Dear Readers,

I’m Victoria, CEO at Cambre. My trusting tech colleagues are indulging me with the guest-editing slot for this edition of #TechAways. Probably out of sympathy. For I’m entering my ninth of 14 days’ uber-strict quarantine in an Auckland hotel where my few treats include coffee, Pilates, incoming calls and work.

So, greetings from remote Aotearoa! As Europe rolls out its COVID vaccine certificate and frees up travel restrictions, my homeland shows no sign of lifting the stringent border controls that have made New Zealand one of the most effective pandemic-defying countries in the world. For all its success on the public health front, the approach of the centre-left government led by the charismatic Jacinda Ardern is not without its critics. Local businesses, for example, fret about the economic impact on this tourism-dependent island nation.

Beyond the ‘land of the long white cloud’, it’s been a big few days for tech, particularly Big Tech. The surprise appointment of Lina Khan to the chair of the US Federal Trade Commission was widely seen as a sign that the crackdown on American tech giants, largely driven by Europe to date, has spread across the Atlantic. An iconic figure in the so-called hipster antitrust movement, she argued in her 2017 article titled “Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox” that the assumption that lower prices were automatically good for consumers was outdated. Her bombshell elevation follows the introduction of several bipartisan bills in Congress to rein in the power of Big Tech.

Back in Brussels, the first EU-US summit under the Biden Administration culminated this week in a top-line declaration of intent to work together under the new Trade and Technology Council, including on antitrust, artificial intelligence, data flows and the global shortage in semiconductors. Even if much of the all-important detail is yet to be hammered out, the mood music was soothing in contrast to the cacophony of the Trump years.

Before reading on, you may like to check out this fabulous opportunity to join our ace media team!

Plastic could become your new secret ingredient in the kitchen [The Guardian]

You’ve probably already heard about the super enzyme that eats plastics bottles. But what is the link between vanilla flavouring and plastic? Well, scientists managed to upcycle plastic-based bottles using genetically modified bacteria to create vanillin, one of the most used components in industries such as food, cosmetics, or pharmaceutical industries. With this discovery, researchers may have found a way to help tackle the second most common type of plastic pollution in the oceans after plastic bags. 85% of vanillin is derived from fossil fuels, and with global demand exceeding the supply of natural vanilla beans – this new source could be a great example of the circular economy in action.

Red, white, and GDPR [TechCrunch]

US Senator Kirsten Gillibrand has revived a bill that would create a US-style GDPR federal agency to protect Americans from invasive data privacy violations. The Data Protection Act would create an independent agency that would be able to evaluate and regulation high-risk data practices. While the bill currently lacks support from Republicans, the continued interest in Congress in taking on Big Tech could garner more support. If the bill were to pass, this new agency would definitely have its work cut out. Better late than never to protect citizens’ privacy!

Are you a Believer? [MIT Technology Review]

Have you ever looked at the night sky and wondered if there is life out there? Probably yes. The second question is, what type of life did you imagine? If you are an X-Files fan, you most likely envisioned little green aliens. But life can function in the form of microbes and bacteria, and this is what scientists are looking out for in our solar system. Thanks to probes that are being sent out, ten planets have been ranked as potential “life hosts”. What is even more interesting, scientists claim that top-ranking Mars was once habitable. This is due to its earth-like atmosphere. Some even argue that Mars is still inhabited by an ancient civilization that moved to underground. #IwantoBelive

A continent of extra special unicorns [TechCrunch]

Tech unicorns are generally valued at €1 billion or more, but French President Emmanuel Macron is upping the stakes. His goal is ten European tech companies that are valued at €100 billion or more by 2030. In December Macron gathered Scale-Up Europe, a group of European unicorns to investigate how to best support European startups. They have put together 21 recommendations which will be fed into France’s digital agenda and 2022 Council presidency. The biggest issues identified are a lack of late-stage funding, attracting talent, and (surprise, surprise) coordination at EU level. While most of the recommendations seem feasible, it could be argued that European startups should chart their own path, instead of following scaleup strategies used in the US or China.

Will remote monitoring dehumanize healthcare? [Wired]

This article about new technology used to monitor patients remotely takes the reader on a roller-coaster of emotions. First there is hope at what the future holds in terms of preventing, or rather predicting, irreversible damage, therefore potentially saving lives. After hope comes a sense of worry that this technology could lead to complete loss of the human aspect of healthcare – by treating hundreds of patients simultaneously, from a distance, without ever seeing them and experiencing that closeness that probably led the practitioner to choose a career in health. For now, let’s focus on the hope that tech can bring to more effective care!

About this week’s editor, Victoria Main

Mid-way through my seventh year at Cambre, I’m about to celebrate my third anniversary as CEO. I’m proud to work with such a talented and versatile team of policy and comms consultants. Along the way, I’ve had the opportunity to launch our thriving tech practice as well as our popular #BrusselsCalling media series. I joined Cambre from Nokia, where I was head of global media at a particularly challenging time, even by telecoms standards. Previously, I led the Brussels media offer at a large consultancy. That was my move to the ‘dark side’ after 20-odd years as a journalist, with stints in Wellington, Hong Kong, London, Paris, Milan and Brussels. The ink is still in my veins. And journalists remain my favourite people.

In case you haven’t had enough:

From Tamagotchi to Nintendogs: Why People Love Digital Pets [Wired]

These creepy fake humans herald a new age in AI [Technology Review]

Google is using AI to design its next generation of AI chips more quickly than humans can [The Verge]

South Korean blind activists fight for digital equality [Rest of World]

How Roblox Became a Playground for Virtual Fascists [Wired]

Neck-Zapping Gadget Reduced All-Nighter Fatigue in New Study [Scientific American]

Facebook’s latest AI doesn’t just detect deep fakes, it knows where they came from [Engadget]

Tech Companies Are Training AI to Read Your Lips [Vice]