The Download: Europe’s AI crackdown, and Iran’s internet resistance


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 EU wants to put companies on the hook for harmful AI

What’s happening: The EU is creating new rules to make it easier to sue AI companies for harm. A bill unveiled last week, which is likely to become law in a couple of years, is part of Europe’s push to prevent AI developers from releasing dangerous systems.

The details: The goal of the bill is to hold AI companies accountable for potential damage and discrimination caused by their systems by making it easier for consumers to launch EU-wide class actions. The new bill, called the AI Liability Directive, will add teeth to the EU’s AI Act, which is set to become EU law around the same time, and would require extra checks for “high risk” uses of AI that have the most potential to harm people, including systems for policing, recruitment, or health care.

The response: While tech companies complain it could have a chilling effect on innovation, consumer activists say it doesn’t go far enough. Whether or not it succeeds, the legislation will have a ripple effect on how AI is regulated around the world. Read the full story.

—Melissa Heikkilä

The must-reads

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

1 How Iranians are circumventing the country’s internet blackout 
Overseas digital rights groups have scrambled to help. (NBC)
+ Iranians living abroad have been watching the police’s brutal crackdown in horror. (The Guardian)
+ Security forces have clamped down on student protestors. (BBC)

2 Celsius Network’s founder withdrew millions before it went bankrupt
The crypto lender is one of the industry’s biggest casualties to date. (FT $)
+ Bitcoin’s fair-weather investors are nowhere to be seen. (Bloomberg $)
+ Indian exchange WazirX has laid off 40% of its workforce. (CoinDesk)

3 Big Tech bankrolled a group that paved the way for the end of Roe
The Independent Women’s Forum has long lobbied for a conservative-led Supreme Court. (Intercept)
+ The cognitive dissonance of watching the end of Roe unfold online. (MIT Technology Review)

4 What we can learn from tracking suicidal ideation through smartphones
A new research project is harnessing algorithms to develop an effective intervention system. (NYT $)

5 Meet the internet’s Father Time
Engineer David Mills created the software that keeps the internet’s clocks in sync, but it’s unclear who his successor will be. (New Yorker $)

6 Invasive species have a bad reputation
A new wave of researchers wants to rehabilitate their image—but not everyone agrees. (The Atlantic $)

7 China’s same-sex couples are getting married over Zoom
By way of Utah. (Rest of World)
+ Google Translate has been shut down in China. (CNBC)

8 Dating app Hinge is overrun with fake men
While some are obvious bots, others aren’t so easy to spot. (Wired $)
+ How to tell if you’re talking to a bot. (MIT Technology Review)

9 White noise is notching up millions of streams
But who’s making it, exactly? (The Guardian)

10 Elon Musk’s robot is super underwhelming 🤖
To the surprise of precisely no one. (IEEE Spectrum)
+ Musk is planning to make millions of them, regardless. (Reuters)

Quote of the day

“I would never do it if we weren’t in a time where social media is king.”

—Alice Hirsch, a photographer based in Toronto, explains how they’ve learnt to create content that appeases Instagram’s video-biased algorithm to the New York Times.

The big story

A hole in the ground could be the future of fusion power

February 2022

On an overcast day in early December, a yellow earth mover scooped dirt from the edge of a deep pit in Devens, Massachusetts, on the site of an old Army base some 50 miles outside of Boston.

This is the future home of SPARC, a prototype fusion reactor that, if all goes as hoped, will achieve a goal that’s eluded physicists for nearly a century. It will produce more energy from fusing together atoms, the same phenomenon that powers the sun, than it takes to achieve and sustain those reactions.

Facilities that can harness nuclear fusion should provide a cheap source of carbon-free energy from abundant fuel sources. Crucially, fusion would generate a constant, steady stream of electricity, filling in the gaps during the hours, days, or even weeks when solar and wind sources flag.

But the sheer technical complexity and massive cost of achieving fusion have repeatedly dashed the hopes of scientists and hardened the stance of skeptics. What chance does SPARC have? Read the full story.

—James Temple

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.)

+ There’s no denying that battle robots are seriously impressive.
+ First it was chess. Now poker and fishing are weathering their own accusations of cheating.
+ You’d definitely want this fearsome pool shark in your corner.
+ It’s true, these cool streets live up to their reputation.
+ I defy anyone to watch this and not end up hooting with laughter (thanks Charlotte!)