Technology · July 5, 2024

The Download: AI agents, and how to detect a lie

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.

What are AI agents?

When ChatGPT was first released, everyone in AI was talking about the new generation of AI assistants. But over the past year, that excitement has turned to a new target: AI agents.

Agents featured prominently in Google’s annual I/O conference in May, when the company unveiled its new AI agent called Astra, which allows users to interact with it using audio and video. OpenAI’s new GPT-4o model has also been called an AI agent.  

And it’s not just hype, although there is definitely some of that too. Tech companies are plowing vast sums into creating AI agents, and their research efforts could usher in the kind of useful AI we have been dreaming about for decades. Many experts, including Sam Altman, say they are the next big thing. But what are they? And how can we use them? Read the full story.

—Melissa Heikkilä

AI lie detectors are better than humans at spotting lies

Can you spot a liar? It’s a question I imagine has been on a lot of minds lately, in the wake of various televised political debates. Research has shown that we’re generally pretty bad at telling a truth from a lie.

Some believe that AI could help improve our odds, and do better than dodgy old fashioned techniques like polygraph tests. AI-based lie detection systems could one day be used to help us sift fact from fake news, evaluate claims, and potentially even spot fibs and exaggerations in job applications. The question is whether we will trust them. And if we should. Read the full story.

—Jessica Hamzelou

This story is from The Checkup, our weekly health and biotech newsletter. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Thursday.

The must-reads

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

1 The EU is plotting tariffs for Chinese-made EVs 
The decision is a massive spanner in the works for automakers seeking a reprieve from the ongoing trade war. (WSJ $)
+ Chinese officials will be allowed to use Teslas for the first time. (Bloomberg $)
+ The country’s EV battery makers want to get into stationary energy storage. (Reuters)
+ Europe’s best-selling Chinese EV maker has a surprising name. (MIT Technology Review)

2 Xenophobia is rampant on social media in China  
Extreme Chinese nationalism appears to be fueling violent attacks on foreigners. (NYT $)

3 Cloudflare has launched a tool designed to thwart AI bots
The cloud firm’s model flags bots attempting to scrape its sites’ data. (”>TechCrunch)
+ It’s not a great time for cloud companies across the board. (FT $)

4 Afghan women are leading secret lives online
They’re turning to the internet to combat the Taliban’s restrictions on their freedom. (WP $)

5 Political candidates are tracking their stolen campaign signs
With a little bit of help from Apple AirTags. (WSJ $)

6 An ‘ethical’ AI music generator can’t create good songs
Professional musicians were left unimpressed by its dodgy compositions. (Wired $)
+ Training AI music models is about to get very expensive. (MIT Technology Review)

7 Mapping apps are wildly simplistic
Their need to cater to a wide audience leaves few feeling satisfied. (The Atlantic $)

8 WhatsApp is dabbling with AI-generated avatars
A word to the wise: don’t. (The Verge)

9 TikTok users are hungry for political content
As the UK’s general election has proved. (The Guardian)
+ Three technology trends shaping 2024’s elections. (MIT Technology Review)

10 Minecraft is eyeing a future beyond video games
AI is likely to play a part in those plans, I’d wager. (Bloomberg $)
+ Facebook gaming juggernaut FarmVille is still going, too. (The Guardian)
+ A bot that watched 70,000 hours of Minecraft could unlock AI’s next big thing. (MIT Technology Review)

Quote of the day

“I’m so cute; please watch my campaign broadcast.” 

—Airi Uchino, a candidate in Tokyo’s forthcoming governor elections, takes a novel approach in trying to secure residents’ votes, the Associated Press reports. 

The big story

How culture drives foul play on the internet, and how new “upcode” can protect us

August 2023

From Bored Apes and Fancy Bears, to Shiba Inu coins, self-­replicating viruses, and whales, the internet is crawling with fraud, hacks, and scams.

And while new technologies come and go, they change little about the fact that online illegal operations exist because some people are willing to act illegally, and others fall for the stories they tell.

Ultimately, online crime is a human story. But why does it work, and how can we protect ourselves from falling for such schemes? Read the full story.

—Rebecca Ackermann

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.)

+ These ducks just love the hose.
+ We can’t say for sure, but popcorn was probably invented as a means of storing corn for long periods of time
+ Congratulations to Patrick Bertoletti, who won Nathan’s annual hot dog-eating competition after eating a whopping 58 dogs within 10 minutes.
+ Hurry up George R.R. Martin, we want another book!

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