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The Download: carbon-capturing super trees, and DeepMind’s sorting breakthrough

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.

Inside the quest to engineer climate-saving “super trees”

Biotech startup Living Carbon is trying to design trees that grow faster and grab more carbon than their natural peers, as well as trees that resist rot, keeping that carbon out of the atmosphere. 

In February, the startup planted the first forest in the United States that contains genetically engineered trees. But there’s still much we don’t know. How will these trees affect the rest of the forest? How far will their genes spread? And how good are they, really, at pulling more carbon from the atmosphere? Read the full story.

—Boyce Upholt

Google DeepMind’s game-playing AI just found another way to make code faster

The news: A year after DeepMind used a version of its game-playing AI AlphaZero to find new ways to speed up the calculation of a crucial piece of math, the AI research lab has pulled the same trick again—twice. 

Using a new version of AlphaZero called AlphaDev, it has discovered how to sort items in a list up to 70% faster than the best existing method, and also found a way to speed up a key algorithm used in cryptography by 30%.Why it matters: These algorithms are among the most common building blocks in software. Small speed-ups can make a huge difference, cutting costs and saving energy. Read the full story.

—Will Douglas Heaven

The must-reads

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

1 Instagram is fostering a vast child sex abuse networkThe platform’s algorithms promote sickening content, too. (WSJ $) + Meta has set up an investigatory task force in response to a new report. (WP $)2 The Biden administration is delivering on its crypto-humbling promises It looks an awful lot like part of its plan of being seen to be tough on tech. (Vox)+ Crypto ads in the UK will have to carry new risk warnings. (The Guardian) 3 Solar energy from space has been beamed to EarthIt could be a real milestone for renewable energy efforts. (WSJ $)+ There’s a lot going on up in space these days. (The Atlantic $)

4 Sequoia Capital has created its own dedicated China firmIt demonstrates how even the massive venture capital firm is struggling to combine doing business with both the US and China. (FT $)

5 AI wants to optimize your jobBut some workers worry it looks a whole lot like an extra layer of surveillance. (WP $)+ OpenAI hasn’t even started training GPT-5 yet. (TechCrunch)+ This startup is using AI to give workers a “productivity score.” (MIT Technology Review)

6 We can’t ignore the communities living on climate change’s front line But while the fate of the climate looks dire, disaster is not a foregone conclusion. (New Scientist $)+ The UN just handed out an urgent climate to-do list. Here’s what it says. (MIT Technology Review)

7 What it’s like to try and get online in North KoreaMillions of its residents have never even seen a webpage. (Wired $)

8 Plant burgers have a tropical oil problem Plant-based meat isn’t immune from environmental issues, even if it is broadly more climate-friendly. (Vox)+ The world’s biggest beef supplier is building a lab-grown meat plant in Spain. (Bloomberg $)+ Here’s what a lab-grown burger tastes like. (MIT Technology Review)

9 Robots are competing in dog agility competitionsIt’ll be a while before they’re faster than our four-legged friends, though.(IEEE Spectrum)+ This robot dog just taught itself to walk. (MIT Technology Review)

10 The internet has made our birthdays weird Congratulatory emails from Uber and airlines… no thanks. (Rest of World)+ It’s a sobering reminder that some platforms aren’t made to last. (Wired $)

Quote of the day

“The AI boom has brought the energy back into the Bay that was lost during covid.”

—Doug Fulop, a tech entrepreneur who moved to Oregon last year, explains why he and his partner are moving back to the newly-invigorated San Francisco to the New York Times.


The big story

Yann LeCun has a bold new vision for the future of AI

June 2022Around a year and a half ago, Yann LeCun realized he had it wrong. 

LeCun, who is chief scientist at Meta’s AI lab and a professor at New York University, is one of the most influential AI researchers in the world. He had been trying to give machines a basic grasp of how the world works—a kind of common sense—by training neural networks to predict what was going to happen next in video clips of everyday events. But guessing future frames of a video pixel by pixel was just too complex. He hit a wall.

Now, after months figuring out what was missing, he has a bold new vision for the next generation of AI, which he thinks will one day give machines the common sense they need to navigate the world. But his vision is far from comprehensive; indeed, it may raise more questions than it answers. Read the full story.

—Melissa Heikkilä & Will Douglas Heaven

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.)

+ Danny DeVito interviewing Arnold Schwarzenegger about existential crises is my personal heaven.+ Why spending time in the wind is a good idea—according to the Dutch, anyway.+ The Fugees reuniting is exactly what the world needs right now, even if it’s for one night only.+ A handy reminder not to put too much stock in those pesky personality tests.+ Roll up, roll up: for a bit of medieval comedy!

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