The Download: Google’s anti-censorship tool, and China’s critical minerals

The Download: Google’s anti-censorship tool, and China’s critical minerals

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.

Google has a new tool to outsmart authoritarian internet censorship

The news: Google is launching new anti-censorship technology created in response to actions by Iran’s government during the 2022 protests, the company has exclusively told MIT Technology Review. It hopes that the tool will increase access for internet users living under authoritarian regimes all over the world.

How it works: The company already offers a privacy tool called Outline, which provides free, open, and encrypted access to the internet through a VPN. It’s releasing Outline’s code in the form of a software developer kit so that other websites and applications can build censorship resistance directly into their products, removing the need to connect separately to the internet through a VPN.

Need for speed: Outline VPN will also allow developers from different companies to work on the same code and enable them to run updates more efficiently, allowing for quicker responses to evolving censorship tactics. Read the full story.

—Tate Ryan-Mosley

How China hopes to secure its supply chain for critical minerals

When China announced back in July that it was restricting exports of germanium and gallium, it was a reminder of the leverage that it holds in the global supply chain for critical minerals.

These minerals are used in computer chips and precision weapons, but they are also important in clean tech and thus combating climate change. 

Zeyi Yang, our China reporter, recently talked to Seaver Wang, co-director of the climate and energy team at think tank the Breakthrough Institute, to find out more about the role critical minerals play, and the importance of China’s policies controlling their distribution. Read the full story.

This story is from China Report, Zeyi’s weekly newsletter giving you the inside track on technology developments in China. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Tuesday.

Robots that learn as they fail could unlock a new era of AI

Asked to explain his work, Lerrel Pinto likes to shoot back another question: When did you last see a cool robot in your home? The answer typically depends on whether the person asking owns a robot vacuum cleaner: yesterday or never.

Pinto’s working to fix that. A computer science researcher at New York University, he wants to see robots in the home that do a lot more than vacuum. The problem is that training multiskilled robots requires lots of data. But Pinto’s solution is to find novel ways to collect that data—in particular, getting robots to collect it as they learn. Read the full story.

—Will Douglas Heaven

Lerrel Pinto is one of MIT Technology Review’s 35 Innovators Under 35 for 2023. Read the full list of this year’s honorees, including those making a difference in robotics, computing, biotech, climate and energy, and AI.

The must-reads

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

1 Apple has finally ditched its Lightning connector

It’s making the switch to USB-C, but not all USB-C cables are made equal. (NYT $)

+ The company has been forced to switch by a European Union law. (WP $)

+ Chargers aren’t glamorous—but they are important. (The Atlantic $)

2 Google isn’t taking this antitrust trial lying down

The company came out swinging on the first day of the historic case. (NPR)

+ Microsoft and Yelp officials were also in attendance. (NYT $)

3 Elon Musk didn’t thwart a Ukrainian military strike after all

Walter Isaacson, Musk’s biographer, says he misunderstood the timeline of events. (WP $)

+ A temporary Starlink outage left many customers without connectivity. (The Verge)

+ Starlink poses a dilemma for the US government. (The Atlantic $)

4 No one can agree how to regulate AI

The EU, UK, US, and China have very different ideas about what should be done. (FT $)+ The US is notoriously slow to regulate tech. (Bloomberg $)

+ Our quick guide to the 6 ways we can regulate AI. (MIT Technology Review)

5 Niche companies are fighting back against Big Tech

To get ahead, you need to appeal to a very specific type of customer. (Economist $)

6 How Snapchat filters can help us to process grief

AI aging features can give us a glimpse of what we’ve lost. (Slate $)

+ Technology that lets us “speak” to our dead relatives has arrived. Are we ready? (MIT Technology Review)

7 Texas is home to the world’s largest carbon dioxide removal project

But the facility has been dogged by accusations of greenwashing. (The Guardian)

+ Amazon is paying an oil company to suck CO2 from the atmosphere. (The Verge)

+ The US just invested more than $1 billion in carbon removal. (MIT Technology Review)

8 Silicon Valley’s big thinkers just love magic mushrooms 🍄

Workplace microdosing is on the rise, and they don’t care who knows about it. (Wired $)

9 Landlines are more useful than you think ☎️

Their end came too soon. So why did we let it happen? (The Atlantic $)

10 Quantum computers are chilling out

Scientists are experimenting with a new electronic method of keeping them at critically low temperatures. (IEEE Spectrum)

+ What’s next for quantum computing. (MIT Technology Review)

Quote of the day

“A common charger is common sense.”

—European commissioner Thierry Breton champions the notion of a single universal charger for all electronic devices, as Apple finally joins the legions of companies already using USB-C cables.

The big story

The future of urban housing is energy-efficient refrigerators

June 2022

The aging apartments under the purview of the New York City Housing Authority don’t scream innovation. The largest landlord in the city, housing nearly 1 in 16 New Yorkers, NYCHA has seen its buildings literally crumble after decades of neglect. It would require at least $40 billion to return the buildings to a state of good repair.

Despite the scale of the challenge, NYCHA is hoping to fix them. It has launched a Clean Heat for All Challenge which asks manufacturers to develop low-cost, easy-to-install heat-pump technologies for building retrofits. The stakes for the agency, the winning company, and for society itself could be huge—and good for the planet. Read the full story.

—Patrick Sisson

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