The Download April 19, 2022: Neo-colonial AI, and aging clocks

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.

South Africa’s private surveillance machine is fueling a digital apartheid

Johannesburg, the sprawling megacity once home to Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, is now birthing a uniquely South African surveillance model. The city has been home to a centralized, coordinated, completely privatized mass surveillance operation for the past five years. Vumacam, the company building the nationwide CCTV network, already has over 6,600 cameras and counting, more than 5,000 of which are concentrated in Johannesburg. It feeds video footage into security rooms across the country. These rooms then use all manners of AI tools, such as license plate recognition, to track movement and trace individuals. These tools were enthusiastically adopted by local security professionals, who are trying to cope with high-crime environments.

Civil rights activists fear that the new surveillance is fueling an apartheid state and destroying people’s democratic freedoms. But experts are claiming that the stakes are higher. They claim that artificial intelligence is having the same impact as colonial history. Here in South Africa, where colonial legacies still abound, the unfettered deployment AI surveillance is just one example of how a technology that promised to bring people into the future is now threatening to return them to the past. Read full story .

–Karen Hao and Heidi Swart

This is the first part of our series on AI colonialism, digging into how the technology is impoverishing the communities and countries that don’t have a say in its development. Parts 2–4 are coming later in the week, and you can read Karen Hao’s introductory essay here.

How we can fix AI’s inequality problem

The economy is being transformed by digital technologies, especially in artificial intelligence, that are rapidly changing how we live and work. This transformation is a troubling puzzle. These technologies have not done much to grow the economy and income inequality has worsened. Productivity growth, which economists consider essential to improving living standards, has largely been sluggish since at least the mid-2000s in many countries.

Why are these technologies not generating more economic growth? Why aren’t these technologies generating more widespread prosperity? Leading economists and policy experts are trying to find the answer. They are looking at how AI and automation are created and deployed. Read the full story.

–David Rotman

Aging clocks aim to predict how long you’ll live

Age is much more than the number of birthdays you’ve clocked. How our organs deal with everyday wear and tear can be affected by stress, sleep, diet, and other factors. This could lead to you ageing faster or slower than others born on the same date. Your biological age, which is the number of years you have lived, could be very different from your chronological age.

Your biological age will likely reflect your physical health and your mortality better than your chronological age. It’s not as easy to calculate it. This is why scientists have spent the past decade developing tools called “aging clocks” that assess markers in your body and reveal your biological age. They also predict how many healthy years you will have. Anti-aging interventions may be able to make people biologically younger, according to proponents of aging watches. It’s not clear if they are reliable or accurate enough to make such claims. Read the full story.

–Jessica Hamzelou

Aging clocks emerged as the clear winner for Tech Review’s 11th breakthrough technology of 2022. More than 10,000 readers voted–if you were one of them, thank you!

Quote of the day

“It’s like packing bikinis for Siberia, using chopsticks to eat steak, teaching an eagle how to swim. “

–An anonymous Shanghai resident details the frustrations of living in the city’s extreme zero-covid lockdown while cases continue to soar for The Guardian.

The must-reads

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

1 Russian soldiers are attacking a 300-mile front in Ukraine
The aim is to take full control of the Donbas region in the country’s east. (NYT $)
Putin’s desire to conquer Donbas is symbolic. (BBC) The State Department has condemned Russian airstrikes as a “campaign of terror.” (WP $)
The siege of Mariupol appears to be drawing to an end. (FT $)

2 Crypto hackers are stealing ever-larger sums
And it’s mainly down to vulnerable, poorly-managed open-source code. (TR)
Bitcoin mining has devastated the city of Plattsburgh in New York. (TR)
The case for keeping cash. (TR)

3 Even democracies use controversial spyware
NSO has paved the way for this sort of surveillance to become terrifyingly commonplace. (New Yorker $)
The UK prime minister’s office has allegedly been hit with an NSO spyware attack. (The Guardian)
The hacker-for-hire industry is now too big to fail. (TR)

4 Facebook investing in Nigerian internet infrastructure comes at a price
Yep, you guessed it. User data. (The Guardian)
It’s been accused of failing to moderate misinformation in Africa. (The Guardian)

5 Intel claims its AI can read students’ emotions
Plot spoiler: it can’t. It doesn’t, anyway. (Protocol)
Emotion AI researchers say overblown claims give their work a bad name. (TR)

6 How serious is Elon Musk about owning Twitter, really?
And should we be worried? (The Atlantic $)
Twitter’s board is trying hard to avoid a scenario where he buys 100% of the company. (Bloomberg $)
Twitter’s edit button might show how the tweet originally appeared. (TechCrunch)

7 Food in the metaverse isn’t very good
Because–shocker–you can’t actually eat it! (Insider)
Here’s how to let a metaverse die with dignity. (Polygon)

8 A former Dollar General worker is using TikTok to push for union representation
Instead of listening to her concerns, the company fired her. She isn’t going quietly. (NYT $)
Amazon’s warehouse in New Jersey is the latest to get a union vote. (WP $)

9 Online white supremacist communities are preying on teenagers
Even the anti-racist material to combat it has been weaponized. (The Atlantic $)

10 Here’s how you should be texting
Sorry, grammar sticklers! (WP $)

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