Space Debris and Cooperation

Space debris is a big problem. There’s a whole lot of it orbiting our planet, fragments and parts and stuff crashing into one another to produce even more, from dangerous large bits to even more dangerous small bits that are harder to detect. It complicates spaceflight and space maintenance work. Significantly, it presents a kind of “tragedy of the commons” scenario because of the difficulty of making international cooperation actually work. 

The U.S. is taking it seriously and will do more in 2020. Politico reports: “Agencies will begin rewriting regulations early next year to match the updated government guidelines released last month that limit the creation of garbage in orbit . . .” But experts say this has to include an effort to spread best practices globally, since other privileged nations are going into space and since the private sector will probably generate the predominant space actors within a few decades. 

Not everyone agrees with this. Adam Routh takes a somewhat cynical route to space debris governance in November, pointing out that “[d]ecades of stalled efforts have proven multilateral space agreements are simply too difficult to develop” and suggesting that “very limited” agreements, and more bilateral agreements, are better than trying to make a larger structural regime work. He’s right that there have been a lot of stumbles, but it would be a hasty generalization to say that means we shouldn’t keep trying. Bilateral and multilateral approaches aren’t mutually exclusive. He’s also right that “economic interests can be persuasive in international law development,” and so we have to figure out how to incentivize that cooperation.

Stronger international norms are also necessary to deal with actors who are willing to externalize the costs of their military and commercial objectives. Consider India’s anti-satellite technology, which deploys kinetic force to destroy enemy satellites (while India assures the world it has no such enemies presently). “Mission Shakti,” as the technology is called, has “generated hundreds of pieces of debris . . . approximately 50 fragments still remain in orbit. Every one of these fragments constitutes an individual space object over which India retains exclusive jurisdiction and control. These fragments are at great risk of colliding with each other, and possibly other satellites, which would result in the generation of even more debris.” Seems like a very high price for the world to pay for a weapon there are no enemies for. The technology seems to violate at least two current treaties, and the risk of future damage is high.

Condemnations of irresponsibility may feel good, but the presence of actual global working groups, and practical agreements, would go a long way towards convincing people—the public, policymakers—that cooperation works. 

It’s no surprise that voices from the military (a bottom-line, efficacy-oriented culture) support large-scale international cooperation on debris: Recently, Lt. Gen. Susan Helms, commander of the U.S. Strategic Command’s Joint Functional Component Command for Space, told the media that the United States must work “with other nations and the private sector” to track debris. Currently, about 22,000 pieces are tracked, and that’s clearly not enough, so Helms says “We must partner with other nations and enterprises to achieve mutually beneficial goals.”

Space debris is an extremely negative externality, that should have been contemplated but was not. Those problems nearly always require cooperation to solve, a willingness to forsake short-term advantage-seeking in return for long-term security.

Cryptocurrency Beyond Good and Evil

In Beyond Good and Evil, Friedrich Nietzsche lists “objection, evasion [and] joyous distrust” as signs of health. By that standard, and perhaps that standard only, cryptocurrency’s public image is healthy. I mean, if you do a search for crypto stories over the past month or two, a third of what pops up are arrests for fraud and revelations of scams, another third are techno-utopian treatises lauding this miracle crypto-elixer, and the final third are ads to buy Bitcoin. 

But isn’t this how it’s been from the beginning with digital currencies? There’s such a rush of stories, such overproduction of scenario-building, that one feels as if one is walking through a busy mall with pitches erupting from both sides. 

Cryptocurrencies are wonderful! They can help lift the unbanked out of financial marginalization, mitigating poverty for tens of millions of people.They can make remittances easier, so immigrant workers, refugees, and international gig economy workers can send money to their families and communities. They can facilitate investment in small businesses, green energy, and other values-based investments. An electronic blockchain ledger can (if opened) expose fraud, trafficking, and other illegal dealings. On the other hand, their secure encryption guarantees privacy and independence. They can provide local communities, independence movements and grassroots organizers with financial access tied to neither central banks nor governments. They promise to de-center the dollar as the chief international currency, ending American imperialism! 

AND NOT ONLY THAT, BUT 

Cryptocurrencies are terrible! They can fund (and have funded) terrorists. They can fund (and have funded) organized crime.They can fund (and have funded) child sex trafficking. They can fund (and have funded) nationalist and anti-democratic movements. Their displacement of the dollar may have far-reaching economic disadvantages and turn the U.S. into a belligerent warmonger. They allow totalitarian regimes like North Korea the financial space to evade sanctions and fund, say, a nuclear program.

I realize some of these are contradictory positions. It’s like a hypothesis testing festival, a giant cryptocurrency debate tournament. And all of this might be moot, because cryptocurrency’s biggest challenge is convincing people to use it (probably the most difficult test for any alternative currency, and also the only necessary one, because once enough people recognize the legitimacy of a medium of exchange, it’s functionally legitimate—usually). 

Perhaps Paul Krugman is right: “To be successful,” he recently wrote, “money must be both a medium of exchange and a reasonably stable store of value. And it remains completely unclear why Bitcoin should be a stable store of value.” 

I’m not as smart as Krugman, but I suspect stability won’t always be a problem for cryptocurrency. I think the real problem might be that crypto’s constant manipulation by bad faith actors demonstrates that, while central banks and governments are terrible at controlling money, the curators and curriers of cryptocurrency may not be any better. Maybe everybody tends to hide their personal drive for power behind veneers of “freedom” or “responsibility.” When cryptocurrency is “good,” it’s because humans are good. When it’s “evil,” it’s because we’re evil. Is cryptocurrency just a mirror?

Time Travel Roundup

Writing for Live Science, Adam Mann suggests that the concept of time travel might be hardwired into our brains. Our tendency to conflate time and space in our linguistic structures is possible evidence of this “structural” tendency to believe that time is elastic or relative to space. Adam gives several examples using the work of Israeli linguist Guy Deutcher: the notion of “moving through time the way we move through three-dimensional space” and being “essentially incapable of talking about temporal matters without referencing spatial ones” and how the “around” in “I’ll meet you around lunchtime” are evidence that we think we can move through time as we move through space. Adam also notes that all cultures have “time slip” stories where people fall asleep, lose consciousness, sing a chant, or do other things that result in voluntary or involuntary time travel.  

Conventional wisdom on time travel these days is that we can “travel forward through time” but not backward because backward time travel results in paradoxes (more about that later). This “traveling forward through time” isn’t just a sarcastic joke meaning that we are always traveling forward through time. It seems pretty clear that we can also hack forward time travel by “jumping” forward, even in the most simple example of the “time slows down at the speed of light” narrative (which results in my travel “into the future” if I return to Earth after a few years and find that several decades have passed). 

There are other ways to accelerate/decelerate time, such as designing a controlled (but somehow supermassive) black hole in which time moves more slowly than in the space outside it. Stephen Hawking discussed this in 2010. Travelers near a black hole could travel at half the speed of time, as it were—”Round and round they’d go,” Hawking said (in the voice of Benedict Cumberbatch), “experiencing just half the time of everyone far away from the black hole.” 

But forward time travel seems rather uninspiring. If there’s no way to get back, and no way to get to the past to begin with, time travel is of limited utility. From a utilitarian standpoint, as a society or as individuals, we’d want to travel through time to fix things we are otherwise unable to correct or to learn things about the future, knowledge that is useless if there’s no way to return from the future to the present. Of course, all these things are paradoxical, and that’s exactly why they present the greatest utilitarian cases for time travel—because they overcome the “scarcity of the possible.” 

Quantum theorists see the possibility of non-paradoxical (or transparadoxical) time travel. That they see such a possibility isn’t surprising. The recent development and publicity of quantum computers’ ability to do calculations in minutes that might otherwise take thousands or tens of thousands of years understandably suggest optimism about overcoming temporal limits. 

One quantum-level approach to the paradoxes of traveling into the past is the (Igor) Novikov self-consistency principle, which “asserts that if an event exists that would give rise to a paradox, or to any ‘change’ to the past whatsoever, then the probability of that event is zero. Put another way, “contradictory causal loops cannot form, but that consistent ones can.” Another possible interpretation of the dynamics of such causal loops is that they create parallel universes like bubbles, competing against each other in a Darwin-esque fashion, until the most optimal (non-paradoxical) outcome wins. It would be the ultimate do-over.

Does Quantum Computing Mean the End of Cryptocurrency?

Traditional computing models are actually “pre-modern” in that the model of physics they take as their starting point is “classical.” They rely on formulae more analogous to Newton’s laws of motion than the quantization paradigm. But quantum computers are the order of the day, and they are about to take over the world. Recently, Google used its state-of-the-art quantum computer to complete a complex computational problem in 200 seconds. That’s over three minutes, so before you act unimpressed, it was a problem that would have taken 10,000 years for any non-quantum supercomputer to finish. So okay then.

The prospect of a computer operating 1.5 trillion times faster than its classical predecessors raises a number of questions, one of which is the effect such a quantum leap will have on issues surrounding cryptocurrency. As they are currently manifesting, cryptocurrencies are too unstable to be economically advantageous. They constantly fluctuate in price. Imagine having a hundred dollars in your pocket, but not knowing whether the lunch you buy tomorrow will cost $15 or $75. You would quickly opt out of that monetary system if you could.

Well, add to those troubles a new one brought to you by quantum computing: the ability to break open blockchain. Blockchain refers to the electronic “ledger” of transactions for cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin. That ledger is encrypted and thus the privacy of transactions is preserved, fulfilling cryptocurrency’s original promise to operate independently of governments and central banks. 

But “blockchain transactions are secured with digital signatures based on elliptic curve cryptography (ECC).” And ECC can be broken by quantum computing; this is an oversimplification, but imagine a computer fast enough to go through millions of potential codes in just a few seconds. A quantum computer could thus decrypt users’ private keys and even forge transactions attributed to those users. If cryptocurrency is mostly based on trust, that spells the end of such trust. 

Perhaps, following Jack Matier, the answer lies in instilling quantum security in blockchain. “[A]t some point,” Jack writes, “blockchain developers will need to update the cryptographic portion of their blockchain to be quantum-resistant.” Jack says signature schemes can be upgraded to become “crypto-agile.” And once blockchain schemes are developed with that agility, the total population of users will have to “manually migrate” to the new platform, or else people will find their funds locked up or left defenseless against hacking.

Cryptocurrency came into the world with a lot of promise. It was supposed to give users autonomy and efficiency. It had (and still has) the potential to lift people out of poverty by giving them control of their finances (without stiff banking fees) and making international financial transactions, including remittances, easier. It even has the potential to help autonomous national movements achieve financial independence from their colonizers. The question is whether anything can remain “crypto” in a world of unbelievable and breathtakingly fast quantum computing.

The Cyber Danger Zone

The Peter Parker Principle is the name given to society’s acknowledgment of that immortal quote from Amazing Fantasy #15, the origin of Spider-Man: “With great power there must also come—great responsibility.” The quote even appeared in a United States Supreme Court decision. President Obama used it in 2010.

We may need to revive the quote and principle again, in light of some recent weirdness around cyber-warfare and fears of artificial intelligence: if we aren’t in the “Brave New World” now, I’d certainly love to see where that threshold is crossed. With Google now claiming to process information at hitherto impossible speeds via quantum computing, we have to be a little scared of offensive cyber operations, or the potential of computer autonomy, right? 

We can certainly be concerned about the cyber-ops. The Trump administration has authorized a vague program with no definitions, no indication of what threats exist, or even of what constitutes a threat. The administration won’t say what threats the program exists to counter, but the policy “eases the rules on the use of digital weapons,” and this is a significant departure from traditional defensive cyber-ops—operations that, according to the Cato Institute’s Brandon Valerio and Benjamin Jackson, worked to stop or deter cyberattacks (as much as such a thing is possible) without risking escalation. The authors call the previous approach “low-level counter-responses” that do not increase the severity of inflicted damage. 

That’s a fascinating thing, in a way, that previous administrations had the consciousness to limit their responses, perhaps because they knew that once you escalate, that escalation will come right back at you. The authors actually analyzed several operations and were able to classify non-escalation and escalation scenarios, concluding that “active defense” rather than offense was the most effective and escalation-avoidant framework. 

Second, we have what we could perhaps call “Elon’s Paradox”—that in the face of alleged threats to human autonomy from artificial intelligence, the solution may be to preemptively merge humans with AI technology, cybernetically. Musk isn’t alone in his criticism and fears of AI; the late Steven Hawking and others have long sounded the alarm on AI becoming, as Vladimir Putin recently speculated, a servant to the leader that ends up ruling the world. Musk is afraid it will cause World War Three. 

But Musk’s solution—he wants to increase cybernetic connections between humans and machines in hopes that a merger will be more coequal than AI just outright taking over—seems a little weird. Granted, the technology of projects like Neuralink has tremendous potential to help people heal from brain damage or degeneration, and it’s a fascinating question whether systems can be developed that retain human autonomy while utilizing the potential of AI. 

But it’s not clear how it will prevent the emergence of what Musk calls “godlike superintelligence,” and besides, even leaving that kind of control up to humans is a mixed bag. After all, Google had been supplying technology to the military for drone strikes, promised to stop, and then hedged on its promise. With great power—hopefully—comes great responsibility.

The Weirdest of Weird Tech

Tentacle tech

What it is:  Researchers have managed to replicate octopus flesh, developing “a structure that senses, computes and responds without any centralized processing—creating a device that is not quite a robot and not quite a computer, but has characteristics of both.” 

Why it’s weird and awesome: Its developers call it “soft tactile logic,” and it can “make decisions at the material level” through input and processing on site, rather than a centralized logic system somewhere else. And you might remember credible speculation last year that octopus DNA might come from aliens, which isn’t the only thing that makes it one of the most intriguing creatures on earth. 

But seriously, Biosynthesis is an application of “soft” technology using “neuromuscular tissue that triggers when stimulated by light,” which, if it becomes complex enough, is practically indistinguishable from autonomous biobots. This tech actually goes back to at least 2014, when professors Taher Saif and Rashid Bashir of the University of Illinois developed a bio-mechanical sperm-like thingy. It could swim. Sure, that autonomy could be a little creepy and is the stuff that science fiction disaster scenarios and international regulatory and ethics discussions are made of. But it’s also awesome! Replacement of cells! Cures for heart disease, radical improvements in prosthetic technology and more. 

They tested Loch Ness for DNA

What it was: Two New England geneticists conducted a sweeping environmental DNA survey of the greater Loch Ness area—not just the lake, but also the surrounding ecosystems. They found no sign of giant reptile DNA, aquatic dino-DNA, or any mysterious monster genetics. The scientists found signs of all kinds of creatures—fish (obviously), deer, pigs, bacteria, human tourists, but no Nessie. We’ve known for a while that those famous photos of Nessie were faked. This is another nail in the proverbial coffin. 

Why it’s important: The Monster is iconic across popular cultural and pseudoscience. But it’s also fun, and historically necessary, to bust myths. More importantly, DNA testing still feels like a revolutionary breakthrough, solving real crimes while debunking legends.

The interrupting robot you’ve always wanted

What it is: Do you hate it when other people finish your sentences? What if robots did it? Called “BERT” for Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformer, the system uses “natural language processing.” This doesn’t seem to be too much of a stretch from the auto-complete function in texting. But it also does “sentiment analysis,” similar to the way in which businesses and political campaigns can take from masses of data in order to qualitatively analyze subjective information. 

Why it’s inevitable no matter how we feel about it: Because this kind of AI is inevitable. Daniel Shapiro, who founded an AI firm called Lemay.ai, agrees with me on this, and says that “AI does some things well and some things poorly, but on balance, the benefits exceed the costs of having an algorithm making decisions.” As to whether it’s a job killer, Shapiro says”no more than the humble spreadsheet was.” 

Slipping into a new you

What it is: A postgraduate fellow at Central Saint Martins University in London, and a microbiologist at Ghent University in Belgium, have developed “Skin II,” a garment that they say will “improve body odour, encourage cell renewal and boost the immune system.” It also doesn’t need to be washed as often because, you know, reduced odor. One of the designers called Skin II “wellness clothing,” which, all jokes about B.O. aside, sounds exciting.

Why it’s basically necessary: Because odor management is an important part of the management of public spaces. People complain of odors on trains due to smokers, strong perfume, and yes, body odor. Any frequently-used space (and those are the most valuable spaces, really) are going to smell bad. Why not do our part to make it easier to manage those things publicly? Also, L.A. Metro is experimenting with deodorizers on trains, so that’s an interesting supplemental piece of tech news.  

Tiny Air Vehicles Roundup

Back when we were more optimistic about the effects of technology on society and everyday life, the joke was that if we don’t get jet packs, all that technology isn’t worth the effort. The joke facilitated the naming of a great Scottish indie group formed in 2003, and lots of social media about personal air vehicles.

And although we haven’t seen the pace of development and mainstreaming anticipated in older speculative representations of 21st century life, PAVs are the subject of considerable R&D both in the private sector and the public (NASA has a Personal Air Vehicle Sector Project under the umbrella of its Aeronautics Vehicle Systems Program).

Here are some updates on the big three of small flying machines, hoverboards, flying “cars,” and yes, jetpacks.

The Hoverboards

At the beginning of August, “[a]fter a failed attempt at the end of July, French inventor Franky Zapata successfully crossed the English Channel . . . on his Flyboard Air, a jet-powered hoverboard.” Apparently the challenge the first time was that the waves were too high en route to a refueling platform, highlighting the need for small vehicles to have adequate power supplies. Technically, a hoverboard may not even qualify as a “flying” vehicle because you aren’t really up so high, but both the practical application and the presumed fun of traveling on one warrants inclusion on this list. Here’s the footage, which might make you cry, since Zapata’s supporters all do when he successfully crosses the Channel.

The Flying “Cars”

These are serious business. No Chitty Chitty Bang Bang here. Even Boeing is in the game, and they’ve partnered with a boutique tech developer called, appropriately enough, Kitty Hawk, to develop the Cora, a two-seat semi-autonomous flying taxi (we are salivating).

Kitty Hawk also has the Flyer, and the video on this page shows that spider-like vehicle quietly flying over various bodies of water and a shadowy desert and hill landscape while the designer talks about his dream of building flying machines. Kind of inspiring.

The (we were indeed promised) jet packs

As you can imagine, there’s a never-ending stream of prototypes for the jet pack. But the most interesting recent project is British entrepreneur Richard Browning’s “real-life Iron Man suit,” essentially a set of jet engines attached to the pilot’s arms and legs. Browning’s start-up, Gravity, has “filed patents for the human propulsion technology that could re-imagine manned flight,” including the jet-engine suit, called Daedalus. A beefier test flight is expected “in the next 12 months.”

Although there are a few different videos of Browning and Daedalus in flight, this simple debut footage might be the most elegant—the guy just smoothly and symmetrically floats around and lands where he took off—all with confidence that gets you thinking about the many applications of such flight.

Big Data and the Final Frontier

It may not have been as entertaining as a Star Trek fan convention, but last February in Munich, the European Space Agency and a handful of other EU organizations hosted the Big Data from Space conference, where hundreds of papers were read on the methods and applications of big space data. The conference brought together “researchers, engineers, developers, and users in the area of Big Data from Space.” 

Because of those massive amounts of generated bits of info, space practitioners use big data analysis for “fast analysis and visualization of data,” and the development of fail safe systems in space—and on earth.

There is no space tech development without big data development and, as we know, space tech development is one of the starkest examples of specialized technology carrying indirect benefits to other parts of society. In some cases, the benefits are more direct than indirect. Newly designed satellites will improve our ability to measure methane gas in the atmosphere and down on earth. The Environmental Defense Fund recently announced a competition awarding $1.5 million to either Ball Aerospace and SSL to design the satellite and, upon winning the competition, build it in two years or less. Meanwhile, last September, outgoing California governor Jerry Brown “announced at the Global Climate Action Summit that California would be placing its own satellite into orbit to measure greenhouse gases. That satellite will work in tandem with the EDF equipment.”

While saving the planet is certainly laudable, big space data has a sexier application: to identify the possibilities of extraterrestrial life. This is the “most important question” for Mars exploration, according to Anita Kirkovska of Space Decentral. Systems like Elasticsearch crunch Martian data, generated by Curiosity in huge amounts, checking surface temperatures and atmospheric conditions, and a multitude of other stati, helping facilitate discoveries like Curiosity’s identification of organic molecules and methane in the Martian air in June, and next year’s ExoMars mission. The spatially huge Square Kilometre Array radio telescope project “will generate up to 700 terabytes of data per second,” around the “amount of data transmitted through the internet every two days.”

These are the voyages of big data analysis in space, its continuing mission to make sense of literally infinite fields of data generation beyond the earth’s mesosphere.

No Debate Championship for Artificial Intelligence

It wasn’t a “roast” like Dan Robitzski of Futurism says it was, but in February, Harish Natarajan, a former championship college debater, won the audience vote over Project Debater, an IBM program designed to respond to its opponents in a debate and crystalize and summarize the issues in summation. The debate was about education subsidies. Project Debater was for them, Natarajan against. 

It’s likely that Harish “won” the debate because he was able to better contextualize, rhetorically drive home, and make comparisons in his final speeches—the real ethos-meets-logos-type factor of good debating, as much an art as a science. Meta-analysis and rhetoric are both inexact—in form as well as content—so an experienced debater does more than just generate and counter information.

The video is worth watching: Project Debater made eloquent quotes, provided evidentiary support, answered arguments on-point, and even uttered the phrase familiar to debaters, “the benefits outweigh the disadvantages.” But that’s a stock phrase. It’s not nuanced comparison. Nuanced comparisons (including things like strategic concessions, admitting the other side is right about something in order to win a larger point) require abstract and metaphorical thinking; not much, but enough.

As Mindy Weisberger writes: “In a neural network, deep learning enables AI to teach itself how to identify disease, win a strategy game against the best human player in the world, or write a pop song. But to accomplish these feats, any neural network still relies on a human programmer setting the tasks and selecting the data for it to learn from. Consciousness for AI would mean that neural networks could make those initial choices themselves.” And, subjective experience is part of what’s required to do those things. 

There are signs that machine learning has the capacity to do this, but little of that was on display during the debate. Stanislas Dehaene and colleagues list “global availability,” the relationship between cognition and the object of cognition, and “self-monitoring,” obtaining and processing information about oneself, as components of consciousness in thinking beings. Both of those attributes would help a debater-AI unit make meaningful, contextually appropriate comparisons between arguments, as well as discern strategic concessions (an unreflective computer probably “thinks” it’s winning every point in a debate). 

For a few more years, at least, humans are safe in debates and a few other spheres of public life.

‘Weird Tech’ Roundup

“Anything that was in the world when you were born,” Douglas Adams wrote, “is normal and natural. Anything invented between when you were 15 and 35 is new and revolutionary and exciting, and you’ll probably get a career in it. Anything invented after you’re 35 is against the natural order of things.” We don’t know what’s against the natural order of things, but we do have a term for historically anomalous tech. From a historical paradigm, “out-of-place-artifacts” refer to old objects that “seem to show a level of technological advancement incongruous with the times in which they were made.” This includes things like caves in China that contain what appear to be 150,000 year-old water pipes; a hammer found in a eons-old rock formation; and what appears to be a spark plug encased in a geode, dated half-a-million years old.

But these are historical, or pre-historical anomalies popular with students of the abnormal. Out-of-place technology also might refer to contemporary items that seem to serve no useful purpose, or serve such a miraculously useful purpose that we wonder why the tech sector waited so long to create them. Every year, a few publications run with the “weirdest tech” of the previous year. The results are stimulating. For the list of 2017’s strangest and most exotic tech, Glenn McDonald of InfoWorld listed robots that weighed over 300 pounds and were capable of doing perfect backflips (no useful purpose) and miniature nuclear reactors capable of powering cities. 

Sometimes the weirdness comes from anomalous performance or phenomena, almost always unintentional, that cause concern for how an item is used or received. So in Stuart Turton’s “strangest ever tech stories,” we find Dell Laptops (the Latitude 360 to be precise) that smelled like pee, Syrian hackers overwhelming the BBC Weather Twitter feed to make fat people jokes, and the allegation that Google’s Street View car killed a donkey. 

Other items that serve no useful purpose are those that are incredibly expensive, available only to the top .1 percent, and steeped in decadence: a remote-controlled pink Leg Air Massager women can “wear” under a desk, or a robotic dog that will roll over, beg for you to pat them on the head, and do other tricks, all for the amazing price of over $2800. 

These excesses of technology might tell us why noted Luddite Edward Abbey once wrote: “High technology has done us one great service: It has retaught us the delight of performing simple and primordial tasks—chopping wood, building a fire, drawing water from a spring.” So in that sense, maybe the price is worth it.