MIT Technology Review Thu, 18 May 2023 00:35:50 +0000 en-US hourly 1,33px,1272px,716px&w=32px MIT Technology Review 32 32 172986898 Why some companies want you to rent the battery in your EV Thu, 18 May 2023 10:00:00 +0000 This article is from The Spark, MIT Technology Review’s weekly climate newsletter. To receive it in your inbox every Wednesday, sign up here.

I seem to be constantly signing up for new subscriptions these days. Netflix, Paramount+, and of course I’m glued to the latest season of Succession, so now I’m back on HBO Max too. 

And soon, I might have another subscription to consider adding to that list: an EV battery. Instead of owning the batteries that power our EVs, some companies want to rethink our relationship and are pushing batteries as a service. Pay a monthly subscription fee, and you could consistently change out the nearly-spent batteries powering your vehicle for fresh ones in swapping stations. 

Some companies are working to make battery swaps a reality, and I wrote about their progress in a story that you should check out here. And for the newsletter this week, I want to dig in on an issue raised by these companies’ vision for the future that I can’t get out of my head: Should we own our own batteries? 

The vision

Picture this: It’s 2030, you’re on a road trip, and your EV battery is getting low. You stop in a city you’ve never been to before, and instead of plugging in, you pull into a battery-swapping station. You press a button on an app and the station platform raises the car, unscrews the battery powering your EV, and installs a new one in its place. In less than five minutes, you go from almost empty to 100% charged, ready to continue on your way. 

The battery you’ve picked up to power the next leg of your road trip isn’t yours. But then again, neither was the one that you dropped off. 

This is the vision for some companies, including Nio, an automaker based in China. Nio has about 300,000 vehicles on the road and about 1,400 of its own battery-swap stations up and running. 

If you drive a Nio, you do have the option to purchase the battery outright when you buy the car. Alternatively, you can get access to the battery-swapping network by basically subscribing to the company’s pool of batteries.

Nio recently expanded its operations into Norway, so let’s take that as an example of what the financials might look like here. (I’ve converted everything to US dollars here, using May 2023 conversion rates.) 

Say you decide to purchase a Nio ES8 in Norway, and you want to opt for the smallest battery, which has a capacity of 75 kilowatt-hours. 

If you want to own that battery, and you don’t want to visit swap stations, your vehicle will cost you roughly $58,500. If, on the other hand, you prefer to lease the battery, you’ll pay just under $50,000 up front, plus a monthly fee of $135. (The costs are all a bit higher if you opt for the 100 kWh battery, but the idea is the same.) For that monthly fee, you get a couple of swaps or a set amount of rapid charging. 

It would take you just over five years to start paying more in the monthly fee than you would have paid with the up-front option, and most EVs on the roads today have battery warranty coverage for eight to 10 years. 

The implications

I’m fascinated by this potential shift in ownership for batteries, and I think if the vision turns out to be the reality, there are a lot of potential upsides.

The ability to rent batteries could mean less stress about battery degradation for drivers, according to Fei Shen, the VP of power management at Nio. “It’s not necessary for them to worry about it at all, because they can swap this battery at any time, whenever they want,” he says. 

And for the company, it’s easier to track and service batteries. “If we find some potential problems, we can keep this battery in our swap station and do the maintenance,” Shen says. The same goes for reclaiming batteries for recycling at the end of their lifetime, he adds. 

Then there’s the possibility of customization: drivers could opt for a smaller-capacity battery and upgrade only before longer trips, for example. That could cut costs and even reduce the total quantity of materials needed to build batteries for EV fleets.

But on the flip side, some EV experts aren’t so sure the battery-swapping picture would turn out quite so rosy. 

It might be harder to keep consistently high-quality batteries in stock than companies are letting on, says Gil Tal, director of the plug-in hybrid and electric-vehicle research center at the University of California, Davis. “So when you swap a battery, you may get a worse battery or a better battery,” depending on what’s available, he says. 

He’s also skeptical that people will be willing to take a chance on availability. “It’s not going to work—everyone will ask for the big battery at the same time,” Tal says. Have you ever tried to rent a car at an airport during a storm, or find a spot for your Citi Bike at a big event? Those logistics can be tough for companies to figure out. 

There are a lot of fascinating dynamics at play for EV battery swapping, and it’s not just about the possibility of changing the relationship we have with batteries. Check out my story for so much more on this technology and what it might take to really make it happen. 

Related reading

Keeping up with climate

One little-known group is having a huge influence on the climate goals of major corporations. Here’s what you need to know about the Science Based Targets initiative. (MIT Technology Review)

The US Environmental Protection Agency just released a new set of rules that will govern emissions from power plants, potentially cutting emissions by 617 million metric tons by 2042. (Inside Climate News)

→ A lot of the buzz around these new rules is about how they treat carbon capture and storage, a technology that’s still expensive and largely unproven. (E&E News)

→ The problem, though, is that these rules still aren’t enough to meet climate goals for the power sector. (Heatmap News)

The iconic cobalt-blue Citi Bikes have officially been on the streets for 10 years in New York City. Celebrate a decade of fun, climate-friendly transportation with this oral history of the bike-share program. (Curbed)

School buses are going electric. New funding in the US is pushing the change, and I love how these charts show the shift. (Canary Media

→ By the way, the US Postal Service is finally getting with the program on EVs. (MIT Technology Review)

The EU is relying on green hydrogen to fuel climate progress in heavy industry. But without major financial subsidies and quicker regulatory processes, some executives are doubtful that the bloc can reach production goals. (Financial Times)

We should all be talking more about beans. Low-emission, delicious—what more could you ask for? I’ve personally gotten very into cannellini beans recently. (Vox)

You’ve probably never heard of the Loan Programs Office in the US Department of Energy, but the office and its director are a major driving force in clean energy today. (New York Times)

Nickel is a key ingredient in batteries, and Indonesia has plenty of it. But getting the metal into a form that’s useful for the energy transition involves an intense chemical process and a lot of waste that the country is going to have to reckon with. (Washington Post)

→ Yes, we have enough of the materials we need for the energy transition. (MIT Technology Review)

Looking for an EV? You might not find one at your local car dealership. Part of the problem is supply-chain holdups, but a surprising number of dealerships are resistant to the idea of selling EVs, which can disrupt their business model. (Vox)

Future space food could be made from astronaut breath Thu, 18 May 2023 09:00:00 +0000 The future of space food could be as simple—and weird—as a protein shake made with astronaut breath or a burger made from fungus.

For decades, astronauts have relied mostly on pre-packaged food, or the occasional grown lettuce, during their forays off our planet. With missions beyond Earth orbit in sight, a NASA-led competition is hoping to change all that and usher in a new era of sustainable space food.

“Currently the pre-packaged food that we use on the International Space Station has a shelf life of a year and a half,” says Ralph Fritsche, senior project manager for space crop production at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. “We don’t have a food system at this point in time that can really handle a mission to Mars,” he says. Longer-duration missions to the moon would present a similar problem. 

And while it may be some time before humans ever reach Mars, the moon is very much on the agenda. Next year, NASA plans to send four astronauts flying around the moon as part of its Artemis program, in the first crewed moon mission since Apollo 17 in 1972. The goal is to get humans back on the surface later this decade, at first for days at a time but eventually for weeks, months, or even longer.

To solve the problem of feeding astronauts on long-duration missions, NASA started the Deep Space Food Challenge in January 2021, asking companies to propose novel ways to develop sustainable foods for future missions. About 200 companies entered—a field that was whittled down to 11 teams in January 2023 as part of phase 2, with eight US teams each given $20,000 in funding and three additional international teams also recognized. On May 19, NASA is set to announce the teams that will progress into the final phase of the contest, with a handful of winners to be announced in April 2024 following more detailed tests of their proposals.

“Phase 2 was kind of a kitchen-level demonstration,” says Angela Herblet at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, the project manager for the challenge. “Phase 3 is going to challenge the teams to scale their technologies.”

Entrants had to show systems that could operate for three years and feed a crew of four on a prospective space mission. The proposals did not need to supply a crew’s entire diet, but they did need to create a variety of nutritious foods for the astronauts. Earlier this year, judges then visited each company to “see the food and really analyze it,” says Herblet.

One company took a particularly unusual approach to the task. Air Company, based in New York and one of the eight US-based finalists, designed a system that could use the carbon dioxide expelled by astronauts in space to produce alcohol, which could then be used to grow edible food. The company already develops alcohols from CO2 for plane fuel and perfume.

“It’s making food out of air,” says Stafford Sheehan, cofounder and chief technology officer of Air Company. “It sounds like magic, but when you see it actually operating, it’s much more simple. We’re taking CO2, combining it with water and electricity, and making proteins.”

interior view of the Air Factory with a large pressurized metal tank in the foreground
The founders of Air Company, Dr Stafford Sheehan and Gregory Constantine.

Air Company, founded by Stafford Sheehan and Gregory Constantine, is exploring transforming carbon dioxide into fuel for yeast.

The process produces alcohol that can then be fed to yeast, producing “something that’s edible,” says Sheehan. For the competition they created essentially a protein shake, described as being similar to one made from seitan, a vegan meat substitute. “It actually tastes pretty good,” says Sheehan. For astronauts in space, the system would ferment continuously to supply food. “Whenever you feel like you want a space protein shake, you make one from this yeast that’s growing,” says Sheehan.

Interstellar Lab in Florida, another of the US-based phase 2 finalists, had a different approach. Its system, called NUCLEUS, is a modular set of small toaster-size capsules. Each is self-contained, with its own humidity, temperature, and watering system. That would allow different vegetables—or even insects such as black soldier flies, often cited as a promising protein source—to be cultivated so that astronauts can easily grow their own food in space.

“We’re bringing a little bit of the Earth ecosystem into space,” says Barbara Belvisi, the company’s founder and CEO. “You can grow mushrooms, insects, and microgreens at the same time.”

a worker opens one Nucleus unit in a stack from a stack of nine.
looking out from within the interior of a Nucleus unit where a worker is tending to a plant.

Interstellar Lab’s stackable NUCLEUS capsules are designed to be tended by astronauts and monitored by software.

the interior of the BioPod where rows of green edible plants are lit by artificial grow lamps
Interstellar Lab’s BioPod is designed to require no outside water source.

Astronauts would need to spend three to four hours per week seeding, pruning, and cultivating the crops, but for the most part it would be AI-controlled. “NASA didn’t want to get rid of full human intervention,” says Belvisi. “It was still needed to give some occupation to the astronauts.” The company has also designed larger inflatable self-contained environments, called BioPods, that it hopes could one day be used on the moon or Mars.

One of the three international finalists is Mycorena, based in Sweden. Its system, AFCiS, produces a type of protein called mycoprotein from the fermentation of fungus to replace animal- or plant-based sources. “It has a very high protein content, up to 60%,” says Kristina Karlsson, the company’s head of research and development. It is also rich in fiber, vitamins, and nutrients, while low in fats and sugars.

two scientists making mycoprotein
a pile of promyc protein

Mycorena’s AFCiS system (left) produces a nutrient-rich mycoprotein that could also be formed into 3D printed shapes.

By itself, the mycoprotein doesn’t taste of much, Karlsson says: “It’s very neutral, like umami or yeasty bread.” But further processing, including combining it with flavorings or spices, could yield a wide range of foods, such as burgers or nuggets. A module attached to the system 3D-prints the fungus into the desired food style. “You can pick from a screen and eat a chicken filet,” says Karlsson.

While the winning ideas from the Deep Space Food Challenge won’t immediately be incorporated into future planned landings on the moon’s surface, they will show what might be possible on future missions. “You’ve got to start years in advance to make sure you have the capability in place when you need it,” says Fritsche. Those capabilities look promising—just don’t forget that side of soldier flies with your 3D-printed space fungus.

How 5-minute battery swaps could get more EVs on the road Wed, 17 May 2023 16:00:00 +0000 Charging has emerged as the primary way people keep their EV batteries full of juice while on the go, but some companies have an alternative in mind that they think could be even quicker than the fastest chargers today: battery swapping.

Today, a San Francisco–based startup called Ample demonstrated its new battery-swap system, which it says can exchange a depleted EV battery for a fresh one in five minutes.

Ample joins several other companies, past and present, with similar ideas. Battery swapping aims to match the convenience and speed of visiting a gas station, which proponents say could help strengthen the case for EVs by making it faster to replenish a car’s range. But some experts are skeptical, viewing battery swapping as an expensive solution that will at best serve a narrow niche within the future of electric transportation. 

Ample’s new swapping stations look like Silicon Valley–designed car washes, all gleaming white and rounded corners. “The whole vision is that we want to provide an experience that is as fast, affordable, and convenient as gas,” said Hamid Schricker, Ample’s director of product, as he gave me a video tour.

An Ample station has the footprint of roughly two parking spaces and offers drive-through service. When a vehicle is ready for a swap, the driver motors up to the station. A door slides up, revealing a platform inside. After navigating into position on the platform by following the instructions on screens inside the station, the driver hits a button in a connected app to start the swap. The station’s platform lifts the vehicle and its occupants several feet, and then the internal machinery gets to work, removing the used batteries in the vehicle and installing fresh ones. When the swap is finished, the platform lowers the vehicle back down to the road, and the driver can take off, charged and ready to go.

The depleted batteries can then be charged up over several hours and installed in another vehicle. While the batteries can be charged more quickly, slowing things down helps prevent degradation, says John de Souza, Ample’s cofounder and president. The number of swaps will be limited by the connection to the electrical grid, so a station with a 100 kilowatt connection will be able to charge and swap 48 batteries in the course of a day, each with a capacity of 50 kilowatt-hours.

Ample has a dozen of its first-generation swapping stations installed around the San Francisco area. Together, they’re performing a few hundred swaps each day at roughly 10 minutes apiece, de Souza says. The startup is partnered with Uber, aiming to demonstrate that battery swapping could help in demanding applications like ride-share fleets. But the ultimate vision is a drop-in replacement that allows people on commutes or road trips to swap out their EV battery and be on their way.

Building swapping stations will be more expensive than building superchargers: Ample declined to share exactly how much it planned to spend on each station, saying only that they would be less expensive than other battery-swap facilities that can cost half a million dollars to build and install.

A fork in the road

Ample is far from the first company to pursue battery swapping. Tesla Motors explored the concept, demonstrating the technology in its Model S in 2013 before eventually abandoning the plan in favor of its supercharging network.

Better Place was one of the most well-known battery-swap ventures. The startup was founded in 2007 and worked with automaker Renault, building a network of a few dozen swapping stations in Israel. But after raising some $850 million, the company failed to get more automakers and drivers on board and eventually filed for bankruptcy in 2013.

The specter of Better Place hangs over battery-swap efforts today, but de Souza says Ample’s approach addresses issues that sank previous iterations of the technology.

For a third-party company like Better Place or Ample to gain ground, it must find a way to be compatible with vehicles hitting the road. But getting automakers to converge on a battery is a challenge: companies are increasingly choosing different battery designs and chemistries for different models.

Ample’s solution is a modular system. Rather than take the whole battery out at once and screw on a fresh one, the startup plans to fit several smaller packs into a battery frame. This cuts down on the cost for machinery needed to move batteries, since the pieces are smaller, de Souza says.

And crucially, the modular design could make it easier for automakers to sign on, de Souza says. Ample’s vision is for vehicle makers to deliver their cars with an empty space where the battery should be. Ample can then build an envelope for that specific vehicle and plug in as many modules as will fit.

The number of modules can be customized both to the size of the vehicle (a compact car will hold fewer than a large SUV) and to driver needs—someone might install just a few modules for daily driving but load up when going on a long trip, de Souza says.

So far, Ample’s swapping stations are compatible with two vehicle models that have the company’s special batteries installed: the Nissan Leaf and the Kia Niro. According to de Souza, the system works with 13 vehicle models, though no other automaker partners have been announced.

Some experts are skeptical that even this altered vision of battery swapping is practical. “I think battery swapping is unlikely to be the primary way that we manage batteries for the general vehicle fleet,” says Jeremy Michalek, a professor of engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University.

Every make and model of electric vehicle on the road today has a different battery design, shape, and chemistry. Swapping requires standardization, and even if modules can provide some customization, they would still be a major constraint for automakers. “Putting the same size modules into different vehicles is very limiting,” he says.

In the driver’s seat

While third-party companies like Ample are aiming to create a standardized swapping ecosystem, some automakers are establishing their own infrastructure that gives them more control over the details.

In China, Nio has established itself as a major player in battery swapping. The automaker has about 1,400 commercial battery-swap stations deployed; most are in China, though the company has started expanding operations into European countries like Norway and the Netherlands as well. The goal is to have 2,300 stations installed by the end of 2022. 

The major selling point for customers is convenience, says Fei Shen, senior vice president of power management at Nio. “If we do battery swaps, the time is almost equivalent to refueling,” he says.

Nio’s swap stations move its batteries around all in one piece. The company offers three different battery options with different capacities, with each fitting into any and all vehicles it makes.

Nio’s customers don’t have to swap batteries—the vehicles can top off at fast-charging stations that Nio also builds—but the option is there, and people are using it, Shen says. The automaker has 300,000 vehicles on the road, and about 60% of drivers have used swap stations, according to the company’s data. In total, the company’s stations have performed 20 million swaps, and its newest stations can perform 400 a day. 

Nio isn’t the only company going after battery swapping in China. In total, six Chinese companies including Nio plan to have 26,000 installed battery-swap stations in the country by 2025, according to projections by BNEF, an energy research firm.

Hitting the brakes 

These efforts might succeed at the higher end of the market, but it’s not likely that companies like Nio will be able to serve the vast majority of drivers, says Gil Tal, director of the plug-in hybrid and electric-vehicle research center at the University of California, Davis. “I think it’s a very expensive solution,” he says. 

Not only will battery-swap companies need to build expensive swap stations (which, according to some early estimates, can run roughly double the cost of an equivalent fast-charging station), but they’ll need to maintain the complicated machinery involved. “It’s very difficult to manage a lot of swap stations—all of them have to have a high reliability,” Shen says. 

Nio and some other battery-swap companies plan to charge customers a monthly fee for their batteries and swapping privileges. In Norway, the cost for Nio’s lowest-capacity battery is roughly $135 monthly (owning the battery outright would cost around $8,500).

The marginal time savings of a battery swap might not be worth that extra cost and trouble. “Most EV drivers don’t drive more than the range of the car,” Tal says. For the few who do, he adds, stopping at a fast charger for 15 to 20 minutes won’t be a bigger barrier than stopping for a swap. 

Fast chargers are getting quicker all the time, with the Tesla supercharging network offering up to 250 kilowatts of charging power today—enough to add about 200 miles of range in 15 minutes. Other fast chargers deployed today can hit 350 kilowatts

Companies may be able to deploy battery swapping where people will pay a premium for speed: luxury vehicles, or for fleets of delivery trucks or taxis. It’s more likely to be helpful in the narrow range of cases where stopping at a fast charger is a major inconvenience. But at least for now, once we ditch gas pumps, we’ll be plugging in on road trips.

The Download: unlocking Chinese social accounts, and AI voice analysis Wed, 17 May 2023 12:10:00 +0000 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.

Inside Tencent’s weirdly secretive customer service center

—Zeyi Yang

When I recently visited China, for the first time since the pandemic, I traveled to Shenzhen in a bid to unlock my 15-year old Tencent social media account.

I have tons of personal stuff—diary entries, chat logs, emails—locked away in Tencent’s instant messaging platform QQ. My account was suddenly suspended in November 2021, months after I used it to report on a story about QQ’s censorship of LGBTQ content, and to connect with sources for other stories. But it wasn’t clear whether that activity resulted in the suspension. 

I’d basically given up on ever accessing it again, until I learned about Tencent’s weirdly secretive customer service center in Shenzhen. It’s a last resort for desperate users willing to make the journey to meet with a representative to make their case. Read the full story to find out what it’s like inside.

Zeyi’s story is from China Report, his weekly newsletter giving you the inside track on all things happening in China. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Tuesday.

Podcast: When AI hears a problem

Hidden away in our voices are signals that may hold clues to how we’re doing, what we’re feeling and even what’s going on with our physical health. So what does it mean now the AI systems tasked with analyzing these signals are moving into healthcare? Find out by listening to the latest episode of In Machines We Trust, our award-winning podcast, on Apple Podcasts, or wherever you usually listen.

The must-reads

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

1 OpenAI’s CEO Sam Altman is urging the US to regulate AI

Over to you, politicians. (NYT $)
+ Altman is particularly worried by the potential for AI to disrupt the 2024 US election. (FT $)
+ Why AI is better suited to tasks than actual jobs. (Bloomberg $)
+ Some experts are increasingly gloomy about where this is all heading. (New Yorker $)
+ ChatGPT is everywhere. Here’s where it came from. (MIT Technology Review)

2 South Korea’s had enough of tech leaks
Chinese companies have been charming Korea’s engineers into spilling trade secrets. (FT $)
+ A former Apple engineer has been charged with stealing its self-driving car tech. (WSJ $)

3 Regulation is coming for crypto
Slowly but surely—but some experts worry it’s too little, too late. (Economist $)
+ Investing in crypto is tantamount to gambling, according to the UK. (Reuters)
+ What’s next for crypto. (MIT Technology Review)

4 A Russian man has been charged with involvement in a huge cyber attack  
Authorities are offering up to $10 million in exchange for help arresting him. (WP $)

5 Two poultry workers have tested positive for bird flu in the UK

It’s unclear how they contracted it, and neither experienced symptoms. (BBC)
+ We don’t need to panic about a bird flu pandemic—yet. (MIT Technology Review)

6 Dating sites are riddled with catfish
Contractors across the world are being paid to manipulate unwitting daters. (Wired $)

7 Gig economy workers are begging for tips online 
DoorDash workers say they are almost entirely reliant on tips for their income. (Motherboard)

8 The world desperately needs more copper 

It’s an essential component for batteries—but it’s becoming more difficult to mine. (Bloomberg $)
+ How old batteries will help power tomorrow’s EVs. (MIT Technology Review)

9 TikTok is reimagining history without Western imperial power
Thanks to a bit of help from ChatGPT and Midjourney. (Rest of World)

10 Say ‘I do’ with these AI-generated wedding vows 💐
Exactly what you want on your big day, I’m sure. (WSJ $)

Quote of the day

“The ultimate guide to life, love, and eternal salvation!”

—ChatGPT takes a stab at writing an upbeat book blurb for the Bible, according to the Guardian.

The big story

The Soviets turned the Volga River into a machine. Then the machine broke.

December 2021

About 2,300 miles long, the Volga—sometimes referred to as “Mother Volga”—is the longest river in Europe. The history of the Big Volga project is, in a sense, the history of Soviet industrialization. It is also a history of rivalry with the US, which for decades raced the Soviets to build bigger, more impressive dams.

But the project tried to do too much. The river has become polluted, silted up, and overwhelmed by invasive species. Water flows at a tenth of the speed it did before the dams were constructed.

And now that the Volga basin has been identified as one of the regions most at risk of climate change-induced drought, it’s not an exaggeration to say that Russia’s mother river is broken. Read the full story.

—Olga Dobrovidova

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.)

+ Researchers have built a meticulous digital twin of the Titanic to work out exactly what went wrong on that fateful day in 1912.
+ Here’s what an astrophysicist has to say on the ‘is the Sun white or yellow?’ debate.
+ Seriously, why doesn’t anyone in Succession eat anything!? 🥐
+ The physics of soap bubbles are pretty complicated. Maybe 18th century French painters can give us some much-needed insight?
+ Ahh, millennial parties were quite something.

Inside Tencent’s weirdly secretive customer service center Wed, 17 May 2023 10:00:00 +0000 China Report is MIT Technology Review’s newsletter about technology developments in China. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Tuesday.

It’s been a while. I just got back from several weeks in China. It was my first visit since the pandemic, and I noticed some changes: half the cars running on the streets of Shanghai are now powered by electricity; I had to scan my face to ride the high-speed trains; and I did not use a single coin or credit card for my entire trip—digital wallets are accepted literally everywhere.

One of my stops in China was Shenzhen, the southern city that’s home to many Chinese tech companies, like Tencent, Huawei, and DJI. I had several reasons to go to Shenzhen, but there was one that made me nervous: I wanted to go to Tencent’s mysterious customer service center to get my 15-year-old social media account back.

If you didn’t know, the first software that launched Tencent’s empire was QQ, the go-to instant messaging platform in China during the desktop internet era. From there, Tencent grew into a powerful conglomerate offering blogs, email services, music and video streaming, gaming, and eventually WeChat. For a long time before WeChat’s success, a QQ account was essentially a digital identity—people used it to connect with each other and access all kinds of Tencent services. 

I have personal archives—including diary entries, chat histories, and professional emails—in QQ that span more than a decade. But I haven’t been able to access them since November 2021, when my account was suddenly suspended. In the months before that, I had used it to report on a story about QQ’s censorship of LGBTQ content and to connect with sources for other stories I was working on. But it wasn’t clear whether that activity resulted in the suspension. 

I tried to recover my account, but I hit a wall because it was registered with my childhood mobile number, which had long been deactivated. I basically gave up on it—until I learned about the customer service center in Shenzhen.

Dealing with customer service can always be frustrating: long wait times, boilerplate responses, and unhelpful representatives are the norm. Tencent offers a physical center as a last resort. If you are willing to travel to Shenzhen, you can meet with a representative in person to make your case. 

In January, a 16-year-old Chinese teen went viral after he traveled over 800 miles by himself to the Tencent customer service center. Like me, he’d had his QQ account suspended. After months of communications with Tencent and formal complaints that went nowhere, he finally got his account back thanks to his visit.

I arrived at the customer service center on a humid April day. The center is on the first floor of an office building unrelated to Tencent, yet only a few miles away from the company headquarters. It felt weirdly secretive: there was no sign on the exterior signifying what it was. A security guard stood outside the door and was eager to question all passersby about why they were there. 

When I walked into the reception room, six people were in the line in front of me. We were directed to go through a security detector and store all our bags and drinks. No recording, photography, or loud conversations are allowed in this center, the signs on the wall said. I tried to record audio but was soon noticed by one of the three security guards there. “Sir, you cannot record here,” he said, before watching me delete the recording.

After passing through the security screening, I was led to a waiting room, where more security guards—all wearing white shirts and black pants—were watching over the visitors and acting as support staff in instructing people to pre-fill their complaint information, like details of my QQ account to prove I was the rightful owner. 

As I waited on a couch for the Tencent representative to process my case, I was also eavesdropping on fellow visitors in the waiting room. A woman came because her husband had recently returned to China after a long time abroad and couldn’t reactivate his digital wallet. An old man had trouble communicating his case with the guards because he spoke in a thick accent. Another woman, who works as a daigou, or product reseller, was complaining that her WeChat account kept being suspended for sale of counterfeit products, while she insisted she hadn’t done it. A mother came with her 16-year-old son, who had spent over $10,000 on a Tencent-owned mobile game, using her bank account without her approval. The boy, probably knowing he’d messed up, kept staring at the floor and speaking in a low voice while he was reproached by the support staff for not telling them the correct information about his gaming activities.

The people in the center reminded me of how important tech companies have become to daily life in China. Here in the US, you can probably still live comfortably without using any Meta or Google products, but it’s hard to imagine living in China today without coming across WeChat or another Tencent app. 

I felt the imbalance of power between users and Tencent more acutely when I was physically in that Tencent office, being told to comply with different procedures and being watched to make sure I wasn’t taking any photos. And I knew, standing there, that in 2020, a man died by suicide by jumping from the top of that very building. While Tencent denied having had contact with the man that day, a relative of the victim said he went there because his WeChat account had been suspended and he couldn’t get it back after repeated complaints. 

After waiting for an hour and going through some procedures, including taking a video of myself for Tencent’s mandatory facial recognition ID verification system, I got my QQ account back. 

Not everyone in the center was as lucky as I was. The mother who came with her son was told that “a specialist dealing with underage users” would get back to them in a day. “But I took today off to come here and need to return home tomorrow. I won’t be able to come again,” she said. The Tencent staff assured her she would receive a call tomorrow, adding: “You are wasting your time waiting here.” 

The woman whose WeChat account had been suspended over counterfeit sales got into a quarrel with the customer representative. She didn’t believe she’d been reported by the brand (it was Dyson who contacted Tencent, the representative said) but insisted that a foe had snitched on her, and she wanted to know who the snitch was. The argument ended with the woman falling back to the couch, crying that the suspension had basically cost her her livelihood. “I might as well give up this business,” she sobbed. “Things have already been very difficult.”

I didn’t get all the answers I wanted that day. The customer service representative, standing in front of a sign on the wall that read “Tencent: all we do is for our customers,” couldn’t tell me what exactly got my account suspended in the first place. Perhaps it was because I left my contact information in too many group chats, she said, after I explained I mostly used it to find people to interview. “How many group chats is too many?” I asked. “There isn’t an absolute number,” she replied. 

As I was leaving the center, the security guard was still standing in front of the entrance, alert to anyone approaching. A man in a white shirt passed by, and the guard immediately asked what he was here for. “I’m just looking for a bathroom,” he awkwardly answered. After I was a few steps away, I turned around and took a photo of the center. I hope I won’t ever have to come back again.

A photo I took of the Tencent customer services center.

Have you ever dealt with Tencent’s customer service representatives online or in person? Tell me your experience by writing to

Catch up with China

1. An ex-executive of ByteDance’s US unit has filed a wrongful termination lawsuit against the tech company in which he made some juicy claims, including that the company has facilitated bribes to China’s internet regulator. (New York Times $)

2. Chinese police arrested a man for fabricating news of a train crash with the help of ChatGPT, making it the first ChatGPT-related arrest in the country. (The China Project $)

3. TikTok’s Chinese sister app Douyin requires creators to label content generated by artificial intelligence. (Semafor)

4. A former DeepMind researcher compares AI to traditional Chinese medicine: the theory is slim and unsatisfying, but it somehow works. (Wired $)

5. The famed Chinese-Singaporean singer Stefanie Sun is suddenly “releasing” dozens of songs every day. Fans are using AI tools to swap her voice into other popular songs. (TechCrunch)

6. Telecom carriers across the US are required to “rip and replace” their Chinese-made gear, but the costly process is forcing some of them out of business. (New York Times $)

7. A four-year-long landmark lawsuit could decide whether single women in China are permitted to freeze their eggs. (Reuters $)

8. Tesla is recalling 1.1 million cars in China over potential safety risks—almost the entirety of its sales in China since 2019. (CNN)

Lost in translation

On May 12, OPPO, one of the leading Chinese mobile phone companies (it makes 8% of all smartphones in the world), abruptly shut down its microchip business Zeku and laid off its 3,300 employees. According to Chinese tech publication 36Kr, the announcement surprised almost all Zeku employees, since the company hasn’t been in substantial financial troubles.

Established in 2019, Zeku was once regarded as one of a few hopes for Chinese smartphone companies to make their own chips instead of relying on foreign companies like Qualcomm. Before it was shut down, it managed to develop two high-end chip products that are used in OPPO phones, and a third was being tested for production in TSMC factories. The sudden decision has bewildered the Chinese semiconductor industry. One reasonable potential explanation is that OPPO is concerned about sky-high R&D costs while the global smartphone market is headed for a long-term contraction. 

Other Chinese chip companies are racing to grab the top talents coming out of Zeku, but it may take a long time for the industry to absorb all those who were laid off.

One more thing

The latest viral marketing trick in China is to get on a Times Square billboard, as Chinese publication Sixth Tone reported. An 18,000-square-foot LED screen constructed last year has made it possible to broadcast a 15-second video clip in the heart of New York City for only $40. Chinese brands, influencers, or just ordinary people who need an innovative birthday present for their friends soon caught on. Of course, most passersby won’t pay much attention to these videos. It’s all about getting bragging rights on Chinese social media.

Leading the energy transition Tue, 16 May 2023 12:53:19 +0000

Thank you for joining us on “The cloud hub: From cloud chaos to clarity.”

Infosys-MIT lockup logo image
Stock image of two scientists in a machine shop reviewing info on a tablet

The “Infosys-HFS Research Energy Transition 2023” report reveals that shifts in climate, regulation, and sustainability are nudging global enterprises to accelerate decarbonization and net zero journeys, with cloud dominating upcoming investment plans in the industry to deliver energy transition goals.

Click here to continue.

The Download: corporate climate action, and killer asteroids Tue, 16 May 2023 12:10:00 +0000 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.

Inside the little-known group setting the corporate climate agenda

As thousands of companies trumpet their plans to cut carbon pollution, a small group of sustainability consultants has emerged as the go-to arbiter of corporate climate action.

The Science Based Targets initiative, or SBTi, helps businesses develop a timetable for action to shrink their climate footprint through some combination of cutting greenhouse-gas pollution and removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. After years of small-scale sustainability work, SBTi is growing rapidly, and governments are paying attention. 

But while the group has earned praise for reeling the private sector into constructive conversations about climate emissions, its rising influence has also attracted scrutiny and raised questions about why a single organization is setting the standards for many of the world’s largest companies. Read the full story.

—Ian Morse

Earth is probably safe from a killer asteroid for 1,000 years

The news: Breathe a sigh of relief—no asteroid larger than a kilometer is going to hit the Earth in the next 1,000 years, a new study has found. 

How they did it: A team of researchers modeled when asteroids cataloged by NASA were expected to come near Earth in their orbit, before pushing those estimates up to 1,000 years into the future. By identifying “the fraction of the orbit that can bring the object close to Earth,” the team was able to model impact risks much farther out than has been possible with other methods.

However… Smaller asteroids, which are much more plentiful, can still cause plenty of damage. That’s why it’s still important to keep an eye on anything that could hurtle towards us from outer space. Read the full story.

—Jonathan O’Callaghan

How do you solve a problem like out-of-control AI? 

Last week Google revealed it is going all in on generative AI. At its annual I/O conference, the company announced it plans to embed AI tools into virtually all of its products, from Google Docs to coding and online search.

The announcement is a big deal, and will give billions of people access to powerful, cutting-edge AI models. But it will most likely be just a matter of time before things start to go awry. The company has not solved any of the common problems with these AI models: they still make stuff up, are easy to manipulate, and are vulnerable to attacks. 

Because these sorts of AI tools are relatively new, they still operate in a largely regulation-free zone. But while calls for regulation are growing louder, and regulators are starting to ask tough questions, we’re still a long way from seeing any proper rules to rein in generative AI. Read the full story.

—Melissa Heikkilä

This story is from The Algorithm, Melissa’s weekly AI newsletter. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Monday.

The must-reads

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

1 The EU has approved Microsoft’s bid to acquire Activision Blizzard
But the US and UK aren’t happy about it. (Vox)
+ If it goes ahead, it’ll be the largest tech mega-merger in two decades. (NYT $)
+ The decision is a massive win for Microsoft, even if it isn’t a done deal yet. (CNBC)

2 Sam Altman is testifying to US Congress today
It’s part of a subcommittee hearing about the risks AI poses to society. (CNN)
+ Regulating AI is famously more easily said than done. (NPR)
+ How OpenAI built ChatGPT. (MIT Technology Review)

3 Human DNA is literally everywhere
If someone collected it deliberately, it’d be a privacy minefield. (NYT $)

4 Google is trying to get generative AI systems on your smartphone
There’s a big hurdle: the vast computing power they require. (FT $)

5 China’s biotech gamble isn’t paying off 
Despite the huge amount of money pumped into the country’s drug companies. (Bloomberg $)

6 Carmakers are taking the search for EV battery minerals into their own hands
Including financing mines and promising to buy what they unearth. (WSJ $)
+ Inside a battery recycling facility. (MIT Technology Review)

7 Automated hiring algorithms are still discriminating against workers
And it’s not just jobseekers that are losing out. (Wired $)
+ Auditors are testing hiring algorithms for bias, but there’s no easy fix. (MIT Technology Review)

8 Archivists are racing to back up the internet 
Around one billion images are at risk of deletion from image host Imgur. (Motherboard)

9 How the Kurdish language made its way onto Google Translate
Largely thanks to the efforts of one man. (Rest of World)
+ How a community banded together to preserve the Māori language. (MIT Technology Review)

10 Dodgy AI-generated book covers have arrived 📚
It’s bad news for talented human illustrators. (The Verge)
+ This artist is dominating AI-generated art. And he’s not happy about it. (MIT Technology Review)

Quote of the day


—Sikers, a Discord user who inadvertently shared classified documents on a server dedicated to Minecraft maps, begs to be left alone, the Wall Street Journal reports.

The big story

How Silicon Valley hatched a plan to turn blood into human eggs

October 2021

A few years ago, a young man from California’s technology scene began popping up in the world’s leading developmental biology labs dedicated to deciphering the secrets of embryos.

Matt Krisiloff had a specific interest in the artificial-egg technology, and said he wanted to help them.

The company Krisiloff started, called Conception, is the largest commercial venture pursuing what’s called in vitro gametogenesis, which refers to turning adult cells into gametes—sperm or egg cells. 

Their goal is ambitious, to say the least. If scientists can generate supplies of eggs, it would cancel the age limits on female fertility—and break the rules of reproduction as we know them. Read the full story.

—Antonio Regalado

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.)

+ Celebs, they’re just like us—and they just love going to gaming events.
+ Wow: this chap has set a world record for living underwater for a grand total of 74 days (without any depressurization!)
+ 50 years ago, the US launched its first space station, Skylab.
+ These beautiful illustrations of deep sea monsters are captivating.
+ How much is a smidgen, exactly?

Inside the little-known group setting the corporate climate agenda Tue, 16 May 2023 09:00:00 +0000 As thousands of companies trumpet their plans to cut carbon pollution, a small roundtable of sustainability consultants has emerged as the go-to arbiter of corporate climate action.

The Science Based Targets initiative, or SBTi, helps businesses develop a timetable for action to shrink their climate footprint through some combination of cutting greenhouse-gas pollution and removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. 

For a fee, this team of several dozen analysts and technical experts will work with companies to set and publicize targets for cutting their share of emissions, deeply and quickly enough to conform with international efforts to limit global warming to 1.5 ºC above preindustrial levels. SBTi says the goals it sets are meant to convey that the business has put in place a credible schedule for driving down or eliminating emissions, in line with “the latest climate science.” 

After years of small-scale sustainability work, SBTi is growing rapidly. It has now stamped its approval on the emissions reduction timelines of more than 2,600 companies, including Nestlé, PepsiCo, and Apple. It’s working to develop climate targets with more than 2,300 more, and hopes to help set them for some 10,000 businesses by 2025.

Governments are taking notice of its work as well. Last November, the White House proposed rules that would require large federal contractors to set SBTi-approved emissions reduction plans.  

The group has earned praise for some of its strictest policies, and for reeling the private sector into a constructive conversation about climate emissions.

But its rising influence has also attracted scrutiny and raised questions about its outsize role. The fact that a single organization is setting the standards for many of the world’s largest companies makes it essential for those climate targets to be trustworthy. A number of researchers now question whether SBTi’s corporate guidelines are adequately aggressive, equitable, and clear.

Critics say SBTi is giving companies too much latitude in how they set their targets; that it is allowing them to rely on certain dubious tools to address emissions; and that it is holding emerging companies in poor nations to the same standards as huge historic polluters. 

Several studies find that the group’s methods may overstate corporate climate progress. Bill Baue, an early technical advisor to the organization and now one of its most outspoken critics, says it has exhibited  a “persistent pattern of reckless disregard for truth and transparency” in its responses to such critiques.

The broader danger, some experts say, is that the public is getting a second-best approach to climate action as companies take elective steps while governments largely fail to pass strict emissions rules.

“The optimists say, ‘We need to use every tool in the tool kit, including this voluntary initiative,’” says Jessica Green, a political science professor at the University of Toronto who studies how the private sector regulates itself. “That isn’t wrong, but companies are patting each other on the back for climate action that isn’t sufficiently credible to deal with the climate crisis.”

Alberto Carrillo Pineda, SBTi’s chief technical officer, defends the organization’s practices, noting that the companies it works with have cut emissions faster than required. He also stresses that SBTi is working to address concerns.

“No one has really done what we’re doing until we started doing it,” he says. “And once you start doing it, you start to learn and learn more. It’s an evolving field.”

Setting standards

Under the landmark Paris climate agreement, reached in 2015, most of the world’s nations committed to keep global warming to “well below” 2 ºC, and to strive to limit it to 1.5 ºC. But they didn’t lay out the path to get there––or who would pave it.

So the same year, sustainability professionals from the World Resources Institute, the World Wildlife Fund, the Carbon Disclosure Project (now CDP), and the UN Global Compact created the SBTi. The consortium devised ways to distribute the corporate responsibility for cutting emissions and meeting temperature targets, on the basis of sector, company size, and other factors. 

Other organizations offer similar sustainability accreditation, but SBTi stands out as a one-stop shop for translating climate science into goals for firms. The UN affiliation and environmental reputation of SBTi’s founding groups also helped make it the popular choice among businesses looking to set emissions plans perceived to be scientifically sound.

“Pretty much everything you touch in private-sector governance comes back to the question of ‘What’s SBTi going to do?’” says Danny Cullenward, a carbon market expert and research fellow at the Institute for Carbon Removal Law and Policy at American University. 

Observers praise many of the organization’s standards, and particularly its refusal to use carbon offsets to meet targets. Offsets allow companies to pay others to reduce emissions or remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through tree planting, reforestation, or similar projects and then count the climate benefits against their own emissions. But numerous studies and investigations have found that such programs frequently inflate actual climate progress.

Others give the group credit for helping persuade a rising share of the private sector to take meaningful steps to address emissions. SBTi says companies with targets that it’s approved are typically reducing their direct emissions by 12% each year, well ahead of what the organization requires. The goal-setting has had a wider effect on the field as well, helping to ratchet up the standards of other companies and corporate standard-setting groups, observers say.

Picking pathways

The starting point for SBTi’s approach is what’s known as the world’s “carbon budget.” The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change determined that collectively, nations can only afford to emit another 500 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide over roughly the next three decades and still have a 50-50 shot at holding warming to 1.5 ºC.

SBTi allocates shares of that carbon budget to sectors and companies, which then have several choices in setting targets. Two-thirds of companies have selected the simplest method, committing to per-year emissions cuts through 2030. To be in line with 1.5 ºC targets, SBTi requires companies to plan to reduce emissions across their supply chains by at least 4.2% every year. (Some companies, like Tyson Foods, Cargill, and McDonald’s, opted for a 2 ºC goal, but SBTi has recently stopped approving plans for this looser target.)

For the most part, the private sector isn’t legally required to drive down its emissions. But firms face growing pressure from investors, customers, activists, and policymakers to show that they’re taking emissions seriously and addressing rising bottom-line risks from climate change itself. Companies that secure SBTi’s approval can assert in their boardrooms, product marketing, and investor communications that they’re doing both. 

SBTi has developed a process for measuring a company’s baseline emissions based on work by Greenhouse Gas Protocol, a similar partnership between NGOs and the private sector that sets standards for reporting emissions and then signs off on a firm’s timeline for reducing them. SBTi stresses that it doesn’t evaluate or endorse the specific strategies companies use to get to the target. However, it does exert some control over the choice of those tools, as in prohibiting the use of offsets. 

Companies can also choose to follow a sector-specific pathway, which tends to be more attractive for industries such as aviation, cement, and aluminum, which are particularly difficult to clean up with today’s technologies. In that case, SBTi assigns shares of the carbon budget to sectors and the companies within them on the basis of scientific literature, market data, and guidance from industry experts.

The maritime industry, for example, gets a total budget of 12 to 16 billion tons of carbon dioxide to emit until 2050. SBTi gives the sector more time to decarbonize than other industries because it’s expected that methods for cutting emissions from shipping, including switching to low-emission fuels like ammonia and hydrogen, will take a while to scale up. 

SBTi has also developed long-term net-zero targets, with the goal that by 2050, companies will emit only as much greenhouse gas as they can reliably and durably remove from the atmosphere. They have approved such goals for around 200 companies, including Colgate Palmolive, Etsy, and H&M. 

In 2022, SBTi approved targets set by more than 1,000 companies. Firms signing up now may have to wait in line for up to six months. Steve Suppan, a policy analyst at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, says the small size of its validating team, which grew from 11 people last year to 15 in 2023, is “the biggest single challenge that SBTi faces.”

SBTi requires companies to review their targets at least every five years, and work with the organization to recalculate them when there are major changes that affect the goals. The group is also preparing to implement ways of monitoring and verifying whether companies’ progress is on track. 

A fine line 

The process of allocating the limited carbon budget to individual companies, sectors, and regions hangs on assumptions about what the economy of the future will look like and how to fairly assign responsibility for climate action.

“That’s where these metrics and indicators depart from science and take us into the realm of values, ethics, and morality,” says Mark McElroy, director of the Center for Sustainable Organizations and an original member of the SBTi technical advisory group.

Some critics, for instance, argue that SBTi’s methods don’t adequately consider the historical responsibility for current warming or the barriers developing countries might face in cutting emissions. The concern is that entrenched companies in wealthy regions that have pumped out climate pollution for decades are largely treated the same way as emerging firms in poor countries with limited resources to alter their business practices.

For that reason, scientists have said that SBTi’s methods do not support a UN principle, established in 1992, that richer countries should bear a larger share of the responsibility for mitigating climate change.

McElroy developed one of the few methods for setting private-sector emissions targets that can incorporate such global equity considerations. It also reevaluates targets each year, forcing companies to do more to stay within their sector’s cumulative emissions budgets over time. 

Anders Bjørn, a postdoctoral fellow at the Technical University of Denmark, found in a 2021 study that SBTi’s methods for setting targets may grant companies too much slack, permitting total sector emissions to surpass what’s allowable under the 1.5 ºC temperature target. (When he tested the accuracy of a variety of such approaches, he found that McElroy’s method, which SBTi doesn’t use, does the best job of keeping companies in line with those goals.) 

Bjørn’s research has also highlighted another worry among scientists: SBTi companies may overstate their progress by relying on renewable energy credits, which have raised concerns similar to those surrounding carbon offsets. The tool allows companies to count payments to low-carbon energy projects as reductions in their own emissions. However, renewables like wind and solar power plants are becoming cheaper and benefit from government incentives, so it’s increasingly difficult to justify the credit as necessary for their development. 

“SBTi is walking a very fine and nuanced line,” Cullenward says. “In specific applications … the concept of offsetting is very much in place.”

Recent research from the NewClimate Institute and Carbon Market Watch has also highlighted the fact that SBTi allows certain sectors to use offset-like projects so long as they’re within their own operations or supply chains, a practice they refer to as “insetting.” In an earlier investigation, the same two organizations also found that companies took advantage of an SBTi policy that allows companies to select years with especially high emissions as their starting point, making it easier to achieve subsequent annual reductions.

In addition, SBTi has raised concerns about potential conflicts of interest, most conspicuously by earning money from the companies it evaluates. It charges companies for its services, with prices ranging from $1,000 to $14,500, depending on the company’s size and the complexity of its climate targets. In 2021, it also raised $36 million from the Bezos Earth Fund, the Laudes Foundation, and the IKEA Foundation. (IKEA has received approval for its near-term targets.)

Still another concern involves carbon removal. Under SBTi’s net-zero plans, companies can counterbalance up to 10% their emissions with “permanent removal” of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. These efforts, it expects, will have negated 20 to 40 billion tons of emissions by 2050.

But SBTi hasn’t clarified how to do this carbon removal. Not all techniques for taking carbon out of the atmosphere can do it permanently, and none of the reliable and long-term options are cheap and widely available yet. Amid these concerns, a collection of research groups and businesses have asked SBTi to define “permanent” as lasting at least a thousand years and to encourage companies to invest in developing the technologies. 

SBTi’s process also leaves at least two glaring gaps. To limit warming to 1.5 ºC, every company around the world will need to cut emissions at similar annual levels. But so far, companies with approved targets and commitments to develop them account for only 3 billion tons of carbon dioxide (or other greenhouse gases with equivalent warming effects). Meanwhile, the world produces around 41 billion tons per year from energy use alone. Notably, the group also doesn’t currently approve targets for companies in the fossil-fuel sector, the source of the overwhelming majority of human-caused emissions. Even substantial emissions reductions across other sectors can only do so much to ease climate change without radical changes in the way oil and gas companies operate. 

Addressing challenges 

In response to various criticisms, SBTi says it is adjusting how it structures the organization. It has hired a compliance director to manage complaints and formed a technical council to review and approve more technical decisions.

But it has defended its methods for setting targets, saying that other approaches, including McElroy’s, rely on volatile economic measures. It adds that its approach should be judged on many different measures, and that it must balance rigorous science against “viable” implementation. In the same vein, it says companies ought to be able to choose the year to establish baseline emissions, because businesses change structure often and emissions accounting principles continually improve.

The group said in a statement that it is working to incorporate regional data to ensure that targets are more ambitious and globally fair, another subject that the technical council will consider. 

SBTi is also working with Greenhouse Gas Protocol to boost transparency and assess whether it should update policies regarding the use of renewable energy credits. “This isn’t a challenge that’s unique to the SBTi, but it’s one that it is committed to addressing,” the statement said. 

The group disagrees that any of the practices it allows amount to a form of offsets. It says that more work is needed to understand the climate benefits from insetting and that it will assess such projects on a case-by-case basis.

As for the concerns about conflicts of interest, SBTi says its fees are only meant to ensure that the organization can handle the demand for its services. Most funding, it says, comes from charitable trusts and foundations. “We have no commercial interest at all,” Pineda says. “With the entities that we assess, we have completely independent governance.” 

He stresses that methods to suck carbon out of the atmosphere represent a small part of SBTi’s approved plans. The world “cannot really rely on high-scale adoption” of carbon removal, he says. “What we need to rely on is rapid decarbonization.”

Finally, SBTi plans to release details this year about how it plans to monitor whether companies are on track to meet their targets, and what it will do if they are not.

Providing cover

By 2025, SBTi hopes to approve targets for companies worth a total $20 trillion and responsible for 5 billion tons of annual emissions. But that would still represent only a sliver of global climate pollution. And some fear that the group’s standards could slip rather than strengthen from this point, as more big companies join the fold and push against the strictest rules.

Doreen Stabinsky, a professor of global environmental politics at the College of the Atlantic, fears that “in order to try to be palatable to the corporate sector,” SBTi will relax its requirements over time. Without public access to the emissions data SBTi sees, its climate targets are “effectively inscrutable,” she and other scientists told the organization in October. (Stabinsky and Bjørn are part of SBTi’s newly created technical council.)

Others argue there’s a more fundamental problem that can’t be addressed through any technical updates. Voluntary standards may simply be incapable of pushing profit-driven companies hard enough to undertake the rapid, systemic transformations that the UN temperature targets and climate realities demand. 

In addition, the group’s formally approved targets could have the perverse effect of providing climate cover for companies, allowing them to drag their feet on making the necessary changes or even lobby against stricter rules. 

SBTi acknowledges that government action is important, calling regulation vital to encourage “slower adopters” of climate action. But notably, a number of companies with SBTi-approved targets have publicly railed against rules proposed by the US Securities and Exchange Commission to require companies to publish their emissions plans and disclose exposure to risks from climate-related impacts like floods and fires.

Tyson said climate disclosures could “chill innovation and lead to competitive harm,” and Walmart asked the commission to remove requirements to report climate-related financial information. Executives of Apple and PepsiCo are members of the Business Roundtable, which has lobbied the commission to undercut obligations to report climate risks within supply chains, according to an analysis by the Guardian.

In Green’s view the SBTi acts more like a club than a regulator, more interested in getting people to join than in changing their behavior. It’s not the only or even the best option for driving climate action, she says. It’s just the one that’s available now, while countries still lack the will to pass and enforce stringent emissions rules despite the growing dangers from climate change.

Ian Morse is an independent journalist based in Seattle who has contributed to The Washington Post, Mongabay, Undark Magazine and other outlets, and who writes the Green Rocks newsletter.

How do you solve a problem like out-of-control AI? Tue, 16 May 2023 08:45:56 +0000 This story originally appeared in The Algorithm, our weekly newsletter on AI. To get stories like this in your inbox first, sign up here.

Last week Google revealed it is going all in on generative AI. At its annual I/O conference, the company announced it plans to embed AI tools into virtually all of its products, from Google Docs to coding and online search. (Read my story here.) 

Google’s announcement is a huge deal. Billions of people will now get access to powerful, cutting-edge AI models to help them do all sorts of tasks, from generating text to answering queries to writing and debugging code. As MIT Technology Review’s editor in chief, Mat Honan, writes in his analysis of I/O, it is clear AI is now Google’s core product. 

Google’s approach is to introduce these new functions into its products gradually. But it will most likely be just a matter of time before things start to go awry. The company has not solved any of the common problems with these AI models. They still make stuff up. They are still easy to manipulate to break their own rules. They are still vulnerable to attacks. There is very little stopping them from being used as tools for disinformation, scams, and spam. 

Because these sorts of AI tools are relatively new, they still operate in a largely regulation-free zone. But that doesn’t feel sustainable. Calls for regulation are growing louder as the post-ChatGPT euphoria is wearing off, and regulators are starting to ask tough questions about the technology. 

US regulators are trying to find a way to govern powerful AI tools. This week, OpenAI CEO Sam Altman will testify in the US Senate (after a cozy “educational” dinner with politicians the night before). The hearing follows a meeting last week between Vice President Kamala Harris and the CEOs of Alphabet, Microsoft, OpenAI, and Anthropic.

In a statement, Harris said the companies have an “ethical, moral, and legal responsibility” to ensure that their products are safe. Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the majority leader, has proposed legislation to regulate AI, which could include a new agency to enforce the rules. 

“Everybody wants to be seen to be doing something. There’s a lot of social anxiety about where all this is going,” says Jennifer King, a privacy and data policy fellow at the Stanford Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence. 

Getting bipartisan support for a new AI bill will be difficult, King says: “It will depend on to what extent [generative AI] is being seen as a real, societal-level threat.” But the chair of the Federal Trade Commission, Lina Khan, has come out “guns blazing,” she adds. Earlier this month, Khan wrote an op-ed calling for AI regulation now to prevent the errors that arose from being too lax with the tech sector in the past. She signaled that in the US, regulators are more likely to use existing laws already in their tool kit to regulate AI, such as antitrust and commercial practices laws. 

Meanwhile, in Europe, lawmakers are edging closer to a final deal on the AI Act. Last week members of the European Parliament signed off on a draft regulation that called for a ban on facial recognition technology in public places. It also bans predictive policing, emotion recognition, and the indiscriminate scraping of biometric data online. 

The EU is set to create more rules to constrain generative AI too, and the parliament wants companies creating large AI models to be more transparent. These measures include labeling AI-generated content, publishing summaries of copyrighted data that was used to train the model, and setting up safeguards that would prevent models from generating illegal content.

But here’s the catch: the EU is still a long way away from implementing rules on generative AI, and a lot of the proposed elements of the AI Act are not going to make it to the final version. There are still tough negotiations left between the parliament, the European Commission, and the EU member countries. It will be years until we see the AI Act in force.

While regulators struggle to get their act together, prominent voices in tech are starting to push the Overton window. Speaking at an event last week, Microsoft’s chief economist, Michael Schwarz, said that we should wait until we see “meaningful harm” from AI before we regulate it. He compared it to driver’s licenses, which were introduced after many dozens of people were killed in accidents. “There has to be at least a little bit of harm so that we see what is the real problem,” Schwarz said. 

This statement is outrageous. The harm caused by AI has been well documented for years. There has been bias and discriminationAI-generated fake news, and scams. Other AI systems have led to innocent people being arrested, people being trapped in poverty, and tens of thousands of people being wrongfully accused of fraud. These harms are likely to grow exponentially as generative AI is integrated deeper into our society, thanks to announcements like Google’s. 

The question we should be asking ourselves is: How much harm are we willing to see? I’d say we’ve seen enough.

Deeper Learning

The open-source AI boom is built on Big Tech’s handouts. How long will it last?

New open-source large language models—alternatives to Google’s Bard or OpenAI’s ChatGPT that researchers and app developers can study, build on, and modify—are dropping like candy from a piñata. These are smaller, cheaper versions of the best-in-class AI models created by the big firms that (almost) match them in performance—and they’re shared for free.

The future of how AI is made and used is at a crossroads. On one hand, greater access to these models has helped drive innovation. It can also help catch their flaws. But this open-source boom is precarious. Most open-source releases still stand on the shoulders of giant models put out by big firms with deep pockets. If OpenAI and Meta decide they’re closing up shop, a boomtown could become a backwater. Read more from Will Douglas Heaven.

Bits and Bytes

Amazon is working on a secret home robot with ChatGPT-like features
Leaked documents show plans for an updated version of the Astro robot that can remember what it’s seen and understood, allowing people to ask it questions and give it commands. But Amazon  has to solve a lot of problems before these models are safe to deploy inside people’s homes at scale. (Insider)

Stability AI has released a text-to-animation model 
The company that created the open-source text-to-image model Stable Diffusion has launched another tool that lets people create animations using text, image, and video prompts. Copyright problems aside, these tools could become powerful tools for creatives, and the fact that they’re open source makes them accessible to more people. It’s also a stopgap before the inevitable next step, open-source text-to-video. (Stability AI

AI is getting sucked into culture wars—see the Hollywood writers’ strike
One of the disputes between the Writers Guild of America and Hollywood studios is whether people should be allowed to use AI to write film and television scripts. With wearying predictability, the US culture-war brigade has stepped into the fray. Online trolls are gleefully telling striking writers that AI will replace them. (New York Magazine)

Watch: An AI-generated trailer for Lord of the Rings … but make it Wes Anderson 
This was cute. 

Building cyber resilience and leveraging cyber governance Mon, 15 May 2023 18:05:22 +0000

Thank you for joining us on “The cloud hub: From cloud chaos to clarity.”

Infosys-MIT lockup logo image
stock image of a man at his desk staring off, deep in thought

This paper covers the discussion organized by between a senior group of chief information security executives from the industry and the government around building cyber resilience strategies and leveraging cyber governance frameworks to bolster board-level program support.

Click here to continue.