The Download: greener cement, and the biggest tech stories of 2023

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.

How electricity could help tackle a surprising climate villain

Cement hides in plain sight—it’s used to build everything from roads and buildings to dams and basement floors. But it’s also a climate threat. Cement production accounts for more than 7% of global carbon dioxide emissions—more than sectors like aviation, shipping, or landfills.

One solution to this climate catastrophe might be coursing through the pipes at Sublime Systems. The startup is developing an entirely new way to make cement. Instead of heating crushed-up rocks in lava-hot kilns, Sublime’s technology zaps them in water with electricity, kicking off chemical reactions that form the main ingredients in its cement.

But it faces huge challenges: competing with established industry players, and persuading builders to use its materials in the first place. Read the full story.

—Casey Crownhart

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 subscribe, take advantage of our seasonal subscription offers to get a copy when it lands.

 2023: the year in review

2023 was an eventful year for tech, to say the least. To mark the start of the new year, MIT Technology Review’s writers have taken a look back over the past 12 months in sectors ranging from gene editing to AI to climate change. Here were the biggest developments to keep up with:

+ The worst technology failures of 2023. The Titan submersible, lab-grown chicken, and GM’s wayward Cruise robotaxis all made our annual run-down of the worst in tech. Read the full list.

+ How 2023 marked the death of anonymity online in China. As Chinese social media platforms move toward requiring users to disclose more information about their real identities, will we lose what made us want to be online in the first place? Read the full story.

+ Why last year marked the first time gene editing finally started living up to its potential.

+ Four trends that changed AI in 2023. Endless product launches, boardroom coups, intense policy debates, and a race to find the next big thing. Read the full story.

+ Take a look back over all the climate records that were broken in 2023, from greenhouse-gas emissions from fossil fuels to highest-ever temperatures.

+ But it wasn’t all bad news. There was some good climate news in 2023. Really! Read about the reasons for optimism.

The race is on to save coral reefs—by freezing them

As sweltering ocean temperatures make graveyards of coral reefs across the Caribbean and beyond, a team of scientists is scrambling to cool corals down. Way down. To -200 °C. 

Coral reefs, as an ecosystem, are expected to go functionally extinct by 2035. Now, scientists hope to freeze enough coral sperm, larvae, and adult polyps not just to support current conservation efforts, but to reboot reefs in the increasingly likely event of a marine mass extinction. Yet major engineering hurdles still stand in the way of this plan. Read the full story.

—Allison Guy

The must-reads

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

1 Misinformation about the earthquake in Japan is spreading on X
Meanwhile, a reliable source of emergency information was prohibited from posting. (Motherboard)
+ Thankfully, an anticipated tsunami didn’t happen. (Economist $)

2 Mickey Mouse has lost his copyright protections
Which can only mean one thing—dodgy AI-generated art. (Wired $)
+ This new data poisoning tool lets artists fight back against generative AI. (MIT Technology Review)

3 Amazon is booting small businesses off its platform
Boosting a cottage industry of lawyers dedicated to fighting their corner. (FT $)

4 This is the year AI companies need to start making money
A whole load of hype hasn’t translated into cash—and investors want results. (WSJ $)

5 How the world forgot about Zika
While it’s not generating the same headlines it once did, the virus is very much still present. (The Atlantic $)

6 Chinese exchange students are being targeted by virtual kidnappers 
Victims are tricked into complying out of fear their families will be harmed. (WP $)

7 Hardly any EVs qualify for the full US tax credit
Only five battery electric vehicles and one plug-in hybrid, in fact. (The Verge)
+ It’s looking unlikely that EV sales in the US will hit government sales targets. (Insider $)
+ EV tax credits could stall out on lack of US battery supply. (MIT Technology Review)

8 Bitcoin is… back?
Regulators are warming up to bitcoin-exchange-traded funds after all. (NY Mag $)
+ The cryptocurrency is at its highest point in almost two years. (Reuters)

9 Mind-decoding technologies are on the rise
But the movement to preserve neurorights has some catching up to do. (Undark)
+ Brain scans can translate a person’s thoughts into words. (MIT Technology Review)

10 Boston Dynamics’ robot dogs have been trained to paint
But beauty is still in the eye of the beholder. (Insider $)

Quote of the day

“One word: grim.”

—An anonymous Google employee offers a succinct summary of the past year at the company, Insider reports.

The big story

Is the digital dollar dead?

July 2023

In 2020, digital currencies were one of the hottest topics in town. China was well on its way to launching its own central bank digital currency, or CBDC, and many other countries launched CBDC research projects, including the US.

How things change. Three years later, the digital dollar—even though it doesn’t exist—has become political red meat, as some politicians label it a dystopian tool for surveillance. And late last year, the Boston Fed quietly stopped working on its CBDC project. So is the dream of the digital dollar dead? Read the full story.

—Mike Orcutt

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.)

+ Fancy owning a piece of television history? Check out this fun auction of Succession clothes and props.
+ It’s the time of year for simple stews, and they don’t come much easier than this recipe.
+ How many books will you read over the course of the rest of your life?
+ This 1960s radar training station could be yours!
+ A celebration of unidentified people, via Wikipedia.

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