TechnologyThe Download

The Download: tracing a mysterious covid strain, and fighting dengue with drones

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.

How scientists traced a mysterious covid case back to six toilets

This week I have a mystery for you. It’s the story of how a team of researchers traced a covid variant in Wisconsin from a wastewater plant to six toilets at a single company. But it’s also a story about privacy concerns that arise when you use sewers to track rare viruses back to their source.

That virus likely came from a single employee who happened to be shedding an enormous quantity of a very weird variant. The researchers would desperately like to find that person.

But what if that person doesn’t want to be found? And is there an ethical obligation to try to learn what we can so that we can try to help people who are harboring these viruses? Read the full story.

—Cassandra Willyard

This story first appeared in The Checkup, MIT Technology Review’s weekly biotech newsletter. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Thursday.

This startup wants to fight growing global dengue outbreaks with drones

The world is grappling with dengue epidemics, with 100 to 400 million cases worldwide every year, an eightfold increase since 20 years ago, according to the World Health Organization.

A startup in São Paulo, Brazil, one of the countries being hit the hardest by dengue outbreaks, has a possible solution: drones that release sterile male mosquitoes. 

Scientists have previously released sterile mosquitoes in a bid to cut the number of insects being born—and ultimately the number of cases of mosquito-borne diseases. However, they faced the hurdle of getting into the nooks and crannies of the neighborhoods where stagnant water often collects, and mosquitoes lay their eggs. Drones could help them overcome it. Read the full story.

—Jill Langlois

The must-reads

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

1 The US is suing Apple
Regulators have accused it of abusing its iPhone dominance. (FT $)
+ They’ve been looking into the company’s antitrust record since at least 2019. (The Guardian)
+ The tech giant is having a rough 2024 so far. (NYT $)
+ The lawsuit could force Apple to cooperate better with other smartphone makers. (Vox)

2 The United Nations promise to promote safe, trustworthy AI
But who enforces that, and how, remains to be seen. (WP $)
+ The AI Act is done. Here’s what will (and won’t) change. (MIT Technology Review)

3 What it’s like to receive a brain-computer implant
Jeffrey Keefer, who has Parkinson’s, agreed to having the device temporarily applied to the surface of his brain. (WSJ $)
+ Former Neuralink workers think the firm is taking unnecessary risks. (Vox)
+ How it feels to have a life-changing brain implant removed. (MIT Technology Review)

4 Tragic news stories drove readers to donate thousands of dollars
The only problem is, the victims didn’t exist. (NBC News)
+ Surveillance company Flock Safety claims to have solved 10% of reported US crime. Did it really? (404 Media)

5 We’re still waiting for AI we’re willing to pay for
We enjoy mucking around with generative AI—but we don’t want to fork out to use it. (Bloomberg $)

6 A British-Italian company claims to have discovered a better way to mine bitcoin
But crypto experts smell a rat. (FT $)
+ Ethereum moved to proof of stake. Why can’t Bitcoin? (MIT Technology Review)

7 Brands dependent on TikTok are getting anxious
There isn’t really another app or platform that would generate the same kind of sales. (NYT $)
+ US lawmakers are being targeted by angry TikTok devotees. (WP $)
+ Nvidia is selling its own version of the viral Stanley cup. (Insider $)

8 Care robots haven’t lived up to their hype
In some cases, they can hinder instead of help. (The Atlantic $)
+ Inside Japan’s long experiment in automating elder care. (MIT Technology Review)

9 Theories of reality are seriously confusing
But some of them are much more consequential than others. (New Scientist $)
+ What is death? (MIT Technology Review)

10 How Pixar’s software changed movie making forever
Starting with the stone cold classic Toy Story. (IEEE Spectrum)

Quote of the day

“Buy your mom an iPhone.”

—Apple CEO Tim Cook’s response to a customer complaining they were unable to send their mother certain videos because she used an Android smartphone, the Verge reports.

The big story

How AI is helping historians better understand our past

April 2023

Historians have started using machine learning to examine historical documents, including astronomical tables like those produced in Venice and other early modern cities.

Proponents claim that the application of modern computer science to the past helps draw connections across a broader swath of the historical record than would otherwise be possible, correcting distortions that come from analyzing history one document at a time.

But it introduces distortions of its own, including the risk that machine learning will slip bias or outright falsifications into the historical record. Read the full story.

—Moira Donovan

We can still have nice things

A place for comfort, fun and distraction to brighten up your day. (Got any ideas? Drop me a line or tweet ’em at me.)

+ The way sea sponges pump water is really quite amazing.
+ Over in Australia, they’re (almost) mistaking new bug species for bird poo.
+ I never thought I’d be transfixed by a bed making competition, but here we are.
+ Meet the people dedicated to watching films at double-speed.

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