Tech

The Download: AI movie soundtracks, and DeepMind’s disease prediction tool


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 Disney director tried—and failed—to use an AI Hans Zimmer to create a soundtrack

When Gareth Edwards, the director of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, was thinking about the soundtrack for his upcoming movie about artificial intelligence, The Creator, he decided to try composing it with AI—and was pretty impressed with the result.

Edwards asked an AI music company to use the tech to create a soundtrack in the style of Oscar-winning composer Hans Zimmer, he explained during a LinkedIn Live interview with MIT Technology Review.

Edwards’s experiment speaks to an issue at the heart of one of the biggest fights facing Hollywood today. Artists and creatives are up in arms over generative AI. But AI systems lack a fundamentally crucial skill for creating good art: taste. Read the full story.

—Melissa Heikkilä

DeepMind is using AI to pinpoint the causes of genetic disease

The news: Google DeepMind says it’s trained an artificial intelligence system that can predict which DNA variations in our genomes are likely to cause disease—predictions that could speed diagnosis of rare disorders and possibly yield clues for drug development.

The background: Back in 2021, DeepMind announced that its program AlphaFold was able to accurately predict the shape of proteins, a problem considered a “grand challenge” in biology. Now the company says it has fine-tuned that protein model to predict which misspellings found in human DNA are safe to ignore and which are likely to cause disease. 

Why it matters: Although not intended to directly make diagnoses, computer predictions are already used by doctors to help locate the genetic causes of mysterious syndromes. But critics say the real test of modern artificial intelligence is whether it can lead to new cures, something that still hasn’t happened. Read the full story.

—Antonio Regalado

The deepfake avatars who want to sell you everything

If you don’t live in China, it’s hard to comprehend just how massively popular livestream e-commerce is. Over 500 million Chinese people are watching these streams regularly and they brokered $4.6 trillion in sales last year—meaning more than one-quarter of all purchases made online in China were from livestreams.

The appetite for livestream shopping still doesn’t exist in the US or other countries, but AI could help to change that.

Developers are creating countless deepfake streamers on China’s e-commerce platforms for brands, requiring just one minute of video for training purposes and around $1,000. And these streams of AI-generated avatars that can speak and act (almost) like real humans are already everywhere. Read the full story.

—Zeyi Yang

This story is from China Report, our weekly newsletter covering the latest tech developments in China. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Tuesday.

The must-reads

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

1 Google’s Bard AI is everywhere now
In your Gmail, YouTube, and Google Docs accounts, at least. (NYT $)
+ It’s a practical demonstration of how AI can boost Google’s biggest products. (Bloomberg $)
+ Google says it’s the first time a language model has truly integrated with personal data. (The Verge)
+ Google is throwing generative AI at everything. (MIT Technology Review)

2 The US Space Force wants to get satellites into space more quickly
Pressure from China is forcing them to speed things up. (WP $)

3 Federal prosecutors are investigating Elon Musk’s Tesla perks
Specifically his plans to build a large glass house near its Texas HQ. (WSJ $)
+ One of Musk’s other ventures, Neuralink, is recruiting for its first human clinical trial. (Bloomberg $)

4 Europe is critically dependent on China for rare earth minerals 
They’re essential for the low-carbon technologies Europe needs to meet climate targets. (FT $)
+ A pro-China online influence campaign is targeting the rare-earths industry. (MIT Technology Review)

5 Huawei is shipping Chinese-made surveillance chips
It suggests the company has found new ways to dodge US sanctions. (Reuters)
+ The US doesn’t think China can make advanced chips at scale, though. (Bloomberg $)
+ Huawei’s new phone is powered by its own native chip. (FT $)
+ China just fought back in the semiconductor exports war. Here’s what you need to know. (MIT Technology Review)

6 Meet the world’s new arms dealers
North Korea’s arms industry has been boosted by the war in Ukraine. (Economist $)
+ How did a US fighter jet go missing for over a day, exactly? (NBC News)
+ Inside the messy ethics of making war with machines. (MIT Technology Review)

7 DNA fingerprinting is helping catch animal poachers red handed
The small but growing practice could interrupt organized crime rings. (Knowable Magazine)

8 Pakistan’s gig workers are risking their lives daily
Vulnerable drivers are at risk of armed robberies and assault. (Rest of World)

9 FTX is suing Sam Bankman-Fried’s parents
The disgraced founder lavished them with gifts that the company now wants back. (NY Mag $)
+ The legal case accuses the pair of siphoning off millions of dollars. (Ars Technica)

10 TikTok Shop is littered with fake products 🐌
Faux snail slime serums, anyone? (Wired $)

Quote of the day

“Swifties, the vault is jammed!”

—Google offers an explanation to enthusiastic Taylor Swift fans attempting to solve a new puzzle built into the search engine, which rapidly buckled under the influx of visitors.

The big story

What cities need now

April 2021

Urban technology projects have long sought to manage the city. Again and again, these initiatives promise novel “solutions” to urban “problems.” Smart city projects are no different. 

After a decade of pilots and flashy demonstrations, though, it’s still not clear whether smart city technologies can actually solve or even mitigate the challenges cities face. What is clear, however, is that technology companies are increasingly taking on administrative and infrastructure responsibilities that governments have long fulfilled.

If smart cities are to avoid exacerbating urban inequalities, we have to take a long, hard look at how cities have fared so far. Read the full story.

—Jennifer Clark

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.)

+ Glen the cocker spaniel is a world-class mountain climber.
+ Now, this guy knows how to have a good time.
+ Let these owls stare deep into your soul 🦉
+ If you’re a fan of Succession, and who isn’t, you really should check out Peep Show.
+ This archive of Lego instruction manuals is amazing.

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