The Download: TikTok moral panics, and DeepMind’s record-breaking AI


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.

The porcelain challenge didn’t need to be real to get views

Despite what you may have heard, teens are not stealing their family’s fine dinnerware, tossing it in a blender, and snorting the resulting dust for the “porcelain challenge.” 

That’s just what Sebastian Durfee, a 23-year-old actor and TikTok creator, hoped you might believe when he spread the word on social media of the latest dangerous teen challenge. Never mind that it was all fake from the start.

Last week, Durfee posted a call to action to his followers: to work together to get “boomers to freak out about a fake TikTok challenge.” His account was banned just a few days later, but his goal wasn’t just to rack up views. It was also to examine how attention and outrage work online, and, in a new twist, to trick the very people who were in on the joke in the first place. Read the full story.

—Abby Ohlheiser

DeepMind’s game-playing AI has beaten a 50-year-old record in computer science

What’s happened: DeepMind has used its board game-playing AI AlphaZero to discover a faster way to solve a fundamental math problem in computer science, beating a record that has stood for more than 50 years.

Why it matters: The problem, matrix multiplication, is a crucial type of calculation at the heart of many different applications, from displaying images on a screen to simulating complex physics. It is also fundamental to machine learning itself. Speeding up this calculation could have a big impact on thousands of everyday computer tasks, cutting costs and saving energy. Read the full story.

—Will Douglas Heaven

Inside a battery recycling facility

A massive new battery recycling facility from Redwood Materials is being built in the mountains  just outside Reno, Nevada. My colleague Casey Crownhart, our climate reporter, took a look around to see how the construction’s going, including on the hydrometallurgical building, where valuable metals—lithium, nickel, cobalt, and copper—will be isolated from crushed battery materials. Read the full story.

Casey’s story is from The Spark, her new weekly newsletter giving you the inside track on all things climate and energy. 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 Hurricane Ian is likely to be Florida’s deadliest in 87 years
The majority of the 100+ casualties are believed to have drowned. (WP $)
+ Areas that embrace solar power fare better in extreme weather. (Slate $)
+ Bangkok’s flooding problem is steadily worsening. (New Yorker $)

2 It’s not too late to avoid a winter of extreme illness 
Accepting flu and covid shots can help to lessen the blow. (The Atlantic $)
+ Covid vaccines don’t harm menstrual cycles, a new study says. (Economist $)
+ This nanoparticle could be the key to a universal covid vaccine. (MIT Technology Review)

3 You shouldn’t worry about the US election getting hacked
At least, that’s what the DBI and CISA are saying. (Motherboard)
+The alt-right’s tech tactics have evolved since the Capitol riots. (Slate $)
+ Election misinformation is still thriving in non-English languages. (CNET)

4 Pollution particles can reach babies in the womb
Depending on how much pollution the mother is exposed to, soot particles can cross the placenta. (Bloomberg $)

5 Big Tech destroys millions of data storage devices a year
Even though they could wipe and resell them, companies are scared stiff of confidential data falling into the wrong hands. (FT $)

6 Inside the race to end HIV—using CRISPR
In theory, the technology could return cells to a near-standard state. (Wired $)
+ The scientist who co-created CRISPR isn’t ruling out engineered babies someday. (MIT Technology Review)

7 Chinese apps are still thriving in India
Despite the Indian government’s efforts to push users toward native apps. (Rest of World) 
+ Censorship-evading apps are being stamped out in China. (TechCrunch)

8 The rise and rise of facial recognition in US airports
Self-check in kiosks are being phased out in favor of the controversial technology. (NYT $)
+ If you get your face scanned the next time you fly, here’s what you should know. (MIT Technology Review)

9 What it’s like to visit an Instagram tourist trap
It sounds like a whole lot more trouble than it’s worth. (Vox)

10 It’s time to embrace robot dolphins 🐬
They’re an ethical alternative to the real thing in captivity. (Hakai Magazine)

Quote of the day

“The spam finds its way into my inbox, too.”

—Commissioner Ellen L. Weintraub of the Federal Election Commission, who helps police US political campaigns, tells the Washington Post that even she can’t escape the deluge of political spam emails.

The big story

Gene editing has made pigs immune to a deadly epidemic

crispr pig concept

December 2020

When covid-19 began to spread, countries closed businesses and told people to stay home. Many thought that would be enough to stop the coronavirus. If we had paid more attention to pigs, we might have known better.

To prevent their animals contracting diseases, pig farmers employ measures familiar to anyone who has been avoiding covid-19, including requiring human workers to change clothes before entering a secure barn, answering questions about their last pig contact and dousing supplies in disinfectant. 

Now the Pig Improvement Company, in Hendersonville, Tennessee, is trying something different. Instead of trying to seal animals off from the environment, it’s changing the pigs themselves. At a secret experimental facility in the US, the company has a swine IVF center and a lab where pig eggs are being genetically edited using CRISPR, the revolutionary gene scissors, to make piglets immune to deadly diseases. Read the full story.

—Antonio Regalado

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 pitfalls of making movies about making movies.
+ Chic is dead, long live chic.
+ Ada Lovelace telling Charles Babbage she wished he was as accurate as she was is just amazing (thanks Will!)
+ Notorious rock magazine Creem is making a comeback.
+ It’s time to choose the best songs and albums of the 90s—but how iconoclastic are your opinions?





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