The Download: circumventing China’s firewall, and using AI to invent new drugs

The Download: circumventing China’s firewall, and using AI to invent new drugs

As protests against rigid covid control measures in China engulfed social media in the past week, one Twitter account has emerged as the central source of information: @李老师不是你老师 (“Teacher Li Is Not Your Teacher”). 

People everywhere in China have sent protest footage and real-time updates to the account through private messages, and it has posted them, with the sender’s identity hidden, on their behalf.

The man behind the account, Li, is a Chinese painter based in Italy, who requested to be identified only by his last name in light of the security risks. He’s been tirelessly posting footage around the clock to help people within China get information, and also to inform the wider world.

The work has been taking its toll—he’s received death threats, and police have visited his family back in China. But it also comes with a sense of liberation, Li told Zeyi Yang, our China reporter. Read the full story.

Biotech labs are using AI inspired by DALL-E to invent new drugs

The news: Text-to-image AI models like OpenAI’s DALL-E 2—programs trained to generate pictures of almost anything you ask for—have sent ripples through the creative industries. Now, two biotech labs are using this type of generative AI, known as a diffusion model, to conjure up designs for new types of protein never seen in nature.

Why it matters: Proteins are the fundamental building blocks of living systems. These protein generators can be directed to produce designs for proteins with specific properties, such as shape or size or function. In effect, this makes it possible to come up with new proteins to do particular jobs on demand. Researchers hope that this will eventually lead to the development of new and more effective drugs. Read the full story.

—Will Douglas Heaven

Your microbiome ages as you do—and that’s a problem

We’re all crawling with bugs. Our bodies are home to plenty of distinct ecosystems that host microbes, fungi, and other organisms that are crucial to our wellbeing. These ecosystems appear to change as we age—and these changes can potentially put us at increased risk of age-related diseases.

The big questions are: what can we do to maintain a happy microbiome—and, even if we manage to achieve it, will it actually help us to keep age-related illnesses at bay? Read the full story.

—Jessica Hamzelou

This story is from The Checkup, Jessica’s weekly newsletter giving you the inside track on all things biotech. 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 China’s government is cracking down hard on protest content
Among other orders, tech companies have been told to take down guides on how to use VPNs. (WSJ $)
Workers at the Zhengzhou iPhone factory are under intense pressure. (FT $)
There’s no way for the Chinese government to abandon ‘zero covid’ without losing face. (Vox)
Protestors have embraced analogue methods to escape surveillance. (Rest of World)

2 FTX’s collapse is bad news for AI
The embattled crypto exchange invested hundreds of millions in AI projects. Will they have to pay it back? (NYT $)   
FTX’s implosion is obviously not doing crypto’s reputation any favors, either. (WSJ $)
Bitcoin looks likely to further drop in value. (Bloomberg $)
What’s next for effective altruism? It’s not looking good. (New Yorker $)

3 Kanye West has been banned from Twitter, again
The rapper tweeted a vile antisemitic symbol. (BBC)
West also praised Hitler during an interview with conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. (Vox
His deal to buy Parler has fallen through. (CNN)

4 Weight loss app Noom is struggling with vulnerable users
The platform promotes a “psychological” approach to weight loss, which some conflate with therapy. (Insider $)

5 The high aviation costs of Amazon’s obsession with two-day delivery ✈️
Delivering goods via plane is neither cheap nor terribly efficient. (Wired $)
This company delivers packages faster than Amazon, but workers pay the price. (MIT Technology Review)

6 OpenAI’s chatbot ChatGPT is still spouting nonsense
It’s confidently regurgitating false information. (The Verge)
These six high-profile artists’ AI creations are quite something. (The Guardian)
While everyone waits for GPT-4, OpenAI is still fixing its predecessor. (MIT Technology Review)

7 The US Army wanted to recruit Gen Z gamers over Twitch
With a particular focus on reaching women, and Black and Hispanic players. (Motherboard)

8 Beavers are moving to the Arctic 🦫
And they could end up traveling even farther, due to global warming. (Knowable Magazine)
The radical intervention that might save the “doomsday” glacier. (MIT Technology Review)

9 Inside the weird world of Competitive Excel
Yes, the spreadsheet software. (The Atlantic $)

10 Saturn’s rarely-seen moon has been captured on camera 🪐
Titan looks surprisingly like Earth in the JWST images. (Inverse)

Quote of the day

“They sound like the guy playing the violin on the Titanic.”

—A senior media buyer lampoons the unusually generous deals Twitter is currently offering advertisers in a desperate bid to convince them to keep spending money with the increasingly volatile platform, to the Financial Times.

The big story

The quest to show that biological sex matters in the immune system

immunity concept illustration

August 2022

For years, microbiologist Sabra Klein has painstakingly made the case that sex—defined by biological attributes such as our sex chromosomes, sex hormones, and reproductive tissues—can influence immune responses.

Through research in animal models and humans, Klein and others have shown how and why male and female immune systems respond differently to the flu virus, HIV, and certain cancer therapies, and why most women receive greater protection from vaccines but are also more likely to get severe asthma and autoimmune disorders.

Klein has helped spearhead a shift in immunology, a field that long thought sex differences didn’t matter—and she’s set her sights on pushing the field of sex differences even further. Read the full story.

—Sandeep Ravindran

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.)

I bet you didn’t know that the way ducks swim in formation is inspiring how freight ships move. 
This is a really fascinating account of what it’s like to be a deaf livestreamer.
I envy anyone lucky enough to live close to any of these lovely-looking city hike trails.
This vegan mac and cheese looks outstanding.
Wednesday Addams, how we love ye.

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