The Download: How AI capitalizes on catastrophe, and the Bitcoin cities of Central America

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 the AI industry profits from catastrophe

It was meant to be a temporary side job—a way to earn some extra money. Oskarina Fuentes Anaya signed up for Appen, an AI data-labeling platform, when she was still in college studying to land a well-paid position in the oil industry.

But then the economy tanked in Venezuela. Inflation skyrocketed, and a stable job, once guaranteed, was no longer an option. Her side gig was now full time; the temporary now the foreseeable future.

Today Fuentes lives in Colombia, one of millions of Venezuelan migrants and refugees who have left their country in search of better opportunities. But she’s trapped at home—both by a chronic illness that developed after delayed access to health care and by opaque algorithms that dictate when she works and how much she earns.

Despite threats from Appen to retaliate against her, she chose to go on the record as a named source. She wants people to understand what her life is like to be a critical part of the global AI development pipeline yet for the beneficiaries of her work to also mistreat her and make her invisible. She wants the people who do this work to be seen. Read the full story

—Karen Hao and Andrea Paola Hernández

This is the second part of our series investigating AI colonialism, shining a light on how the technology is impoverishing the communities and countries that don’t have a say in its development. Parts 3 and 4 are coming later in the week, but you can read the first part here and Karen Hao’s introductory essay here.

Crypto millionaires are pouring money into Central America to build their own cities

El Salvador’s Conchagua Volcano, home to a lush ecotourism retreat amid its sun-dappled forest, is set to host a glittering new Bitcoin City, the country’s president announced in November 2021. A vast construction project to remodel virgin forest into a vibrant metropolis could soon be underway.

While some politicians and residents believe in crypto’s potential to jump-start the economy, others see history repeating itself. As El Salvador’s experiment takes shape in the form of Bitcoin City, a similar development is already underway in Honduras—but backlash from locals has put its future in jeopardy. Proponents hope to spawn a hundred more Bitcoin Cities, but others question who these projects are really for, and whether the countries serving as test beds will truly benefit. Read the full story.

—Laurie Clarke

Quote of the day

“Hugs for everyone!”

—A Disney employee celebrates costumed characters being able to hug Disneyland visitors after dropping its enforced no-hugs ban, according to The New York Times.

The must-reads

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

1 Ukraine’s ‘internet army’ is pressurizing Western brands to exit Russia
And their campaigns seem to be working. (WSJ $)
+ More than one in four people in Ukraine have left their homes. (WSJ $)
+ The US and its allies are sending more weapons to Ukraine. (BBC)

2 What has the zero-covid policy taught China?
It’s saved countless lives, but it is becoming harder and harder to enforce. (The Atlantic $)
+ Moderna is optimistic that its new vaccine will offer better protection against variants. (NYT $)

3 NASA wants to charter a mission to Uranus
We know surprisingly little about the distant planet. (The Atlantic $)
+ Why have we been so focused on sending humans to Mars? (Slate $)
+ Maybe we should be sending robots instead of astronauts. (Wired $)

4 People are canceling their Netflix subscriptions in their droves
And sneakily sharing passwords between households. (Variety $)
+ Netflix may start running ads, too. (Hollywood Reporter)

5 Twitter may be preparing to turn down Elon Musk’s offer to buy it
Which would force him to reconsider his position. (WSJ $)
+ Regardless of the outcome, Musk’s proposition could ultimately be good for the company. (FT $)
+ A crypto billionaire wants to get involved, too. (Bloomberg $)
+ Here’s what making Twitter’s algorithm public could entail. (CNN

6 Maybe the tech bubble really is impenetrable after all
Or maybe we’re just bored of hearing it’s about to burst. (NYT $)
+ There may be trouble ahead for the UK’s startups. (The Times $)

7 Unmasking the woman behind the Libs of TikTok Twitter account 
A Brooklyn real estate agent has played an outsized role pushing hateful anti-LGBTQ+ narratives in the US. (WP $)

8 Getting sober is about more than just stopping drinking 🍸
Sober influencers are reframing our thinking around alcohol. That’s not always a positive thing. (Wired $) 
+ Does paying people to stop drinking keep them sober in the long-term? (Boston Globe $)

9 Why it’s so hard to build unbiased AI
For starters, bias is in the eye of the beholder. (Vox)
+ AI might reduce the number of car crashes. (NYT $)
+ Motorists using self-driving cars in the UK might soon be allowed to watch TV behind the wheel. (The Times $)

10 This Twitter account spots writers’ tics
Because you can’t keep repeating yourself. Or can you? (New Yorker $)

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.)
+ Congratulations to TobyKeith, who at 21-years old has become the world’s oldest living dog.
+ Louis Theroux isn’t just an award-winning documentary maker. He also spits some sick bars (Thanks Tania!)
+ These easy recipes for sweet treats are speaking my language.
+ If you’re starting to worry about what to buy for Mother’s Day, this list is a great starting point.
+ The US government funded research into invisibility cloaks, which seems a worthwhile endeavor to me.
+ Would you consider talking your cat out on a leash?
+ The world’s oldest unopened Easter egg will make you grateful that Easter is over.

More Updates

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