Tech

The Download: introducing the Ethics issue

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.

Introducing: the Ethics issue 

As technology is embedded deeper and further into our lives, it’s becoming increasingly important for us to properly grapple with ethical concerns. For example, how do we nurture the development of AI in a way that avoids societal harm? Who should get access to cutting-edge, experimental drugs? If a machine tells soldiers when to pull the trigger, who is responsible? These are just some of the questions we explore in the latest edition of our print magazine. If nothing else, this issue is guaranteed to make you think. 

It’s worth diving in and reading the whole magazine cover-to-cover, but if you’re pressed for time, I’d recommend kicking off with these knock-out pieces:

+ This feature looks at the tricky, painful questions that surround who ought to get access to which experimental medical treatments (it can be a far harder decision than you might imagine.)

+ An article about All Tech Is Human, a nonprofit organization devoted to promoting ethics and responsibility in tech, which forms a sort of non-religious congregation for our modern times. 

+ This feature delves into the complex and messy ethics of making war with machines—a pressing topic as cutting-edge tech is being tested in Ukraine, often with little-to-no oversight. 

+ This story examines the occasionally heated debates that go on behind the scenes in the open source community, and where it seems to be heading next. + Our online lives are plagued with scams, hacks and fraud. And technology is never going to magically fix that—it’s down to us, as this piece explains.

The fascinating evolution of typing Chinese characters

Back in the ’80s, there was no way of processing Chinese characters on personal computers. It posed a tricky problem to fix, but one Chinese engineer named Wang Yongmin had a stab. He developed the first popular way to input Chinese characters into a computer in 1983, by breaking down a character into different strokes and assigning several strokes to each letter on the QWERTY keyboard.

It was handy, but came with a big downside: users need to memorize which keys correspond to which strokes, so the learning curve is quite steep. The next step in the evolution of Chinese IMEs was the invention of typing by phonetic spelling in the ‘90s. But that also came with its own trouble, as hundreds of Chinese characters can share the same phonetic spelling.

Eventually, far more efficient predictive keyboard software came along in 2006, and now that forms the foundation for how Chinese people interact with technologies and each other. But again (you guessed it) there’s a problem: these apps are a privacy nightmare. Read the full story. 

—Zeyi Yang

This story is from China Report, Zeyi’s weekly newsletter giving you the inside track on what’s happening in China. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Tuesday.

The must-reads

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

1 India is about to try to land on the moon 
If it succeeds, it’ll become the first country to reach the lunar south pole. (FT $)
If you’re a fan of high-stakes space livestreams, watch it right now. (Engadget)

2 Meta released an AI model that can translate a ton of languages
These sorts of tools are improving at a dizzying pace. (TechCrunch)
Meta’s new AI models can recognize and produce speech for more than 1,000 languages. (MIT Technology Review)

3 The US is fighting extreme weather on many fronts
Floods, wildfires, hurricanes and heat waves are making for a turbulent time in every corner of the country. (NBC)
Climate change is redrawing the disaster map. (The Verge)

4 What did the €600 million Human Brain Project achieve? 🧠
It didn’t manage to simulate the whole human brain (a tall order)—but it still stacked up some useful findings. (Nature)
How big science failed to unlock the mysteries of the human brain. (MIT Technology Review)

5 Elon Musk is ridiculously powerful 
Ignore all the noise around X, and look at his intergovernmental reach via projects like Starlink. (New Yorker $)

6 Inside the AI porn marketplace where everyone is for sale
Generative AI tools make it terrifyingly easy to create non-consensual images of anyone. (404 Media)
Tips for ‘jailbreaking’ AI are already everywhere online. (New Scientist $)
Scammers used ChatGPT to spam X with dodgy links. (Wired $)
Three ways AI chatbots are a security disaster. (MIT Technology Review)

7 LinkedIn is kinda… cool now
If corporate blandness is as bad as it gets, it still beats the unappealing alternatives. (Bloomberg $)

8 What we can learn from Taiwan’s myopia epidemic 
Poor eyesight is a growing problem around the world, but there are ways to stop it becoming even worse. (Wired $)

9 ‘Subliminals’ claim to transform teens’ lives 
These videos could make you better and more attractive. They might also do nothing. Or even make you feel worse. (The Atlantic $)

10 Your encrypted apps might not be as private as you think
The devil, as always, is in the details. (WP $)

Quote of the day

“Because he’s following his principles, he is literally now subsisting on bread and water.”

—Spare a thought for Sam Bankman-Fried, alleged to have defrauded people out of billions of dollars via his company FTX, who his lawyer says isn’t getting the vegan diet he requested, Reuters reports. 

The big story

The fight for “Instagram face”

screenshot of the SculptGL interface

FLORENCIA SOLARI

August 2022

Through beauty filters, platforms like Instagram are helping users achieve increasingly narrowing beauty standards—though only in the digital world—at a stunningly rapid pace. There is evidence that excessive use of these filters online has harmful effects on mental health, especially for young girls.

“Instagram face” is a recognized aesthetic: ethnically ambiguous with the flawless skin, big eyes, full lips, small nose, and perfectly contoured curves made accessible in large part by filters. And while Instagram has banned filters that encourage plastic surgery, massive demand for beauty augmentation on social media is complicating matters. Read the full story.

—Tate Ryan-Mosley

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.)

+ Do I need more salt in my diet? Probably not. Do I still want to try a salted soda anyway? Uh, yes.
+ The origin of the word ‘hangover’ may be more literal than I’d imagined. 
+ Photographer Ken Hermann’s portraits are amazing. 
+ Constantly surrounded by screens? Don’t forget to breathe. (NYT $)

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