The Download: solving the mystery of hunger, and the climate-tech boom

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Joined: Nov 2016

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.

We’ve never understood how hunger works. That might be about to change.

When you’re starving, hunger is like a demon. It awakens the most ancient and primitive parts of the brain, then commandeers other neural machinery to do its bidding until it gets what it wants. 

Although scientists have had some success in stimulating hunger in mice, we still don’t really understand how the impulse to eat works. Now, some experts are following known parts of the neural hunger circuits into uncharted parts of the brain to try and find out.

Their work could shed new light on the factors that have caused the number of overweight adults worldwide to skyrocket in recent years. And it could also help solve the mysteries around how and why a new class of weight-loss drugs seems to work so well. Read the full story.

—Adam Piore

This story is from the next magazine edition of MIT Technology Review, set to go live on January 8—and it’s all about innovation. If you don’t already, take advantage of our seasonal subscription offers to get a copy when it lands.

Six takeaways from a climate-tech boom

A surge of climate-tech startups seeking to reinvent clean energy and transform huge industrial markets is fueling optimism about our prospects for addressing climate change. Tens of billions are pouring into these venture-backed companies in just about every field you can imagine, from green steel to nuclear fusion.

But all that optimism comes with a warning: most venture-backed startups in cleantech have failed miserably so far.

Today’s investors and entrepreneurs hope this time is different, as there’s far more money available, and far more demand for cleaner products. Yet many of the challenges from the first boom still exist. Read the most important lessons from cleantech 1.0.

—David Rotman

How machine learning might unlock earthquake prediction

Early warning systems have changed the way we think about the threat of earthquakes. With seismometers and finely programmed algorithms sounding the alarm, they no longer have to take us entirely by surprise.

But these systems have limitations. Also, they react only to an earthquake that has already begun—we can’t predict an earthquake the way we can forecast the weather. 

A proper forecast could let us do a lot more to manage risk, from shutting down the power grid to evacuating residents. While the very topic of earthquake prediction was deemed unserious just 10 years ago, today a number of well-respected scientists are getting serious about the prospect of prediction—and are making serious progress. Read the full story.

—Allie Hutchison

The must-reads

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

1 The Dutch government has blocked chipmaking equipment exports to China 
The Biden administration pressured Dutch firm ASML to halt its scheduled shipments. (Bloomberg $)
+ Unsurprisingly, China isn’t too happy. (WSJ $)
+ How the chip industry became a geopolitical showpiece. (WSJ $)

2 The European Space Agency will investigate the asteroid NASA smashed into
The Hera mission wants to shed light on how the impact affected it. (New Scientist $)
+ 2024 is shaping up to be an exciting year for space. (NYT $)
+ Watch the moment NASA’s DART spacecraft crashed into an asteroid. (MIT Technology Review)

3 The rise and fall of Alibaba
Once China’s brightest tech star, the e-commerce giant is struggling to keep up with its competition. (FT $)

4 Low-tech ‘green roads’ are helping developing nations to fight floods 
Farmers’ crops are flourishing because of them, too. (Undark Magazine)
+ The architect making friends with flooding. (MIT Technology Review)

5 Ransomware attacks are growing more and more powerful
It’s highly likely that 2023 was the worst year on record for cybersecurity. (Economist $)
+ That said, there were some rare moments of good news among the gloom. (TechCrunch)

6 The next year will be a big one for antitrust rulings
We’re expecting judgments on long-running cases involving Meta and Google. (WSJ $)
+ Apple is also facing a rough year of regulatory battles. (FT $)

7 Dating app Hinge is more popular than ever
It may not be cool, but it has a proven track record of facilitating successful dates. (Vox)
+ Are you suffering from dating app burnout? (Insider $)
+ How the net’s newest matchmakers help you find love. (MIT Technology Review)

8 Emojis have infiltrated the professional world
A new lawsuit focuses on the use of 🌝, and other suits are likely to follow. (The Atlantic $)

9 How to achieve your New Year’s resolutions (no, really)
These productivity and goal-tracking apps are a good place to start. (TechCrunch)

10 It’s time to wave goodbye to the millennial internet
Now there are fewer sites and more all-powerful platforms than ever. (Wired $)
+ How to fix the internet. (MIT Technology Review)

Quote of the day

“My videos cost millions to make and even if they got a billion views on X it wouldn’t fund a fraction of it.”

—YouTuber Mr Beast responds to Elon Musk’s request to post his content directly on X.

The big story

Startups are racing to reproduce breast milk in the lab

December 2020

Like many mothers, Leila Strickland found breastfeeding difficult. She struggled to feed her babies, and spent all day, every day, nursing or pumping to stimulate her milk flow.

Strickland, a professor of vascular physiology at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, began thinking about how she might be able to use a process like that pioneered by Dutch food technology company Mosa Meat to create artificial beef, but for cells that produce breast milk.

In May 2020, her company Biomilq received $3.5 million from a group of investors led by Bill Gates. It is now in a race with competitors to shake up the world of infant nutrition in a way not seen since the birth of the now $42 billion formula industry. Read the full story.

—Haley Cohen Gilliland

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.)

+ Who doesn’t love a good home before-and-after?
+ 2023 was the year of impressive neuroscience breakthroughs—and dopamine played a starring role.
+ Take a look at just some of the ways the world actually improved last year.
+ Beware the medieval fighting snails! 🐌
+ Be gentle with yourself: here’s how to feel a bit better over the next year.


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