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.
The worst technology failures of 2023
Welcome to our annual list of the worst technologies. This year, one technology disaster in particular holds lessons for the rest of us: the Titan submersible that imploded in the shadow of the Titanic.
Everyone had warned Stockton Rush, the sub’s creator, that it wasn’t safe. But he believed innovation meant tossing out the rule book and taking chances. He set aside good engineering in favor of wishful thinking. He and four others died.
To us it shows how the spirit of innovation can pull ahead of reality, sometimes with unpleasant consequences. It was a phenomenon we saw time and again this year, like when GM’s Cruise division put robotaxis into circulation before they were ready. Others find convoluted ways to keep hopes alive, like a company that is showing off its industrial equipment but is quietly still using bespoke methods to craft its lab-grown meat.
The worst cringe, though, is when true believers can’t see the looming disaster, but we do. That’s the case for the new “Ai Pin,” developed at a cost of tens of millions, that’s meant to replace smartphones. It looks like a titanic failure to us. Read the full story to find out the seven worst technologies of 2023.
How 2023 marked the death of anonymity online in China
There are so many people we meet on the internet daily whose real names we will never know. The TikTok teen who learned the trendy new dance, the anime artist who uploaded a new painting, the random commenter posting under the YouTube video you just watched. That’s the internet we are familiar with.
In China, it’s already been impossible to be fully anonymous for a while now, thanks to a sophisticated system that requires identity verification to use any online services. Despite that, there were still corners of the Chinese internet where you could remain obscure. But lately, even this last bit of anonymity is slipping away. Read the full story.
Gene editing took center stage in 2023
Gene editing can be used to delete, insert, or alter portions of our genetic code. We’ve been able to modify DNA for years, but newer technologies like CRISPR mean that we can do it faster, more accurately, and more efficiently than ever before.
In 2023, we saw the first approval of a CRISPR-based gene-editing therapy. And many more are to come. So let’s take a look at the developments that made news this year. What is the promise of gene editing, and what are the current pitfalls? Read the full story.
In 2023, MIT Technology Review published a striking number of stories about gene editing. And really, that’s no surprise. Perhaps no technology has more power to transform medicine.
This story is from The Checkup, our weekly newsletter giving you the inside track on all things health and biotech. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Thursday.
Is this the most energy efficient way to build homes?
When the Canadian engineer Harold Orr and his colleagues began designing an ultra-efficient home in Saskatchewan in the late ’70s, they knew that the trick wasn’t generating energy in a greener way, but using less of it. They needed to make a better thermos, not a cheaper coffee maker.
The result was the 1978 Saskatchewan Conservation House, a cedar-clad trapezoid that cut energy usage by 85%—and helped inspire today’s globally recognized passive-house standard for building design. It’s a marriage of efficiency and rigorously applied physics, and the associated benefits are vast. Read the full story.
This story is from the next magazine edition of MIT Technology Review, set to go live on January 8—and it’s all about innovation. If you don’t already, subscribe to get a copy when it lands.
I’ve combed the internet to find you today’s most fun/important/scary/fascinating stories about technology.
1 Hyperloop One is shutting down
Frankly, the ambition never made much sense—and now it’s unraveled entirely. (Bloomberg $)
2 What we learn about wars on TikTok
The videos that do well tend to be apocalyptic, alarmist, and full of propaganda. (WSJ $)
+ What it’s like to be a TikTok moderator. (The Guardian)
+ Misinformation is warping the debate in the US over Ukraine aid. (BBC)
3 Apple wants to catch up with AI research rivals
It’s focusing on work to shrink large language models to run more efficiently on smartphones. (FT $)
+ These six questions will dictate the future of generative AI. (MIT Technology Review)
+ The problem with America’s big AI safety plan? It’s likely to be woefully underfunded. (Wired $)
4 Twitter’s problems run so much deeper than Elon Musk
People were disengaging en masse before he even came on the scene. (The Atlantic $)
5 These were the biggest discoveries in computer science this year
From quantum computing to AI to cryptography, there was plenty to get excited about. (Quanta $)
+ A dispute about a quantum computing milestone shows just how tough it is to make them practical. (Wired $)
6 How e-scooter startup Bird crashed and burned
Safety concerns, issues with financial reporting and the pandemic all contributed. (Wired $)
+ It owes money to more than 300 cities and towns, which shows just how rapidly it expanded before it collapsed. (Quartz $)
7 VR is becoming a hit in nursing homes
Which, in a way, makes a lot of sense. (WP $)
8 The beef industry is about to be hit by a demographic time bomb
It’s a lot more popular with boomers than the rest of the US population. (Wired $)
+ Lab-grown meat just reached a major milestone. Here’s what comes next. (MIT Technology Review)
10 This was the year millennials aged out of the internet
We’re just exhausted with it. Gen Z, over to you. Good luck. (NYT $)
Quote of the day
“Governance got a bit loosey-goosey during the bubble.”
—Healy Jones, vice president of financial strategy at Kruze Consulting, tells the New York Times that a lack of due diligence by venture capitalists allowed startup fraud to thrive in the last decade.
The big story
How Bitcoin mining devastated this New York town
If you had taken a gamble in 2017 and purchased Bitcoin, today you might be a millionaire many times over. But while the industry has provided windfalls for some, local communities have paid a high price, as people started scouring the world for cheap sources of energy to run large Bitcoin-mining farms.
It didn’t take long for a subsidiary of the popular Bitcoin mining firm Coinmint to lease a Family Dollar store in Plattsburgh, a city in New York state offering cheap power. Soon, the company was regularly drawing enough power for about 4,000 homes. And while other miners were quick to follow, the problems had already taken root. Read the full story.
We can still have nice things
+ Thankfully, it’s probably too late to hand over control of your Christmas planning to ChatGPT.
+ It’s time to condense 2023 in 84 gloriously weird sentences.
+ Enjoy this sweet lil story about madeleines at the most wonderful time of the year.
+ Merry Christmas from Snoopy and the Peanuts gang!
+ May baby Gromit bless your new year