The Download: ID’ing rioters in Brazil, and shooting for the moon – MIT Technology Review


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.

Brazilians are turning to Instagram to identify far-right rioters

In the hours after far-right insurrectionists trashed government buildings in Brazil’s capital on Sunday January 8, a new account popped up on Instagram. 

Called Contragolpe Brasil, it quickly started posting photos of alleged riot participants, reaching more than 1 million followers in just 24 hours. The idea was to crowdsource information that could identify “people who attack democracy in Brazil,” making it easier for authorities to find and punish those who escaped arrest on the day.

Not long after the account started posting, comments started to roll in, including people’s full names, the cities and states where they live, and their Instagram handles. But trying to identify criminals online can be risky, especially if people get it wrong. Read the full story.

—Jill Langlois

NASA’s return to the moon is off to a rocky start

Five decades after man first set foot on the moon, NASA has a plan to send astronauts back. The Artemis project aims to visit a new area of the moon and retrieve samples, this time with new faces behind the sun visors—including the first woman and first person of color. 

Whether this plan will succeed—and whether a fresh moon landing will inspire a new “Artemis generation” in space exploration—is a matter of debate. 

Although its first mission thundered into space in November, if something goes wrong, or if the powerful Space Launch System rocket that carried it is deemed too expensive or unsustainable, there’s a chance the entire moon program will fail—or at least be similarly judged. Read the full story.

—Rebecca Boyle

Rebecca’s piece is from the latest edition of our print magazine, dedicated to the latest cutting-edge technological innovations. Don’t miss future issues—sign up for a subscription.

TR10: Ancient DNA analysis

Scientists have long sought better tools to study teeth and bones from ancient humans. In the past, they’ve had to sift through countless ancient remains to find a sample preserved well enough to analyze.  

Now cheaper techniques and new methods that make damaged DNA legible to commercial sequencers are powering a boom in ancient DNA analysis—and uncovering extinct species along the way.

Ancient DNA analysis is just one of our 10 Breakthrough Technologies, which we’re showcasing one-by-one in The Download each day. You can check out the rest of the list for yourself, and vote in our poll to help us decide what should make our final 11th technology.

The must-reads

I’ve combed the internet to find you today’s most fun/important/scary/fascinating stories about technology.1 China is bracing itself for a sharp spike in covid cases
People will mingle in large groups as they celebrate the lunar new year. (The Guardian)
+ The country has reported close to 60,000 deaths linked to the virus. (NYT $)
+ China’s Paxlovid cyber scams are everywhere. (MIT Technology Review)

2 Open-source intelligence in Ukraine is a double-edged sword
It can both help and hinder war efforts. (Economist $)
+ How Ukrainian tech workers are working against the backdrop of war. (The Verge)

3 Twitter appears to be ditching third-party clients 
External developers are furious they weren’t notified. ​(The Information $)
+ Laid-off workers can’t unite in a class action, a judge has ruled. (Reuters
+ Who’d make a better CEO than Elon Musk? (The Verge
+ Twitter’s New York office is overrun with cockroaches. (Insider $)

4 Disgruntled investors are suing Virgin Galactic
They’re claiming that faults in its aircraft weren’t properly disclosed. (The Guardian)

5 The high stakes of tracking hate crimes in India
Religious violence is on the rise—and a data project that monitors it is under threat. (WP $)
+ Saudi prosecutors want to execute an academic over his social media use. (The Guardian)

6 The US government’s big bet on chips is risky
It’s an enormously expensive—and ambitious—undertaking. (WSJ $)
+ Chinese chips will keep powering your everyday life. (MIT Technology Review)

7 England is cracking down on single-use plastics
Say goodbye to disposable plastic plates and cutlery. (Engadget)
+ How chemists are tackling the plastics problem. (MIT Technology Review)

8 Students are bemused by Auburn University’s TikTok ban  
Mainly because it has an incredibly simple workaround. (NYT $) 

9 How El Salvador’s biggest gig economy app crashed and burnt
Hugo was so successful it kept even Uber at bay—until it wasn’t. (Rest of World)

10 Not all AI-generated art is impressive 
In fact, quite a lot of it is pretty rubbish. (The Atlantic $)
+ Artists are spearheading a class action against AI art companies. (Kotaku)
+ Generative AI is changing everything. But what’s left when the hype is gone? (MIT Technology Review)

Quote of the day

“I would advocate not moving fast and breaking things.” 

—Demis Hassabis, DeepMind’s co-founder and chief executive, warns against experimenting too freely with AI in an interview with Time.

The big story

China’s path to modernization has, for centuries, gone through my hometown

June 2021

For generations, politicians and intellectuals have sought ways to build a strong China. Some imported tools and ideas from the West. Others left for a better education, but the homeland still beckoned.

Yangyang Cheng, a particle physicist at Yale Law School, is a product of their complex legacy. She grew up in Hefei, then a humble, medium-sized city in central-eastern China, which is now a budding metropolis with new research centers, manufacturing plants, and technology startups. For two of the city’s proudest sons, born a century apart, a strong homeland armed with science and technology was the aspiration of a lifetime. Cheng grew up with their stories. They teach her about the forces that propelled China’s rise, and the way lives can be squeezed by the pressures of geopolitics. Read the full story.

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.)

+ What can we learn about TV characters through the books they’re reading?
+ Someone spent three months recreating Toto’s Africa in Minecraft and I am in love (thanks Charlotte!)
+ Oh, to be a starfish whisperer.
+ Why are we on an eternal quest to coin even more work jargon?
+ Don’t call it a comeback—redheads never went out of style.