Technology · March 27, 2024

The Download: the problem with plug-in hybrids, and China’s AI talent

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.

The problem with plug-in hybrids? Their drivers.

Plug-in hybrids are supposed to be the best of both worlds—the convenience of a gas-powered car with the climate benefits of a battery electric vehicle. But new data suggests that some official figures severely underestimate the emissions they produce.

According to new real-world driving data from Europe, plug-in hybrids produce roughly 3.5 times the emissions official estimates suggest. The difference is largely linked to driver habits: people tend to charge plug-in hybrids and drive them in electric mode less than expected.

It’s important to close the gap between expectations and reality not only for individuals’ sake, but also to ensure that policies aimed at cutting emissions have the intended effects. Read the full story.

—Casey Crownhart

Four things you need to know about China’s AI talent pool 

In 2019, MIT Technology Review covered a report that shined a light on how fast China’s AI talent pool was growing. Its main finding was pretty interesting: the number of elite AI scholars with Chinese origins had multiplied by 10 in the previous decade, but relatively few of them stayed in China for their work. The majority moved to the US. 

Now the think tank behind the report has published an updated analysis, showing how the makeup of global AI talent has changed since—during a critical period when the industry has shifted significantly and become the hottest technology sector. Here are the four main things you need to know about the global AI talent landscape today. 

—Zeyi Yang

This story is from China Report, our weekly newsletter giving you the inside track on all things happening in China. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Tuesday.

AI could make better beer. Here’s how.

The news: Crafting a good-tasting beer is a difficult task. Big breweries select hundreds of trained tasters to test their new products. But running such sensory tasting panels is expensive, and perceptions of what tastes good can be highly subjective.

New AI models could help to lighten the load—accurately identifying not only how highly consumers will rate a certain Belgian beer, but also what kinds of compounds brewers should be adding to make the beer taste better.

Why it matters: These kinds of models could help food and drink manufacturers develop new products or tweak existing recipes to better suit the tastes of consumers, which could help save a lot of time and money. Read the full story.

—Rhiannon Williams

The must-reads

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

1 Inside Silicon Valley’s intense AI talent wars
Companies are throwing $1 million compensation packages at top-tier candidates. (WSJ $)
+ The AI hype train is showing no signs of slowing. (Insider $)

2 Hydropower usage is falling in the Western US
The amount of hydropower generated in the region last year was the lowest in more than 20 years. (The Verge)
+ A startup is plotting the world’s largest ocean geoengineering plant. (IEEE Spectrum)
+ Emissions hit a record high in 2023. Blame hydropower. (MIT Technology Review)

3 Israel is conducting mass surveillance of Palestinians in Gaza
Facial recognition cameras are identifying civilians from lists of wanted persons. (NYT $)

4 Online conspiracy theories are spreading about the Baltimore bridge disaster
Unfounded theories are proliferating unchecked on X. (NBC News)
+ Entire narratives are playing out on Reddit, too. (404 Media)
+ X use in the US is in free fall. (The Guardian)

5 A Samsung-backed AI image platform generates non-consensual porn
Certain prompts easily circumvent the AI’s guardrails. (404 Media)
+ Text-to-image AI models can be tricked into generating disturbing images. (MIT Technology Review)

6 Apple has struck a major Chinese media deal for its Vision Pro
Tencent has agreed to make its apps available for the headset. (The Information $)
+ iPhone shipments are falling in China, according to new data. (Bloomberg $)
+ These minuscule pixels are poised to take augmented reality by storm. (MIT Technology Review)

7 Meta snooped on Snapchat’s traffic
In a bid to try and gain a competitive advantage. (”>TechCrunch) 

8 Accounting software isn’t exactly sexy
But it can be incredibly lucrative—in Sweden, at least. (FT $)
+ The software industry is asking for more government support in the UK. (Reuters)

9 AI is threatening foreign language education
Fewer people are learning other languages, and automatic translation is on the rise. (The Atlantic $)

10 Inside the search for quantum gravity
If one scientist’s theory is correct, we could discover gravitational rainbows. (New Scientist $)

Quote of the day

“The toilet isn’t quite done flushing here in the crypto industry.”

—Adam Jackson, co-founder of talent network Braintrust, tells Bloomberg why crypto funds seeking an injection of cash may be left disappointed.

The big story

Inside the decades-long fight over Yahoo’s misdeeds in China

December 2023

When you think of Big Tech these days, Yahoo is probably not top of mind. But for Chinese dissident Xu Wanping, the company still looms large—and has for nearly two decades.   

In 2005, Xu was arrested for signing online petitions relating to anti-Japanese protests. He didn’t use his real name, but he did use his Yahoo email address. Yahoo China violated its users’ trust—providing information on certain email accounts to Chinese law enforcement, which in turn allowed the government to identify and arrest some users. 

Xu was one of them; he would serve nine years in prison. Now, he and five other Chinese former political prisoners are suing Yahoo and a slate of co-defendants—not because of the company’s information-sharing (which was the focus of an earlier lawsuit filed by other plaintiffs), but rather because of what came after. Read the full story.

—Eileen Guo

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.)

+ When is a hedgehog not a hedgehog? When it’s a hat bobble.
+ Biff from Back to the Future has had enough of answering all the big questions.
+ Paris’ annual waiter race is chef’s kiss.
+  These BMX kitties are the sweetest of the sweet.

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