Trapped by grief algorithms, and image AI privacy issues


Plus: US and China relations are growing tense over the “spy balloon” debacle

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.

When my dad was sick, I started Googling grief. Then I couldn’t escape it.

—Tate Ryan-Mosley, senior tech policy reporter

I’ve always been a super-Googler, coping with uncertainty by trying to learn as much as I can about whatever might be coming. That included my father’s throat cancer.

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I started Googling the stages of grief, and books and academic research about loss, from the app on my iPhone, intentionally and unintentionally consuming people’s experiences of grief and tragedy through Instagram videos, various newsfeeds, and Twitter testimonials.

Yet with every search and click, I inadvertently created a sticky web of digital grief. Ultimately, it would prove nearly impossible to untangle myself from what the algorithms were serving me. I got out—eventually. But why is it so hard to unsubscribe from and opt out of content that we don’t want, even when it’s harmful to us? Read the full story.

AI models spit out photos of real people and copyrighted images

The news: Image generation models can be prompted to produce identifiable photos of real people, medical images, and copyrighted work by artists, according to new research. 

How they did it: Researchers prompted Stable Diffusion and Google’s Imagen with captions for images, such as a person’s name, many times. Then they analyzed whether any of the generated images matched original images in the model’s database. The group managed to extract over 100 replicas of images in the AI’s training set.

Why it matters: The finding could strengthen the case for artists who are currently suing AI companies for copyright violations, and could potentially threaten the human subjects’ privacy. It could also have implications for startups wanting to use generative AI models in health care, as it shows that these systems risk leaking sensitive private information. Read the full story.

—Melissa Heikkilä

The must-reads

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

1 China is furious that the US shot down its ‘spy balloon’
Relations between the two countries have deflated as fast. (BBC $)
+ US officials are racing to recover what they can of the balloon. (NYT $)
+ Similar balloons have been spotted several times in US airspace. (WP $)
+ The incident doesn’t bode well for US-China relations. (Vox)

2 The US economy is in a better shape than you may think 
The numbers simply do not match the narrative. (Vox)
+ What goes up must come down. (The Atlantic $) 

3 Meta is facing a content moderation reckoning 
A Kenyan court is deciding whether it’s responsible for moderators’ psychological damage from gruesome content. (Wired $)
+ Social media is polluting society. Moderation alone won’t fix the problem. (MIT Technology Review)

4 Twitter isn’t killing off good bots after all 
Though what qualifies as will be down to Elon Musk’s whims. (Insider $)
+ Musk isn’t getting much sleep these days. (WSJ $)

5 The Biden administration is shunning crypto 
Congress is being discouraged from passing crypto-friendly bills. (Axios)
+ Inside the mind of Sam Bankman-Fried’s psychiatrist. (WSJ $)
+ The Bitcoin Embassy Bar sounds… interesting. (Slate $)

6 A US cloud company is caught in a global ransomware campaign 
Thousands of servers across the world are being targeted. (Reuters)
+ Hackers are concentrating on North America and Europe. (Politico)
What’s next in cybersecurity. (MIT Technology Review)

7 India is blocking hundreds of loan apps with ties to China
In a bid to protect citizens’ data from misuse. (TechCrunch)

8 EV battery materials are in high demand
Countries are rushing to satisfy US requirements for materials sourced outside of China. (Nikkei Asia $)
+ What’s next for batteries. (MIT Technology Review)

9 Meet the moms ghostwriting their kids’ texts
Really, this should be every teen’s nightmare. (WSJ $)

10 How Duolingo knows what you know
Its language learners complete a staggering one billion exercises each day. (IEEE Spectrum)
+ Why students in the Bronx are critiquing chatbots. (NYT $)

Quote of the day

—Stacey Torman, a spin class teacher, recounts the regular false alerts her Apple Watch sends to emergency services for no reason to the New York Times.

The big story

Companies hoping to grow carbon-sucking kelp may be rushing ahead of the science

September 2021

One of the hottest climate change solutions that companies are touting is that kelp could suck up carbon dioxide and store it away in the depths of the sea, effectively reversing climate change.

But scientists are still grappling with fundamental questions about this approach. How much kelp can we grow? What will it take to ensure that most of the seaweed sinks to the bottom of the ocean? And how much of the carbon will stay there long enough to really help the climate? Read the full story.

—James Temple

We can still have nice things

A place for comfort, fun and distraction in these weird times. (Got any ideas? Drop me a line or tweet ’em at me.)

+ The secret joys of dining alone.
+ Brb—I’m off to cook (well, eat) all of these mouthwatering new recipes for February (thanks Charlotte!)
+ In praise of elevenses.
+ The secret of making a damn fine cup of coffee? Don’t burn the beans!
+ Why doesn’t the US use the metric system? You can blame pirates for that.



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