August 11, 2022

The Download: a big DeepMind breakthrough, and fixing the US grid


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.

DeepMind has predicted the structure of almost every protein known to science

The news: DeepMind says its AlphaFold tool has successfully predicted the structure of almost all proteins known to science. From today, it’s offering its database of over 200 million proteins to anyone for free. It’s a massive boost to the existing database of 1 million proteins it released last year, and includes structures for plants, bacteria, animals, and many other organisms.

Why it matters: The expanded database opens up huge opportunities for AlphaFold to have an impact on important issues such as sustainability, fuel, food insecurity, and neglected diseases, according to Demis Hassabis, DeepMind’s founder and CEO. Scientists could use the findings to better understand diseases, and to speed innovation in drug discovery and biology, he added. Read the full story.

—Melissa Heikkilä

AI for protein folding represents such a major advance that it was chosen as one of MIT Technology Review’s 10 Breakthrough Technologies this year. Read our story explaining why it’s so exciting, and our profile of DeepMind’s founder Demis Hassabis, where he explains why this may be the company’s most significant and long-lasting contribution to science.

Stitching together the grid will save lives as extreme weather worsens

The blistering heat waves that set temperature records across much of the US in recent days have strained electricity systems, threatening to knock out power in vulnerable regions of the country. While the electricity has largely stayed online so far this summer, heavy use of energy-sucking air-conditioners and the intense heat has contributed to scattered problems and close calls.

It’s unlikely to get better soon. A number of grid operators may struggle to meet peak summer demand, creating the risk of rolling blackouts, a new report from the North American Electric Reliability Corporation has found. The nation’s isolated and antiquated grids are in desperate need of upgrades.

One solution would be to more tightly integrate the country’s regional grids, stitching them together with more long-range transmission lines, allowing power to flow between regions to where it’s needed more urgently. However, that’s a mission that’s fraught with challenges. Read the full story.

—James Temple

The must-reads

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

1 Meta’s revenue dropped for the first time
The cracks in Mark Zuckerberg’s pivot to the metaverse are beginning to show. (NYT $)
+ More people are logging into Facebook each day, though. (WP$)
+ Zuck says Meta is in ‘very deep, philosophical competition’ with Apple. (The Verge)
+ Discord is a natural home for users disillusioned by Instagram. (WSJ $)
+ Ex-Facebook and Bumble workers have built their own ‘less toxic’ social network. (Protocol)

2 Senators have advanced child online safety legislation
But others argue that such safeguards should apply to users of all ages. (WP$)
+ Three wannabe senators have deep links to the tech firms they’re railing against. (NYT $)

3 A Greek politician was targeted by Israeli spyware
He’s filed a lawsuit to force Greek authorities to investigate who was behind the attempted hack. (NYT $)
+ Carine Kanimba claimed the Rwandan government used Pegasus spyware to spy on her family. (Motherboard)
+ The hacking industry faces the end of an era. (MIT Technology Review)

4 Bitcoin prices are rising again
After the Federal Reserve raised interest rates. (CNBC)

5 Take a journey across the universe 🪐
This amazing guide walks you through everything from exoplanets to supermassive black holes. (New Scientist$)
+ Will the universe’s expansion mean planets no longer orbit stars? (MIT Technology Review)

7 Your modern car is leaking your data
While a lot of it is anonymized, the risk of privacy breaches is real. (The Markup)

8 Top-quality TVs lay bare bad CGI
Showing up all its poorly-rendered flaws. (Vultures $)

9 Are DALL-E’s art stolen?
While users can commercialize their AI creations, the model is trained on others’ work. (Engadget)
+ Lawyers could choose to represent AIs in future courtroom battles. (Slates)
+ OpenAI is ready to sell DALL-E to its first million customers. (MIT Technology Review)

10 What old dogs can teach us about our own brains
Just don’t try to teach them new tricks. (Knowable Magazine)

Quote of the day

“This is not the Instagram that we used to have.”

—Tatiana Bruening, the creator of a viral post urging Instagram to stop trying to be TikTok, laments the platform’s decision to chase a Gen Z audience, she tells the Wall Street Journal.

The big story

She risked everything to expose Facebook. Now she’s telling her story.

July 2021

When Sophie Zhang went public with explosive revelations detailing the political manipulation she’d uncovered during her time as a data scientist at Facebook, she supplied concrete evidence to support what critics had long been saying on the outside: that Facebook makes election interference easy, and that unless such activity hurts the company’s business interests, it can’t be bothered to fix the problem.

By speaking out and eschewing anonymity, Zhang risked legal action from the company, harm to her future career prospects, and perhaps even reprisals from the politicians she exposed in the process. Her story reveals that it is really pure luck that we now know so much about how Facebook enables election interference globally, and to regulators around the world considering how to rein in the company, this should be a wake-up call. Read the full story.

—Karen Hao

We can still have nice things

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

+ Japanese artist Hiroshige was well-known for his beautiful woodblock prints, but these instructive pictures explaining how to create shadow puppets for children are extra special.
+ Uhoh, Freya the walrus is a real boat-sinking pest.
+ Whip up these mouth-watering Mediterranean recipes and imagine you’re chilling in Rome.
+ The winners of this years’ Audubon Photography Awards are spectacular (thanks Peter!)
+ If you’re a fan of essay-length texts, you’re a paragraph girlie.





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