“The problem is that literally anybody can watch these videos—kids, adults, it doesn’t matter,” she says. Matt first saw a fractal wood burning video shared by a friend on Facebook and was so intrigued that “he started watching YouTube videos on it—and they’re endless.” 

Matt was electrocuted when a piece of the casing around the jumper cables he was using came loose and his palm touched metal. “I truly believe if my husband had been fully aware [of the dangers], he wouldn’t have been doing it,” Schmidt says. Her plea is simple: “When you’re dealing with something that has the capability of killing somebody, there should always be a warning … YouTube needs to do a better job, and I know that they can, because they censor all types of people.” 

After Matt’s death, medical professionals from the University of Wisconsin wrote a paper entitled “Shocked Though the Heart and YouTube Is to Blame.” Citing Matt’s death and four fractal wood burning injuries they’d personally treated, they asked that “a warning label be inserted before users can access video content” on the crafting technique. “While it is not possible, or even desirable, to flag every video depicting a potentially risky activity,” they wrote, “it seems practical to apply a warning label to videos that could lead to instantaneous death when imitated.” 

Matt and Caitlin Schmidt had been best friends since they were 12 years old. He leaves behind three children. Schmidt says that her family has suffered “pain, loss and devastation” and will carry lifelong grief. “We are now the cautionary tale,” she says, “and I wish on everything in my life that we weren’t.” 

YouTube told MIT Technology Review its community guidelines prohibit content that’s intended to encourage dangerous activities or has an inherent risk of physical harm. Warnings and age restrictions are applied to graphic videos, and a combination of technology and human staff enforces the company’s guidelines. Dangerous videos banned by YouTube include challenges that pose an imminent risk of injury, pranks that cause emotional distress, drug use, the glorification of violent tragedies, and instructions on how to kill or harm. However, videos can depict dangerous acts if they contain sufficient educational, documentary, scientific, or artistic context. 

YouTube first introduced a ban on dangerous challenges and pranks in January 2019—a day after a blindfolded teenager crashed a car while participating in the so-called “Bird Box challenge.” 

YouTube removed “a number” of fractal wood burning videos and age-restricted others when approached by MIT Technology Review. But the company did not say why it moderates against pranks and challenges but not hacks. 

It would certainly be challenging to do so—each 5-Minute Crafts video contains numerous crafts, one after the other, many of which are simply bizarre but not harmful. And the ambiguity in hack videos—an ambiguity that is not present in challenge videos—can be difficult for human moderators to judge, let alone AI. In September 2020, YouTube reinstated human moderators who had been “put offline” during the pandemic after determining that its AI had been overzealous, doubling the number of incorrect takedowns between April and June. 

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The difference between this approach and its predecessors is that DeepMind hopes to use “dialogue in the long term for safety,” says Geoffrey Irving, a safety researcher at DeepMind. 

“That means we don’t expect that the problems that we face in these models—either  misinformation or stereotypes or whatever—are obvious at first glance, and we want to talk through them in detail. And that means between machines and humans as well,” he says. 

DeepMind’s idea of using human preferences to optimize how an AI model learns is not new, says Sara Hooker, who leads Cohere for AI, a nonprofit AI research lab. 

“But the improvements are convincing and show clear benefits to human-guided optimization of dialogue agents in a large-language-model setting,” says Hooker. 

Douwe Kiela, a researcher at AI startup Hugging Face, says Sparrow is “a nice next step that follows a general trend in AI, where we are more seriously trying to improve the safety aspects of large-language-model deployments.”

But there is much work to be done before these conversational AI models can be deployed in the wild. 

Sparrow still makes mistakes. The model sometimes goes off topic or makes up random answers. Determined participants were also able to make the model break rules 8% of the time. (This is still an improvement over older models: DeepMind’s previous models broke rules three times more often than Sparrow.) 

“For areas where human harm can be high if an agent answers, such as providing medical and financial advice, this may still feel to many like an unacceptably high failure rate,” Hooker says.The work is also built around an English-language model, “whereas we live in a world where technology has to safely and responsibly serve many different languages,” she adds.

And Kiela points out another problem: “Relying on Google for information-seeking leads to unknown biases that are hard to uncover, given that everything is closed source.” 

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Despite President Biden’s assurances at Wednesday’s United Nations meeting that the US is not seeking a new cold war, one is brewing between the world’s autocracies and democracies—and technology is fueling it.

Late last week, Iran, Turkey, Myanmar, and a handful of other countries took steps toward becoming full members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), an economic and political alliance led by the authoritarian regimes of China and Russia.

The majority of SCO member countries, as well as other authoritarian states, are following China’s lead and are trending toward more digital rights abuses by increasing the mass digital surveillance of citizens, censorship, and controls on individual expression.

And while democracies also use massive amounts of surveillance technology, it’s the tech trade relationships between authoritarian countries that’s enabling the rise of digitally enabled social control. Read the full story.

—Tate Ryan-Mosley

Watch this team of drones 3D-print a tower

The news: A mini-swarm’s worth of drones have been trained to work together to 3D-print some simple towers. Inspired by the way bees or wasps construct large nests, the process has multiple drones work together to build from a single blueprint, with one essentially checking the others’ work as it goes. 

How it works: One drone deposits a layer of building material, and the other verifies the accuracy of everything printed so far. The drones are fully autonomous while flying, but they are monitored by a human who can step in if things go awry.

Why it matters: One day, the method could help with challenging projects such as post-disaster construction or even repairs on buildings that are too high to access safely, the team behind it hopes—and could construct buildings in the Arctic or even on Mars. Read the full story.

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Beyond the SCO, Venezuela’s autocratic regime announced in 2017 a smart identification card for its citizens that aggregated employment, voting, and medical information with the help of the Chinese telecom company ZTE. And Huawei, another Chinese telecom corporation, boasts a global network of 700 localities with its smart city technology, according to the company’s 2021 annual report. This is up from 2015, when the company had about 150 international contracts in cities.

Chinese surveillance platforms used for policing and public security

Democracies are implicated in digital authoritarianism, too. The US has a formidable surveillance system built on a foundation of Chinese tech; a recent study by the industry research group Top10VPN showed over 700,000 US camera networks run by the Chinese companies Hikvision and Dahua. 

US companies also prop up much of the digital authoritarianism industry and are key players in complex supply chains, which makes isolation and accountability difficult. Intel, for example, powers servers for Tiandy, a Chinese company known for developing “smart interrogation chairs” reportedly used in torture. 

Networks of Hikvision and Dahua cameras outside China

Beyond the code 

Digital authoritarianism goes beyond software and hardware. More broadly, it’s about how the state can use technology to increase its control over its citizens. 

Internet blackouts caused by state actors, for instance, have been increasing every year for the past decade. The ability of a state to shut off the internet is tied to the extent of its ownership over internet infrastructure, a hallmark of authoritarian regimes like China and Russia. And as the internet becomes more essential to all parts of life, the power of blackouts to destabilize and harm people increases. 

Early this year, as anti-government protests rocked Kazakhstan, an SCO member, the state shut down the internet almost entirely for five days. During this time, Russian troops descended on major cities to quell the dissent. The blackout cost the country more than $400 million and cut off essential services. 

Other tactics include models for using data fusion and artificial intelligence to act on surveillance data. During last year’s SCO summit, Chinese representatives hosted a panel on the Thousand Cities Strategic Algorithms, which instructed the audience on how to develop a “national data brain” that integrates various forms of financial data and uses artificial intelligence to analyze and make sense of it. According to the SCO website, 50 countries are “conducting talks” with the Thousand Cities Strategic Algorithms initiative. 

Relatedly, the use of facial recognition technology is spreading globally, and investment in advanced visual computing technologies that help make sense of camera footage has also grown, particularly in Russia. 

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The VR group requested significantly lower levels of the sedative propofol—in this case used to numb the pain in the hand— than the non-VR group. They received 125.3 milligrams per hour, in comparison to an average of 750.6 milligrams per hour during the study, described in PLoS ONE. The VR group also left the post-anesthesia recovery unit more quickly, spending an average of 63 minutes versus 75 minutes for the non-VR group.

The researchers believe that those in the VR group needed lower levels of the anesthetic because they were more distracted than those who didn’t have virtual visual stimuli. However, the team acknowledges, it’s possible that the VR group could have gone into surgery already believing that VR would be effective. This possibility will need to be explored in future trials. 

Reducing the amount of anesthetic a patient receives can help shorten hospital stays and lower the risk of complications, and it could save money on the cost of the drugs themselves.

The team now plans to run a similar subsequent trial in patients undergoing hip and knee surgery to continue exploring whether VR could help manage anxiety during operations, says Adeel Faruki, an assistant professor in anesthesiology at the University of Colorado, who led the study.

There’s a growing body of evidence that VR can be a useful surgery aid, says Brenda Wiederhold, cofounder of the Virtual Reality Medical Center, who was not involved in the study. However, medical experts would need to monitor patients for cyber sickness, a form of motion sickness that VR triggers in some people.

“We have so many use cases for VR and surgeries, like cesarean births and pre-and post-cardiac surgeries,” she says.

VR may be helpful not only during medical procedures but afterwards too, according to Wiederhold, by reducing the risk of chronic pain. “That’s pretty exciting,” she says.

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To demonstrate the drones’ capabilities, the researchers got them to use foam and a special lightweight form of cement to build structures with heights ranging from 0.18 meters to 2.05 meters. They were constructed to within 5 millimeters of the original blueprint. 

Then, to show that the system could work on more complex formations, the team used the lights on the drones to create a light-trail time-lapse sequence as they simulated making a tall dome-like structure. Their work is described in a paper in Nature today. 

Mirko Kovac, director of the Aerial Robotics Laboratory at Imperial College London, who led the research, says the method could be used to construct buildings in the Arctic or even on Mars, or simply to help repair tall buildings that normally would require expensive scaffolding.

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Productivity improvements have helped a wide range of industries—except the health care industry. From 1999 to 2014, productivity in the health care sector increased by just 8%, whereas other industries achieved far greater efficiency gains of 18%. While productivity comparisons between industries tend to be inaccurate, they do show health care lags far behind other industries in terms of productivity and potential.

To operationally improve productivity in health care, two things must happen. First, data must be understood as a strategic asset. Data must be leveraged through intelligent and all-encompassing workflow solutions, as well as the use of artificial intelligence (AI)—driving automation and putting the patient at the center of the imaging value chain.

Second, to be able to speak of a value chain at all, the fields of competencies must be connected. The connection must be as seamless, open, and secure as possible. The goal is to ensure that all relevant data is available when needed by patients, health care professionals, and medical researchers alike.

A modern enterprise imaging software solution must prioritize outcome optimization, improved diagnostics, and enhanced collaboration.

Health care today: gaps, bottlenecks, silos

The costs and consequences of the current fragmented state of health care data are far-reaching: operational inefficiencies and unnecessary duplication, treatment errors, and missed opportunities for basic research. Recent medical literature is filled with examples of missed opportunities—and patients put at risk because of a lack of data sharing.

More than four million Medicare patients are discharged to skilled nursing facilities (SNFs) every year. Most of them are elderly patients with complex conditions, and the transition can be hazardous. According to a 2019 study published in the American Journal of Managed Care, one of the main reasons patients fare poorly during this transition is a lack of health data sharing—including missing, delayed, or difficult-to-use information—between hospitals and SNFs. “Weak transitional care practices between hospitals and SNFs compromise quality and safety outcomes for this population,” researchers noted.

Even within hospitals, sharing data remains a major problem. A 2019 American Hospital Association study published in the journal Healthcare analyzed interoperability functions that are part of the Promoting Interoperability program, administered by the U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) and adopted by qualifying U.S. hospitals. The study showed that among 2,781 non-federal, acute-care hospitals, only 16.7% had adopted all six core functionalities required to meet the program’s Stage 3 certified electronic health record technology (CEHRT) objectives. Data interoperability in health care is not a matter of course.

Data silos and incompatible data sets remain another roadblock. In a 2019 article in the journal JCO Clinical Cancer Informatics, researchers analyzed data from the Cancer Imaging Archive (TCIA), looking specifically at nine lung and brain research data sets containing 659 data fields in order to understand what would be required to harmonize data for cross-study access. The effort took more than 329 hours over six months, simply to identify 41 overlapping data fields in three or more files, and to harmonize 31 of them.

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Liza Fisher is preparing for a busy day. In about an hour, her mother will drive her to a clinic, where she will receive IV fluids and iron treatments for her anemia. When the IV bag is empty, she’ll head to an adaptive gym, where she’ll don compression pants and take a class for people with disabilities. She’ll also consult with a therapist familiar with postural tachycardia syndrome, a condition that causes her heart to race when she stands up.

Fisher, who lives in Houston, was once an athletic flight attendant. Now her life is consumed with daily therapies and exercise as well as care offered by her mother, a nurse who moved from Ohio to take care of her. This is how it’s been for more than a year, after she contracted covid-19 and developed chronic symptoms of long covid.

Fisher’s case is sadly far from unique. She’s one of many people of color who are grappling with long covid—and we’re only just beginning to understand how big a problem it is. Read the full story.

—Elaine Shelly

Broadband funding for Native communities could finally connect some of America’s most isolated places

Rural and Native communities in the US have long had lower rates of cellular and broadband connectivity than urban areas, where four out of every five Americans live. Outside the cities and suburbs, which occupy barely 3% of US land, reliable internet service can still be hard to come by. 

For decades, people who live in places like the Blackfeet Indian Reservation have made do with low bandwidth delivered through obsolete copper wires, or simply gone without.

The covid-19 pandemic underscored the problem as Native communities locked down and moved school and other essential daily activities online. But it also kicked off an unprecedented surge of relief funding to solve it. Read the full story.

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And all that work at the “last mile”—installing or upgrading the antennas and cables that link up homes and businesses—is only part of the story. There’s also the “middle mile”—the infrastructure that small networks need to feed their data into the international telecommunications backbone. For the Blackfeet, this would involve updating that local exchange in Browning and hooking it up to a carrier hub servicing all of North America and the world. 

“The middle-mile fiber is missing,” says Matthew Rantanen, technology and telecommunications cochairman of the National Congress of American Indians. “We did the math, got maps from carriers and tribes, worked with the GIS folks and anchor institutions—there’s about 8,000 missing miles in the Lower 48 states, 1,800 just in California. That’s a billion-dollar problem on its own just in the Lower 48.”

Work to be done

Since the rollout of the CARES Act in mid-2020, with its initial deadline to have billions of dollars spent by December 2021, tribes have scrambled to digest the opportunity. The Blackfeet’s purchase of the local exchange was one of the few things that could be completed in a timely fashion.

Unfortunately, not every tribe has been able to take as much advantage of these funds. “A lot of tribes didn’t apply for the money,” says Rantanen. “Some tribes are very advanced, and some have zero personnel. Or they have grant writers who don’t know how to think about technology trying to write tech grants.”

And now, costs are going up because of inflation, among other factors.

“Prices are getting bid way up. The money won’t go as far as it did.”

Mike Sheard, Siyeh Communications

Fiber projects suffer from a bottleneck in the global supply chain. Major communication players like AT&T and Verizon have been buying every pallet of cable they can find. That leaves small projects like those on Indian reservations waiting 60 weeks or more to fill orders. Many had to seek waivers for the spending deadline.

“The federal government appropriated over $60 billion for broadband, and the vendors know that,” says Mike Sheard, president of Siyeh Communications, the corporation created to oversee the new telecom exchange on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. “Prices are getting bid way up. The money won’t go as far as it did.” 

While Rantanen says federal broadband funding likely won’t be enough to dig fiber rings for every tribe, a clever planning department can lay a lot of cable while rebuilding a subsidized road or replacing an Infrastructure Act–supported water line.

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The TL;DR here: The US and China used to trust each other in industrial cooperation and trade, despite ideological differences. But now, I think both sides will agree, that kind of trust doesn’t seem realistic anymore. These orders aim to move industries that emigrated from the US back stateside. (You can read more here about how the pandemic highlighted this issue.)

Despite that growing distrust, these new policies follow the same playbook that China has used for decades: generous industry subsidies, government funding for academic institutions, and entry barriers for foreign competitors to protect domestic companies. And it just might work! After all, it’s precisely the success of the Chinese government at growing key technology sectors in short periods of time that pushed the US to act in the first place.

Whether the administration admits it or not, I think these moves to build up domestic industries are a form of protectionism. It reminds me of the term “economic nationalism,” which the New Yorker writer E. Tammy Kim used to describe how both parties’ candidates in Ohio’s Senate race have promised to bring back manufacturing jobs from China. I don’t think the government stepping in to help a domestic industry is itself bad. But economic nationalism comes with problems, too: unfair competition, corruption, xenophobia, turning away trade allies, etc. Biden will surely be challenged from both sides on these issues.

I find it ironic that after years of criticizing the Chinese approach of developing domestic tech industries, the US—under both Trump and Biden—is also learning from China. But to be fair, the best way to produce tech advancement is likely halfway between overreaching government interventions and an unregulated free market. It will be interesting to see how the US handles that balance as compared with its rival.

Do you have a different thought on the Biden admin’s executive orders on China? I’d love to hear from you at

Catch up with China

1. A car crash in Guizhou killed 27 people being transported to a covid quarantine facility. It sparked widespread outrage online about China’s ongoing zero-covid policy. (CNN)

2. Even though individual Chinese users have been blocked from Twitter, local governments are paying for tourism ads there—and they have become a fast-growing source of revenue for the platform. (Reuters $)

3. Brick-and-mortar store owners in Mexico are reselling the Shein clothes they bought online and making a fortune. (Rest of World)

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