skylon

This might seem a little odd, but think about it. Single stage to orbit, or SSTO, space flight is the holy grail of aerospace design right now. If you can fly a plane into space, you can easily reduce launch costs by a factor of ten and still build a profitable business. Not only would you make it a lot more tempting for companies and universities to exploit space, but you can also offer shorter commutes between far flung, attractive destinations, and take space tourism to the next level. A big problem with SSTO however, is that it’s been tried before with few positive results because physics tend to get in the way of a smooth ascent to orbit. If you need to drag tons of oxidizer to incredibly high altitudes, you may as well just use a rocket. If you try to gulp down the incoming air, you’ll be dealing with blistering heat that will be monstrously difficult to compress and use to provide thrust. But the brainchild of engineer Alan Bond, Reaction Engines, has recently shown that it has a solution to a viable hybrid engine for the SSTO craft it wants to build.

By cooling the super-heated air coming into the intakes at the speed of sound with liquid helium, the SABRE engine can ignite a rocket motor while traveling at supersonic speed. Now mind you, this was only a test and we’re still a few years away from an engine ready to go to market, but a technical audit by the ESA found no flaws with the design. So while Reaction Engines may seem like it’s pitching something out of a science fiction movie, its technical chops seem to be in order and it’s not hiding behind invocations of or trade secrets when faced with tough questions. This is why they’ve gotten several grants from the ESA to keep working on SABRE. However, the final tally for the Skylon spaceplane fleet is estimated at $14 billion, several orders of magnitude more than government grants being offered and out of reach for the vast majority of private investors. So far, the plan seems to be to solicit another $4 million or so in funding to finish SABRE to then license the engine to other manufacturers and use the proceeds to start building Skylons. It’s certainly an interesting idea, but who exactly would want to license an SSTO engine?

How about SpaceX? Right now, to advance its strategy of licensing SABRE, the company has a derivative design called the Scimitar and bills it as already being 50% funded by the EU to bring intercontinental travel at Mach 5 to the world at large. Now, this would certainly help big airlines make more profits by flying trans-oceanic routes more often in theory, but in practice, the really, really burdensome regulations against supersonic travel thanks to the kind of NIMBYism which played a major role in preventing the supersonic travel revolution predicted by many futirists, as well as the lead time to finish, test, and prove these planes in operation, Reaction Engines may as well forget about Skylon for the next several decades. If it wants to raise money and interest for a spaceplane, it should focus on creating a spaceplane and selling the Scimitar to militaries as the child of the successful SABRE. Yes, SpaceX is working on its Dragon capsule for sending humans to the ISS, and it has rockets capable of getting there, but if it can offer rocket launches to deliver larger spacecraft into orbit, ready for a Skylon to deliver the crew, it can build a major competitive advantage. An extra 20 or 30 tons of cargo capacity can help enable a less spartan mission beyond Earth orbit, and Dragon could be an emergency habitat in deep space.

We should no longer have just one launch stack for sending humans into space, but instead, we need to mix and match our technology for optimal results. Doing heavy lifting with rockets while the orbit is given to SSTO craft and inflatable space stations for staging, assembly, research, or all of the above, is probably our best way to steadily expand upward into space. So maybe Elon Musk should consider working with Reaction Engines in the near future. The investment wouldn’t be small and returns on it won’t be quick, but they’ll not only be an investment in furthering how far SpaceX can go and what it can do for its clients, but also an investment in the infrastructure of the dawning space tourism and exploration industry. And judging from many proposals for the future of NASA and space travel in general, he’s rather likely to find deep-pocketed and willing partners to make it all work. After all, sticking to space capsules and heavy lift rockets for almost everything would be a huge technological step back to doing what we know rather than using all our past skills to build something for the future. Why should we circle back now, especially when there’s promising technology to make it happen just waiting for people with a big vision and the resources to make it come together, especially at a profit when all is said and done?

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mystery astronaut

As long time readers know, I’m a sucker for a good counter-intuitive think piece and pretty much every professional blogger knows that to start a big debate and draw a crowd, you need a view way out of left field once in a while to mix things up. But the really big catch for posts like these, especially in science and tech, is that they need to be based on sound criticism and have logical consistency and flow. This is why Morozov’s rebellion against TED was spot on while the attempt at a shot across the bow of human spaceflight programs by Srikanth Saripalli in Future Tense is basically a train wreck of an argument. Unlike Morozov, Saripalli isn’t willing or able to explore or engage with the issues he brings up, and his grasp of some very basic technological concepts comes off as shoddy at best. He even veers off into Singularity territory to argue for that future robotic probes will be smarter and uses transhumanism as an excuse to ground astronauts. The whole thing was so badly written that I was dead sure Saripalli must have been a journalist with exactly zero STEM credentials, but shockingly, he’s actually a robotics researcher at ASU.

Maybe he’s a terrific robotics person, but it certainly doesn’t get conveyed in his piece because much of it is spent on rehashing the very same claims from Kurzweil and his disciples that I have debated time and time again on this blog. From promises of digital immortality to artificial minds that can out-think all of humanity, Saripalli parrots it all with zero caveats or skepticism and then barrels right ahead to transhumanist effots in life extension to declare the future of our bodies to be very much uncertain, and thus reason enough to replace astronauts with robots. Then, after seemingly providing for cyborg space exploration he never returns to the topic again, wandering off to the current buzzword in bleeding edge robotics, evolving robot networks. Yes, they’re very awesome and their potential is mind-blowing. But put light years between them and you’re going to have to radically rethink how they could be deployed and used. Though you know what, we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. Let’s come back to his sneaky misuse of transhumanism…

Given that the future of our bodies is uncertain, it makes more sense to send robots with intelligence to other planets and galaxies. Nature has built us a certain way—we are best-suited for our planet "Earth." Future space explorers will quickly realize that the human body is not the perfect machine for these environments. We will also want to explore other planets such as Venus and maybe even think about living on those planets. Rather than make those planets habitable, does it not make sense to purposefully evolve ourselves such that we are habitable in those worlds?

You know, this attitude is surprisingly common in Singularitarian and transhumanist circles, and there’s a widespread disdain for human spaceflight as simulations and beaming one’s mind in a laser beam across the universe in a hypothetical future are praised as the solutions to the issue of our biology’s limitations in space. The problem is that beaming yourself around the cosmos is not only biologically implausible, but the physics and orbital mechanics don’t work out either. So while it’s true that we actually should send cyborgs into space, something for which I argued in a few articles on Discovery News, we’re not going to send human minds to ready made bodies, or disembodied brains ala Project Kronos to wander through space. Even less desirable is trying to evolve to live on an alien world as if evolution can be directed on cue and we aren’t better off as the generalists we currently are. We want to upgrade our bodies to survive alien environments, but we don’t want to do it just so we get stuck on another planet all over again, which is what the question seems to propose. Ignoring this line of debate, Saripalli then lunges into robotics.

Several articles in popular press have argued that humans on the moon have produced far more scientific data than the robots on Mars. While this is true, the robots that have been used till now are not at all "autonomous" or "intelligent" in any sense. [...] Indeed, we are very far from having autonomous robots on planetary missions, but such machines are being built in university labs every day. Robot Magellans (with scientific skills to boot) could be here long before colonists take off for Mars.

There are two problems with this train of thought. Powerful, intelligent robots are extremely hard to build when you’re going to send them to other planets because physics is the universe’s Buzz Killington when it comes to boldly going into the final frontier. It comes down primarily to weight and power placing some very harsh limitations on how smart our machines can be. I can think of ways to make them much smarter, hypothetically speaking, but all of them involve humans and a lunar or orbital base with giant clean rooms and heavily shielded supercomputers. And while I’m not a gambling man beyond playing with a few bucks in Vegas between shows or attractions, I’d be willing to bet that even the smarter machines we’ll build in the next half century will not totally eliminate the need for human guidance, strategy, and corrections. Our robots will be our trusted help and we’ll use them to do jobs we can’t, but they’ll in no way replace astronauts, just make a very tough job easier and allow us to cram even more science into a mission. But Saripalli plays dirty when it comes to astronauts, summoning politics to rid the space program of humans…

Contrary to popular belief, there never has been a groundswell of popular support from the general public for the space program. Even during the Apollo era, more people were against the space program than for it. Getting robots into space costs a lot less than humans and is safer —so we can keep the space program going without creating budgetary battles.

Yes, it’s true that despite today’s near sacred status of the Apollo missions, people just wanted the government to beat those commie bastards and go home at the time you could turn on your TV and see humans walking on another world. This is what killed the lunar program and future plans for the launch stack, and arguably, what ails NASA to this day. However, you can’t argue that space probes don’t face the scorn of politicians when budgets are being decided since they pretty much loathe all science spending as wasteful, and despite singing praises to science and technology, much of the public doesn’t understand the people who do science or engineering in any way, shape, or form, and really don’t care to. Take quick a look at all the snide dismissals of Curiosity as a colossal waste of $2.5 billion and tell me with a straight face that you’re not going to get budgetary battles by sending robots instead of humans. Of course none of this can get in the way of Saripalli’s rosy view of a galaxy buzzing with our networked robotics along with a huge flop that makes me wonder if he actually understands distributed computing.

While NASA is interested in sending big missions with large robots to accomplish tasks, I believe future robots will be smaller, “distributed,” and much cheaper. To understand this, let us look at the current computing environment: We have moved from supercomputers to using distributed computing; from large monolithic data warehouses to saving data in the cloud; from using laptops to tablets and our smartphones.

All right, let’s stop right there for a minute. We did not go from large monolithic data warehouses to saving data in the cloud. We went from large monolithic data warehouses to even larger data warehouses that are basically a modern riff on mainframes. As explained before, the cloud isn’t magic, it’s just a huge set of hard drives in enormous buildings housing the modern equivalents of what mainframes were originally developed to do at a much higher level of complexity. To say that the cloud is different from a data warehouse is like saying that we moved from penicillin to antibiotics. Maybe he means something completely different than what came out, but since this isn’t a piece from a professional blogger trying to submit five articles a day, he probably wrote it, proofread it, and reviewed it multiple times before submitting it, and had plenty of chances to fix this sort of major error. Unfortunately, the continuation of his thought uses this factually incorrect assertion as the linchpin for his vision of robotic space exploration, which just makes it worse.

The future of space exploration is going to be the same—we will transition from large, heavy robots and satellites to “nanosats” and small, networked robots. We will use hundreds or thousands of cheap, small "sensor networks" that can be deployed on planetary bodies. These will form a self-organizing network that can quickly explore areas of interest and also organize themselves into larger machines that can mine metals or develop new vehicles for future exploration.

Let’s get something straight here, people at NASA are pretty damn smart. They prefer fairly big missions because they’re easier to power, easier to coordinate than many small ones, and can do more science when they reach their destinations. Thousands of tiny bots means very limited power supplies to instruments and many expensive pings between them. Factor in the distances involved in space travel and you’ll spend most of your time waiting to hear back from other bots, while a large, integrated system already got the job done. These are not things that will improve with new technology. There are hard limits on how small logic gates can be and how fast lasers and radio signals can travel, and changing these limits would require a different universe rather than a different manufacturing process or communication technique. It only really makes sense to distribute these robot networks across a single planetary body overseen by humans who had a number of modifications to their bodies to help deal with the alien environment. And there are reasons beyond efficiency for sending humans into space on a regular basis.

Humans are natural explorers, our minds are wired to wonder from birth. If we’re going to try and explore the universe, we need to do more than send our robotic proxies and stay on Earth. And as was mentioned a few times in the comments to Saripalli’s post, there’s a huge psychological effect of going into space. Seeing the entire Earth as a blue marble floating in the void makes a lot of astronauts extremely aware of just how mindlessly, ignorantly petty some 95% of the stuff that we bicker about with no end in sight, really is. We can’t expect to end political battles about things that seem huge to us here but mean nothing in the grand scheme of things when we take into account where and who we actually are just by flying politicians to space. But if we are more and more involved in space travel, we’ll get a much broader perspective. We’re one species, on one planet, wasting lifetimes arguing about magic sky people and their wishes for us, and on all sorts of petty spats about what is and isn’t ours on a tiny blue ball spinning in space. And when we finally let that sink in, maybe, we’ll devote a little more time to something far more important, like advancing ourselves. Sending robots to take our place in space only delays that.

[ illustration by Ian Wilding ]

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valles marineris

Despite the flimsy plans and questionable premise of the Mars One project, there are now tens of thousands of people who signed up to possibly die on another planet and only a few of them will be chosen for the reality show style mission. Which is still many years away from being ready in any way, shape or form. But as would-be colonists are preparing to leave Earth behind for an alien tundra, one of the big things going overlooked is their mental health, according to a post featured in The Guardian. No, no one’s implying that the applicants are not in their right mind to sign up for a once in a lifetime trip, literally, but that their psyche is in serious danger because a number of studies on human behavior in isolation, under scruitiny, and in confined spaces for a long period of time point to a very high probability of boredom, depression, and anxiety. And the last thing you want a space colonist to be is bored, depressed, and agitated. That’s when really, really bad things can happen and with no one to intervene, they can spiral out of control while a shocked audience powerlessly watches from up to 140 million miles away. This would make for an unforgettable night of TV, but it’s certainly wouldn’t make for a good mission to Mars.

As I recently argued, this is why we need spacious, almost luxury spacecraft if we want to really explore the solar system and beyond. We want our astronauts to be stimulated and have every possible comfort of home. The excitement of a mission to another planet would be powerful, but it’s only going to last so long until the monotony of a long trip takes over and all the experiments and chores turn into tedious tasks on a checklist. We need interplanetary internet with Netflix as well as games, the ability to leave messages to friends and loved ones on Earth at any time, the schedule should a lot for weekends, and the habitats should allow for both communal areas, and big private spaces to counter the feeling of being confined. Certainly this sounds like a wish list of a spoiled teenager rather than necessities for astronauts, but astronauts are humans too and we need to take care of their mental health while they’re doing things no human has ever done, and exploring places no human has ever been. Considering that they’re trying to build a city in an icy, poisonous, alien desert, is trying to give them a way to play Halo or surf the web really an unjustifiable luxury, especially if it will keep them from possibly developing a mental illness?

[ illustration by Tiago da Silva ]

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plaything

A while ago, I wrote about some futurists’ ideas of robot brothels and conscious, self-aware sex bots capable of entering a relationship with a human, and why marriage to an android is unlikely to become legal. Short version? I wouldn’t be surprised if there are sex bots for rent in a wealthy first world country’s red light district, but robot-human marriages are a legal dead end. Basically, it comes down to two factors. First, a robot, no matter how self-aware or seemingly intelligent, is not a living things capable of giving consent. It could easily be programmed to do what its owner wants it to do, and in fact this seems to be the primary draw for those who consider themselves technosexuals. Unlike another human, robots are not looking for companionship, they were built to be companions. Second, and perhaps most important, is that anatomically correct robots are often used as surrogates for contact with humans and are being imparted human features by an owner who is either intimidated or easily hurt by the complexities of typical human interaction.

You don’t have to take my word on the latter. Just consider this interview with an iDollator — the term sometimes used by technosexuals to identify for themselves — in which he more or less just confirms everything I said word for word. He buys and has relationships with sex dolls because a relationship with a woman just doesn’t really work out for him. He’s too shy to make a move, gets hurt when he makes what many of us consider classic dating mistakes, and rather than trying to navigate the emotional landscape of a relationship, he simply avoids trying to build one. It’s little wonder he’s so attached to his dolls. He projected all his fantasies and desires to a pair of pliant objects that can provide him with some sexual satisfaction and will never say no, or demand any kind of compromise or emotional concern from him rather than for their upkeep. Using them, he went from a perpetual third wheel in relationships, to having a bisexual wife and girlfriend, a very common fantasy that has a very mixed track record with flesh and blood humans because those pesky emotions get in the way as boundaries and rules have to be firmly established.

Now, I understand this might come across as judgmental, although it’s really not meant to be an indictment against iDollators, and it’s entirely possible that my biases are in play here. After all, who am I to potentially pathologize the decisions of iDollator as a married man who never even considered the idea of synthetic companionship as an option, much less a viable one at that? At the same time, I think we could objectively argue that the benefits of marriage wouldn’t work for relationships between humans and robots. One of the main benefits of marriage is the transfers of property between spouses. Robots would be property, virtual extensions of the will of humans who bought and programmed them. They would be useful in making the wishes of the human on his or her deathbed known but that’s about it. Inheriting the humans’ other property would be an equivalent of a house getting to keep a car, a bank account, and the insurance payout as far as laws would be concerned. More than likely, the robot would be auctioned off or be transferred to the next of kin as a belonging of the deceased, and very likely re-programmed.

And here’s another caveat. All of this is based on the idea of advancements in AI we aren’t even sure will be made, applied to sex bots. We know that their makers want to give them some basic semblance of a personality, but how successful they’ll be is a very open question. Being able to change the robot’s mood and general personality on a whim would still be a requirement for any potential buyer as we see with iDollators, and without autonomy, we can’t even think of granting any legal person-hood to even a very sophisticated synthetic intelligence. That would leave sex bots as objects of pleasure and relationship surrogates, perhaps useful in therapy or to replace human sex workers and combat human trafficking. Personally, considering the cost of upkeep of a high end sex bot and the level of expertise and infrastructure required, I’m still not seeing sex bots as solving the ethical and criminal issues involved with semi-legal or illegalized prostitution, especially in the developing world. To human traffickers, their victims’ lives are cheap and those being exploited are just useful commodities for paying clients, especially wealthy ones.

So while we could safely predict they they will emerge and become quite complex and engaging over the coming decades, they’re unlikely to anything more than a niche product. They won’t be legally viable spouses and very seldom the first choice of companion. They won’t help stem the horrors of human trafficking until they become extremely cheap and convenient. They might be a useful therapy tool where human sexual surrogates can’t do their work or a way for some tech-savvy entrepreneurs sitting on a small pile of cash to make some quick money. But they will not change human relationships in profound ways as some futurists like to predict, and there might well be a limit to how well they can interact with us. Considering our history and biology, it a safe bet that our partners will almost always be other humans and robots will almost always be things we own. Oh they could be wonderful, helpful things to which we’ll have emotional attachments in the same way we’d be emotionally attached to a favorite pet, but ultimately, just our property.

[ illustration by Michael O ]

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calvin superhero

Apologies for the lengthy pauses between posts but with Project X in full swing and long days at the office, there’s only so much time to write, and the more gets written the more problems there are for the aforementioned project. But more on that in due time. For now, I decided to take the occasional detour into the realm of meta-debates and talk about news stories documenting the growing pains of the skeptical movement. Their common theme is that there are people under a banner called skepticism who want to confront pseudoscience while at the same time arguing a great deal about how to do it, and with certain influential skeptics trying impose their politics on the entire movement. Does a skeptic need only to worry about debunking Bigfoot, UFOs, quack remedies, and ghosts? Does a skeptic need to be atheist? Are skeptics allowed to shelter hope that a belief for which there’s little to no evidence might still somehow end up being true? And in the grand scheme of things, what do the skeptics really want to accomplish in the end and who gets to be invited to join them in their campaigns? In short, what exactly makes one a skeptic?

But hold on, you might object, why does arriving at a concrete definition matter? Aren’t skeptics just scientifically literate folks applying basic scientific methodology to bullshit claims made by all sorts of profit-minded shysters and by well-meaning but potentially dangerously ignorant people who pass them on or weave them into their personal brands of cargo cult science? Well, yes, in the broadest way that’s correct, and it’s what let me to start forging ties with organized skeptical organizations when their blog was in its prime skeptical phase. However just because you called yourself a skeptic for denouncing pseudoscience and were recognized for it by JREF or another skeptical group, doesn’t mean the topic you’re best equipped to address will ever get any major boost, even within the group. For example, I’m most often cited for Singularity skepticism, mostly because I’m a techie by profession and education, and have the experience and tools to put the wild claims of our impending immortality through technology under very tight scrutiny. Good for me, right? A new branch of skepticism can be added to the collective’s efforts, right?

Sorry but no dice. In fact, a certain very popular 2012 skeptic once told me that until he started reading my dissections of Kurzweil & Co., he thought that their ideas were a lot more plausible than they actually were, and the Skepchicks hosted a very sympathetic take on the claims and predictions being made by the attendees of a Singularity Summit. After talking to those involved on the subject, I was told that while my take was appreciated in the form of links, what I wrote on the subject was "sort of advanced skepticism" and they wanted to focus on something that was more common, the old school skeptics-as-common-sense-debunkers approach. Pretty much the only recognizable skeptics not only interested, but willing to give transhumanist and AI skeptics a real platform was the team at Skeptically Speaking, for which I ended up doing half an episode, and a two-hour debate with a prominent transhumanist. That’s right, we were so popular and the audience was so receptive, I had to come back twice. But to the old school skeptics, it’s really all about debunking common myths and popular quacks. It needs to be done but for those of us no longer interested in that, there doesn’t seem to be much room in organized skepticism.

And this is one of the biggest sources of friction that I’m seeing right now. Those of us who are technical experts in one subject or another interested in applying our specialized knowledge to a possibly arcane but still popular topic, are sick and tired of the umpteenth dissection of Dr. Oz and a UFO sighting now decades old, but we’re not really being included or asked to bring light to a new topic or two because that puts the old school skeptics out of their comfort zone. Now, I won’t be surprised if by now you’re tempted to dismiss this grievance by pointing out that it come from personal experience and makes for only one data point. But if you go back to the Atheism+ fight for just a bit, you’ll hear an undertone of the same exact issues from a completely different group of people with completely different goals. They wanted to turn organized skepticism into a left wing political movement rather than broaden its primary topics, but their reason for trying to create a new offshoot was due to a) feeling that the skeptical old school is not interested in new ideas for the future, and b) their avoidance of the skepticism vs. atheism question based mostly on marketing considerations, to make the religious feel more welcome at skeptic meetups.

Today’s big, organized skeptical groups don’t seem to be evolving or really expanding past the few topics that bound them together. More and more skeptical meetups seem to be preaching to the choir rather than exposing skeptics to new topics. The whole movement just seems stuck in place, retracing the same fake Bigfoot steps and analyzing the same flying saucer on a wire for the hundredth time. And as if that wasn’t enough, we get drama and gender wars on an endless loop for publicity and stats instead of guidance and fresh ideas. Wasn’t the point of well-funded, organized skepticism to spread education and combat the popularization of pseudoscience in all of its forms rather than spending a lot of time with people who agree with what you say? Where are the skeptical conferences that invite expert speakers to expose skeptics to big, cutting edge scientific ideas to peak their interest in broadening their horizons and taking on new topics? Is a skeptical equivalent of TED without the buzzwords out of the question? No wonder reporters on missions to write about organized skepticism all end up asking where would the movement go in the next few years and fail to prove an answer. They can’t. There’s no future game plan…

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space station concept

Not too long ago, Ars ran an article detailing proposals for modifying the proven and successful hardware built for Apollo for flyby missions to Venus and Mars.None of these plans are new by any means because they were actually made in the 1970s, when the lunar program was coming to an end and NASA’s big wigs wanted to show Congress and the American people how far their flagship spacecraft could go. Of course we know that nothing ever came form these plans, but in recent times, the Mars One idea, and the Inspiration Mars project, seem to be planned in much the same vein. Let’s use what we have, make the crew as comfortable as we can in an austere ship for about two years or so, and do some attention-grabbing missions to show we can do the kinds of things emerging space powers can only dream of attempting one day. As the sage and endlessly quotable Mark Twain once said, history might not repeat itself but it does rhyme and in the case of rushed, crewed flybys of other planets, the second go-around is likely to end like the first: we talk about it and nothing gets done because the ideas are just too rough and costly.

I have to say though, the notions of explorers cramped in tiny vessels braving the harshness of space in the name of our species’ progress have a romantic ring to them. But for the majority of the population, this is going to be something for someone else to do. If more people could work on space exploration and actually travel into space as a part of their job to clean up space junk, launch and repair scientific probes or spy satellites, and even go beyond to mine valuable parts of asteroids, allowing us to tap into the immense resources of the solar system, wouldn’t you see a lot more support for the space program? I’ve written more than I can count about the benefits of investing in space travel and exploration, from medical, to engineering, to energy generation, but the bottom line is that people have to see an immediate benefit to them from the program to pressure politicians to invest; a benefit like potential careers in space. For that to happen, we’re going to need to think beyond flybys and short excursions with long travel times. We’re going to need to think about launching interplanetary space stations with artificial gravity and a whole lot of creature comforts to help astronauts do their jobs and have fun as they’re traveling.

You could argue that we’d have no shortage of would-be explorers willing to travel to Pluto in a rusty, old, sardine can if given a chance, and you’d be right. But odds are, most of them will not be qualified to make that trip and the ones who do will face mental challenges for which we can’t really prepare them. Consider NASA’s latest astronaut class. Out of 1,500 applicants, only eight have been deemed worthy of living in a space station in LEO. What do you think will be the rate of selection for deep space travelers in spartan conditions for years on end with no hope of help from Earth in the event of emergency? We shouldn’t be focused on finding tougher people and billionaires who want to throw technology built for brief orbital travel into interplanetary space. It won’t help us in the long run. We should be focused on developing efficient and powerful means of propulsion, large, comfortable spacecraft, and setting up self-sufficient ready-to-go-anywhere ecosystems that will let us launch more people in space, keep them there longer with less risk to their muscles and bones, and enable them to do more and more jobs there.

Would the price tag be high? Absolutely. But the trade-off is that we could tell more than one in roughly a million people that they’re astronaut material and we have a job for them. Now, space travel would still be challenging, even with a lot of attention paid to the amenities, but it will make long term exploration missions more viable and generate more spin-offs we can apply right back on Earth while testing new generations of materials, medical devices, genetic engineering, and cyborg technologies for applications in space. We’ve been treating the Final Frontier as fodder for philosophy and romanticism for a little too long. We need to start seeing it as a business and an investment in new industries vying to make a real world difference, and old industries that will once again be needed to work as full capacity after they’re upgraded to meet the demands of a new space-faring age. As I said before, I can think of no nation that ever went bankrupt investing in science, technology, and education. But many have collapsed when they tried to cover for the shortfalls of their economy with bread, circuses, war, and zero-sum political brinkmanship…

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quantified self

With the explosion in fitness trackers and mobile apps that want to help manage everything from weight loss to pregnancy, there’s already a small panic brewing as technology critics worry that insurance companies will require you to wear devices that track your health, playing around with your premiums based on how well or how badly you take care of yourself. As the current leader of the reverse Singularitarians, Evgeny Morozov, argues, the new idea of the quantified self is a minefield being created with little thought about the consequences. Certainly there is a potential for abuse of very personal health metrics and Morozov is at his best when he explains how naive techno-utopians don’t understand how they come off, and how the reality of how their tools have been used in the wild differs drastically from their vision, so his fear is not completely unfounded or downright reflexive, like some of his latest pieces have been. But in the case of the quantified self idea being applied to our healthcare, the benefits are more likely to outweigh the risks.

One of the reasons why healthcare in the United States is so incredibly expensive is the lack of focus on preventitive medicine. Health problems are allowed to fester until they become simply too bothersome to ignore, a battery of expensive tests is ordered, and usually expensive acute treatments are administered. Had they been caught in time, the treatments would not have to be so intensive, and if there was ample, trustworthy biometric information available to the attending doctors, there wouldn’t need to be as much testing to arrive at an accurate diagnosis. As many doctors grumble about oceans of paperwork, logistics of testing, and the inability to really talk to patients in the standard 15 minute visit, why not use devices that would help with the paperwork and do a great deal of preliminary research for them before they ever see the patient? And yes, the devices would have to be able to gather data by themselves because we often tell little white lies about how active we are and how well we eat, even when both we and our doctors know that we’re lying. And this only hurts us in the end by making the doctors’ work more difficult.

That brings us full circle to health insurance premiums and requirements to wear these devices to keep our coverage. Certainly it’s kind of creepy that there would be so much data about us so readily available to insurance companies, but here’s the thing. They already have this data from your doctors and can access it whenever they want in the course of processing your claim. With biometric trackers and loggers, they could do the smart and profitable thing and instead of using a statistical model generated from a hodgepodge of claim notes, take advantage of the real time data coming in to send you to the doctor when a health problem is detected. They pay less for a less acute treatment plan, you feel healthier and have some piece of mind that you’re now less likely to be caught by surprise by some nasty disease or condition, and your premiums won’t be hiked as much since the insurers now have higher margins and stave off rebellions from big and small companies who’ll now have more coverage choices built around smart health data. And all this isn’t even mentioning the bonanza for researchers and policy experts who can now get a big picture view from what would be the most massive health study ever conducted.

How many times have you read a study purporting the health benefits of eating berries and jogs one week only to read another one that promotes eating nuts and saying that jogs are pointless with the different conclusions coming as a result of different sample sizes and subjects involved in the studies? Well, here, scientists could collect tens of millions of anonymized records and do very thorough modeling based on uniform data sets from real people, and find out what actually works and for whom when it comes to achieving their fitness and weight loss goals. Couple more data and more intelligent policy with the potential for economic gain and the gamification offered by fitness trackers, and you end up with saner healthcare costs, a new focus on preventing and maintaining rather than diagnosing and treating, fewer sick days, and longer average lifespans as the side effect of being sick less often and encouraged to stay active and fit, and you have a very compelling argument for letting insurance companies put medical trackers on you and build a new business model around them and the data they collect. It will pay off in the long run.

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When an expansive article on GMOs became the lead story in Elle Magazine, it wasn’t exactly a shocker that the story got its science wrong and horribly abused quotes to create a controversy where one didn’t exist. In fact, it’s par for the course when GMOs are mentioned in publications not known for their scientific reporting. Just like conservative political outlets go out of their way to deny global warming and denigrate the scientists involved in climate modeling, generally left-leaning lifestyle magazines do whatever they can to cast some doubt on the viability of GMOs in a noxious mix of conspiracy-mongering and double standards. No matter how many tests looking for potential allergens or toxins are done over decades, the anti-GMO pundits declare that there aren’t enough studies of the modified crops’ safety and surely this means that Monsanto turned millions of people into their unwitting guinea pigs for the sake of profit.

Meanwhile, even a single experiment which claims to find some sort of a problem with GMOs, no matter how horribly done and how much the researchers conduct it threaten reporters who want a second opinion or ask questions, has to be held up as the definitive proof that we’re all being slowly poisoned by greedy tycoons. The reality is quite different, of course. GMOs are actually strictly regulated, unlike organic food, since each new protein or genetic modification is treated as a food additive and has to be cleared by an independent panel of experts and by the FDA to ever hit the market. By contrast, anything described as "natural" and used in organic food does not have to be subject to any studies thanks to the codification of the naturalistic fallacy into law and despite the fact that nature can be very, very deadly. However, it’s not all regulations, good science, and securing the food supply. GMO makers use and abuse the patent system to milk a hefty profit from every stage of their products’ lifecycles and bilk farmers.

But don’t expect a discussion about the patent system and biology in Elle because the story isn’t so much about GMOs as about the author and her quest to rid herself of allergies, transitioning into a standard storyline of a woman in search of truth. Though by truth what I really mean is an exploratory trip into the land of conspiracy theories because that’s what the readers want. It’s a story written for the magazine’s target demographic, which is why it’s first person and focuses on vague, scary-sounding concerns to keep readers hooked. And this is why the admonition given to this article after a fact check sounds a bit silly to put it mildly, as it laments the science abuse and rampant misquotes to create a controversy for the sake of eyeballs…

It represents a major setback for science journalism, and for consumers who rely on hugely popular lifestyle publications to make their way through complicated issues. Is GMO corn causing allergies or other disorders? Are GMOs a threat? Elle perpetuates a “controversy” that just doesn’t exist in the mainstream science or medical communities. Worse, it fans the flames of doubt and distrust that fuel unilateral opposition to a sophisticated technology that could improve global food security.

Here’s the thing. If people are getting their science information from the same magazines which tell them what shoes are in this season, or what celebrity is working on what new movie, we have much bigger problems than are being highlighted here. Why would anyone think that relying on the latest edition of Vanity Fair, or Esquire, or, yes, Elle, for the latest and greatest in important, everyday science is a good idea? Certainly, one doesn’t expect fashion tips and celebrity gossip in their edition of National Geographic. Likewise, why would people rely on fashion magazines to navigate important policy debates? The really scary thing is that despite most people singing all manner of praises to science and a STEM education in popular surveys, they by in large do not care about the science that actually gets done or why, and even worse, don’t want to care. And considering that, is it any wonder that publications that cater to people who only say they care to be scientifically literate focus on creating controversy, peddling conspiracies, and moving copies to charge advertisers more? The Elle story is just one symptom of a much bigger issue…

[ photo illustration of news kiosk in Zurich via Wikimedia Commons ]

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Yes, I know, it’s been a while since my last post but life has a way of getting in the way of steady, regular blogging. And of course there’s still the work on Project X on the horizon which will affect that happens to Weird Things, but more on that in due time. Today’s topic is one which I heavily debated with myself before addressing because it’s been a near constant drumbeat in the news and the coverage has been almost overwhelmingly tilted towards setting the outrage dial all the way to 11 and tearing the knob off. I’m talking about the family of NSA surveillance programs for monitoring the internet and intercepting immense amounts of traffic and metadata, of course. As the revelations have been dropped on a regular schedule, the outrage keeps getting louder. In the techie media the most prominent reaction is "how could they?" According to online activists, the internet exists for the free exchange of ideas and a way to speak truth to power when need be, so the NSA’s snooping is a violation of the principles on which the internet was built.

Unfortunately, that’s just a soothing fantasy we tell ourselves today. Originally, the internet was developed as a means to exchange information between military researchers and Tor, the go-to tool for at least partial online anonymity (unless you get a nasty virus) was being developed to hide the tell-tale signs of electronic eavesdropping via onion routing by the U.S. Navy until it was spun off by the EFF. And while the web was meant to share scientific data for CERN over a very user unfriendly network at the time, it was given its near-ubiquity by big companies which didn’t adopt the technology and wrote browsers out of the goodness of their heart and desire to make the world into one big, global family, but because they wanted to make money. The internet was built to make classified and complex research easier, tamed for profit, and is delivered via a vast infrastructure worth many billions operated by massive businesses firmly within the grasp of a big government agency. It’s never been meant for world peace, anonymity, and public debate.

Now don’t get me wrong, it’s great that we can give political dissidents voices and promote ideas for peace and cooperation across the world at nearly the speed of light. We should be doing as much of that as possible. But my point is that this is not the primary function of the system, even if this is what cyber-anarchists and idealistic start-up owners in the Bay Area tell you. It’s a side-effect. So when massive companies give data flying through the web to spy agencies on request and even accept payment for it, we’re seeing the entities that built the system using it to further their own goals and means, and to comply with orders of governments that have power to bring them down if they want. It’s not fair, but picking a fight with the NSA is kind of like declaring that you’re going to play chicken with a nuclear aircraft carrier while paddling a canoe. At best, they’ll be amused. At worst, they’ll sink you with nary an effort. Wikipedia can encrypt all of its traffic as a form of protest, but a) the NSA really doesn’t care about how many summaries of comic book character plot lines you read, and b) if it suddenly starts caring, it’ll find a way to spy on you. It’s basically the agency’s job, and we’ve known it’s been doing that since 2006.

For all the outrage about the NSA, we need to focus on the most important problems with what’s going on. We have an agency which snoops on everyone and everything, passively storing data to use if you catch their attention and it decides you merit a deep dive into their database that’s holding every significant electronic communication you’ve had for the last decade or so. This is great if you’re trying to catch spies or would-be terrorists (but come on people, more than likely spies based on the infrastructure being brought into focus), but it also runs against the rights to due process and protection from warrantless, suspicionless searches and seizures. Blaming the legal departments of Microsoft, Google, and Yahoo for complying with official orders is useless, and pretending that an information exchange network built to make money and maintained by a consortium of profit-minded groups is somehow a bastion of freedom being corrupted by the evil maws of the U.S. government just seems hopelessly naive. Americans don’t like to think of their country as a global hegemony just doing what global hegemons do and using its might to secure its interests. They like to think of it as having a higher calling. For them, reality bites.

But again the sad truth is that this is exactly what’s going on. While transparency activists loose their fury and anger in the media and on the web, realpolitik is relentlessly brutal, treating entire nations exactly like pawns on a chessboard. For all the whistleblowing of the past five years, not that much of the leaked information was really that shocking. It just confirmed our fears that the world is ran by big egos, cooperation is rare and far between, and that as one nation is aiming to become another global hegemon, the current one is preparing for a siege and quietly readying a vast array of resources to maintain its dominance, if not economic, then military and political. On top of that, rather than being elected or asked to rise into its current position, it chose to police much of the planet and now finds itself stuck where it doesn’t want to be. We know all this and a great deal of this is taught in history class nowadays. We just don’t really want to deal with it and the fits of rage towards corporations and government agencies somehow corrupting the system they built for power and profit seem to be our reaction to having to deal with these fast after the last whistle was blown. Sadly, we don’t get the world we want, we get the one we really build.

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Policy wonks, like most people, tend to think of IT as a magical black box which takes requests, does something, and makes their computers do what they want, or at least somewhat close to it. And so it’s not really surprising to see Ronan Farrow and Shamila Chaudhary rail against major cybersecurity companies for enabling dictators to block internet content at Foreign Policy, with allegations that show how poorly they understand what these companies do and how virtually all of the products they make work. You see, blaming a tech company for censorship is kind of like blaming a car manufacturer for drunk drivers. Certainly their tools are intended to block content but they’re not designed to filter all undesirables from a centralized location to which a dictator can submit a request. They’re meant to analyze and block traffic coming from malicious sources to prevent malware and any time you can analyze and stop traffic, you can abuse the ability and start blocking legitimate sites just because you don’t like them or the people who run them.

Most of the software they cited is meant to secure corporate networks and if they no longer get to stop or scan data, they’re pretty much useless because they can’t do threat identification or mitigation. WebSense does filter content and uses a centralized database cluster to push how it classifies sites to its customers so, as Farrow and Chaudhary noted, it was able to change up a few things to help mitigate its abuse by authoritarians. But McAffee and others are in a tougher spot because they’ve simply sold a software license to network admins. Other than virus and bot net definitions, there’s not much they can control from a central location, and trying to shame a company for selling tools made for something entirely different puts them in a position in which it would be very hard to defend their actions to someone convinced that they can just flip a switch and end the digital reign of tyranny across the world. And its even worse when the first reactions to articles about the abuse of their wares blame them for just being greedy.

On top of that, it’s not exactly hard to write your own filters and deep packet inspection tools. It’s just difficult to scale them for millions of users but it’s nothing out of the authoritarians reach. As they spend billions on security and control, surely they could divert a couple of million to build a capable system of their own. In fact, the Great Firewall of China is mostly home-grown and uses the country’s ISPs to scan incoming and outgoing traffic on a daily basis to find what to block. It sounds like a powerful indictment to point out that the Chinese use Cisco routers in their system, but it’s not as if they outsourced the task of pinging and blocking Tor nodes to the company. To be perfectly fair in charging tech companies in aiding and abetting censorship, you’d have to be talking about search engines that agree to modify their functionality to get a toehold in markets ruled over by authoritarians who will get someone to censor searches if not the company which was trying to expand. Bottom line: dictators will find a way to censor what they want to censor. If they use network monitoring security tools to do it, the blame still rests with them.

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