The Download: Google’s Gemini plans, and virtual power plants

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.

Google’s Gemini is now in everything. Here’s how you can try it out.

The news: In the biggest mass-market AI launch yet, Google is rolling out Gemini, its family of large language models, across almost all its products, from Android to the iOS Google app to Gmail to Docs and more. A new subscription plan will also give users access to Gemini Ultra, the most powerful version of the model, for the first time.  

Why it matters: ChatGPT, released by Microsoft-backed OpenAI just 14 months ago, changed people’s expectations of what computers could do. Google has been racing to catch up ever since and unveiled its Gemini family of models in December. By baking Gemini into its ubiquitous tools, it will be hoping to make up any lost ground, and even overtake its rival. Read the full story.

—Will Douglas Heaven

How virtual power plants are shaping tomorrow’s energy system

The shift from conventional energy sources like coal and gas to variable and unpredictable renewables such as solar and wind means the  way we operate the energy system is changing. Welcome to the era of virtual power plants (VPPs).

Governments and private companies alike are counting on VPPs’ potential to help keep costs down and stop the grid from becoming overburdened.

Here’s what you need to know about VPPs—and why they could be the key to helping us bring more clean power and energy storage online. Read the full story.

—June Kim

This piece is part of MIT Technology Review Explains: our series untangling the complex, messy world of technology to help you understand what’s coming next. You can read more from the series here.

Advanced solar panels still need to pass the test of time

It must be tough to be a solar panel. They’re consistently exposed to sun, heat, and humidity—and the panels installed today are expected to last 30 years or more.

But how can we tell that new solar technologies will stand the test of time? That’s been especially tricky for one emerging technology in particular: perovskites. They’re a class of materials that developers are increasingly interested in incorporating into solar panels because of their high efficiency and low cost. 

The problem is, perovskites are notorious for degrading when exposed to high temperatures, moisture, and bright light—all the things they’ll need to withstand to make it in the real world. 

The good news is that  researchers have made progress in both stretching out the lifetime of perovskite materials and working out how to predict which materials will be winners in the long run. Read the full story.

—Casey Crownhart

This story is from The Spark, our weekly climate and energy newsletter. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Wednesday.

The must-reads

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

1 OpenAI is working on an AI agent to take control of your device
It would allow software to perform clicks, typing and other actions. (The Information $)
+ These six questions will dictate the future of generative AI. (MIT Technology Review)

2 A driverless Waymo car hit a cyclist in San Francisco
It’s yet another example of autonomous cars posing a danger to pedestrians (Reuters)
+ What’s next for robotaxis in 2024. (MIT Technology Review)

3 Russia is stoking fears of US civil war online
Influencers, bloggers and state-run media platforms are spreading disinformation about the Texas border crisis. (Wired $)

4 Ransomware hackers stole more than $1 billion last year
That’s nearly double the funds stolen in 2022. (The Guardian)
+ It’s far easier to share ransomware than it used to be. (Bloomberg $)
+ No, millions of smart toothbrushes weren’t used in a DDoS attack. (404 Media)

5 New York is going after social media algorithms
State officials want to prohibit platforms from algorithmically serving content to minors. (WSJ $)

6 Uber has recorded its first annual profit
Just under five years since it flopped during its IPO. (FT $)

7 Self-fertilizing plants may be on the horizon
Engineered plants that don’t rely on synthetic fertilizer could liberate farmers in areas with typically poor fertility.(New Yorker $)
+ The Earth is getting greener—quite literally. (Vox)

8 It’s not just you—the whole internet is getting worse
Once platforms start prioritizing businesses over ordinary users, the end is nigh. (FT $)
+ Good luck trying to watch those viral Grammy clips on social media. (Slate $)
+ How to fix the internet. (MIT Technology Review)

9 A Dutch man is officially the world’s longest-living heart transplant patient
Bert Janssen received his donor heart almost 40 years ago—and is happy and healthy. (BBC)
+ This company plans to transplant gene-edited pig hearts into babies. (MIT Technology Review)

10 TikTok is overrun with lame, manufactured slang
Creators are desperate to coin terms in the hopes it’ll go viral. (Vox)

Quote of the day

“It feels very gloves-off.”

—Jackie Burns Koven, head of threat intelligence at crypto tracing Chainalysis, explains why criminal activity online has returned to the bad old days of the height of the covid pandemic to Wired.

The big story

Welcome to Chula Vista, where police drones respond to 911 calls

February 2023 

In the skies above Chula Vista, California, where the police department runs a drone program 10 hours a day, seven days a week, it’s not uncommon to see an unmanned aerial vehicle darting across the sky. 

Chula Vista is one of a dozen departments in the US that operate what are called drone-as-first-responder programs, where drones are dispatched by pilots, who are listening to live 911 calls, and often arrive first at the scenes of accidents, emergencies, and crimes, cameras in tow.

But many argue that police forces’ adoption of drones is happening too quickly. The use of drones as surveillance tools and first responders is a fundamental shift in policing, one without a well-informed public debate around privacy regulations, tactics, and limits. There’s also little evidence that drone policing reduces crime.

Now Chula Vista is being sued to release drone footage, illustrating how privacy and civil liberty groups are increasingly worried that the technology will dramatically expand surveillance capabilities and lead to even more police interactions with demographics that have historically suffered from overpolicing. Read the full story.

—Patrick Sisson

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.)

+ I can say with absolute certainty that this is the sweetest slug I’ve ever seen.
+ Are these the best British rappers of all time?
+ Easy weeknight dinners are essential at this time of year.
+ The wild tale of the Noguchi Table is a rollercoaster ride.
+ The Wildlife Photographer of the Year winners never fail to amaze (thanks Peter!)



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