The Download: text-to-video AI, and China’s big methanol bet


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.

Meta’s new AI can turn text prompts into videos

What’s happened: Meta has unveiled an AI system that generates short videos based on text prompts. Make-A-Video lets you type in a string of words, like “A dog wearing a superhero outfit with a red cape flying through the sky,” and then generates a five-second clip that, while pretty accurate, has the aesthetics of a trippy old home video.

How it works: Meta combined data from three open-source image and video data sets to train its model. Standard text-image data sets of labeled still images helped the AI learn what objects are called and what they look like. And a database of videos helped it learn how those objects are supposed to move in the world. 

Why it matters: Although the effect is rather crude, the system offers an early glimpse of what’s coming next for generative artificial intelligence, and it is the next obvious step from the text-to-image AI systems that have caused huge excitement this year. But it also raises some big ethical questions. Read the full story.

—Melissa Heikkilä

China is betting big on another gas engine alternative: methanol cars

As the Chinese government works to reach ambitious carbon goals, the country has become a global leader in the adoption of electric vehicles. But that’s not the only greener car alternative it’s pursuing.

While methanol fuel has been discussed and piloted in China for a decade, its adoption has long lagged. Now the government is trying to accelerate the adoption of methanol cars, along with other state efforts in the last year to draft methanol car standards and support relevant industries, reaffirm its commitment to the alternative fuel. 

This matters because, just like EVs, the technology could become both a commercial success and a political boost to China’s climate-tech ambitions. Read the full story.

—Zeyi Yang

Can we find ways to live beyond 100? Millionaires are betting on it.

Scientists and biotech companies have been networking with uber-wealthy investors at a swanky conference in Switzerland this week, making the case for longevity science and anti-aging strategies. My colleague Jess Hamzelou, our senior biomedicine reporter, joined them, and got a peek at some of the most cutting-edge work in the field. Read about what she discovered.

Jess’s story is from The Checkup, her new weekly newsletter giving you the inside track on all things health and tech-related. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Thursday.

The must-reads

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

1 Hurricane Ian has left vast swathes of Florida underwater
As it heads towards South Carolina, Biden has warned it could become the deadliest in Florida history. (The Guardian)
+ Coral reefs are an effective natural defense against hurricanes. (Vox)
+ The storm is a potent mix of powerful and unpredictable. (The Atlantic $)
+ It could be on course to join the list of storms as severe as Katrina. (New Yorker $)

2 Iran is ramping up internet blackouts and censorship 
Thus far, it’s not achieving the government’s desired outcome. (Slate $)
+ A niche tech publisher is shining a light on China’s surveillance machine. (The Atlantic $)

3 What makes plastic so useful also makes it a nightmare to recycle
A new method of breaking it down could help. (Economist $)
+ A French company is using enzymes to recycle one of the most common single-use plastics. (MIT Technology Review)

4 Why Russia’s cyber war never really materialized 
The attacks it did land didn’t deliver the intended consequences. (FT $)
+ Here’s how the war in Ukraine could end. (New Yorker $)
+ Russian men are reportedly pretending to have HIV to escape conscription. (Rest of World)

5 Jack Dorsey tried to get Elon Musk a place on Twitter’s board
But the other members saw the appointment as too risky. (CNBC)
+ The former CEO also tried to get Musk and CEO Parag Agrawal off on the right foot. (WSJ $)
+ Musk wanted to search for ‘Trump’ in his hunt for bot data. (Bloomberg $)
+ Musk also toyed with appointing Oprah to Twitter’s board. (The Information $)

6 The Arctic Ocean is rapidly becoming more acidic
Unsurprisingly, climate change is the culprit. (Motherboard)
+ China, the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter, is suffering. (Vox)

7 Reboosting the Hubble Telescope would give it a new lease of life
NASA and SpaceX think they could do just that. (BBC)
+ NASA has taken stunning photos of Jupiter’s moon Europa. (New Scientist $) 

8 Brace yourself for a new wave of at-home tests
They’re not just for covid, either. (Neo.Life)
+ Genome sequencing has never been so cheap, or easy. (Wired $)

9 Why voice notes are so controversial 
Send yours with caution. (WSJ $)
+ Lasers can send a whispered audio message directly to one person’s ear. (MIT Technology Review)

10 AI is creating horrible new Pokémon 
Don’t say I didn’t warn you. (WP $)
+ This artist is dominating AI-generated art. And he’s not happy about it. (MIT Technology Review)

Quote of the day

“I guess you learn who your real friends are when you can’t get allocation in their seed round ”

—Maia Bittner, an angel investor, jokily tweets about the pitfalls of investing in friends’ startups, Bloomberg reports.

The big story

Meet the wannabe kidfluencers struggling for stardom

December 2019 

On YouTube, children can become millionaires—seemingly overnight, without trying. The highest paid of them, eight-year-old Ryan Kaji, made $22 million in 2018 by playing with toys on his channel Ryan ToysReview (now Ryan’s World). There are now thousands of similarly famous child YouTubers: babies who have been vlogged since the moment of their birth, 10-year-old streamers showing off video-game tricks, teenage girls giving acne advice from their bedrooms.

Why do so many kids want to be YouTubers? Do they only seek fame, or is there more to it: creativity, community, and a future career? How are their parents helping them? And what happens if, after spending thousands of dollars or dropping out of school, it doesn’t work out? Read the full story.

—Amelia Tait

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.)

+ Francis Ford Coppola’s excellent chiller Bram Stoker’s Dracula is back in movie theaters this Halloween. Enjoy the opulent 4K trailer here.
+ These scallops can’t get enough of bright lights.
+ Cher’s sprawling home is every bit as lavish as you’d expect.
+ Nope, it’s not a joke, they really are turning The Matrix into a dance show.
+ Controversial take klaxon: are these really the best songs of the 90s?





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