MIT Technology Review

Articles from MIT Technology Review

We just got our best-ever look at the inside of Mars

NASA’s InSight robotic lander has just given us our first look deep inside a planet other than Earth.  More than two years after its launch, seismic data that InSight collected has given researchers hints into how Mars was formed, how it has evolved over 4.6 billion years, and how it differs from Earth. A set of three new studies, published in Science this week, suggests that Mars has a thicker crust than expected, as well as a molten liquid core that is bigger than we thought.   In the early days of the solar system, Mars and Earth were pretty much alike, each with a blanket of ocean covering the surface. But over the following 4 billion years, Earth became temperate and perfect for life, while Mars lost its atmosphere and water and became the barren wasteland we know today. Finding out more about what Mars is like inside might help us work out why the two planets had such very different fates.  “By going from [a] cartoon understanding of what the inside of Mars looks like to putting real numbers on it,” said Mark Panning, project scientist for the InSight mission, during a NASA press conference, “we are able to really expand the family tree of understanding how these rocky planets form and how they’re similar and how they’re different.”  Since InSight landed on Mars in 2018, its seismometer, which sits on the surface of the planet, has picked up more than a thousand distinct quakes. Most are so small they would be unnoticeable to someone standing on Mars’s surface. But a few were big enough to help the team get the first true glimpse of what’s happening underneath.  NASA/JPL-CALTECH Marsquakes create seismic waves that the seismometer detects. Researchers created a

Is the UK’s pingdemic good or bad? Yes.

Oscar Maung-Haley, 24, was working a part-time job in a bar in Manchester, England, when his phone pinged. It was the UK’s NHS Test and Trace app letting him know he’d potentially been exposed to covid-19 and needed to self-isolate. The news immediately caused problems. “It was a mad dash around the venue to show my manager and say I had to go,” he says. The alert he got was one of hundreds of thousands being sent out every week as the UK battles its latest wave of covid, which means more and more people face the same logistical, emotional, and financial challenges. An estimated one in five have resorted to deleting the app altogether—after all, you can’t get a notification if you don’t have it on your phone. The phenomenon is being dubbed a “pingdemic” on social media, blamed for everything from gas shortages to bare store shelves. The ping deluge reflects the collision of several developments. The delta variant, which appears much easier to spread than others, has swept across the UK. At the same time, record numbers of Britons have downloaded the NHS app. Meanwhile, the UK has dropped many of its lockdown restrictions, so more people are coming into more frequent contact than before. More infections, more users, more contact: more pings.  But that’s exactly how it’s supposed to work, says Imogen Parker, policy director for the Ada Lovelace Institute, which studies AI and data policies. In fact, even with so many notifications being sent,

DeepMind says it will release the structure of every protein known to science

Back in December 2020, DeepMind took the world of biology by surprise when it solved a 50-year grand challenge with AlphaFold, an AI tool that predicts the structure of proteins. Last week the London-based company published full details of that tool and released its source code. Now the firm has announced that it has used its AI to predict the shapes of nearly every protein in the human body, as well as the shapes of hundreds of thousands of other proteins found in 20 of the most widely studied organisms, including yeast, fruit flies, and mice. The breakthrough could allow biologists from around the world to understand diseases better and develop new drugs.  So far the trove consists of 350,000 newly predicted protein structures. DeepMind says it will predict and release the structures for more than 100 million more in the next few months—more or less all proteins known to science.  “Protein folding is a problem I’ve had my eye on for more than 20 years,” says DeepMind cofounder Demis Hassabis. “It’s been a huge project for us. I would say this is the biggest thing we’ve done so far. And it’s the most exciting in a way, because it should have the biggest impact in the world outside of AI.” Proteins are made of long ribbons of amino acids, which twist themselves up into complicated knots. Knowing the shape of a protein’s knot can reveal what that protein does, which is crucial for understanding how diseases work and

An albino opossum proves CRISPR works for marsupials, too

Mice: check. Lizards: check. Squid: check. Marsupials … check. CRISPR has been used to modify the genes of tomatoes, humans, and just about everything in between. Because of their unique reproductive biology and their relative rarity in laboratory settings, though, marsupials had eluded the CRISPR rush—until now. A team of researchers at Japan’s Riken Institute, a national research facility, have used the technology to edit the genes of a South American species of opossum. The results were described in a new study out today in Current Biology. The ability to tweak marsupial genomes could help biologists learn more about the animals and use them to study immune responses, developmental biology, and even diseases like melanoma. “I’m very excited to see this paper. It’s an accomplishment that I didn’t think would perhaps happen in my lifetime,” says John VandeBerg, a geneticist at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, who was not involved in the study. The difficulties of genetically modifying marsupials had less to do with CRISPR than with the intricacies of marsupial reproductive biology, says Hiroshi Kiyonari (link in Japanese), the lead author of the new study. While kangaroos and koalas are more well-known, researchers who study marsupials often use opossums in lab experiments, since they’re smaller and easier to care for. Gray short-tailed opossums, the species used in the study, are related to the white-faced North American opossums, but they’re smaller and don’t have a pouch. The researchers at Riken used CRISPR to delete, or knock out,

Disability rights advocates are worried about discrimination in AI hiring tools

Your ability to land your next job could depend on how well you play one of the AI-powered games that companies like AstraZeneca and Postmates are increasingly using in the hiring process. Some companies that create these games, like Pymetrics and Arctic Shores, claim that they limit bias in hiring. But AI hiring games can be especially difficult to navigate for job seekers with disabilities. In the latest episode of MIT Technology Review’s podcast “In Machines We Trust,” we explore how AI-powered hiring games and other tools may exclude people with disabilities. And while many people in the US are looking to the federal commission responsible for employment discrimination to regulate these technologies, the agency has yet to act. To get a closer look, we asked Henry Claypool, a disability policy analyst, to play one of Pymetrics’s games. Pymetrics measures nine skills, including attention, generosity, and risk tolerance, that CEO and cofounder Frida Polli says relate to job success. When it works with a company looking to hire new people, Pymetrics first asks the company to identify people who are already succeeding at the job it’s trying to fill and has them play its games. Then, to identify the skills most specific to the successful employees, it compares their game data with data from a random sample of players. When he signed on, the game prompted Claypool to choose between a modified version—designed for those with color blindness, ADHD, or dyslexia—and an unmodified version. This question poses a dilemma

Review: Why Facebook can never fix itself

The Facebook engineer was itching to know why his date hadn’t responded to his messages. Perhaps there was a simple explanation—maybe she was sick or on vacation. So at 10 p.m. one night in the company’s Menlo Park headquarters, he brought up her Facebook profile on the company’s internal systems and began looking at her personal data. Her politics, her lifestyle, her interests—even her real-time location. The engineer would be fired for his behavior, along with 51 other employees who had inappropriately abused their access to company data, a privilege that was then available to everyone who worked at Facebook, regardless of their job function or seniority. The vast majority of the 51 were just like him: men looking up information about the women they were interested in. In September 2015, after Alex Stamos, the new chief security officer, brought the issue to Mark Zuckerberg’s attention, the CEO ordered a system overhaul to restrict employee access to user data. It was a rare victory for Stamos, one in which he convinced Zuckerberg that Facebook’s design was to blame, rather than individual behavior. So begins An Ugly Truth, a new book about Facebook written by veteran New York Times reporters Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang. With Frenkel’s expertise in cybersecurity, Kang’s expertise in technology and regulatory policy, and their deep well of sources, the duo provide a compelling account of Facebook’s years spanning the 2016 and 2020 elections. Stamos would no longer be so lucky. The issues that derived from

Podcast: Playing the job market

Increasingly, job seekers need to pass a series of ‘tests’ in the form of artificial intelligence games—just to be seen by a hiring manager. In this third, of a four-part miniseries on AI and hiring, we speak to someone who helped create these tests, we ask who might get left behind in the process and why there isn’t more policy in place. We also try out some of these tools ourselves. We Meet: Matthew Neale, Vice President of Assessment Products, Criteria Corp. Frida Polli, CEO, Pymetrics Henry Claypool, Consultant and former Obama Administration Member, Commission on Long-Term CareSafe Hammad, CTO, Arctic Shores  Alexandra Reeve Givens, President and CEO, Center for Democracy and TechnologyNathaniel Glasser, Employment Lawyer, Epstein Becker GreenKeith Sonderling, Commissioner, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) We Talked To:  Aaron Rieke, Managing Director, UpturnAdam Forman, Employment Lawyer, Epstein Becker GreenBrian Kropp, Vice President Research, GartnerJosh Bersin, Research AnalystJonathan Kestenbaum, Co-Founder and Managing Director, Talent Tech LabsFrank Pasquale, Professor, Brooklyn Law SchoolPatricia (Patti) Sanchez, Employment Manager, MacDonald Training Center Matthew Neale, Vice President of Assessment Products, Criteria Corp. Frida Polli, CEO, pymetrics Henry Claypool, Consultant and former Obama Administration Member, Commission on Long-Term CareSafe Hammad, CTO, Arctic Shores  Alexandra Reeve Givens, President and CEO, Center for Democracy and TechnologyNathaniel Glasser, Employment Lawyer, Epstein Becker GreenKeith Sonderling, Commissioner, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) Sounds From: Science 4-Hire, podcastMatthew Kirkwold’s cover of XTC’s, Complicated Game, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tumM_6YYeXs Credits: This miniseries on hiring was reported by Hilke Schellmann and produced by Jennifer Strong, Emma Cillekens, Anthony Green and Karen Hao. We’re

Blue Origin takes its first passengers to space

This time, there was a blastoff.   Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos and three other civilians watched the sky turn from blue to black this morning as the company’s reusable rocket and capsule system New Shepard passed the Kármán line, the boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and outer space.   Around 9:25 a.m. US Eastern time, Bezos and his fellow passengers landed safely, successfully completing the company’s first crewed suborbital flight—a major step in Blue Origin’s efforts to provide commercial space flights to paying customers.   Compared with the launch earlier this month of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, a type of spaceplane that carried founder Richard Branson to space, Bezos’s trip was more reminiscent of a NASA mission, with a vertical takeoff, parachutes, and a soft landing.  Ramon Lugo III, an aerospace engineer and director of the Florida Space Institute, says that although this is the second crewed launch by people not considered astronauts in the classical sense, Blue Origin’s mission represents a bigger opportunity for commercial space tourism.   The main difference was how the two missions got to space. Virgin Galactic’s took about an hour and involved an aircraft that carried the spaceplane with the crew to a specific altitude before releasing it. The spaceplane then ignited its rocket engines to travel even higher before gliding back to Earth.   “If you look at Branson’s spacecraft, he’s really creating a transportation system that is very much like a commercial airline. You’re going to take off at an airport and you’re going to land at an airport,“ says Lugo.   Bezos’s is what most aerospace engineers would call a more traditional take on crewed spacecraft, Lugo says. Blue Origin’s

How Zello keeps people connected during South Africa’s unrest

On June 29, former South African president Jacob Zuma was sentenced to 15 months in prison for corruption during his presidency. Zuma—the first ethnic Zulu to hold the country’s highest office—has a loyal following. He also has many detractors, who blame his administration’s corruption for a stagnant economy and weakened democracy. Zuma didn’t turn himself in until July 7, saying he was innocent and that jail could kill him at 79 years old. Within hours, protests and widespread looting, particularly in his home city of Durban, were reported as supporters stationed themselves around his compound and challenged police. That violence has led to at least 215 deaths and more than 2,500 arrests. For South Africans like Amith Gosai, keeping track of what was happening on the ground was hard. His WhatsApp chats were flooded and confusing. Then he saw a note on his community WhatsApp group urging neighbors to join a sort of neighborhood watch channel on Zello, a “walkie-talkie” app that is fast becoming a tool for protest communication.  “This helped us tremendously to create awareness around the community as well as to quell fears,” Gosai told me via Twitter DM.  This Zello App has become my life— Raylen (@Raylen_10) July 12, 2021 Zello is the new vine pic.twitter.com/K0sQF1yXDG— no one (@theshyapricot) July 17, 2021 Gosai, who is also from Durban, was among 180,000 people who downloaded Zello in the wake of Zuma’s arrest. Users subscribe to channels to talk to each other,

Cities are scrambling to prevent flooding

US cities are working to shore up their flood defenses in the face of climate change, building and upgrading pumps, storm drains, and other infrastructure. In many cases, their existing systems are aging and built for the climate of the past. And even upgrades can do only so much to mitigate the intense flooding that’s becoming more common, leaving cities to come up with other solutions. Floods have hit New York and Flagstaff, Arizona, in recent weeks. In Germany and Belgium, they have swept away whole towns and left over 1,000 people missing. Rainfall inundated Detroit during a recent June storm, flooding streets and houses and overwhelming the local stormwater systems. The city received over 23,000 reports of damage, and local news reported gutted basements and cars swept away in water. “We’ve never experienced anything like this,” said Sue McCormick, the CEO of the Great Lakes Water Authority, in a press conference after the storm. The water authority runs wastewater services for Detroit and the surrounding area. Urban centers are more prone to flooding than other areas because streets, parking lots, and buildings are impervious, meaning water can’t seep into the ground the way it would in a forest or grassland. Instead, it flows. Detroit, like many older cities, deals with flowing stormwater by combining it with sewage. This blend is then pumped to treatment plants. During the recent storm, electrical outages and mechanical issues knocked out four of 12 pumps in two major pump stations. The agency has

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