The Download: Google’s new AI agent, and our tech pessimism bias

The Download: Google’s new AI agent, and our tech pessimism bias

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.

Google’s Astra is its first AI-for-everything agent

What’s happening: Google is set to launch a new system called Astra later this year. It promises that it will be the most powerful, advanced type of AI assistant it’s ever launched. 

What’s an agent? The current generation of AI assistants, such as ChatGPT, can retrieve information and offer answers, but that is about it. But this year, Google is rebranding its assistants as more advanced “agents,” which it says could show reasoning, planning, and memory skills and are able to take multiple steps to execute tasks. 

The big picture: Tech companies are in the middle of a fierce competition over AI supremacy, and  AI agents are the latest effort from Big Tech firms to show they are pushing the frontier of development. Read the full story.

—Melissa Heikkilä

Technology is probably changing us for the worse—or so we always think

Do we use technology, or does it use us? Do our gadgets improve our lives or just make us weak, lazy, and dumb? These are old questions—maybe older than you think. You’re probably familiar with the way alarmed grown-ups through the decades have assailed the mind-rotting potential of search engines, video games, television, and radio—but those are just the recent examples.

Here at MIT Technology Review, writers have grappled with the effects, real or imagined, of tech on the human mind for over a century. But while we’ve always greeted new technologies with a mixture of fascination and fear, something interesting always happens. We get used to it. Read the full story.

—Timothy Maher

MIT Technology Review is celebrating our 125th anniversary with an online series that draws lessons for the future from our past coverage of technology. Check out this piece from the series by David Rotman, our editor at large, about how fear AI will take our jobs is nothing new.

Hong Kong is safe from China’s Great Firewall—for now

Last week, the Hong Kong Court of Appeal granted an injunction that permits the city government to go to Western platforms like YouTube and Spotify and demand they remove the protest anthem “Glory to Hong Kong,” because the government claims it has been used for sedition.

Aside from the depressing implications for pro-democracy movements’ decline in Hong Kong, this lawsuit has also been an interesting case study of the local government’s complicated relationship with internet control. Although it’s tightening its grip, it’s still wary of imposing full-blown ‘Great Firewall’ style censorship. Read the full story to find out why.

—Zeyi Yang

This story is from China Report, our weekly newsletter covering tech and power 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 Ilya Sutskever is leaving OpenAI  
Where its former chief scientist goes next is anyone’s guess. (NYT $)
+ It’s highly likely Sutskever’s new project will be focussed on AGI. (WP $)
+ Read our interview with Sutskever from last October. (MIT Technology Review)

2 The US AI roadmap is here
Senators claim it’s the “broadest and deepest” piece of AI legislation to date. (WP $)
+ What’s next for AI regulation in 2024? (MIT Technology Review)

3 A real estate mogul has made a bid to acquire TikTok
Frank McCourt has thrown his hat into the ring to own the company’s US business. (WSJ $)
+ The depressing truth about TikTok’s impending ban. (MIT Technology Review)

4 Neuralink’s brain implant issues are nothing new
Insiders claim that the firm has known about problems with the implant’s wires for years. (Reuters)

5 Wannabe mothers are finding sperm donors on Facebook 
The industry’s sky-high fees are driving women to the social network. (NY Mag $)
+ I took an international trip with my frozen eggs to learn about the fertility industry. (MIT Technology Review)

6 We’re getting a better idea of how long you can expect to lose weight on Wegovy
But we still don’t know how long people have to keep taking the drug to maintain it. (Ars Technica)
+ Weight-loss injections have taken over the internet. But what does this mean for people IRL? (MIT Technology Review)

7 What do DNA tests for the masses really achieve? 🧬
Most customers don’t really need to know if they’re genetically predisposed to hate cilantro or not. (Bloomberg $)

8 How to save rainforests from wildfires
Even lush green spaces aren’t safe from flames. (Hakai Magazine)
+ The quest to build wildfire-resistant homes. (MIT Technology Review)

9 Memestocks are mounting a major comeback
It’s like 2021 all over again. (Vox)

10 Mark Zuckerberg’s just turned 40
It looks like his new rapper look is here to stay. (Insider $)

Quote of the day

“His brilliance and vision are well known; his warmth and compassion are less well known but no less important.”

—Sam Altman, OpenAI’s CEO, offers a measured response to the news that Ilya Sutskever is leaving the company in a post on X.

The big story

How to measure all the world’s fresh water

December 2021

The Congo River is the world’s second-largest river system after the Amazon. More than 75 million people depend on it for food and water, as do thousands of species of plants and animals. The massive tropical rainforest sprawled across its middle helps regulate the entire Earth’s climate system, but the amount of water in it is something of a mystery.

Scientists rely on monitoring stations to track the river, but what was once a network of some 400 stations has dwindled to just 15. Measuring water is key to helping people prepare for natural disasters and adapt to climate change—so researchers are increasingly filling data gaps using information gathered from space. Read the full story.

—Maria Gallucci

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