Friday, April 12, 2013

Spaceships, Robots, and Being Catholic

I've read that NASA doesn't plan on sending people to the Moon again. I'm okay with that, because we don't need another government 'moon program.' It looks like NASA will have its hands full, exploring Mars and the rest of the solar system.

The 21st century 'moon race' is seeing which company will set up the first commercial enterprise on Earth's natural satellite.

Closer to home, robots were in the news recently: driverless cars, and a humanoid robot that's not designed to go into high-risk areas.
  1. T-Shirts and Space Missions
  2. Mars: Confirming Old Data
  3. Robots and Reality Checks
  4. Driverless Cars and Other "Looming Disruptions"

Being Human and Building Robots

I'm not upset that we're exploring other planets and building robots.

Science, learning about this wonder-filled world, is valuable: and part of being human. So is technology, doing something about what we've learned.

But no matter how 'scientific' something is, ethics apply. Business isn't an ethics-free zone, either: or shouldn't be. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1938-1942, 2292-2296, 2407-2414)

We sometimes need to re-write existing rules or make new ones, to deal with new technology and changing cultures. A century ago, we didn't need rules about Internet fraud; and today most countries probably don't need a law requiring someone with a red flag walking 18 meters in front of every motorized vehicle.

What's changed are the circumstances we live with. The underlying ethical principles don't change. (October 16, 2010)

I might be concerned about robots, and how we treat them, if today's automated gadgets were even close to being intelligent in the way folks thought robots would be by now. And that's another topic.

1. T-Shirts and Space Missions

"Crowdfunding Shoots for the Moon"
Alan Stern, Op-Ed & Insights, (April 9, 2013)

"I've been involved in 'big science' for more than 20 years, having led or personally participated in science teams for 24 suborbital, orbital and planetary space missions with a total value of over $3 billion.

"I'm a planetary scientist and a former NASA associate administrator, and when I led all of the agency's science programs, I had a budget of more than $5 billion.

"These days, I'm still doing big science, but I'm spending time at the other end of the funding-scale spectrum: I'm a science crowdfunder.

"For the uninitiated, crowdfunding is an online phenomenon that allows anybody with a few bucks to spare to contribute toward the budget of a project, usually a startup, seeking cash. Anybody with an idea can go to one of dozens of specialized crowdfunding websites and appeal to the general public for donations, usually in small denominations, and usually in exchange for T-shirts, project participation or other small giveaways. It's kind of a National Public Radio-style fundraising campaign involving the entrepreneurial masses...."
This op-ed's introduction identifies Mr. Stern as the CEO of Golden Spike, a company he says is "the world's first aerospace firm planning to sell human lunar expeditions to countries, corporations and individuals around the world."

I think outfits like Golden Spike and other aerospace companies have the right idea. Quite a few of the world's seven billion or so folks aren't heads of state or prominent government leaders: but have a little disposable income, and an interest in space exploration.

Business and Buck Rogers

"...By giving the public a chance to directly fund these commercial space efforts, we hope to create a greater sense of public involvement in space exploration. But the money we want to raise is also meaningful and will help us start our business.

"In my world - the space world - it's often been said that if there are no bucks, there won't be any Buck Rogers. No doubt...."
(Alan Stern, Op-Ed & Insights,
I cringed a little at that bucks/Buck Rogers wordplay, but enjoyed the experience. I also think Mr. Sterns made a good, if frightfully obvious, point.

Building spaceships, or any other activity, requires resources: materials, time, and folks with needed skills. Today's economy uses money to measure how many of which resources will be used. Other systems work, too. A thousand years back, most of Europe ran on a complicated web of personal loyalties: not money. There are reasons we didn't keep feudalism, and that's another yet topic.

'Not How We've Always Done it'

Quite a few scientists and research teams apparently took a 'that's not how we've always done it' approach to crowdfunding. Mr. Sterns says it was because of skepticism about going to non-scientists for funding.

Maybe so, but Congress has precious few scientists as members: and has been a major source of support for scientists.

I suspect the hesitation goes deeper than mistrust of non-scientists. Researchers were going to barons, dukes, or kings for funding long before some English colonies kicked over the traces and set up Congress.

When you think about it, Senators and Representatives aren't very different from old world aristocracy: they're persons of quality, with positions of power and influence.

After centuries of dealing almost exclusively with the upper crust, being reduced to approaching the rabble might seem demeaning. I don't see it that way: but I don't assume that someone has to have a title to understand why a project should get support.

2. Mars: Confirming Old Data

"Most of Mars' Atmosphere Is Lost in Space"
Mike Wall, (April 8, 2013)

"The planet Mars lost most of its original atmosphere long ago when huge amounts of gas escaped into space, leaving only a wispy remnant behind, scientists say.

"NASA's Mars rover Curiosity has revealed that a light variant of the gas argon is relatively depleted in Martian air, bolstering a longstanding belief that the Red Planet's current atmosphere - which is just 1 percent as thick as that of Earth - is a meager shell of its former self.

" 'We found arguably the clearest and most robust signature of atmospheric loss on Mars,' said Sushil Atreya, a SAM co-investigator at the University of Michigan, in a statement...."
The 'news' here isn't that Mars has a very thin atmosphere. We've known that for decades. We've even been reasonably certain that Earth's neighbor started with fairly thick air, which 'evaporated' into space.

What Curiosity's data does is confirm earlier data and conclusions.

Scientists have analyzed meteorites that came from Mars, and reports from the Viking landers.

But those meteorites had been blasted out of Mars by impacts, followed by a very long journey between planets. The trick in studying them would be sorting out the original Martian environment from the results of a massive explosion, plus long-term exposure to vacuum and radiation.

Data from the Viking landers was from direct measurement of Martian air: but a small sample.

I gather that the difference between Viking data and what we're getting from Curiosity is a little like the difference between pictures taken with a cell phone camera and what you'd get from high-end professional equipment.

Argon, Isotopes, and All That

"...Curiosity used its Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument to sniff a sample of Martian air and measured the ratio of two different argon isotopes, which are varieties of an element that have different numbers of neutrons in their atomic nuclei. The instrument found that the lighter argon-36 is about four times as common as the heavier argon-38...

"...That ratio is significantly lower than the ratio for the solar system at its birth, as estimated from argon-isotope measurements of the sun and Jupiter, researchers said...."
(Mike Wall,
This is why I like's coverage of 'science' stories. For the most part, they've got writers and editors who understand science. They're willing to include a satisfactory number of facts and figures, and able to explain what the numbers mean.

I also like to see what outfits like JPL and NASA have to say.

More Than You Want to Know About Mars

"Remaining Martian Atmosphere Still Dynamic"
JPL/NASA (April 8, 2013)

"Mars has lost much of its original atmosphere, but what's left remains quite active, recent findings from NASA's Mars rover Curiosity indicate. Rover team members reported diverse findings today at the European Geosciences Union 2013 General Assembly, in Vienna.

"Evidence has strengthened this month that Mars lost much of its original atmosphere by a process of gas escaping from the top of the atmosphere.

"Curiosity's Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument analyzed an atmosphere sample last week using a process that concentrates selected gases. The results provided the most precise measurements ever made of isotopes of argon in the Martian atmosphere. Isotopes are variants of the same element with different atomic weights. 'We found arguably the clearest and most robust signature of atmospheric loss on Mars,' said Sushil Atreya, a SAM co-investigator at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

"SAM found that the Martian atmosphere has about four times as much of a lighter stable isotope (argon-36) compared to a heavier one (argon-38). This removes previous uncertainty about the ratio in the Martian atmosphere from 1976 measurements from NASA's Viking project and from small volumes of argon extracted from Martian meteorites...."
The California Institute of Technology's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and NASA do a pretty good job of explaining and giving details, too. The writing style tends to be a bit more old-school, but that's style, not content.

Compared to much of the academese I've waded through, this sort of thing is a gripping narrative. Your experience may vary.

(Mars Science Laboratory, NASA, archived April 9, 2013, used w/o permission)
"As the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) suite of instruments on NASA's Curiosity Mars rover heats a sample, gases are released (or 'evolved') from the sample and can be identified using SAM's quadrupole mass spectrometer. This graphic shows the principal gases evolved from the fourth portion of powder delivered to SAM from the sample material collected when Curiosity first drilled into the 'John Klein' target rock in the 'Yellowknife Bay' area of Mars' Gale Crater.

"The mass spectrometer signal is scaled separately for each gas so that the same graph can illustrate the patterns for various gases showing what temperatures caused the gas to be released. These evolved gases and the temperatures at which they evolved suggest the presence of hydrated minerals, carbonates, perchlorates, sulfates and sulfides, and clays in the rock-powder sample."

3. Robots and Reality Checks

"Pentagon's Humanoid Disaster-Rescue Robot Is Dressed to Impress"
Spencer Ackerman, Danger Room Wired (April 4, 2013)

"If you saw him approaching in a disaster area, you'd think he was just another fireman. Which is the reaction that the manufacturers of this lifelike humanoid robot are going for.

"The PETMAN, created by Boston Dynamics, has gotten dressed. Wearing a flame-retardant camouflage jumpsuit, its metallic face obscured by a gas mask, the PETMAN high-steps, squats and rotates on a platform, all as a human would. This one even has a head.

"This model of Boston Dynamics' humanoid 'bot was manufactured for the Defense Department's Chemical and Biological Defense program. Should a chemical or biological attack take place, a robot might be able to perform rescue missions that wouldn't be safe for a human being. That is, if it can maneuver past rubble, navigate uneven spaces and retain its balance, all of which are difficult propositions for a robot...."
"Danger Room" is what Wired calls its "What's Next in National Security" section. I've found interesting, reasonably well-researched articles there.

That's why, after reading "...Humanoid Disaster-Rescue Robot...," I checked out Boston Dynamic's website.

Several years ago, some outfit had developed a humanoid 'robot' that could duplicate every movement we do. It could even play Ping-Pong: provided that a human was wearing its control interface.

Walking Like a Human

Designing a system of servos with the strength and speed of human muscles was fairly straightforward. Designing a system that could control the system's movements, not so much. Everyday actions like walking seem easy, for an adult human.

But it takes us about a year to learn how to walk, longer to do it well: and that's with a control system that's eventually able to waltz.

Honda's Asimo is pretty good at walking and can even dance. I doubt that it could pick its way over rubble. But information technology, robots included, changes fast. Maybe Boston Dynamics had a robot that really could walk like a human.

I found that Boston Dynamics has a remarkable robot: that's very good at testing hazmat suits: not using them in the field.

Sweat and Dancing Robots

Boston Dynamics

" PETMAN is an anthropomorphic robot designed for testing chemical protection clothing. Natural agile movement is essential for PETMAN to simulate how a soldier stresses protective clothing under realistic conditions.

"Unlike previous suit testers that had a limited repertoire of motion and had to be supported mechanically, PETMAN balances itself and moves freely; walking, bending and doing a variety of suit-stressing calisthenics during exposure to chemical warfare agents. PETMAN also simulates human physiology within the protective suit by controlling temperature, humidity and sweating, all to provide realistic test conditions...."
I'll skip the usual diatribe about military-industrial oppression.

I think human life is sacred, and that war is not nice. But I also understand that we don't live in a 'nice' world. Until we build something like Tennyson's "Federation of the world," we're obliged to pay attention to just war principles.

Meanwhile, we have dancing robots:

4. Driverless Cars and Other "Looming Disruptions"

"Google's Driverless Car Is Just One of Many Looming Disruptions"
Chunka Mui, Leadership, Forbes (March 6, 2013)

"The Google car is nothing more than a mashup of widely available technological innovations. Similarly bold killer apps will upend every information-intensive industry.

"(Part 7 and Series Conclusion)

"This series has focused on the driverless car, but the term itself, 'driverless car,' obscures many of the extraordinary implications.

"Think back to the transition from horses to cars and note that cars were initially called 'horseless carriages.' Cars were defined by what they didn't have, just as the 'driverless car' is being defined by what is being removed from the equation...."
Right now, I don't think many folks actually need 'driverless cars.'

I think the most practical use would be as 'next generation'  wheelchairs. Devices like the Hoveround and other powered wheelchairs are fine for short-range travel, but almost certainly aren't street legal the way a car is.

Powered wheelchairs and cars with special controls like products from MobilityWorks and KEMPF still need a human driver. Using a driverless car would be like having a car and chauffeur, or hiring a taxi.

The idea of having someone, or something, else drive the vehicle I'm in might take getting used to. I'm pretty sure that some folks wouldn't like the idea.

I'd want to know that the control system for a driverless car was as 'smart' as I am when it comes to driving. But once the technology is developed, and we've got traffic regulations that take automated vehicles into account, I think I'd be comfortable riding in a driverless car.

"...Really Upset About This"

HAL "Look Dave, I can see you're really upset about this...."
("2001: A Space Odyssey," via
A dozen years after the real 2001, we still don't have anything close to the deferentially homicidal HAL 9000 computer.

Things were different when "2001: A Space Odyssey" was filmed.

Artificial intelligence seemed to be just ahead back in the '60s, when computers were 'taking over' business accounting.

Then folks started trying to design 'intelligent' computers, and began discovering how much data processing goes on in our heads. We're not aware of what our visual, auditory, and motor cortices do: until something goes wrong, and that's another still another topic.

Artificial intelligence research has, so far, produced a chess-playing computer, industrial robots, and driverless cars: none of which tried to kill humans and take over the world.

Instead, we got computers we can talk to: and which will listen.

My computer came with speech recognition software, but I haven't used it: yet. It's not that I don't 'believe in' software, or am afraid that an evil spirit lurks in the motherboard. I interface with the computer much more effectively through a keyboard and mouse.

Being able to tell a computer "new paragraph" or "tab" is a far cry from the sort of 'intelligent computers' we saw in movies.

On the other hand, a new robot called Baxter was designed to work with humans. I 'met' a Baxter robot last year at an industrial expo. It's not HAL 9000, but has something like the 'common sense' humans should have: but don't always use.

Rethink Robotic's Baxter, sorting objects at an industrial robots expo. (November 8, 2012)

"...Attributable to Human Error"

HAL "It can only be attributable to human error."
("2001: A Space Odyssey," via
Fear of computers didn't come entirely from movies like "2001: A Space Odyssey" and "Colossus: The Forbin Project." Before the 20th century, businesses needed people who could look at rows and columns of numbers, perform fairly simple math calculations, and record the results: swiftly, accurately, for hours at a stretch.

Not everyone has that sort of skill, and those who did were paid fairly well. Then other folks developed adding machines, differential analyzers, and computers.

Businesses still needed people to run their accounting departments: but not as many, and not necessarily the same folks who could do arithmetic in their heads. It wasn't an easy era for those who had gotten used to the 'good old days.'

There's something to the old gag, 'to err is human, to really mess things up takes a computer.' Automated equipment can't 'make a mistake' the way a human can: but glitchy software or mechanical issues can make quite a mess.

The good news is that 'mistakes' made by computers are very easy to spot: or should be.

"...Not You Too!!"

Decades back, when my father worked in a college library, he saw a semitrailer being backed down an access lane that wasn't designed for big trucks. He ran out, stopped the driver, and was shown paperwork for the shipment.

The book's title was correct, but the library had ordered one copy: not enough to nearly fill a semi. My father called the supplier, got about half a sentence out when the person at the other end said something like "oh, no! Not you too!!"

Their data room's air conditioner had malfunctioned, letting magnetic tapes expand. Yes, this was back when companies still used spool-to-spool magnetic tape. The system 'remembered' where data was on each tape: exactly where it was.

The system had taken data from a section of tape that was exactly the right distance from a marker. Problem was, the tape had expanded a tiny bit: and what got fed into the day's shipping manifests was spectacularly wrong.

An automated system might not realize that a library in western Minnesota wouldn't order a truckload of one title: but a human should have. The problem, I think, isn't computers: it's humans not using our brains.

Living in the Information Age

I've done fairly well in the Information Age: partly because I understand how information is analyzed, stored, and retrieved; partly because I don't mind learning new skills every year or so, and prefer jobs where machines do the mental 'grunt work' and 'heavy lifting.' It probably helps that I tend to say things like "I interface with the computer."

I 'trust' computers and robots to do what they're told: exactly what they're told to, barring mechanical problems. That's one reason why I felt safe on San Francisco's BART system. The trains were automated, but had 'drivers' in the front: mostly for appearance's sake, I think.

I read about a train 'driver' who left the cab to bawl out some kids who were playing with the (also automatic) doors. He forgot to tell the train he was leaving, so it waited until the doors were clear: and left for the next stop. The driver, I'm told, chased after the train. Somewhere along its route, the train picked up another token human 'driver.'

Up to that point, the only accident I knew of that involved the BART trains happened quite early, when one ran off the end of a track. It was being controlled by a human at the time.

Planning Ahead, and a Helpful Robot

Wiley Miller had fun with the idea of a coming robot apocalypse last month. The comic strips were amusing, but I don't think humanity will be crushed under an onslaught of driverless cars and industrial robots.

I'm also quite sure that we won't see unemployed astronauts relying on the charity of robots.

Folks will, though, almost certainly either adjust to new technology: or try to ignore it. I think adjusting makes more sense.

It's not just workers on the factory floor who deal with change: or fail to. Folks who decide what happens in the factory need to either develop new technologies: or keep track of the folks who do. Changes won't be just in manufacturing.

I'll be surprised if any sort of business, from single-owner retail stores to multinational financial institutions, gets away with 'business as usual' over the next decade.

Finally, here's something I think we'd better get used to:

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Marian Apparition: Champion, Wisconsin

Background:Posts in this blog: In the news:

What's That Doing in a Nice Catholic Blog?

From time to time, a service that I use will display links to - odd - services and retailers.

I block a few of the more obvious dubious advertisers.

For example: psychic anything, numerology, mediums, and related practices are on the no-no list for Catholics. It has to do with the Church's stand on divination. I try to block those ads.

Sometime regrettable advertisements get through, anyway.

Bottom line? What that service displays reflects the local culture's norms, - not Catholic teaching.