Archive for the 'Technology' Category

Feb 23 2024

Odysseus Lands on the Moon

Published by under Technology

December 11, 1972, Apollo 17 soft landed on the lunar surface, carrying astronauts Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt. This was the last time anything American soft landed on the moon, over 50 years ago. It seems amazing that it’s been that long. On February 22, 2024, the Odysseus soft landed on the Moon near the south pole. This was the first time a private company has achieved this goal, and the first time an American craft has landed on the Moon since Apollo 17.

Only five countries have ever achieved a soft landing on the moon, America, China, Russia, Japan, and India. Only America did so with a crewed mission, the rest were robotic. Even though this feat was first accomplished in 1966 by the Soviet Union, it is still an extremely difficult thing to pull off. Getting to the Moon requires powerful rocket. Inserting into lunar orbit requires a great deal of control, on a craft that is too far away for real time remote control. This means you either need pilots on the craft, or the craft is able to carry out a pre-programmed sequence to accomplish this goal. Then landing on the lunar surface is tricky. There is no atmosphere to slow the craft down, but also no atmosphere to get in the way. As the ship descends it burns fuel, which constantly changes the weight of the vehicle. It has to remain upright with respect to the lunar surface and reduce its speed by just the right amount to touch down softly – either with a human pilot or all by itself.

The Odysseus mission is funded by NASA as part of their program to develop private industry to send instruments and supplies to the Moon. It is the goal of their Artemis mission to establish a permanent base on the moon, which will need to be supported by regular supply runs. In January another company with a NASA grant under the same program, Astrobotic Technology, sent their own craft to the Moon, the Peregrine. However, a fuel leak prevented the craft from orienting its solar panels toward the sun, and the mission had to be abandoned. This left the door open for the Odysseus mission to grab the achievement of being the first private company to do so.

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Feb 22 2024

AI Video

Published by under Technology

Recently OpenAI launched a website showcasing their latest AI application, Sora. This app, based on prompts similar to what you would use for ChatGPT or the image creation applications, like Midjourney or Dalle-2, creates a one minute photorealistic video without sound. Take a look at the videos and then come back.

Pretty amazing. Of course, I have no idea how cherry picked these videos are. Were there hundreds of failures for each one we are seeing? Probably not, but we don’t know. They do give the prompts they used, and they state explicitly that these videos were created entirely by Sora from the prompt without any further editing.

I have been using Midjourney quite extensively since it came out, and more recently I have been using ChatGPT 4 which is linked to Dalle-2, so that ChatGPT will create the prompt for you from more natural language instructions. It’s pretty neat. I sometimes use it to create the images I attach to my blog posts. If I need, for example, a generic picture of a lion I can just make one, rather than borrowing one from the internet and risking that some German firm will start harassing me about copyright violation and try to shake me down for a few hundred Euros. I also make images for personal use, mostly gaming. It’s a lot of fun.

Now I am looking forward to getting my hands on Sora. They say that they are testing the app, having given it to some creators to give them feedback. They are also exploring ways in which the app can be exploited for evil and trying to make it safe. This is where the app raises some tricky questions.

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Feb 09 2024

JET Fusion Experiment Sets New Record

Published by under Technology

Don’t get excited. It’s always nice to see incremental progress being made with the various fusion experiments happening around the world, but we are still a long way off from commercial fusion power, and this experiment doesn’t really bring us any close, despite the headlines. Before I get into the “maths”, here is some quick background.

Fusion is the process of combining light elements into heavier elements. This is the process the fuels stars. We have been dreaming about a future powered by clean abundant fusion energy for at least 80 years. The problem is – it’s really hard. In order to get atoms to smash into each other with sufficient energy to fuse, you need high temperatures and pressures, like those at the core of our sun. We can’t replicate the density and pressure at a star’s core, so we have to compensate here on Earth with even higher temperatures.

There are a few basic fusion reactor designs. The tokamak design (like the JET rector) is a torus, with a plasma of hydrogen isotopes (usually deuterium and tritium) inside the torus contained by powerful magnetic fields. The plasma is heated and squeezed by brute magnetic force until fusion happens. Another method, the pinch method, also uses magnetic fields, but they use a stream of plasma that gets pinched at one point to high density and temperature. Then there is kinetic confinement which essentially uses an implosion created by powerful lasers to create a brief moment of high density and temperature. More recently a group has used sonic cavitation to create an instance of fusion (rather than sustained fusion). These methods are essentially in a race to create commercial fusion. It’s an exciting (if very slow motion) race.

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Feb 01 2024

Some Future Tech Possibilities

Published by under Technology

It’s difficult to pick winners and losers in the future tech game. In reality you just have to see what happens when you try out a new technology in the real world with actual people. Many technologies that look good on paper run into logistical problems, difficulty scaling, fall victim to economics, or discover that people just don’t like using the tech. Meanwhile, surprises hits become indispensable or can transform the way we live our lives.

Here are a few technologies from recent news that may or may not be part of our future.

Recharging Roads

Imaging recharging your electric vehicle wirelessly just by driving over a road. Sounds great, but is it practical and scalable? Detroit is running an experiment to help find out. On a 400 meter stretch of downtown road they installed inducting cables under the ground and connected them to the city grid. EVs that have the $1,000 device attached to their battery can charge up while driving over this stretch of road.

The technology itself is proven, and is already common for recharging smartphones. It’s inductive charging, using a magnetic field to induce a current which recharges a battery. Is this a practical approach to range anxiety? Right now this technology costs $2 million per mile. Having any significant infrastructure of these roads would be incredibly costly, and it’s not clear the benefit is worth it. How much are they going to charge the EV? What is the efficiency? Will drivers fork out $1000 for minimal benefit?

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Jan 30 2024

Neuralink Implants Chip in Human

Published by under Skepticism,Technology

Elon Musk has announced that his company, Neuralink, has implanted their first wireless computer chip into a human. The chip, which they plan on calling Telepathy (not sure how I feel about that) connects with 64 thin hair-like electrodes, is battery powered and can be recharged remotely. This is exciting news, but of course needs to be put into context. First, let’s get the Musk thing out of the way.

Because this is Elon Musk the achievement gets more attention than it probably deserves, but also more criticism. It gets wrapped up in the Musk debate – is he a genuine innovator, or just an exploiter and showman? I think the truth is a little bit of both. Yes, the technologies he is famous for advancing (EVs, reusable rockets, digging tunnels, and now brain-machine interface) all existed before him (at least potentially) and were advancing without him. But he did more than just gobble up existing companies or people and slap his brand on it (as his harshest critics claim). Especially with Tesla and SpaceX, he invested his own fortune and provided a specific vision which pushed these companies through to successful products, and very likely advanced their respective industries considerably.

What about Neuralink and BMI (brain-machine interface) technology? I think Musk’s impact in this industry is much less than with EVs and reusable rockets. But he is increasing the profile of the industry, providing funding for research and development, and perhaps increasing the competition. In the end I think Neuralink will have a more modest, but perhaps not negligible, impact on bringing BMI applications to the world. I think it will end up being a net positive, and anything that accelerates this technology is a good thing.

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Jan 29 2024

Controlling the Narrative with AI

Published by under Technology

There is an ongoing battle in our society to control the narrative, to influence the flow of information, and thereby move the needle on what people think and how they behave. This is nothing new, but the mechanisms for controlling the narrative are evolving as our communication technology evolves. The latest addition to this technology is the large language model AIs.

“The media”, of course, has been a large focus of this competition. On the right there is constant complaints of the “liberal bias” in the media, and on the left there are complaints of the rise of right-wing media which they feel is biased and radicalizing. The culture wars focus mainly on schools, because those schools teach not only facts and knowledge but convey the values of our society. The left views DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) initiates as promoting social justice while the right views it as brainwashing the next generation with liberal propaganda. This is an oversimplification, but it is the basic dynamic. Even industry has been targeted by the culture wars – which narratives are specific companies supporting? Is Disney pro-gay? Which companies fly BLM or LGBTQ flags?

But increasingly “the narrative” (the overall cultural conversation) is not being controlled by the media, educational system, or marketing campaigns. It’s being controlled by social media. This is why, when the power of social media started to become apparent, many people panicked. Suddenly it seemed we had seeded control of the narrative to a few tech companies, who had apparently decided that destroying democracy was a price they were prepared to pay for maximizing their clicks. We now live in a world where YouTube algorithms can destroy lives and relationships.

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Jan 26 2024

How Humans Can Adapt to Space

Published by under Technology

My recent article on settling Mars has generated a lot of discussion, some of it around the basic concept of how difficult it is for humans to live anywhere but a thin envelope of air hugging the surface of the Earth. This is undoubtedly true, as I have discussed before – we evolved to be finely adapted to Earth. We are only comfortable in a fairly narrow range of temperature. We need a fairly high percentage of oxygen (Earth’s is 21%) at sufficient pressure, and our atmosphere can’t have too much of other gases that might cause us problems. We are protected from most radiation that bathes the universe. Our skin and eyes have adapted to the light of our sun, both in frequency and intensity. And we are adapted to Earth’s surface gravity, with any significantly more or less causing problems for our biology.

Space itself is an extremely unforgiving environment requiring a total human habitat, with the main current technological challenges being artificial gravity and radiation protection. But even on other worlds it is extremely unlikely that all of the variables will be within the range of human survival, let alone comfort and thriving. Mars, for example, has too thin an atmosphere with no oxygen, no magnetic field to protect from radiation, it’s too cold and its surface gravity is too little. It’s better than the cold vacuum of space, but not by much. You still need essentially a total habitat, and we will probably have to go underground for radiation protection. Gravity is 38% that of Earths, which is probably not ideal for human biology. In space, with microgravity, at least you can theoretically use rotation to simulate gravity.

In addition to adapting off-Earth environments to humans, is it feasible to adapt humans to other environments? Let me start with some far-future options then finish with what is likely to be the nearest-future options.

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Jan 25 2024

DNA Directed Assembly of Nanomaterials

Published by under Technology

Arguably the type of advance that has the greatest impact on technology is material science. Technology can advance by doing more with the materials we have, but new materials can change the game entirely. It is no coincidence that we mark different technological ages by the dominant material used, such as the bronze age and iron age. But how do we invent new materials?

Historically new materials were mostly discovered, not invented. Or we discovered techniques that allowed us to use new materials. Metallurgy, for example, was largely about creating a fire hot enough to smelt different metals. Sometimes we literally discovered new elements, like aluminum or tungsten, with desirable properties. We also figured out how to make alloys, combining different elements to create a new material with unique or improved properties. Adding tin to copper made a much stronger and more durable metal, bronze. While the hunt for new usable elements is basically over, there are so many possible combinations that researching new alloys is still a viable way to find new materials. In fact a recent class of materials known as “superalloys” have incredible properties, such as extreme heat resistance.

If there are no new elements (other than really big and therefore unstable artificial elements), and we already have a mature science of making alloys, what’s next? There are also chemically based materials, such as polymers, resins, and composites, that can have excellent properties, including the ability to be manufactured easily. Plastics clearly had a dramatic effect on our technology, and some of the strongest and lightest materials we have are carbon composites. But again it feels like we have already picked the low-hanging fruit here. We still need new better materials.

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Jan 23 2024

Microbes Aboard the ISS

Published by under Technology

As I have written many times, including in yesterday’s post, people occupying space is hard. The environment of space, or really anywhere not on Earth, is harsh and unforgiving. One of the issues, for example, rarely addressed in science fiction or even discussions of space travel, is radiation. We don’t really have a solution to deal with radiation exposure outside the protective atmosphere and magnetic field of Earth.

There are other challenges, however, that do not involve space itself but just the fact that people living off Earth will have to be in an enclosed environment. Whether this is a space station or habitat on the Moon or Mars, people will be living in a relatively small finite physical space. These spaces will be enclosed environments – no opening a window to let some fresh air in. Our best experience so far with this type of environment is the International Space Station (ISS). By all accounts, the ISS smells terrible. It is a combination of antiseptic, body odor, sweat, and basically 22 years of funk.

Perhaps even worse, the ISS is colonized with numerous pathogenic bacteria and different types of fungus. The bacteria is mainly human-associated bacteria, the kinds of critters that live on and in humans. According to NASA:

The researchers found that microbes on the ISS were mostly human-associated. The most prominent bacteria were Staphylococcus (26% of total isolates), Pantoea (23%) and Bacillus (11%). They included organisms that are considered opportunistic pathogens on Earth, such as Staphylococcus aureus (10% of total isolates identified), which is commonly found on the skin and in the nasal passage, and Enterobacter, which is associated with the human gastrointestinal tract.

This is similar to what one might find in a gym or crowded office space, but worse. This is something I often considered – when establishing a new environment off Earth, what will the microbiota look like? On the one hand, establishing a new base is an opportunity to avoid many infectious organisms. Having strict quarantine procedures can create a settlement without flu viruses, COVID, HIV or many of the germs that plague humans. I can imagine strict medical examinations and isolation prior to gaining access to such a community. But can such efforts to make an infection-free settlement succeed?

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Jan 22 2024

Is Mars the New Frontier?

Published by under Technology

In the excellent sci fi show, The Expanse, which takes place a couple hundred years in the future, Mars has been settled and is an independent self-sustaining society. In fact, Mars is presented as the most scientifically and technologically advanced society of humans in the solar system. This is presented as being due to the fact that Martians have had to struggle to survive and build their world, and that lead to a culture of innovation and dynamism.

This is a  version of the Turner thesis, which has been invoked as one justification for the extreme expense and difficulty of settling locations off Earth. I was recently pointed to this article discussing the Turner thesis in the context of space settlement, which I found interesting. The Turner thesis is that the frontier mindset of the old West created a culture of individualism, dynamism, and democracy that is a critical part of the success of America in general. This theory was popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but fell out of academic favor in the second half of the 20th century. Recent papers trying to revive some version of it are less than compelling, showing that frontier exposure correlates only very softly with certain political and social features, and that those features are a mixed bag rather than an unalloyed good.

The article is generally critical of the notion that some version of the Turner thesis should be used to justify settling Mars – that humanity would benefit from a new frontier. But I basically agree with the article, that the Turner thesis is rather weak and complex, and that analogies between the American Western frontier and Mars (or other space locations) is highly problematic. In every material sense, it’s a poor analogy. On the frontier there was already air, food, soil, water, and other people living there. None of those things (as far as we know) exists on Mars.

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