Technology · May 10, 2024

The Download: mapping the human brain, and a Hong Kong protest anthem crackdown

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 helped make an exquisitely detailed map of a tiny piece of the human brain

The news: A team led by scientists from Harvard and Google has created a 3D, nanoscale-resolution map of a single cubic millimeter of the human brain. Although the map covers just a fraction of the organ, it is currently the highest-resolution picture of the human brain ever created.

How they did it: To make a map this finely detailed, the team had to cut the tissue sample into 5,000 slices and scan them with a high-speed electron microscope. Then they used a machine-learning model to help electronically stitch the slices back together and label the features.

Why it matters: Many other brain atlases exist, but most provide much lower-resolution data. At the nanoscale, researchers can trace the brain’s wiring one neuron at a time to the synapses, the places where they connect. And scientists hope it could help them to really understand how the human brain works, processes information, and stores memories. Read the full story.

—Cassandra Willyard

To learn more about the burgeoning field of brain mapping, check out the latest edition of The Checkup, our weekly biotech newsletter. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Thursday.

Hong Kong is targeting Western Big Tech companies in its ban of a popular protest song

It wasn’t exactly surprising when on Wednesday, May 8, a Hong Kong appeals court sided with the city government to take down “Glory to Hong Kong” from the internet.

The trial, in which no one represented the defense, was the culmination of a years-long battle over a song that has become the unofficial anthem for protesters fighting China’s tightening control and police brutality in the city.

It remains an open question how exactly Big Tech will respond. But the ruling is already having an effect beyond Hong Kong’s borders: just hours afterwards, videos of the anthem started to disappear from YouTube. Read the full story.

—Zeyi Yang

The must-reads

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

1 OpenAI is poised to release its Google search competitor
And it could make an appearance as early as Monday. (Reuters)
+ Why you shouldn’t trust AI search engines. (MIT Technology Review)

2 America’s healthcare system is highly vulnerable to hacks
A recent cyberattack that knocked hospital patient records offline is the latest example. (WP $)

3 TikTok will start automatically labeling AI-generated user content
It’s a global first for social media platforms. (FT $)
+ The watermarking scheme will work on content created on other platforms. (The Guardian)
+ Why watermarking AI-generated content won’t guarantee trust online. (MIT Technology Review)

4 Bankrupt FTX is confident it can repay the full $11 billion it owes
Thanks in part to bitcoin’s perpetual boom-bust cycle. (The Guardian)
+ Sam Bankman-Fried’s newest currency? Rice. (Insider $)

5 What is Alabama’s lab-grown meat ban really about?
It’s less about plants and more about political agendas. (Wired $)
+ They’re banning something that doesn’t really exist. (Vox)
+ How I learned to stop worrying and love fake meat. (MIT Technology Review)

6 The future of work is offshore
Even cashiers can be based thousands of miles from their customers. (Vox)
+ ChatGPT is about to revolutionize the economy. We need to decide what that looks like. (MIT Technology Review)

7 US data centers are facing a tax break backlash
In reality, they create fewer jobs than lobbyists would have you believe. (Bloomberg $)
+ Energy-hungry data centers are quietly moving into cities. (MIT Technology Review)

8 Mexico’s political candidates are misreading the room
They’re dancing on TikTok instead of making serious policy declarations. (Rest of World)
+ Three technology trends shaping 2024’s elections. (MIT Technology Review)

9 AI could help you to make that tight connecting flight
The days of missing a connection by minutes could be numbered. (NYT $)

10 These AR glass look… interesting
Lighter, thinner, higher quality—but even dorkier. (The Verge)
+ They don’t induce headaches, either. (IEEE Spectrum)

Quote of the day

“It’s like a kick in the gut.”

—Duncan Freer, a seller on Amazon, is unhappy about the retail giant imposing new charges that shift even more costs onto merchants, he tells Bloomberg.

The big story

How tracking animal movement may save the planet

February 2024

Animals have long been able to offer unique insights about the natural world around us, acting as organic sensors picking up phenomena invisible to humans. Canaries warned of looming catastrophe in coal mines until the 1980s, for example.

These days, we have more insight into animal behavior than ever before thanks to technologies like sensor tags. But the data we gather from these animals still adds up to only a relatively narrow slice of the whole picture. 

This is beginning to change. Researchers are asking: What will we find if we follow even the smallest animals? What could we learn from a system of animal movement, continuously monitoring how creatures big and small adapt to the world around us? It may be, some researchers believe, a vital tool in the effort to save our increasingly crisis-plagued planet. Read the full story.

—Matthew Ponsford 

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.)

+ Big congratulations to the ocean’s zooplankton and phytoplankton, who are currently experiencing a springtime baby boom.
+ Homemade seafood stock may sound like a faff, but it’s easier than you think.
+ Coming out of my cage and I’ve been doing just fine—how the UK became utterly, eternally obsessed with Mr Brightside.
+ Ducks love peas, who knew?

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