The Download: robotic bees, and China’s surveillance state

Something was wrong, but Thomas Schmickl couldn’t put his finger on it. It was 2007, and the Austrian biologist was spending part of the year at East Tennessee State University. During his daily walks, he realized that insects seemed conspicuously absent.

Schmickl, who now leads the Artificial Life Lab at the University of Graz in Austria, wasn’t wrong. Insect populations are indeed declining or changing around the world.

Robotic bees, he believes, could help both the real thing and their surrounding nature, a concept he calls ecosystem hacking. Already, some companies offer augmented beehives that monitor conditions inside, or even robotically tend the bees. Now Schmickl and his colleagues want to go a step further and use technology to manipulate the insects’ behavior. Read the full story.

—Elizabeth Preston

The Chinese surveillance state proves that the idea of privacy is more “malleable” than you’d expect

Over the past decade, the US—and the world more generally—has watched with growing alarm as China has emerged as a global leader in surveillance technologies. While this has lead to a slew of human rights abuses, the state has also used surveillance tech for good: to find abducted children, for example, and to improve traffic control and trash management in cities.

As Wall Street Journal reporters Josh Chin and Liza Lin argue in their new book Surveillance State, the Chinese government has built a new social contract with its citizens: their data in exchange for more precise governance that, ideally, makes their lives safer and easier (even if it doesn’t always work out so simply in reality). 

MIT Technology Review recently spoke with Chin and Lin about the misconception that privacy is not valued in China, how the pandemic has accelerated the use of surveillance tech in China, and whether the technology itself can stay neutral. Read the full story.

—Zeyi Yang