The Download: inside our chaotic brains, and small nuclear reactors

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.

Neuroscientists listened in on people’s brains for a week. They found order and chaos.

The news: Our brains exist in a state somewhere between stability and chaos as they help us make sense of the world, according to recordings of brain activity taken from volunteers over the course of a week. 

What it means: As we go from reading a book to chatting with a friend, for example, our brains shift from one semi-stable state to another—but only after chaotically zipping through multiple other states in a pattern that looks completely random.

Why it’s important: Understanding how our brains restore some degree of stability after chaos could help us work out how to treat disorders at either end of this spectrum. Too much chaos is probably what happens when a person has a seizure, whereas too much stability might leave a person comatose. Read the full story.

—Jessica Hamzelou

We were promised smaller nuclear reactors. Where are they?

For over a decade, we’ve heard that small reactors could be a big part of nuclear power’s future. In theory, small modular reactors (SMRs) could solve some of the major challenges of traditional nuclear power, making plants quicker and cheaper to build and safer to operate.  

Oregon-based NuScale recently became the first company of its kind to clear one of the final regulatory hurdles before the company can build its reactors in the US. But even as SMRs promise to speed up construction timelines for nuclear power, the path has been full of delays and cost hikes—and there’s still a whole lot of streamlining to do before they become commonplace. Read the full story.

—Casey Crownhart

How Telegram groups can be used by police to find protesters

Many Chinese individuals are still in police custody after going into the streets in Beijing late last year to protest zero-covid policies. While action happened in many Chinese cities, it’s the Beijing police who have been consistently making new arrests, as recently as mid-January. 

For the younger generations, the movement was an introduction to civil disobedience. But many people lack the technical knowledge to protect themselves when organizing or participating in public events—meaning that their digital communications could have left them open to being identified. Read the full story.

—Zeyi Yang

Zeyi’s story is from China Report, his weekly newsletter covering the country. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Tuesday.

Podcast: The AI in the newsroom

OpenAI’s ChatGPT chatbot has taken the internet by storm since it launched late last year. The latest episode of our award-winning podcast, In Machines We Trust, delves into the benefits and potential pitfalls of using AI tools in newsrooms, and what it could mean for the future of journalism as we know it. Listen to it on Apple Podcasts, or wherever else you usually listen.

The must-reads

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

1 Microsoft has unveiled OpenAI-powered Bing
Tech companies are racing to revamp search engines with AI. (NYT $)
+ Some of Bing’s AI-boosted answers are a bit dodgy, though. (WP $)
+ Could this finally be a reason to use Bing? (Vox)

2 How the Chinese ‘spy balloon’ drama unfolded on TikTok 
With lots of silly jokes, and footage of the big “pop” moment. (WP $)
+ The US insists the balloon belonged to the Chinese military. (WP $)
+ What the balloon means for the latest iteration of the space race. (Vox)
+ A new cold war could be on the horizon. (Economist $)

3 Chipmakers are worried about a ‘forever chemicals’ ban
They’re concerned it’ll tip an already fragile industry over the edge. (FT $)
+ These simple design rules could turn the chip industry on its head. (MIT Technology Review)

4 We’re strengthening superbugs by destroying the environment
Antimicrobial resistance is on the rise, and so is environmental destruction. (Wired $)
+ We can use sewage to track the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. (MIT Technology Review)

5 How Big Tech managed to water down the right to repair
Lobbyists successfully tweaked the US bill in phonemakers’ favor. (The Markup)

6 Digital payments aren’t taking off in Iraq
Decades of war and sanctions mean that citizens are still heavily reliant on cash. (Rest of World)
+ The country has just revalued its currency. (Reuters)

7 The problem with lab-grown meat
The experimental label isn’t a tasty incentive. (Bloomberg $)
+ Will lab-grown meat ever reach our plates? (MIT Technology Review)

8 Meet the human guinea pigs 
Innovators are increasingly experimenting on their own bodies. (Neo.Life)

9 We’re stopping BeingReal
Downloads of the authenticity-prizing app are slumping. (Sifted)

10 Don’t expect any crypto ads at the Super Bowl 
The organizers have learnt their lesson. (Insider $)
+ Crypto exchange Binance has grown more powerful since FTX’s collapse. (FT $)
+ What’s next for crypto. (MIT Technology Review)

Quote of the day

“I would be hurt or offended if I found out my Valentine’s message was written by a machine / artificial intelligence.”

—A statement that 50% of polled people in the US agreed with, reports Fast Company.

The big story

What’s bigger than a megacity? China’s planned city clusters

April 2021

China has urbanized with unprecedented speed. About 20 years ago, only 30% of the Chinese population lived in cities; today it’s 60%. That translates to roughly 400 million people—more than the entire US population—moving into China’s cities in the past two decades.

To accommodate the influx, China’s national urban development policy has shifted from expanding individual cities to systematically building out massive city clusters. Cities in a cluster will collaborate economically, ecologically, and politically, the thinking goes, in turn boosting each region’s competitiveness. Read the full story.

—Ling Xin

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.)

+ The legendary Sarah Michelle Gellar speaks!
+ Tech bros sure love their sick threads.
+ Hear me out: being grateful for the things we dislike can be an emotionally helpful exercise.  
+ I love this photo of Skin from Skunk Anansie accepting an award from King Charles.
+ Winter doesn’t have to be soul-destroying once Christmas is over. Here’s how to learn to love it.