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Track 3. Space Race, Smells Like AI, Google's Struggles

Space jam: Chang’e 6, Starliner & Starship 🚀 Soon AI will be able to smell 🌹 Is Google losing its grip? 🫰

Bullet Train is your express route to the groundbreaking news shaping our future. No short-term stories, no fluff—just the big innovations transforming our lives, curated by the team behind the Meco App.

This week, we embraced our love for polls! No, not the election kind—we're talking about getting your take on the big stories. Do you enjoy polls? Wish there was a way to find out…

It’s June 5th. Today’s stops include:

  • Space jam: Chang’e 6, Starliner & Starship 🚀 

  • Soon AI will be able to smell 🌹 

  • Is Google losing its grip? 🫰 

And don’t miss our #offtherails segment — not so future-focused, just a bit of fun

Weekly coverage of the stories, products, and concepts shaping the future and transforming our place in it – brought to you in streamlined bullet points:

Space jam: Chang’e 6, Starliner & Starship

It’s shaping out to be a busy week in space:

What to know about Chang’e 6:

  • China’s National Space Administration is the only agency to land a craft on the “dark” side of the moon (it’s not perpetually dark, it’s just the side less known to humans)

  • This is their second unammed flight there (2019 was the first) and it’s a mission to collect ‘dark side’ lunar samples to better understand the moon and formation of our solar system

What to know about Starliner:

  • Boeing built Starliner, but this is a NASA launch — part of a mission to create a safe and cost-effective way to bring more astronauts to space

  • This week’s launch is the “Crew Flight Test” as it’s the first time this spacecraft will be manned on its way to the International Space Station, though it’s already been delayed twice…

What to know about Starship:

  • Starship is a 400ft-tall ‘megarocket’ designed to take up to 100 people on long-distance space flights — core to SpaceX’s mission to preserve human life by ‘making humanity multiplanetary’

  • This is Starship’s 4th flight and the aim is to achieve a controlled re-entry and safe landing — per Musk they are ‘ready to fly’, but this launch could get pushed as it’s still awaiting approval from the Federal Aviation Administration

Where our minds are going:

  • Rocket launches and landings are mind-bogglingly delicate and getting everything right is quite literally… rocket science… so the fact that these are all happening in the same week is pretty crazy

  • Worth noting that these agencies (China’s NSA, NASA, and SpaceX) have very different missions from each other, so it’s hard to declare who’s winning when they’re running different races

  • But overall more competition in the race to space means trips should get cheaper over time and the pressure to innovate will be on — so perhaps humanity is the ultimate winner here?

Which space launch are you most hyped for this week?

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Soon AI will be able to smell

What to know:

  • Humans can distinguish over 1 trillion different scents thanks to the 400 unique receptors that process scent (compare that to 3 unique sight receptors and 40 unique taste receptors)

  • “Machine olfaction” (computers that can smell) is posing a formidable challenge because our sense of smell is so complex, but if AI engineers get it right the implications will be game-changing

  • One of the leading companies in AI Smell is Osmo, a startup launched in Jan 2023 by prior employees of Google Research, with a mission to improve human health and wellbeing through smell

How we got here:

  • To get closer to AI that can smell, the DREAM olfaction prediction challenge was launched in 2015, crowd-sourcing engineers to build models that explain scent based on molecular structure

  • It worked! Models were developed that had AI smelling better than humans — but these models still needed to be trained on large amounts of “odor data” to make them valuable

  • Unlike what we have for sight and sound, there weren’t vast stores of “smell data” to work with, however, the trademark scent-loss of COVID-19 led to a surging interest in the science of smell, which has supported growing research projects dedicated to scent databases

Where our minds are going:

  • Compared to smell, it’s much easier to witness and get excited about AI that can see and hear (just check out ChatGPT-4o)

  • AI smell has a novelty feel to it, as expected applications include more immersive augmented reality and personalized perfumes — fun stuff for sure, but not future-shaping

  • But companies like Osmo envision a more impactful future for AI smell — such as more sustainable creation of scent-based products and creating better mosquito repellents

  • The company’s most compelling goal is long-term (and no one is yet claiming how far off it is) — which is the ability to build AI that can sniff out disease and offer earlier prevention — game-changing, indeed

The story that drummed up big emotions and bigger opinions for the BT team this week:

Is Google losing its grip?

Image Credit: The Verge, Youtube, interviewing Sundar Pichai

What to know:

  • The tech juggernaut known as *Google* is making a lot of headlines lately, and they aren’t super positive

  • The company rolled out “AI Overviews” in May, which radically changed the search experience and seemed to shirk Google’s massive ad business

  • A recent document leak also shed some light on how Google search results get ranked, and the findings sparked some industry fury

How we got to AI Overviews:

  • Google is trying to keep up in the AI race, and in CEO Sundar Pichai’s recent interview with The Verge, he made it clear AI is the future of search and suggested “people are responding very positively to AI Overviews”

  • The rest of the world seems to disagree with the latter— as initial feedback has been rough, and Google has started rolling back its AI-generated search results to clean up some issues

How we got to the ‘search ranking leak’

  • Google has always been coy about how its search engine ranks content, though they’ve explicitly said they don’t account for two things when it comes to ranking: user clicks and Chrome data

  • The leaked documents are internal communications that offer insight into what data informs search rankings — and so far it suggests that clicks and Chrome data do matter... SEO pros are pretty pissed

Where our minds are going:

  • The document leak findings aren’t a great look for Google, and the company is bound to feel pressure for more transparency around their Search systems or risk added criticism

  • It’s also worrying that there isn’t a plan in place for how Google will work with creators (whose content has fueled Google search results from the start) as AI-generated search becomes more prevalent

  • Add to these issues the fact that there is strong competition from the likes of OpenAI and Perplexity with AI bound to change the search landscape, so we’re left wondering: will Google be able to keep up?

Will Google still be the dominant player in Search in the next 5-10 years?

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A message from our friends at 1440 Media

Seeking impartial news? Meet 1440.

Every day, 3.5 million readers turn to 1440 for their factual news. We sift through 100+ sources to bring you a complete summary of politics, global events, business, and culture, all in a brief 5-minute email. Enjoy an impartial news experience.

A bit of fun to round out your ride:

  • Flamethrowing robot dogs might be the last thing anyone expected as an environmental management solution, but here we are!

  • Tired of overpaying for ebooks? BookBub help 15M+ readers save up to 95% on bestselling books. You can join free and get great ebook deals and ideas, straight to your inbox.

  • And we definitely didn’t expect this one: Adult content is coming to X (formerly known as Twitter) following a major policy update… so, there’s that

  • Cambridge just came out with a robotic third thumb that claims to increase one-handed productivity — and reading this after the previous #offtherails story is making it all feel a bit inappropriate — sorry about that!

Did you enjoy Bullet Train this week?

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Please mind the gap as you get off the train ✌️