’s fascinating story.

Take an inside look at the 10 Breakthrough Technologies of 2024

Every year for the past 20+ years, MIT Technology Review has selected a list of the breakthrough technologies that will have the greatest impact on how we live and work in the future.

Join MIT Technology Review’s Amy Nordrum, executive editor of operations, Rachel Courtland, commissioning editor, and Abby Ivory-Ganja, senior engagement editor, as they unveil and explore the 2024 list in an exclusive subscribers-only Roundtables event on Tuesday January 16 at 12:30pm ET.

This event will include a full walkthrough of the items on the list, a deep dive into what you need to know about several items, and an in-depth look at how the list was made. Register here, and if you haven’t already, subscribe today to save up to a whopping 25%.

Watch this robot cook shrimp and clean autonomously

The news: Even relatively cheap robots can learn to do complex household chores such as cooking and cleaning up stains using AI, a new study has shown. Researchers from Stanford University achieved this by combining both new demonstration training data pertaining to the tasks, and older data which helped it learn unrelated skills that still proved useful. 

Why it matters: This “co-training” approach, in which new and old data are combined, helped the robot learn new jobs quickly, compared with the usual approach of training AI systems on thousands of examples. 

The bigger picture: While household tasks are easy for humans, they remain hard for robots. However, recent efforts to apply AI techniques to robotics have shown a lot of promise in unlocking new capabilities. Read the full story.

—Melissa Heikkilä

The FTC’s unprecedented move against data brokers, explained

We’re only a few weeks into 2024, and violations of people’s privacy are already making headlines. Most recently, last week the FTC took an unprecedented step and banned a data broker from selling people’s location data. 

It’s a move that could signal more aggressive action from policy makers to curb the corrosive effects that data brokers have on personal privacy. Tate Ryan-Mosley, our senior tech policy reporter, explains why the new settlement is likely to fuel more calls for forceful legislative action against them. Read the full story.

This story is from The Technocrat, our weekly newsletter exploring money and power in Silicon Valley. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Friday.

The must-reads

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

1 Turkey is ramping up internet censorship
Internet providers have been instructed to curtail access to VPNs ahead of the country’s election. (FT $)
+ Deepfake ads of the UK’s prime minister are circulating online. (The Guardian)
+ Eric Schmidt has a 6-point plan for fighting election misinformation. (MIT Technology Review)

2 AI models can be trained to deceive
And even to conceal their dastardly, deceptive behavior. (TechCrunch)
+ Rogue superintelligence and merging with machines: Inside the mind of OpenAI’s chief scientist. (MIT Technology Review)

3 There’s a high bar to buying the Vision Pro headset
On top of paying $3,499, prospective customers will face a 25-minute in-store demo. (Bloomberg $)
+ These minuscule pixels are poised to take augmented reality by storm. (MIT Technology Review)

4 How California turned its back on solar power
Homeowners are being offered fewer incentives to install panels. Solar companies are packing up and leaving. (NYT $)
+ Indoor solar power could spell an end to charging your devices. (WSJ $)
+ The lurking threat to solar power’s growth. (MIT Technology Review)

5 China’s military has managed to acquire Nvidia chips
In spite of strict US restrictions created to prevent exactly that. (Reuters)
+ The US-China chip war is still escalating. (MIT Technology Review)

6 Piles of disposable clothes are being burnt in Chile
It’s a sobering reminder of the bleak realities of what disposable fashion is doing to the planet. (Wired $)
+ Why my bittersweet relationship with Shein had to end. (MIT Technology Review)

7 A Japanese hoverbike company has filed for bankruptcy
After adoption was slower than they anticipated. (Bloomberg $)+ It’s not just outlandish transportation startups going bust, either. (WSJ $)

8 What the millennial social web taught us
Our digital worlds have shrunk and imploded in recent decades. (New Yorker $)
+ Digitizing everything comes at a heavy social cost. (Wired $)
+ Does posting help us to recall memories more accurately? (The Atlantic $)

9 What it really cost to build the world’s greatest stereo
It’s not just about the gear—whether something sounds good or not is entirely subjective. (WP $)

10 Want to flex on TikTok? Show off your bookshelf
But please, make sure you’re reading them—not just displaying them. (NYT $)

Quote of the day

“Social Media is Dead. Long Live Snapchat!” 

—Evan Spiegel, CEO of Snapchat, makes a bold assertion in an optimistic note to employees, Insider reports.

The big story

Bright LEDs could spell the end of dark skies

August 2022

Scientists have known for years that light pollution is growing and can harm both humans and wildlife. In people, increased exposure to light at night disrupts sleep cycles and has been linked to cancer and cardiovascular disease, while wildlife suffers from interruption to their reproductive patterns, and increased danger. 

Astronomers, policymakers, and lighting professionals are all working to find ways to reduce light pollution. Many of them advocate installing light-emitting diodes, or LEDs, in outdoor fixtures such as city streetlights, mainly for their ability to direct light to a targeted area. 

But the high initial investment and durability of modern LEDs mean cities need to get the transition right the first time or potentially face decades of consequences. Read the full story.

—Shel Evergreen

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.)

+ I could listen to T-Pain sing all day long.
+ If you’ve ever misplaced a Lego instruction booklet, don’t worry—the Internet Archive has you covered.
+ It’s really happening—a 28 Days Later sequel is (reportedly) in the works.
+ This is cool: how different cultures dream.
+ Let’s take a look at just some of the weird and wonderful deep ocean creatures captured on camera last year.

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