The Download: discovering proteins, and Pakistan’s climate crisis
What’s the deal? : Researchers could use an AI tool to discover previously unknown proteins or create new ones. It could be used to develop more efficient vaccines, accelerate research into cancer cures, or create completely new materials.
How it works ProteinMPNN was developed by a group of scientists from the University of Washington and will be used to complement DeepMind’s AlphaFold tool, which can predict the shapes of all known proteins. ProteinMPNN will assist researchers with the reverse problem. It will help researchers find the exact amino acid sequence that forms that protein structure if they have a specific protein structure in mind.
Why it is important: Proteins are essential to life. Understanding their structure is crucial to working with them. ProteinMPNN will allow researchers to create new proteins from scratch. This is a change from the way that researchers have always engineered proteins. Read more .
DeepMind predicted almost every protein structure known to science. It’s also giving away the data for free, which could lead to new scientific discoveries. Read the complete story .
This is why Demis Hassabis founded DeepMind. AlphaFold changed the way researchers work and set DeepMind on an entirely new course. Read the complete story .
“Fingerprints” of climate change are clear in Pakistan’s devastating floods
What we know: Climate change very likely intensified the South Asian monsoon that flooded Pakistan in recent weeks, killing more than 1,000 people and destroying nearly 2 million homes. This is according to World Weather Attribution, an international network of scientists who use weather observations and climate models to determine if global warming has increased the severity or likelihood of extreme weather events.
What we don’t know It’s not clear how significant a role climate change played. It has been difficult to use climate models to determine the role of global warming in amplifying the full monsoon season. This is due to a combination of the large variability in heavy rain patterns over long periods, natural processes that the models may not fully capture, as well as the weather quirks of this territory. The country’s weather will likely become more extreme. Read the complete story .
I’ve combed the internet to find you today’s most fun/important/scary/fascinating stories about technology.
1 Uber appears to have been hacked by a teenager
An 18-year old is claiming to be behind the cybersecurity breach, which compromised the company’s internal systems. (NYT $)
Meanwhile, its services are working normally for customers. (Bloomberg $)
2 An AI used medical notes to teach itself to spot disease on chest x-rays
Teaching AI models to read existing reports could save researchers from having to manually label the data. (MIT Technology Review)
3 The US government’s vast database of travelers’ data is growing rapidly
Data from phones and other devices is kept for 15 years. (WP $)
4 The White House wants Congress to drop social media’s immunity
Tech companies are protected by Section 230, which means they’re not held legally liable for content posts by their users. (Reuters)
Here’s why it’s worth saving. (MIT Technology Review)
We need clearer guidelines for what constitutes harmful online content. (The Information $)
Senators are asking Big Tech better questions these days. (Slate $)
5 Millions of people in India have geotagged their homes
The move, which was part of the country’s Independence Day celebrations, has privacy advocates rattled. (Rest of World)
6 Organic molecules have been found in rocks on Mars
They could prove that life may have thrived there. (Wired $)
The microbes may have lived in briny lakes. (Motherboard)
The best places to find extraterrestrial life in our solar system. (MIT Technology Review)
7 The most sophisticated AI systems can baffle even their creators
Which is kind of the point of deep learning. (The Atlantic $)
8 Inside the wild world of leg lengthening
More and more men are willing to have their legs broken to make them appear taller–for a price. (GQ)
Bionic limbs could be more widely available within a decade, too. (Neo.Life)
9 TikTok is the new Google
Why trust a restaurant’s website when TikTok shows you what their food actually looks like? (NYT $)
10 The race to slow down aging
Tinkering with a person’s epigenetic age is one place to start. (Neo.Life)
Aging clocks aim to predict how long you’ll live. (MIT Technology Review)
Quote of the day
“Facebook is kind of extinct.”
–Natasha Hunt Lee, 25, explains why Gen Z is embracing new digital ways of inviting friends to parties beyond the social network to the New York Times.
The big story
Two sick children and a $1.5 million bill: One family’s race for a gene therapy cure
Jennie and Gary Landsman launched an online appeal to save their sons on Thanksgiving of 2017. In a moving video, the pair describe how their two sons, Benny, then 18 months, and Josh, four months–both have a fatal genetic brain disorder called Canavan disease. It is extremely rare. In fact, it is so rare that there is no reliable way to know how many children are affected. Canavan is not well-studied by many researchers, and there are no approved drugs to treat it.
The Landsmans refused the doctors’ advice to make their sons happy until they died. Instead, they discovered that there might be a way to correct the genetic error in their sons’ brains. The family would have to cover the cost. It would be costly. The Landsmans discovered gene therapy, a technology that uses viruses to add genes to cells that have deficient ones. Because it promises the ultimate bug fix, the technology’s medical logic appeals to parents of children with rare diseases. The problem is who will pay? Read the full story.
We can still have nice
A place for comfort, enjoyment, and distraction in these strange times. Have any other ideas? Drop me a line or tweet ’em at me. )
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I’m a journalist who specializes in investigative reporting and writing. I have written for the New York Times and other publications.