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The Download: Retrofitting cities, and Alexa mimics the dead

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 to retrofit a city

The scars and pockmarks of the aging apartments and housing units under the purview of the New York City Housing Authority don’t immediately communicate the idea of innovation. The largest landlord in the city, housing nearly 1 in 16 New Yorkers, NYCHA has seen its buildings literally crumble after decades of deferred maintenance and poor stewardship. All told, this forsaken subsidized housing is in the midst of what local planners have called “demolition by neglect.” It would require an estimated $40 billion or more, at least $180,000 per unit, to return the buildings to a state of good repair.

Years ago, there was evidence of innovation hidden inside these units–in the kitchens. By the late ’90s, NYCHA realized that the existing fridges in many units were hugely inefficient, aging, and costly to the agency. It held a successful contest for appliance manufacturers, asking them to create smaller, more efficient apartment-size units. The winner, Maytag, was awarded access to NYCHA and other housing authorities, and sold 150,000 units of its novel Magic Chef model, between 1995 and 2003.

Now NYCHA wants to do the same with heating and cooling. The Clean Heat for All Challenge is asking manufacturers to develop low-cost, easy-to-install heat-pump technologies for building retrofits. The stakes for the agency, the winning company, and for society itself could be huge–and good for the planet.

After all, it’s far more sustainable to retrofit existing buildings than to tear them down and build new ones. Read the full story.

–Patrick Sisson

The must-reads

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

1 Amazon wants Alexa to mimic the voices of your deceased loved ones
Yes, it sounds like a leaked Black Mirror script. (CNBC)
+ How your life’s data means a version of you could live forever. (MIT Technology Review)

2 Finland is sealing its spent nuclear fuel deep underground
It’s the first country to build a complete deep geological storage facility. (Economist $)
+ Zap Energy, a fusion startup, claims to have injected plasma into a reactor core. (NYT $)
+ Can the US’s solar panel industry bounce back? (Slate $)

3 Recession? What recession?
The economy is slowing, but if we do tip into recession, it may not be as bruising as previously believed. (New Yorker $)
+ Defining a recession isn’t already straightforward, but we’ll know once it’s here. (Bloomberg $)

4 Cash is dying
But while fewer people use it, it’s still a lifeline for vulnerable people. (NY Mag)
+ An elegy for cash: the technology we might never replace. (MIT Technology Review)
+ In praise of the dollar bill. (MIT Technology Review)

5 How a group dedicated to canceling missionaries got canceled
No White Saviors has been accused of similar misdeeds to the aid workers it targeted. (Input)
+ How the AI industry profits from catastrophe. (MIT Technology Review)

6 Mark Zuckerberg must not be allowed to rule the metaverse
And his current monopolies should be read as warning signs. (Time $)
+ Meta is no longer sponsoring the US’s anniversary commemorations. (WSJ $)
+ Facebook’s Oversight Board is pushing for greater transparency. (WP $)

7 Alibaba has set its sights on south Asia
Having conquered China, it’s looking to expand into pastures new. (FT $)

8 How Bored Apes eclipsed its crypto origins
And became a cultural movement in the process. (The Block)
+ Crypto game Axie Infinity could benefit from the Apes’ good fortune. (Rest of World)
+ At least GPU prices are dropping, at last. (Motherboard)

9 These tiny, robotic fish remove microplastics from the ocean
But we would need a LOT of them to make a difference. (The Guardian)

10 Disassociation music reflects the bleak state of our world right now
Fans are reveling in detaching themselves from reality. (Pitchfork)

Quote of the day

“A hot-or-not death match hosted by a cartoon crab.”

–Kendra Schaefer, an online shopper, describes Chinese retailer Idle Fish’s online justice system that buyers and sellers use to thrash out disputes, the Wall Street Journal reports.

The big story

The two-year fight to stop Amazon from selling face recognition to the police

June 2020

In the summer of 2018, nearly 70 civil rights and research organizations wrote a letter to Jeff Bezos demanding that Amazon stop providing its face recognition technology to governments. As part of an increased focus on the role that tech companies were playing in enabling the US government’s tracking and deportation of immigrants, it called on Amazon to “stand up for civil rights and civil liberties.” “As advertised,” it said, “Rekognition is a powerful surveillance system readily available to violate rights and target communities of color.”

Despite the mounting pressure, Amazon continued with business as usual. It pushed Rekognition as a tool for monitoring “people of interest” and doubled down on providing other surveillance technologies to governments. But on Wednesday, June 10 2020, the company shocked civil rights activists and researchers when it announced that it would place a one-year moratorium on police use of Rekognition.

Kade Crockford, the director of the technology liberty program at the ACLU of Massachusetts, called the decision “absolutely an admission on the company’s part, at least implicitly, that what racial justice advocates have been telling them for two years is correct: face surveillance technology endangers Black and brown people in the United States.” That is, they added, a “remarkable admission.” Read the full story

–Karen Hao

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.)

+ This is a fun look at TV’s greatest antiheroes (shout out to my personal favorite, Don Draper.)
+ An interesting read on how Lofi Girl became the internet’s favorite study buddy.
+ Dubai’s gravity-defying Museum of the Future is built entirely without columns.
+ This is the very definition of a nice thing–these five friends have recreated the same photo at Copco Lake, California, for 40 years.
+ An ancient marble slab that lay gathering dust for more than 2,000 years is actually the Greek equivalent of a highschool yearbook.

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