Category Archives: robots

The Eerie Silence and Machine Intelligences

From The Daily Galaxy:


The species that you and all other living human beings on this planet belong to is Homo sapiens. During a time of dramatic climate change 200,000 years ago,Homo sapiens (modern humans) evolved in Africa. Is the human species entering another evolutionary inflection point?

Paul Davies, a British-born theoretical physicist, cosmologist, astrobiologist and Director of the Beyond Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science and Co-Director of the Cosmology Initiative at Arizona State University, says in his new book The Eerie Silence that any aliens exploring the universe will be AI-empowered machines. Not only are machines better able to endure extended exposure to the conditions of space, but they have the potential to develop intelligence far beyond the capacity of the human brain.”I think it very likely – in fact inevitable – that biological intelligence is only a transitory phenomenon, a fleeting phase in the evolution of the universe,” Davies writes. “If we ever encounter extraterrestrial intelligence, I believe it is overwhelmingly likely to be post-biological in nature.”

Before the year 2020, scientists are expected to launch intelligent space robots that will venture out to explore the universe for us.
“Robotic exploration probably will always be the trail blazer for human exploration of far space,” says Wolfgang Fink, physicist and researcher at Caltech. “We haven’t yet landed a human being on Mars but we have a robot there now. In that sense, it’s much easier to send a robotic explorer. When you can take the human out of the loop, that is becoming very exciting.”
As the growing global population continues to increase the burden on the Earth’s natural resources, senior curator at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, Roger Launius, thinks that we’ll have to alter human biology to prepare to colonize space.
In the September issue of Endeavour, Launius takes a look at the historical debate surrounding human colonization of the solar system. Experiments have shown that certain life forms can survive in space. Recently, British scientists found that bacteria living on rocks taken from Britain’s Beer village were able to survive 553 days in space, on the exterior of the International Space Station (ISS). The microbes returned to Earth alive, proving they could withstand the harsh environment.
Humans, on the other hand, are unable to survive beyond about a minute and a half in space without significant technological assistance. Other than some quick trips to the moon and the ISS, astronauts haven’t spent too much time too far away from Earth. Scientists don’t know enough yet about the dangers of long-distance space travel on human biological systems. A one-way trip to Mars, for example, would take approximately six months. That means astronauts will be in deep space for more than a year with potentially life-threatening consequences.
Launius, who calls himself a cyborg for using medical equipment to enhance his own life, says the difficult question is knowing where to draw the line in transforming human biological systems to adapt to space. Credit: NASA/Brittany Green
“If it’s about exploration, we’re doing that very effectively with robots,” Launius said. “If it’s about humans going somewhere, then I think the only purpose for it is to get off this planet and become a multi-planetary species.”
Stephen Hawking agrees: “I believe that the long-term future of the human race must be in space,” Hawking told the Big Think website in August. “It will be difficult enough to avoid disaster on planet Earth in the next hundred years, let alone the next thousand, or million. The human race shouldn’t have all its eggs in one basket, or on one planet.”
If humans are to colonize other planets, Launius said it could well require the “next state of human evolution” to create a separate human presence where families will live and die on that planet. In other words, it wouldn’t really be Homo sapien sapiens that would be living in the colonies, it could be cyborgs—a living organism with a mixture of organic and electromechanical parts—or in simpler terms, part human, part machine.
“There are cyborgs walking about us,” Launius said. “There are individuals who have been technologically enhanced with things such as pacemakers and cochlea ear implants that allow those people to have fuller lives. I would not be alive without technological advances.”
The possibility of using cyborgs for space travel has been the subject of research for at least half a century. A seminal  article published in 1960 by Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline titled “Cyborgs and Space” changed the debate, saying that there was a better alternative to recreating the Earth’s environment in space, the predominant thinking during that time. The two scientists compared that approach to “a fish taking a small quantity of water along with him to live on land.” They felt that humans should be willing to partially adapt to the environment to which they would be traveling.
“Altering man’s bodily functions to meet the requirements of extraterrestrial environments would be more logical than providing an earthly environment for him in space,” Clynes and Kline wrote.
“It does raise profound ethical, moral and perhaps even religious questions that haven’t been seriously addressed,” Launius said. “We have a ways to go before that happens.”
Some experts such as medical ethicist Grant Gillett believe that the danger is that we might end up producing a psychopath because we don’t quite understand the nature of cyborgs.
NASA, writes Lauris, still isn’t focusing much research on how to improve human biological systems for space exploration. Instead, its Human Research Program is focused on risk reduction: risks of fatigue, inadequate nutrition, health problems and radiation. While financial and ethical concerns may have held back cyborg research, Launius believes that society may have to engage in the cyborg debate again when space programs get closer to launching long-term deep space exploration missions.
“If our objective is to become space-faring people, it’s probably going to force you to reconsider how to reengineer humans,’ Launius said.
When one mentions merging humans with machines in the future, it is usually in the context of the Technological Singularity, not long range space exploration ( although as little as ten years ago, this was a serious proposal considered by NASA ).
Many have thought of the Eerie Silence over the decades, including futurists as George Dvorsky and John Smart, who propose that once man and machines merge, a super-intelligence will emerge and our civilization will disappear from the visible Universe.
Thus, another possible explanation for the Eerie Silence.
Hat tip to the Daily Grail.

Another Asteroid Mining Company Start-Up

From Centauri Dreams:

Deep Space Industries is announcing today that it will be engaged in asteroid prospecting through a fleet of small ‘Firefly’ spacecraft based on cubesat technologies, cutting the costs still further by launching in combination with communications satellites. The idea is to explore the small asteroids that come close to Earth, which exist in large numbers indeed. JPL analysts have concluded that as many as 100,000 Near Earth Objects larger than the Tunguska impactor (some 30 meters wide) are to be found, with roughly 7000 identified so far. So there’s no shortage of targets (see Greg Matloff’s Deflecting Asteroids in IEEE Spectrum for more on this.

‘Smaller, cheaper, faster’ is a one-time NASA mantra that DSI is now resurrecting through its Firefly spacecraft, each of which masses about 25 kilograms and takes advantages of advances in computing and miniaturization. In its initial announcement, company chairman Rick Tumlinson talked about a production line of Fireflies ready for action whenever an NEO came near the Earth. The first launches are slated to begin in 2015. Sample-return missions that are estimated to take between two and four years to complete are to commence the following year, with 25 to 70 kilograms of asteroid material becoming available for study. Absent a fiery plunge through the atmosphere, such samples will have their primordial composition and structure intact.


The Deep Space Industries announcement is to be streamed live later today. It will reflect the company’s ambitious game plan, one that relies on public involvement and corporate sponsorship to move the ball forward. David Gump is CEO of the new venture:

“The public will participate in FireFly and DragonFly missions via live feeds from Mission Control, online courses in asteroid mining sponsored by corporate marketers, and other innovative ways to open the doors wide. The Google Lunar X Prize, Unilever, and Red Bull each are spending tens of millions of dollars on space sponsorships, so the opportunity to sponsor a FireFly expedition into deep space will be enticing.”

The vision of exploiting space resources to forge a permanent presence there will not be unfamiliar to Centauri Dreams readers. Tumlinson sums up the agenda:

“We will only be visitors in space until we learn how to live off the land there. This is the Deep Space mission – to find, harvest and process the resources of space to help save our civilization and support the expansion of humanity beyond the Earth – and doing so in a step by step manner that leverages off our space legacy to create an amazing and hopeful future for humanity. We are squarely focused on giving new generations the opportunity to change not only this world, but all the worlds of tomorrow.  Sounds like fun, doesn’t it?”

So we have asteroid sample return as part of the mix, but the larger strategy calls for the use of asteroid-derived products to power up space industries. The company talks about using asteroid-derived propellants to supply eventual manned missions to Mars and elsewhere, with Gump likening nearby asteroid resources to the Iron Range of Minnesota, which supplied Detroit’s car industry in the 20th Century. DSI foresees supplying propellant to communication satellites to extend their working lifetime, estimating that each extra month is worth $5 million to $8 million per satellite. The vision extends to harvesting building materials for subsequent technologies like space-based power stations. Like I said, the key word is ‘ambitious.’

“Mining asteroids for rare metals alone isn’t economical, but makes sense if you already are processing them for volatiles and bulk metals for in-space uses,” said Mark Sonter, a member of the DSI Board of Directors. “Turning asteroids into propellant and building materials damages no ecospheres since they are lifeless rocks left over from the formation of the solar system.  Several hundred thousand that cross near Earth are available.”

In the near-term category, the company has a technology it’s calling MicroGravity Foundry that is designed to transform raw asteroid materials into metal parts for space missions. The 3D printer uses lasers to draw patterns in a nickel-charged gas medium, building up parts from the precision placement of nickel deposits. Because it does not require a gravitational field to work, the MicroGravity Foundry could be a tool used by deep space astronauts to create new parts aboard their spacecraft by printing replacements.

The team behind Deep Space Industries has experience in commercial space activities. Tumlinson, a well-known space advocate, was a founding trustee of the X Prize and founder of Orbital Outfitters, a commercial spacesuit company. Gump has done space-related TV work, producing a commercial shot on the International Space Station. He’s also a co-founder of Transformational Space Corporation. Geoffrey Notkin is the star of ‘Meteorite Men,’ a TV series about hunting meteorites. The question will be how successful DSI proves to be in leveraging that background to attract both customers and corporate sponsors.

With such bold objectives, I can only wish Deep Space Industries well. The idea of exploiting inexpensive CubeSat technology and combining it with continuing progress in miniaturizing digital tools is exciting, but the crucial validation will be in those early Firefly missions and the data they return. If DSI can proceed with the heavier sample return missions it now envisions, the competitive world of asteroid prospecting (think Planetary Resources) will have taken another step forward. Can a ‘land rush’ for asteroid resources spark the public’s interest, with all the ramifications that would hold for the future of commercial space? Could it be the beginning of the system-wide infrastructure we’ll have to build before we think of going interstellar?

All of this asteroid mining activity sounds exciting and I can hardly wait for DSI and Planetary Resources to begin their plans. Both are using untried and new technology to develop these new industries and can be extended to such environments as the Moon and Mars.

Mankind will eventually follow. And these new technologies will let us expand into this Universe.

Or the Multiverse.

Deep Space Industries: Mining Near-Earth Asteroids

Robot Rovers To Explore Asteroids and Moons


Stanford researchers in collaboration with NASA JPL and MIT have designed a robotic platform that involves a mother spacecraft deploying one or several spiked, roughly spherical rovers to the Martian moon Phobos.

Measuring about half a meter wide, each rover would hop, tumble and bound across the cratered, lopsided moon, relaying information about its origins, as well as its soil and other surface materials.

Developed by Marco Pavone, an assistant professor in Stanford’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, the Phobos Surveyor, a coffee-table-sized vehicle flanked by two umbrella-shaped solar panels, would orbit around Phobos throughout the mission. The researchers have already constructed a prototype.

The Surveyor would release only one hedgehog at a time. Together, the mothership and hedgehogs would work together to determine the hedgehog’s position and orientation. Using this information, they would map a trajectory, which the mother craft would then command the hedgehog to travel.

In turn, the spiky explorers would relay scientific measurements back to the Phobos Surveyor, which would forward the data to researchers on Earth. Based on their analysis of the data, the scientists would direct the mothership to the next hedgehog deployment site.

An entire mission would last two to three years. Just flying to Phobos would take the Surveyor about two years. Then the initial reconnaissance phase, during which the Surveyor would map the terrain, would last a few months. The mothership would release each of the five or six hedgehogs several days apart, allowing scientists enough time to decide where to release the next hedgehog.

For many decisions, Pavone’s system renders human control unnecessary. “It’s the next level of autonomy in space,” he said.

Moon clues

The synergy between the Phobos Surveyor and the hedgehogs would also be reflected in their sharing of scientific roles. The Surveyor would take large-scale measurements, while the hedgehogs would gather more detailed data. For example, the Surveyor might use a gamma ray or neutron detector to measure the concentration of various chemical elements and compounds on the surface, while the hedgehogs might use microscopes to measure the fine crevices and fissures lining the terrain.

Although scientists could use the platform to explore any of the solar system’s smaller members, including comets and asteroids, Pavone has designed it with the Martian moon Phobos in mind.

An analysis of Phobos’ soil composition could uncover clues about the moon’s origin. Scientists have yet to agree on whether Phobos is an asteroid captured by the gravity of Mars or a piece of Mars that an asteroid impact flung into orbit. This could have deep implications for our current understanding of the origin and evolution of the solar system, Pavone said.

To confirm Phobos’ origins, Pavone’s group plans to deploy most of the hybrids near Stickney Crater. Besides providing a gravity “sweet spot” where the mother craft can stably hover between Mars and Phobos, the crater also exposes the moon’s inner layers.

A human mission to Mars presents hefty challenges, mainly associated with the planet’s high gravity, which heightens the risk of crashing during takeoffs and landings. The large amounts of fuel needed to overcome Mars’ strong pull during takeoffs could also make missions prohibitively expensive.

But Phobos’ gravity is a thousand times weaker than on Mars. If Phobos did indeed originate from the red planet, scientists could study Mars without the dangers and costs associated with its high gravity simply by sending astronauts to Phobos. They could study the moon itself or use it as a base station to operate a robot located on Mars.  The moon could also serve as a site to test technologies for potential use in a human mission to the planet.

“It’s a piece of technology that’s needed before any more expensive type of exploration is considered,” Pavone said of the spacecraft-rover hybrid. “Before sampling we need to know where to land. We need to deploy rovers to acquire info about the surface.”

These probes could  be precursors to a sample return mission. A promising area to dig determined beforehand would cut down on cost and wear and tear.

But these rovers could be used on their own for private industry, such as Google Maps in order to give ( and sell ) accurate virtual reality tours to Millenials who wish to sit in their livingrooms and explore Mars safely.

A true pre-Singularity technology.

Acrobatic space rovers to explore moons and asteroids

No Terminators Here, It’s Old-Fashioned Human Killers


The Pentagon wants to make perfectly clear that every time one of its flying robots releases its lethal payload, it’s the result of a decision made by an accountable human being in a lawful chain of command. Human rights groups and nervous citizens fear that technological advances in autonomy will slowly lead to the day when robots make that critical decision for themselves. But according to a new policy directive issued by a top Pentagon official, there shall be no SkyNet, thank you very much.

Here’s what happened while you were preparing for Thanksgiving: Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter signed, on November 21, a series of instructions to “minimize the probability and consequences of failures” in autonomous or semi-autonomous armed robots “that could lead to unintended engagements,” starting at the design stage (.pdf, thanks to Translated from the bureaucrat, the Pentagon wants to make sure that there isn’t a circumstance when one of the military’s many Predators, Reapers, drone-like missiles or other deadly robots effectively automatizes the decision to harm a human being.

The hardware and software controlling a deadly robot needs to come equipped with “safeties, anti-tamper mechanisms, and information assurance.” The design has got to have proper “human-machine interfaces and controls.” And, above all, it has to operate “consistent with commander and operator intentions and, if unable to do so, terminate engagements or seek additional human operator input before continuing the engagement.” If not, the Pentagon isn’t going to buy it or use it.

It’s reasonable to worry that advancements in robot autonomy are going to slowly push flesh-and-blood troops out of the role of deciding who to kill. To be sure, military autonomous systems aren’t nearly there yet. No Predator, for instance, can fire its Hellfire missile without a human directing it. But the military is wading its toe into murkier ethical and operational waters: The Navy’s experimental X-47B prototype will soon be able to land on an aircraft carrier with the barest of human directions. That’s still a long way from deciding on its own to release its weapons. But this is how a very deadly slope can slip.

It’s that sort of thing that worries Human Rights Watch, for instance. Last week, the organization, among the most influential non-governmental institutions in the world, issued a report warning that new developments in drone autonomy represented the demise of established “legal and non-legal checks on the killing of civilians.” Its solution: “prohibit the “development, production, and use of fully autonomous weapons through an international legally binding instrument.”

Laudable impulse, wrong solution, writes Matthew Waxman. A former Defense Department official for detainee policy, Waxman and co-author Kenneth Anderson observe that technological advancements in robotic weapons autonomy is far from predictable, and the definition of “autonomy” is murky enough to make it unwise to tell the world that it has to curtail those advancements at an arbitrary point. Better, they write, for the U.S. to start an international conversation about how much autonomy on a killer robot is appropriate, so as to “embed evolving internal state standards into incrementally advancing automation.”

Waxman and Anderson should be pleased with Carter’s memo, since those standards are exactly what Carter wants the Pentagon to bake into its next drone arsenal. Before the Pentagon agrees to develop or buy new autonomous or somewhat autonomous weapons, a team of senior Pentagon officials and military officers will have to certify that the design itself “incorporates the necessary capabilities to allow commanders and operators to exercise appropriate levels of human judgment in the use of force.” The machines and their software need to provide reliability assurances and failsafes to make sure that’s how they work in practice, too. And anyone operating any such deadly robot needs sufficient certification in both the system they’re using and the rule of law. The phrase “appropriate levels of human judgment” is frequently repeated, to make sure everyone gets the idea. (Now for the lawyers to argue about the meaning of “appropriate.”)

So much for SkyNet. But Carter’s directive blesses the forward march of autonomy in most everything military robots do that can’t kill you. It “[d]oes not apply to autonomous or semi-autonomous cyberspace systems for cyberspace operations; unarmed, unmanned platforms; unguided munitions; munitions manually guided by the operator (e.g., laser- or wire-guided munitions); mines; or unexploded explosive ordnance,” Carter writes.

Oh happy - happy, joy – joy. The semi-intelligent machines still needs a human in the loop to kill you, but doesn’t need one to spy on you.

Oh well, Big Brother still needs a body to put in jail to make the expense of robots worth their while I suppose…

Pentagon: A Human Will Always Decide When a Robot Kills You

Artificial Life-Form Inventer Venter To Build Martian DNA Teleporter

From Technology Review:

Two high-profile entrepreneurs say they want to put a DNA sequencing machine on the surface of Mars in a bid to prove the existence of extraterrestrial life.

In what could become a race for the first extraterrestrial genome, researcher J. Craig Venter said Tuesday that his Maryland academic institute and his company, Synthetic Genomics, would develop a machine capable of sequencing and beaming back DNA data from the planet.

Separately, Jonathan Rothberg, founder of Ion Torrent, a DNA sequencing company, is collaborating on an effort to equip his company’s “Personal Genome Machine” for a similar task.

“We want to make sure an Ion Torrent goes to Mars,” Rothberg told Technology Review.

Although neither team yet has a berth on Mars rocket, their plans reflect the belief that the simplest way to prove there is life on Mars is to send a DNA sequencing machine.

“There will be DNA life forms there,” Venter predicted Tuesday in New York, where he was speaking at the Wired Health Conference.

Venter said researchers working with him have already begun tests at a Mars-like site in the Mojave Desert. Their goal, he said, is to demonstrate a machine capable of autonomously isolating microbes from soil, sequencing their DNA, and then transmitting the information to a remote computer, as would be required on an unmanned Mars mission. (Hear his comments in this video, starting at 00:11:01.) Heather Kowalski, a spokeswoman for Venter, confirmed the existence of the project but said the prototype system was “not yet 100 percent robotic.”

Meanwhile, Rothberg’s Personal Genome Machine is being adapted for Martian conditions as part of a NASA-funded project at Harvard and MIT called SET-G, or “the search for extraterrestrial genomes.”

Christopher Carr, an MIT research scientist involved in the effort, says his lab is working to shrink Ion Torrent’s machine from 30 kilograms down to just three kilograms so that it can fit on a NASA rover. Other tests, already conducted, have determined how well the device can withstand the heavy radiation it would encounter on the way to Mars.

NASA, whose Curiosity rover landed on Mars in August, won’t send another rover mission to the planet before at least 2018 (see “The Mars Rover Curiosity Marks a Technological Triumph“), and there’s no guarantee a DNA sequencing device would go aboard. “The hard thing about getting to Mars is hitting the NASA specifications,” says George Church, a Harvard University researcher and a senior member of the SET-G team. “[Venter] isn’t ahead of anyone else.”

Venter has a great idea here, but it reminds me of a certain movie in which sequencing alien DNA wasn’t such a great plan.

Species !

Genome Hunters Go After Martian DNA

Interview: Lee Billings


Like many geeks of the post-Sputnik generation, I grew up hoping that space travel would be common by the time I reached middle age. Weaned on a youthful diet of speculative fiction by the likes of Ray Bradbury and Arthur Clarke, raised on Star Trek and The Outer Limits, and thrilled by real-life hero Neil Armstrong’s “one small step” onto the gravelly surface of the Moon when I was in elementary school, it never occurred to me that humankind’s manifest destiny in the stars would be undone by changing political winds, disasters like the Challenger explosion, and a mountain of debt to pay for misguided military adventures like the War in Iraq.

It’s true that, in some ways, we’re living in a new golden age for space nerds. Bard Canning’s gorgeously enhanced footage of Curiosity’s descent to Mars — made instantly available by the global network we built instead of a Hilton on the Moon — certainly beats  grainy snippets beamed down from Tranquility Base. A newly discovered exoplanet that “may be capable of supporting life” seems tomake headlines every few months. Cassini’s ravishing closeups of Saturnregularly put the fever dreams of ILM’s animators to shame. But wasn’t I supposed to be “strolling on the deck of a starship” by now, as Paul Kantner’s acid-fueled hippie space epic Blows Against the Empire promised me when it was nominated for a Hugo award in 1971?

The problem, it turns out, isn’t just a loss of political will to finance manned space flight. Rocket science turns out to be rocket science — not easy, and constrained by some very real limitations dictated by material science, the physics of acceleration, and the unwieldy economics of interstellar propulsion. Until a real-life Zefram Cochrane comes along to invent a practical warp drive, I may not be sightseeing on any Class M planets anytime soon.

One of the best briefings on the state of the art of interstellar exploration is Lee Billings’ essay “Incredible Journey,” recently reprinted in a wonderful new anthology called The Best Science Writing Online 2012, edited by Scientific American’s Bora Zivkovic and Jennifer Ouellette. I’m very honored to have a piece in the anthology myself: my NeuroTribes interview with John Elder Robison, author of the bestselling memoir of growing up with autism, Look Me in The Eye, and other books. When SciAm’s editors suggested that each author in the book interview one of the other authors, I jumped at the chance to interview Billings about his gracefully written and informative article about the practical challenges of space flight. Billings is a freelance journalist who has written forNatureNew ScientistPopular Mechanics, and Seed. He lives outside New York City with his wife, Melissa.


Steve Silberman: Before we even get into the meat of your piece, I want to mention how impressed I was by the power and lyricism of your writing. Phrases like “the cosmos suddenly becomes less lonely” and “the easiest way the Daedalus volunteers found to fuel their starship was, in effect, the industrialization of the outer solar system” make vast and highly abstract concepts immediately comprehensible and visceral to lay readers. What made you want to become a science writer, and who are your role models for writing, in any genre?

Lee Billings: My attraction to science preceded my attraction to the act of writing, perhaps because, like every child, I was intensely curious about the world around me. Science, more so than any other source of knowledge I could find, seemed to change the world into something at once eminently understandable and endlessly mysterious.

I became interested in science writing, science journalism, at approximately the same time I realized I would make a poor scientist. I was midway through my college prerequisites, thinking I was on a path to a career in neuroscience. I’d been having a lot of trouble with the more quantitative courses — calculus, organic chemistry, and so on. Many of my friends would ace their assignments and tests after sleeping through lectures and rarely cracking a book. I would study hard, only to receive poor grades. Meanwhile I was breezing through courses in English, literature, history, and art. After a particularly fervent all-night cram-session for a final exam that I still almost flunked, I decided if I wasn’t destined to excel within science itself, perhaps I could instead try to make my mark by helping communicate the world-changing discoveries scientists were making. So I switched my academic emphasis from neuroscience to journalism, and became something of a camp follower, scavenging and trailing behind the gifted few at the front lines of research. I’ve never looked back, and have no regrets. The job never gets old: Rather than being at best a mediocre, hyper-specialized bench worker, being a science writer lets me parachute in to varied fields on a whim, and invariably the brilliant individuals I find upon landing are welcoming and happy to talk to me.

As for influences… I still have a long way to go, but if my writing ever comes to possess a fraction of Carl Sagan’s charisma and elegance, John McPhee’s structure and eye for detail, Richard Preston’s depth of focus and cinematic flair, Stanislaw Lem’s imagination and analytic insight, or Ray Bradbury’s lyrical beauty, I will be a happy man.

Ray Bradbury's "The Martian Chronicles"

Ray Bradbury’s “The Martian Chronicles”

Silberman: Several times a year now, we hear about the discovery of a new exoplanet in the “Goldilocks zone” that could “potentially support life.” For example, soon after he helped discover Gliese 581g, astronomer Steven Vogt sparked a storm of media hype by claiming that “the chances for life on this planet are 100 percent.” Even setting aside the fact that the excitement of discovering a planet in the habitable zone understandably seems to have gone to Vogt’s head at that press conference, why are such calculations of the probability of life harder to perform accurately than they seem?

Billings: The question of habitability is a second-order consideration when it comes to Gliese 581g, and that fact in itself reveals where so much of this uncertainty comes from. As of right now, the most interesting thing about the “discovery” of Gliese 581g is that not everyone is convinced the planet actually exists. That’s basically because this particular detection is very much indirect — the planet’s existence is being inferred from periodic meter-per-second shifts in the position of its host star. The period of that shift corresponds to the planet’s orbit as it whips from one side of the star to the other; the meter-per-second magnitude of the shift places a lower limit on the planet’s mass, but can’t pin down the mass exactly. So that’s all this detection gives you — an orbit and a minimum mass. That’s not a lot to go on in determining what a planet’s environment might actually be like, is it?

Now, get up and walk around the room. You’re moving at about a meter per second. Imagine discerning that same rate of change in the motion of a million-kilometer-wide ball of plasma, a star many light-years away. Keep in mind this star’s surface is always moving, in pounding waves and swirling eddies, in rising and falling convection cells, in vast plasmatic prominences arcing above the surface, often at many kilometers per second. At any particular moment, all that stellar noise can swamp the faint planetary signal. Only by building up hundreds or thousands of careful measurements over time can you get that crucial periodicity that tells you what you’re seeing might be a planet. So the measurement is quite statistical in nature, and its interpretation can change based on the statistical assumptions being used. This is further complicated by the fact that planets are rarely singletons, so that any given stellar motion may be the product of many planets rather than one, requiring careful long-term study to tease apart each world’s contribution to the bulk signal. It’s also complicated by the instability of astronomical instruments, which must be kept carefully, constantly calibrated and stabilized lest they introduce spurious noise into the measurements. In the case of Gliese 581g, not everyone agrees on the putative planetary signal actually being caused by a planet, or even being real at all — the signal doesn’t seem to manifest equally in the handful of instruments purportedly capable of detecting it.

So it’s very difficult to just detect these things, and actually determining whether they are much like Earth is a task orders of magnitude more difficult still. Notice how I’m being anthropocentric here: “much like Earth.” Astrobiology has been derisively called a science without a subject. But, of course, it does have at least one subject: our own living planet and its containing solar system. We are forced to start from what we know, planting our feet in the familiar before we push out into the alien. That’s why we, as a species, are looking for other Earth-like planets — they probably offer us the best hope of recognizing anything we might consider alive. It’s not the strongest position to be in, but it’s the best we’ve got. Calculating the probability of life on an utterly alien world outside the solar system for which we know only the most basic information — its mass, its orbit, maybe its radius — is at this stage a very crude guess. The fact is, we still don’t know that much about how abiogenesis occurred on Earth, how life emerged from inanimate matter. There are very good physical, chemical, thermodynamic reasons to believe that life arose here because our planet was warm, wet, and rocky, but we really don’t yet know all the cogent occurrences that added up to build the Earth’s earliest organisms, let alone our modern living world. A warm, wet, rocky planet may be a necessary but not a sufficient condition for life as we know it to form and flourish.

Lee Billings with planet hunter Geoff Marcy

Lee Billings with planet hunter Geoff Marcy

This is really a chicken-and-egg problem: To know the limits of life in planetary systems, we need to find life beyond the Earth. To find life beyond Earth, it would be very helpful to know the limits of life in planetary systems. Several independent groups are trying to circumvent this problem by studying abiogenesis in the lab — trying to in effect create life, alien or otherwise, in a test tube. If they manage to replicate Earth life, the achievement could constrain just how life emerged on our own planet. If they somehow manage to make some single-celled organism that doesn’t use DNA, or that relies on silicon instead of carbon to build its body, or that prefers to swim in liquid ethane rather than liquid water, that gives us a hint that “Earth-style” biologies may only be one branch in a much larger and more diverse cosmic Tree of Life.

Silberman: Going deeper than the notion of the cosmos feeling “less lonely” – as well as the fact that we all grew up watching Star Trek and Star Wars and thinking that aliens are frickin’ cool (as long as they’re not the mama alien fromAlien) — why do you think people are so motivated to daydream about extraterrestrial life? What need in us do those dreams fulfill?

Billings: I don’t really think most people are necessarily motivated to daydream about just any sort of extraterrestrial life. It will probably take more than a microbe or a clam to excite most of our imaginations, even if that microbe happens to be on Venus or that clam happens to be on Mars.

I do think humans are motivated to daydream about extraterrestrial intelligence, and, to put a finer point on it, extraterrestrial “people.” They are motivated to dream about beings very much like them, things tantalizingly exotic but not so alien as to be totally incomprehensible and discomforting. Maybe those imagined beings have more appendages or sense organs, different body plans and surface coverings, but they typically possess qualities we recognize within ourselves: They are sentient, they have language, they use tools, they are curious explorers, they are biological, they are mortal — just like humans. Perhaps that’s a collective failure of imagination, because it’s certainly not very easy to envision intelligent aliens that are entirely divergent from our own anthropocentric preconceptions. Or perhaps it’s more diagnostic of the human need for context, affirmation, and familiarity. Why are people fascinated by their distorted reflections in funhouse mirrors? Maybe it’s because when they recognize their warped image, at a subconscious level that recognition reinforces their actual true appearance and identity.

More broadly, speculating about extraterrestrial intelligence is an extension of three timeless existential questions: What are we, where do we come from, and where are we going? The late physicist Philip Morrison considered SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, to be the “archaeology of the future,” because any galactic civilizations we could presently detect from our tiny planet would almost certainly be well more advanced than our own. It’s unlikely that we would ever receive a radio message from an alien civilization in the equivalent of our past Stone Age, and it’s unlikely Earth would ever be visited by a crewed starship that powered its voyage using engines fueled by coal or gasoline. Optimists consider this, and say that making contact with a superior alien civilization could augur a bright future for humanity, as it would suggest there are in fact solutions to be found for all the current seemingly intractable problems that threaten to destroy or diminish our species. It’s my opinion that most people think about aliens as a way of pondering our own spectrum of possible futures.

I’m inclined to believe some of the things Billings has to say in that it’s doubtful we’ll build anything like a starship in the near future and folks ( taxpayers ) just won’t fund those kinds of projects. Entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk, James Cameron and Peter Diamandis could in the future fund projects such as starprobes and starships – only if they prove profitable.

IMO it looks like stronger telescopes both on Earth and in space will be the only human built machines exploring the closer solar systems for any signs of life and extant civilizations because they can be economically constructed – and if they found anything interesting, the items are still a safe distance away.

Five Billion Years of Solitude: Lee Billings on the Science of Reaching the Stars

Wanted: Asteroid Miners


“Do you want to be an Asteroid Miner? Well, here’s your chance!” — an email we just received.

“We’re looking for passionate college students for paid coop positions to help us mine asteroids this spring and summer,” it reads. “If you love space and want to contribute directly to the development of the next generation of space exploration technologies, we want to hear from you (or from anyone you know that you think would be interested). Click here to apply today!

— Chris Lewicki, President & Chief Asteroid Miner, Planetary Resources, Inc.

Planetary Resources’ Asteroid Miners Wanted page reads:

If you are a college student passionate about space and want to be a part of history by helping us develop the technologies that we’ll use to mine asteroids, we want to hear from you today.

This your chance to join our team onsite in Bellevue, Washington for a paid cooperative education position and get hands on experience working with our team.

PRI provides a unique and intimate work environment where you can make an immediate impact on product development and the fulfillment of primary company objectives. Join us in changing the way we explore the solar system!

Click here to apply now and be a part of history in the making!

I hope this is for real, hiring future asteroid miners might be a glamor job now, but it will be a top blue-collar occupation of the 21st century.

At last!

Planetary Resources ‘now hiring asteroid miners’

Robots and UFOs

From Scott Corrales’ Inexplicata :

In 1920, when Karel Capek wrote the three-act play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) he probably didn’t realize he would be changing humanity’s conception of what it is to be alive for generations to come, much less had the word “robot” to the world’s collective glossary. Derived from the Slavic term “robota”, meaning the work done by an indentured servant, robots have gone on to become a staple of science-fiction. We take their functions and existence for granted, with our own efforts at robotics ranging from industrial mechanical arms to the new wave of lovely Japanese automata. According to our age group, we look back fondly at either Robbie the Robot or Artoo-Detoo and See-Threepio. Perhaps some even remember seeing the graceful “María” making her appearance for the first time in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis

Only a year after “R.U.R.” appeared on the stage, French director André Deed created one of the first science-fiction movies involving robots: L’uomo Meccanico (The Mechanical Man), depicting a giant humanoid robot created for criminal purposes, but who is checked by another equally sizeable machine, settling their differences inside an Italian opera house. These original “rock’em-sock’em robots” showed audiences that the mechanical men, while emotionless, could serve the cause of good as well as evil.

Rampaging Robots

In an article for SAGA UFO Report (UFO Annual, 1975), Otto Binder wrote: “[Robots represent] a rather rare category of UFOnauts, but one that cannot be ignored. Witnesses often describe these creatures as having stiff movements and also having angular lines quite unlike living human beings. These strange entities range from the uncanny to the eerie.” He goes on to add: “We can logically assume that some worlds do not send their living explorers to Earth, but use robots somewhat like the Russian mobile vehicle on the Moon. But apparently the aliens have perfected observation vehicles in the form of living creatures.” Binder refers to the automated Lunakhod probe, but a more updated example would be our own Curiosity rover on Mars, about to engage on a study of the red planet in 2012.

UFO encounter reports from the late 1960′s and the early to mid-1970′s often described encounters with robotic entities emerging from UFOs or conducting their activities in areas where UFO activity was common. Researchers at the time conceded that organic ufonauts could, on occasion, entrust certain missions to mechanical creations much in the same way that our planet’s space programs launch unmanned probes to destinations within the solar system. The robotic alien, for want of a better term, became one of the four or five “recognized and accepted” types of possible UFO occupant.

Did robots from another planet visit Avon, Connecticut in September 1967? Police officers found themselves responding to frightened calls from the public involving a “shiny-suited robot” in the vicinity of Talcott Mountain. The seemingly mechanical entity appeared to be engaged in some sort of frantic semaphore, trying to stop drivers along Route 44. Descriptions of the entity coincided in aspects such as a cowl or helmet that completely enshrouded the figure’s features, and its stiff movements as it wobbled on the road’s shoulder, trying to stop traffic. Police officers reported to the scene, but were unable to find any trace of the intruder.

In February 1981, Luis Dominguez, proprietor of small food and beverage concern in the village of Fuentecén in Spain had a brush with the unknown that led him to believe that ‘robots” of unknown provenance had visited his small community.

Between 2:00 and 3:00 a.m. on February 13 of that year, Dominguez had closed down his business and was heading home when two red lights caught his attention. Thinking it might be the taillights of car being used to commit burglaries in the wee hours of the morning, he headed in their direction, hoping to take the law into his own hands, but the would-be vigilante was floored by what happened next: the “taillights” rose into the air, made an odd twisting turn to the right, and landed elsewhere in the countryside. By his own admission, the unnatural sight made him break out in goosebumps.

Speeding back home, from where the red lights were still visible, Dominguez, his wife and son watched nervously as the lights engaged in a variety of movements, some of the undulating. Most spectacular of all was a sudden flash or beam of white light fired from the source of the two red ones, illuminating all the homes of Fuentecén as if by a giant klieg lamp.

It was then that Dominguez heard his dog bark. The family pet, ominously named “Satán”, was outside the house barking at an object near to fence that encircled the property. Dominguez realized described it as a box-like contraption resembling a washing machine or small refrigerator, taller than the fence by a few inches. It had neither head nor appendages.

The curious object disappeared when Dominguez armed himself with courage and a flashlight and stepped outside for a closer look. However, he made a startling remark to J.J. Benítez: “the dog would bark at it and the object, from the very edge of the fence, would answer it with a very slow “bark” that was slower and muted. It may seem ridiculous, but I swear it’s true. We got the sensation that the thing was imitating our dog.”

The following day, while returning from school, Jose Francisco Dominguez excitedly told his father that a patch of burned vegetation was now in evidence at the site where the red “taillights” had been seen the night before: in fact, a patch measuring some five square meters of desiccated–rather than burned –grass was found in a field. The case attracted the interest of a number of local newspapers, which in turn prompted government ministries to take an interest in it. Subsequent analysis revealed no traces of radiation at the site.

Willy Rodriguez was an avid fisherman who enjoyed practicing the sport in the waters of the Esla River, not far from the monastery of Santa María de Moreruela in the Spanish province of Zamora. During the quiet hours of an early morning in the spring of 1974, Rodríguez’s two dogs began to bark furiously for no reason. Chiding his animals for spooking away the fish, the man later became aware of a bizarre figure, standing over six feet tall, with its arms held closely to the sides of its body, “like a soldier”, according to his description. In the sunlight, the strange entity looked as though it had been made of silver. Once recovered from the shock, he ordered his dogs to attack the strange metallic form, which simply glided away toward a nearby hill, and then vanished.

While may have questioned his claim, Rodriguez is adamant that the silvery presence he saw in the spring of 1974 “wasn’t a person – it was artificial. I think it was a sort of robot that came out of a flying saucer and answered to its commands,” he told Iker Jiménez and viewers of the Cuarto Milenio television program.

Spain’s own Antonio Ribera made a significant caveat when it came to cases involving humanoid occupants: “We must not exclude the hypothesis of biological robots created by an extremely advanced Science. Such robots would bear no resemblance to the crude robots of our science-fiction, full of nuts and bolts and electronic cells, but would be actual living being.” (FSR, “The Landing at Villares del Saz”). This dovetails, interestingly enough, with the physical appearance robots presented by Karel Capek’s “R.U.R.” – human looking in every way, and capable of emotion.

As mankind extends its explorations throughout the Solar System and eventually into interstellar space, semi-intelligent beings will evolve into intelligent entities that will become our surrogates to the Universe.

So it stands to reason the process has already occurred in the Milky Way galaxy and we are ( have been ) visited by intelligent machines.

Machines From Elsewhere: Robots and UFOs

Hat tip to the Daily Grail.

Finally, Money to be made in Deep Space?

From DailyFinance:

In the 1981 film Outland, Sean Connery stars as an old-school lawman who keeps order in a mining colony on one of Jupiter’s moons, armed only with his wits and a trusty Browning 2000 shotgun. Outland is set in a future that has commercial space travel and off-planet mining, and the latter took a giant leap forward into reality last week when the private company Planetary Resources announced its plan to start mining asteroids in just more than 10 years’ time.

While the space industry isn’t easily accessible to private investors, its prospects mean that one day the sector will become the toast of the stock market. So it’s something I keep an eye on, as I believe it will present some great opportunities in the future.

Money from satellites A few public companies have major interests in space, and the one that immediately springs to mind is the satellite communications specialist Inmarsat. Britain’s largest pay-television operator, British Sky Broadcasting  (ISE: BSY.L) , is another company that relies heavily upon space; without its satellites, it would lose most of its business.

Many defense contractors, such as Boeing  (NYS: BA)  and Raytheon  (NYS: RTN) , also have substantial satellite operations, though much of this business is military and therefore under pressure as national budgets are squeezed. Then there are the firms that provide commercial images from satellites, such as DigitalGlobe and RapidEye.

But so far the space industry is pretty much limited to satellites and getting them into orbit. I believe the real excitement will be found in the new industries that are starting to spring up — in particular mining, space tourism, and zero-gravity manufacturing.

Back to the mining Planetary Resources has a star-filled shareholders’ register, which contains names like Larry Page and Eric Schmidt of Google  (NAS: GOOG)  and the film director James Cameron. While its asteroid-mining plan seems to be the stuff of science-fiction, and there are many technological obstacles to be overcome before it is practical, it makes good business sense, because those metals that are rare on Earth are generally much more plentiful in space.

While the vast majority of asteroids are to be found in the asteroid belt that lies between Mars and Jupiter, we know of at least 9,000 near-Earth asteroids that sometimes come close to our planet. These are Planetary Resources’ main targets, and at the top of the list are those that were produced by collisions between “planetesimals” — the bodies that combined to form planets in the early history of the solar system.

The reason for preferring these asteroids over the other main type of asteroid — those formed from the accretion of small bits of material — is that they contain vastly more metal. They also will not have undergone the same geological processes that occurred on Earth over billions of years, so their rare metals — including gold, platinum and iridium — will be more uniformly distributed.

In contrast, metals in the earth are disproportionately located within the mantle and core — well below the crust where we mine — because of the planetary formation process that stratified the earth into three distinct regions: core, mantle, and crust.

The economics of space mining Planetary Resources plans to launch several space telescopes in 2014 that will search for suitable near-Earth asteroids. These may be mined where they are or hauled back to Earth or lunar orbit for later dissection, but in any case the mining will likely be done by robots.

Of course, this is very expensive, and the Keck Institute for Space Studies has estimated that it would cost around 1.6 billion pounds just to bring a single 500-tonne asteroid back to the moon for mining. That’s before the cost of setting up the venture in the first place, which will probably run to more than 50 billion pounds.

Another problem is that rare metals go for high prices because they are, well, rare. So if these robot miners start to extract large quantities of them from asteroids, this would drive down their price.

Fly me to the moon Commercial space travel is much closer than you may think. Leading the pack is Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, which has already sold more than 500 tickets for rides in SpaceShipTwo, on course to make its first commercial suborbital flight next year. If you fancy a ride, a ticket will set you back a cool $200,000.

Branson doesn’t have the field to himself, as there are several other companies also planning to take fee-paying passengers into space, such as Blue Origin (founded in 2000 by Jeff Bezos of  (NAS: AMZN)  fame), Space Adventures, and SpaceX.

The new manufacturing frontier Outer space offers two environments that are not easy to create on Earth: low gravity and hard vacuum. This holds great promise for manufacturing special objects such as perfect spheres and certain types of alloy.

Another field that will benefit is medical research, because purer protein crystals can be grown in space, as the distorting effects of gravity will have been removed.

Numerous experiments have already been performed on the International Space Station and space shuttles, so we know that the technology works and is available. As with most things, it all boils down to cost.

Space to invest? My gut feeling when looking at businesses that depend upon high technology is to steer well clear. That’s because the technology industry is notorious for seeing a dominant market leader overtaken by a rival with a better product.

Remember when Friends Reunited and MySpace were the big social networks? Nowadays they’re also-rans when compared to Facebook, which in turn has become yet another giant with the competition nipping at its heels.

That said, the space industry has tremendous barriers to entry. Launching stuff into space isn’t cheap, and first-mover advantage will count for a lot in this sector. After all, if a company already has a multibillion-pound manufacturing facility in orbit, then this will put off some of the competition. Sooner or later, big money is going to be made in outer space. It just may take some time.

Now mainstream space is realizing the dream of us nerds from so long ago.

Somewhere, Gerard K. O’Neill smiles knowingly.

Making Money in Outer Space

Will Robots Be Our Successors In Space Exploration?

The above question may already be a nonsequitor since automated space probes permeate the Solar System. The Moon and Mars are covered with mankind’s mechanical surrogates extensively with many more on the horizon despite NASA’s budgetary woes.

While lip service and political demagoguery concerning NASA’s budget and the manned space program rule the day and despite monetary cut-backs, the automated probe programs seem to have survived to a certain degree. And the public at large like the unmanned probe programs, it is the population in NASA districts in southern states who gripe about manned program budget short-falls. Tax-payer supported jobs there are popular in spite of the explosive cognitive dissonance.

In that vein, professor of electrical engineering at Penn State John D. Mathews spoke of SETI’s failure of finding ETIs and posits that exploring space will mean more machines, not Man:

“The basic premise is that human space exploration must be highly efficient, cost effective, and autonomous as placing humans beyond low Earth orbit is fraught with political economic, and technical difficulties,” John D. Mathews, professor of electrical engineering, reported in the current issue of the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society.

If aliens are out there, they have the same problems we do, they need to conserve resources, are limited by the laws of physics and they may not even be eager to meet us, according to Mathews.

He suggests that “only by developing and deploying self-replicating robotic spacecraft — and the incumbent communications systems — can the human race efficiently explore even the asteroid belt, let alone the vast reaches of the Kuiper Belt, Oort Cloud, and beyond.”

Mathews assumes that any extraterrestrial would need to follow a similar path to the stars, sending robots rather than living beings, which would explain why SETI has not succeeded to date.

“If they are like us, they too have a dysfunctional government and all the other problems plaguing us,” said Mathews. “They won’t want to spend a lot to communicate with us.”

It is extremely difficult to broadcast into the galaxy and requires vast resources. Radio signals need to emanate in every direction to fill the sky, and the energy requirement to broadcast throughout space is quite high.

“Current infrared lasers can communicate across our solar system,” said Mathews. “The problem in terms of SETI is they are highly directed beams.”

Point-to-point communications using infrared signaling requires less power, but the signals are extremely directional. If extra-terrestrial beings are using laser-generated infrared signaling, we would never notice their signals because they are so tightly targeted to their destinations.

Mathews suggests that if human exploration is not possible, robots could go where many people do not want to go and do what many do not want to do, not only on Earth, but also in space.

To minimize the cost, he suggests that the initial robots be manufactured on the moon to take advantage of the resources and the one-sixth gravity. He notes that we have the technology to create these exobots now, except for a compact power source. To create a network of autonomous robots capable of passing information to each other and back to earth, the vehicles must be able to identify their exact location and determine the time. With these two bits of knowledge, they should be able to determine where all the other robots near them are and target them with an infrared laser beam carrying data.

“The expensive part of launching anything is escaping the surface of Earth and its gravity well,” said Mathews. “It would also be easier to target the space debris in near Earth orbit and in geosynchronous orbit and even recycle it.”

Initially, the exobots would serve two purposes: clear existing debris and monitor the more than 1,200 near-Earth asteroids that are particularly hazardous in that they closely approach Earth during their orbits.

“As a first step, we really should launch robot vehicles to learn something about these asteroids and to place beacons on them for identification and tracking,” said Mathews.

Ultimately, the network of exobots — self-replicating, autonomous and capable of learning — will spread through the solar system and into the galaxy, using the resources they find there to continue their mission. Communicating with infrared lasers is communicating at the speed of light, which is the fastest we can hope to achieve.

“Our assumption in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence is that ET wants to be found,” said Mathews. “But who has energy resources to spend trying to wave their metaphorical hand across the galaxy?”

He said it is more likely that one of our exobots will intercept a signal from one of theirs if we are to make first contact.

I find this sad in a way, I do think mankind does have a place in exploring the Universe in person, beit in World Ships, suspended animation or by physics yet undefined in an engineering sense.

But if strong AI is the major way the Technological Singularity will occur, this could very well be the scenario by which humans will explore the Galaxy.

Finding ET May Require Giant Robotic Leap 



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