Friday, May 10, 2013

Robots, a Martian Dune, and Mapping a Billion Stars

I gave my take on news from Cleveland, Ohio, in an unscheduled post:
Today's post is about robots, real and imagined; exploring Mars; and what we're learning about our corner of this galaxy.
  1. The Coming Robot Apocalypse: Read All About It!
  2. A Martian Dune and 14 Cups of Coffee
  3. More Robots, Planets, and a Billion Stars
  4. Nifty Name, Oldish Idea
  5. Orbital Salvage and Recycling: The Sky's (Not) the Limit

Predictions, Turing Tests, and Me

I'd be more intrigued with the possibility of AI, artificial intelligence, that was equivalent to what humans have: if I hadn't been reading roughly the same glowing predictions and fearful warnings for about a half-century now.

I think it's possible that we'll eventually make an AI that passes Turing tests: able to converse in our language with a human being, and not be obviously not-human. I'm also fairly sure that if or when that happens, we'll have claims and counter-claims as silly as what happened when serious science got tangled in Victorian-era intellectual fads and goofy religious preferences.

About evolution, God, and dealing with reality: I don't see a conflict between seeking truth and seeking God; it's obvious that this universe changes; and I'm willing to take this universe 'as is,' with all its vastness and antiquity. (February 27, 2013; January 18, 2012)

Rational Beings and Dogs

Humans are made in the image of God. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1701-1709)

We are:
  • Rational beings
    (Catechism, 1730)
  • Given
    • Intelligence
    • Free will
    (Catechism, 307, 311)
We also have mind-boggling power and responsiblility. (Catechism, 337-339, 343, 373) (March 17, 2013; April 3, 2012)

If, or when, we develop a 'human-like' AI, the template we use for that intelligence will be our own: by definition. It will be a remarkable accomplishment, on a par with turning wolves into dogs.

The idea that humans changed some wolves into good hunting assistants and guards is controversial. (NPR, November 8, 2011)

I suppose it's possible that some wolves just happened to get less intelligent and more friendly toward humans, and that 'primitive' humans just happened to start letting these modified wolves live with their families.

I'm a bit skeptical of claims that people 'just happen' to benefit from some unlikely series of events they 'just happened' to be involved with: even if the folks weren't British or American, and might have had longer body hair than I do.

We probably will never know all the details of how some wolves 'just happened' to become dogs. Those events played out long before we started using external memory technologies like writing. We aren't even sure how and why QWERTY keyboards became a standard: and that's another topic.
(a tip of the hat to Paul Sofranko, on Google+, for the heads-up on the Atlantic article)

1. The Coming Robot Apocalypse: Read All About It!

"Intelligent Robots Will Overtake Humans by 2100, Experts Say"
Tia Ghose, LiveScience (May 7, 2013)

"Are you prepared to meet your robot overlords?

"The idea of superintelligent machines may sound like the plot of 'The Terminator' or 'The Matrix,' but many experts say the idea isn't far-fetched. Some even think the singularity - the point at which artificial intelligence can match, and then overtake, human smarts - might happen in just 16 years.

"But nearly every computer scientist will have a different prediction for when and how the singularity will happen...."
I'll cut Tia Ghose a little slack on this article. That third paragraph is a sort of common-sense disclaimer. A bit further along in the article we learn that the 'experts' have a book to sell.

Now, about that "singularity." It's already happened. Back in 1997, Deep Blue demonstrated that computers are smarter than humans: at playing chess.

The computer on my desktop is smarter than I am: at arithmetic, sorting lists, and quite a few related functions.

Perhaps since I don't have a book sell, I won't say that I live in constant fear that the four-lobed brain in my computer will hypnotize me with emanations from the monitor: turning me into a mindless slave to the 'Deep Blue Conspiracy.'

On the other hand, that would make a dandy plot for a potboiler: maybe along the lines of "Colossus: The Forbin Project." (1970)

Replaced by Machines? Been There, Done That

I might take the 'replaced by machines' notion a little more seriously, if I didn't have a pretty good memory.

Back in my 'good old days,' a half-century back, quite a few folks in middle management felt threatened by computers. They had been promoted for their ability to add up columns of numbers. Information technology of the day could do the same thing: faster, and (usually) more accurately.

The sensible choices for those 'obsolete' humans were learning to use new information technology, or looking for a different sort of job.

A century before that, folks who made a living by swinging a hammer were - threatened? - by steam engines. How much American folklore about John Henry really happened may be discussed long after 'intelligent' robots are as commonplace as cell phones are today.

I'll be surprised if 'intelligent' robots have no effect on how people live. On the other hand, I don't feel threatened by today's Roomba, or 'Heimie:' my name for Hitachi's EMIEW2.


Hitachi EMIEW2 (Feb 2012)

I'll grant that 'Heimie' doesn't seem particularly useful, but 'his' more utilitarian counterparts, like Kiva robots, are pretty good at stacking merchandise.

'Heimie' and company might threaten the careers of mail clerks who don't get along with new technology: but somehow I think humanity will soldier on.

Pencil-Pushers and Pumping Iron

I suppose some folks enjoyed their jobs, back in my 'good old days.'

Hunched over a desk in the flickering glow of fluorescent lights; writing the results of arithmetic operations neatly in little rectangles; and completing forms in triplicate. Maybe someone will open a chain of spas for frustrated pencil-pushers: complete with personal managers who keep the 'in basket' full.

That's not as weird an idea as it might seem. Today's America doesn't have much room for "a steel driven man" of the legendary John Henry variety. But the last time I checked, my homeland has a remarkable number of facilities where folks pay to pump iron.

2. A Martian Dune and 14 Cups of Coffee


(from NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS, used w/o permission)
"...This mosaic of images from the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA's Mars rover Curiosity shows Mount Sharp in a white-balanced color adjustment that makes the sky look overly blue but shows the terrain as if under Earth-like lighting. The component images were taken during the 45th Martian day, or sol, of Curiosity's mission on Mars (Sept. 20, 2012). Image released March 15, 2013...."
"Bizarre Mars Mountain Possibly Built by Wind, Not Water"
Mike Wall, Space.com (May 6, 2013 )

"The mysterious Martian mountain that beckons NASA's Curiosity rover was likely built primarily by wind rather than water, as previously believed, a new study suggests.

"Many scientists suspect that the 3.4-mile-high (5.5 kilometers) Mount Sharp formed primarily from layers of lakebed silt, which is one of the main reasons that the mountain was selected as Curiosity's ultimate destination. But the new study holds that wind probably did most of the heavy lifting.

" 'Our work doesn't preclude the existence of lakes in Gale Crater, but suggests that the bulk of the material in Mount Sharp was deposited largely by the wind,' study co-author Kevin Lewis, of Princeton University, said in a statement...."

(from NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS, used w/o permission)
Mount Sharp, detail from NASA/JPL's Curiosity Mastcam mosaic.

One of Mount Sharp's odd features are those tilted layers. If they were sediment deposited on the bed on a now-dry lake, they'd have been horizontal - unless something had been pushing Mount Sharp up from below. Now there's a disturbing idea: and an entirely different topic. (Drifting at the Edge of Time and Space (November 7, 2011))

Turns out, Mount Sharp and it's tilted layers are the sort of thing that should form as a daily ebb and flow of Martian air blows sand down the slopes of Gale Crater. Mike Wall doesn't use the term, but Mount Sharp seems to be basically a big sand dune.

Someone else noticed that, and left a predictably bitter comment about the money wasted in exploring a sand dune. If the price tag was a billion dollars, that sum would have kept America's government energy programs going for - about two weeks.

Offhand, I think we can afford to spend about $30,991,000,000 on science, space, and technology. That's a lot of money: but there are a lot of Americans. Assuming that the cost was spread evenly among the 316,000,000 or so folks in this country, each member of my family would be paying about $98 each year for all 'useless' research.

Sure, if I had that $98 each year, I could go to Starbucks for a cup of coffee 14 times a year: if there was a Starbucks near where I live. There are better ways to spend that money: and worse, and that's yet another topic. Topics.

3. More Robots, Planets, and a Billion Stars

"Beyond Kepler: New Missions to Search for Alien Planets"
Mike Wall, Space.com (May 2, 2013)

"NASA's groundbreaking planet-hunting Kepler observatory may be showing its age, but a handful of other spacecraft are poised to join the search for exoplanets and carry it into the future.

"The Kepler spacecraft has detected more than 2,700 potential alien planets since its March 2009 launch, revolutionizing scientists' understanding of worlds beyond our solar system. But the second of the telescope's four reaction wheels - devices that maintain the observatory's position in space - may be about to fail, putting the prolific mission's future in doubt.

"While no instrument is likely to replace Kepler or its capabilities anytime soon, reinforcements are on their way to the launchpad. The first is scheduled to blast off this October, in fact - the European Space Agency's Gaia mission. [Gallery: A World of Kepler Planets]..."
We might be able to send a technician to repair Kepler: in a few years. If Kepler was in Earth orbit, like the Hubble observatory, a maintenance run might be practical today. As it is, Kepler is in orbit around the sun, in a 372.5 day orbit: trailing behind Earth. ("Kepler: Launch Vehicle and Orbit," NASA)

Getting a Grip About "Gaia"

If "Gaia" seems familiar, you may have watched "Captain Planet and the Planeteers." (1990-1996) Or maybe you saw the also-'relevant' "Gaia." (2010) Both, I'm told, are chock-full of social commentary.

As I've said before: I think dumping raw sewage in drinking water is imprudent; pandas are cute; and environmental concerns aren't necessarily daft. On the other hand, treating nature as a deity seems counterproductive, at best: and that's yet again another topic.

But "Gaia" is a catchy name for a robot spaceship, and what's important is what ESA's robot is supposed to do.

Mapping a Billion Stars: It's a Start

"Gaia is designed to create an extremely accurate 3D map of about 1 billion Milky Way stars - 1 percent of our galaxy's total. This work could detect tens of thousands of new planetary systems, scientists say.

" 'Researchers hope that Gaia will tell them more about the distribution of exoplanets around the galaxy: Are there more near the center or in the spiral arms? Are planets more common in areas rich in heavy elements?' reporters Yudhijit Bhattacharjee and Daniel Clery write in a special exoplanet section in the journal Science released online today (May 2)...."
(Mike Wall, Space.com)
I'll be watching results from Kepler, Gaia, and other projects with considerable interest. We're getting close to having enough data to make educated guesses about what sorts of planets circle other stars.

We might even find a planet that's about the size of Earth, warm enough for water to exist as a solid, liquid, and gas at its surface, and oxygen in the atmosphere. Or, not.

4. Nifty Name, Oldish Idea


(from Beau.TheConsortium, via Space.com, used w/o permission)
"Search Is On for 'Eyeball Earth' Alien Planets"
Charles Q. Choi, Astrobiology Magazine, via Space.com (April 29, 2013)

"Alien worlds resembling giant eyeballs might exist around red dwarf stars, and researchers are now proposing experiments to simulate these distant planets and see how capable they are of supporting life.

"Red dwarfs are small, faint stars about one-fifth as massive as the sun and up to 50 times dimmer. They are the most common stars in the galaxy and are thought to make up to 70 percent of the stars in the universe — vast numbers that potentially make them valuable places to look for extraterrestrial life.

"Indeed, the latest results from NASA's Kepler space observatory reveal that at least half of these stars host rocky planets that are half to four times the mass of Earth. [Gallery: A World of Kepler Planets]

"When looking for alien life as we know it, scientists typically focus on worlds that have water, since there is life virtually everywhere there is water on Earth. As such, they concentrate on the habitable zone of a star - the area surrounding a star where it is neither too hot nor too cold for liquid water to exist on a planet's surface....
Astrobiology Magazine's article is a pretty good overview of what scientists see as a likely sort of world, based on what's being discovered. Defining the habitable zone of a star as the area where water can be a liquid on a planet's (or moon's) surface may be a bit too limited, though.

For example, a moon of Jupiter, Europa, has a massive ocean under a relatively thin shell of ice. Critters in Europa's ocean wouldn't get much sunlight, but some life on Earth lives on heat from deep-sea hydrothermal vents.

Land of Endless Twilight

"...Since red dwarfs are relatively cool, their habitable zones are often closer than the distance at which Mercury orbits the sun. This makes it relatively easy for astronomers to spot worlds in a red dwarf's habitable zone - the exoplanets' orbits are small, meaning they complete them quickly and often, and researchers can in principle readily detect the way these worlds regularly dim the light of these stars.

"When a planet orbits a star very closely, the gravitational pull of the star can force the world to become tidally locked with it.

" 'This means that they always show the same side to their star just as our moon does to the Earth, which means they have one permanent day and one permanent night side,' study lead author Daniel Angerhausen, an astronomer and astrobiologist at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, N.Y., told Astrobiology Magazine...."
(Charles Q. Choi, Astrobiology Magazine, via Space.com)
Daniel Angerhausen and others in the HABEBEE ("Exploring the Habitability of Eyeball-Exo-Earths," a Brazilian acronym) study are putting new data into mathematical models of more-or-less-Earth-like planets orbiting red dwarf stars. What they're doing is new. The idea that a habitable planet might orbit a red dwarf star, with one face in perpetual day, has been around for decades.

That's not a criticism of HABEBEE. We've known that life on that sort of planet, if any, would be different: what Angerhausen and others are doing will start defining what we could be looking for.

Where the Sun Never Sets: Or Rises

On a more imaginative note, I think stories set on an 'eyeball Earth' could be fun: in a 'spooky castle' sort of way.

When the stalwart hero must wait until dawn before scaling the parapet, that's a test of patience. When the castle is literally in the twilight zone, a day's march from sunlight, and ruled by a - thing - from the dark side: that's another matter.

5. Orbital Salvage and Recycling: The Sky's (Not) the Limit

"Space junk needs to be removed from Earth's orbit: ESA"
Maria Sheahan, editing by Alison Williams, Reuters (April 25, 2013)

"Space junk such as debris from rockets must be removed from the Earth's orbit to avoid crashes that could cost satellite operators millions of euros and knock out mobile and GPS networks, the European Space Agency said.

"At the current density of debris, there will be an in-orbit collision about every five years, however research presented at a conference hosted by ESA in Germany showed that an increase in such junk made more collisions likely in the future.

"Five to 10 large objects need to be collected from space a year to help cut down on smashes and stem the risk of fragments being sprayed into space that could cause more damage, it said...."
One option is to ignore the problem, and hope it goes away. That would work, in the sense that today's large orbiting objects will eventually collide with each other: forming lots and lots of little orbiting junk. That's no solution, though, since satellites we use for communications, weather forecasting, and getting frustrated at glitchy GPS apps, would be in lots of little pieces, too.

I'm impressed that the Reuters article mentions what looks like a good idea:
"...Demand for the removal of objects from orbit could eventually offer opportunities for private companies, Klinkrad said, though many issues, including legal ones, surrounding space debris would need to be settled first."
("Maria Sheahan, Alison Williams, Reuters)
My guess is that at least one entrepreneur is working out how to market orbiting debris. The legal issues may be the biggest obstacle. I'd like to believe that common sense would allow folks to do a quick update of international marine salvage law: but like the fellow said, common sense ain't all that common.

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