Technology · July 3, 2024

The Download: listening robots, and Google’s AI emissions

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.

A way to let robots learn by listening will make them more useful

Most AI-powered robots today use cameras to understand their surroundings and learn new tasks, but it’s becoming easier to train robots with sound too, helping them adapt to tasks and environments where visibility is limited. 

Though sight is important, for some of our daily tasks, sound is actually more helpful, like listening to onions sizzling on the stove to see if the pan is at the right temperature. Training robots with audio has only been done in highly controlled lab settings, however, and the techniques have lagged behind other fast robot-teaching methods.

Researchers at the Robotics and Embodied AI Lab at Stanford University set out to change that. They first built a system for collecting audio data, then used this data to train robotic arms how to execute the task on their own. The team’s new training algorithms help robots gather clues from audio signals to perform more effectively. Read the full story.

—James O’Donnell

The must-reads

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

1 Google’s emissions have skyrocketed in the past five years
And those pesky AI products are to blame. (The Guardian)+ Microsoft has the same problem, too. (Bloomberg $)
+ AI is an energy hog. This is what it means for climate change. (MIT Technology Review)

2 The US wants to develop an mRNA vaccine to fight bird flu
Moderna already started a vaccine trial last year targeting the main strains. (Ars Technica)
+ What’s next for bird flu vaccines. (MIT Technology Review)

3 An underground network is smuggling Nvidia chips into China
Neatly swerving US export restrictions. (WSJ $)
+ What’s next in chips. (MIT Technology Review)

4 Fiverr freelancers will dox anyone for a price
Some charge as little as $30. (404 Media)

5 OnlyFans’ paywalls are impeding abuse investigations
Forensic consultants are increasingly frustrated by its infrastructure. (Reuters)

6 US universities are offering degrees in climate change
Many of them focus on developing practical climate solutions. (Fast Company $)
+ How fish-safe hydropower technology could keep more renewables on the grid. (MIT Technology Review)

7 SpaceX has grand ambitions to launch 120 times a year
Unsurprisingly, its competitors aren’t happy about its plans for Florida. (”>TechCrunch) 

8 Scientists are using radio-frequency tech to find dinosaur bones
The key card technology helps them to tag and recover fossils. (IEEE Spectrum)

9 The strange allure of a pointless website
One Million Checkboxes is exactly that—one million boxes to check. (WP $)
+ How to fix the internet. (MIT Technology Review)

10 Craigslist will never die 
The classified listings site looks the same as it did almost 30 years ago. (Slate $)

Quote of the day

“When you chew enough glass, you learn to like the taste of your own blood.”

—A speaker at VC firm Andreessen Horowitz’s crypto startup bootcamp shares some intense insights into enduring hardship, Wired reports.

The big story

Social media is polluting society. Moderation alone won’t fix the problem

August 2022

We all want to be able to speak our minds online—to be heard by our friends and talk (back) to our opponents. At the same time, we don’t want to be exposed to unpleasant speech.

Technology companies address this conundrum by setting standards for free speech, a practice protected under federal law, hiring in-house moderators to examine individual pieces of content and removing them if posts violate predefined rules.

The approach clearly has problems: harassment, misinformation about topics like public health, and false descriptions of legitimate elections run rampant. But even if content moderation were implemented perfectly, it would still miss a whole host of issues. We need a new strategy: treat social media companies as potential polluters of the social fabric, and directly measure and mitigate the effects their choices have on us. Read the full story.

—Nathaniel Lubin & Thomas Krendl Gilbert

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.)

+ Salads don’t have to be boring—especially when there’s boiled eggs and salmon involved.
+ Whac-a-mole has a surprisingly long and checkered past.
+ Here’s how to rehydrate quickly if you’re feeling the heat.
+ Phones are crazy expensive. But you can make them last longer if you’re smart about it.

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