December 15, 2017: Today's links to headline stories from around the world on the threats, opportunities, and dangers facing our fragile planet --along with an occasional dash of humor, popular culture, and an intriguing conspiracy theory or two. Coverage includes the Alien Life We Discover Will be Machines, Hunter Gathers of the American West, China Will Save the World from Catastrophic Climate Change , Other Pale Blue Dots, The Digital Republic of Estonia, Three Theories on the Origin of Our Interstellar Visitor, NASA to Survey Unexplored Stretch of Antarctica, Funniest Animal Photos of 2017.
If life off Earth exists it has probably transitioned to machine intelligence. This September, a team of astronomers noticed that the light from a distant star is flickering in a highly irregular pattern.1 They considered the possibility that comets, debris, and impacts could account for their observations, but each of these explanations was unlikely to varying degrees.2 What their paper didn’t explore, but they and others are beginning to speculate, is that the flickering might be caused by enormous structures built by an advanced civilization—whether the light might be evidence of ET.
In thinking about this possibility, or other similarly suggestive evidence of extraterrestrial life, an image of an alien creature might come to mind—something green, perhaps, or with tentacles or eye stalks. But in this we are probably mistaken. I would argue that any positive identification of ET will very likely not originate from organic or biological life (as Paul Davies has also argued), but from machines.
Few doubt that machines will gradually surpass more and more of our distinctively human capabilities—or enhance them via cyborg technology. Disagreements are basically about the timescale: the rate of travel, not the direction of travel. The cautious amongst us envisage timescales of centuries rather than decades for these transformations. Be that as it may, the timescales for technological advance are but an instant compared to the timescales of the Darwinian selection that led to humanity’s emergence—and (more relevantly) they are less than a millionth of the vast expanses of time lying ahead. So the outcomes of future technological evolution will surpass humans by as much as we (intellectually) surpass a bug.
Non-biological “brains” may develop insights as far beyond our imaginings as string theory is for a mouse.
There aren't enough rules governing military behavior in the upper atmosphere.
One hundred miles above the Earth’s surface, orbiting the planet at thousands of miles per hour, the six people aboard the International Space Station enjoy a perfect isolation from the chaos of earthly conflict. Outer space has never been a military battleground. But that may not last forever. The debate in Congress over whether to create a Space Corps comes at a time when governments around the world are engaged in a bigger international struggle over how militaries should operate in space. Fundamental changes are already underway. No longer confined to the fiction shelf, space warfare is likely on the horizon.
While agreements for how to operate in other international domains, like the open sea, airspace, and even cyberspace, have already been established, the major space powers—the United States, Russia, and China—have not agreed upon a rulebook outlining what constitutes bad behavior in space. It’s presumed that International Humanitarian Law would apply in outer space—protecting the civilian astronauts aboard the International Space Station—but it’s unclear whether damaging civilian satellites or the space environment itself is covered under the agreement. With only a limited history of dangerous behavior to study, and few, outdated guidelines in place, a war in space would be a war with potentially more consequences, but far fewer rules, than one on Earth.
From smog-choked cities to sludge-filled rivers, stories about China’s environment in recent years have painted a bleak picture. But China is not the first country to put economic development above protecting the environment. All of today’s wealthy countries, including the UK during the industrial revolution and the US after World War II, got rich doing the same.
What’s different about China is the pace of development, the scale of its impact, and the timing. Never in human history have so many people been pulled out of poverty so quickly. China’s unprecedented development, which has relied on fossil fuels to the point that the country is now the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, comes at a crucial time for the world. If we don’t reduce greenhouse-gas emissions to zero by 2060, we’ll be staring down the gun at climate menaces humans have not faced in our time on the planet.
The good news is that, unlike the US, the world’s second-biggest emitter, China appears truly committed to climate action. The country has pledged to hit peak emissions by 2030, and to ensure emissions fall rapidly after that.
Our own oasis of life in the cosmos is blue, but will others be?
At a distance of 3.7 billion miles from the sun, on an otherwise ordinary February day in 1990, the Voyager 1 probe turned to point its camera platform away from its headlong rush into the cosmic void. A narrow-angle optic switched on and snapped a sequence of brief shots.
One of the sensor’s tiny pixels, spanning about the length of a dozen bacteria lined up end to end, registered an increased charge. There, among the sun’s lens flare, diffracted light, and electronic noise, sat an extra point of light. It was the smallest of small blips, an inconsequential mote in the emptiness of space, and it had a pale blue hue.
This mote was us, our world, Earth—a shockingly abrupt summation of 4 billion years of complex and chaotic history. The image taken that day was the ultimate selfless selfie. It provided an existential perspective that is unique among the species on our planet: Only we humans have seen ourselves from billions of miles away. Carl Sagan would later immortalize the image with the title, the “Pale Blue Dot.”
The Pale Blue Dot was the latest in a long history of association of the color blue with our home in the universe, and with life itself. Two decades before Voyager, as Apollo 8 circled the moon, astronauts recorded the now-famous “Earthrise”—a stunning color photograph of a bright blue-white hemisphere suspended above a gray lunar landscape. Four years later, the Apollo 17 mission captured a beguiling whole-Earth image that became “The Blue Marble.”
Its government is virtual, borderless, blockchained, and secure. Has this tiny post-Soviet nation found the way of the future? The Estonian government is so eager to take on big problems that many ambitious techies leave the private sector to join it.
Audio: Listen to this story.
The future of human sex may not be with humans at all. Sex robot technology is advancing at such a rate that experts believe human companions may become obsolete by 2050.
Innovations in the robotics industry are pushing us closer and closer to robotic sex that can compare to or even surpass sex with humans. Tech companies such as Arlan Robotics and Abyss Creations have already invented technology that attempts to bridge the gap between human and robot sex. A combination of realistic rubber flesh (known as Frubber) and advancements in artificial intelligence are making this sci-fi concept a reality. It doesn’t stop there, though. Other technology includes fellatio-specialized droids, synchronized orgasms, self-warming genitals, auto-lubricating vaginas… what CAN’T they do?
Currently, sex robots won’t fit in most of our budgets. Roxxxy, a fully-functioning sex robot on the market, is currently listed at $9,995. However, futurist Ian Pearson believes that by 2050, half of the world’s population will have reasonable access to a robot companion. Until then, we always have dreams of West World.
Earlier this year, astronomers at the Pan-STARRS observatory in Hawaii detected a planetary object that had come from outside the solar system for the first time. The October 19 discovery came after the object had already made its closest approach to Earth five days before. Astronomers around the world turned our most advanced telescopes toward the object, only approximately 400 meters long and perhaps 40 meters wide, and confirmed that it is without a doubt on a trajectory that will take it back out into interstellar space.
Originally thought to be a comet, the object revealed characteristics that are more similar to an asteroid—more rock and less ice. It was given a new designation, 1I, for the first interstellar object ever discovered then was named `Oumuamua, a Hawaiian word that translates to "messenger" or "scout."
Astronomers have managed to learn a lot about `Oumuamua, an elongated tumbling asteroid of rock and perhaps metal that was likely involved in a significant collision at some point that sent it spinning. But where it came from is still a mystery. A new paper titled, "The origin of interstellar asteroidal objects like 1I/2017 U1," which is still under review, takes a look at three possible origins for `Oumuamua. In the video below, the wonderful PBS YouTube series Space Time takes a look at the three theories.
Wildfires are still raging across southern California, marking the end of a destructive year of extreme weather events around the world. In the U.S. alone historic floods hit Missouri and Arkansas in May, drought parched the Dakotas and Montana from spring through fall and autumn hurricanes ravaged the U.S. Gulf Coast, Florida and the Caribbean.
Scientists have long predicted such extreme events (pdf) would become more frequent or intense, and sometimes both, due to human-influenced climate change. And as extreme as this year seems, it turns out last year’s events were already a landmark of sorts. This week the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society published an assessment of the connection between climate change and extreme events in 2016, the society’s sixth annual report on the topic. The report selects a handful of extreme events from the previous year and disentangles anthropogenic climate change’s effects from natural variability (meaning what we would expect to happen without human influence). For the first time in the report’s history, scientists said that they have found that several of the events could not have occurred if the planet was not heating up.
“Climate change was a necessary condition for some of these events in 2016, in order for them to happen,” Bulletin Editor in Chief Jeff Rosenfeld said in a presentation at the American Geophysical Union (AGU) conference in New Orleans this week. “These are new weather extremes made possible by a new climate. They were impossible in the old climate.”
NASA scientists are set to embark on a 756-kilometer expedition in one of the most barren landscapes on Earth to survey an unexplored stretch of Antarctic ice. The team led by two NASA scientists will begin their two- to three-week traverse in an arc around the South Pole on 21 December, NASA said. "They are packing extreme cold-weather gear and scientific instruments onto sleds pulled by two tank-like snow machines called PistenBullys," the US space agency added.
The expedition will ultimately help scientists to make the best assessment of the accuracy of data collected from space by the Ice Cloud and land Elevation Satellite-2 (ICESat-2), set to launch in 2018. With a fast-firing laser instrument, ICESat-2 will measure the elevation of ice sheets and track change over time.
Even small amounts of melt across areas as vast as Greenland or Antarctica can result in large amounts of melt-water contributing to sea level rise.
The team will collect precise GPS data of the elevation at 88 degrees south, where ICESat-2's orbits converge, providing thousands of points where the survey measurements can be compared to satellite data, NASA said. "This traverse provides an extremely challenging and extremely cold way to assess the accuracy of the data," said Kelly Brunt of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, and a research scientist at the University of Maryland.
"ICESat-2's datasets are going to tell us incredible things about how Earth's ice is changing, and what that means for things like sea level rise," Brunt added.
Photographer Adrain Chesser has spent nearly a decade following various group of modern hunter-gatherers.
The groups live primarily in the Great Basin, located at the intersection of Nevada, Utah, Oregon, and California. They say they migrate and change their eating habits according to the seasons, but still maintain Facebook pages, blogs, and other connections with modern society.
In 2007, photographer Adrain Chesser went to a traditional Native American ceremony called the Naraya when he was having a tough time in the wake of his mother's death. While there, Chesser became acquainted with Finisia Medrano and J.P. Hartsong, who both lived as hunter-gatherers in the Great Basin, a part of the United States encompassing parts of Nevada, Utah, Oregon, and California.
“When I heard they were living this wild and free existence, my head exploded,” Chesser told me.
LET ME FREAK you out for a second. You know what bitcoin is, right? I mean, no, but quickly, it’s a “cryptocurrency” that’s basically secret computer money. One bitcoin, which doesn’t actually have a real, physical form, is worth at this moment upwards of $16,000. But to get one, you either have to buy them from online exchanges or use specialized computing hardware to “mine” it. That last bit is where the freak-out comes in.
In a report last week, the cryptocurrency website Digiconomics said that worldwide bitcoin mining was using more electricity than Serbia. The country. Writing for Grist, Eric Holthaus calculated that by July 2019, the Bitcoin peer-to-peer network—remember BitTorrent? Like that—would require more electricity than all of the United States. And by November of 2020, it’d use more electricity than the entire world does today.
That’s bad. It means Bitcoin emits the equivalent of 17.7 million tons of carbon dioxide every year, a big middle finger to Earth’s climate and anyone who enjoys things like coastlines, forests, and not dying of mosquito-borne diseases. Refracted through a different metaphor, the Bitcoin P2P network is essentially a distributed superintelligence utterly dedicated to generating bitcoins, so of course it wants to convert all the energy (and therefore matter) in the universe into bitcoin. That is literally its job. And if it has to recruit greedy nerds by paying them phantom value, well, OK. Unleash the hypnocurrency!
The idea of bitcoin still has the whiff of genius—a digital currency as untraceable and trustworthy as cash, unfettered from nationality and physicality, with egalitarianism and access built into its philosophical and technical firmware. But the reality, exposed by bitcoin’s remarkable run-up in value over the last three months, is that the science may not hold together. Which isn’t to say people aren’t trying to fix it.
Like its immediate predecessor, The Force Awakens, director Rian Johnson’s installment trades a little too much on nostalgia. But it does so with cleverness, verve, and depth.
When Star Wars: The Force Awakens hit theaters two years ago, my reaction to it—like that of many people—had two distinct phases: initial elation (it’s erased all signs of the prequels!); and, later, mild disappointment at the over-reliance on nostalgia and recyclings from the first trilogy (another Death Star?). This was always going to be a tricky balance—long-awaited fan fulfillment versus something genuinely fresh—and I suggested at the time that final judgment on the movie would depend in part on its sequels: If they branched out in new directions, The Force Awakens’s flaws would be easily forgiven; if, on the other hand, “we again find our heroes lassoing AT-ATs on a snow-covered planet”—à la The Empire Strikes Back—it would be a bad sign for the franchise.
Well, the writer-director Rian Johnson’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi does feature another battle with AT-ATs on a snow-covered planet. Also: another Imperial/First Order effort to wipe out a rebel base with staggeringly powerful, space-based weapons; another subplot about a Jedi traveling to a distant planet to be mentored in the Force; another alien-filled cantina (actually, a casino this time around); another infiltration of an enemy vessel to turn off a crucial piece of hardware; another light-saber battle between former master and pupil; and a crucial scene that bears notable resemblance to the Luke-Vader-Emperor climax of Return of the Jedi.
The movie opens more or less where The Force Awakens left off. The young would-be Jedi, Rey (Daisy Ridley), has traveled to meet her first-trilogy counterpart, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), on a craggy island on a faraway world. The question is whether he will agree to serve as her mentor in the Force, as Obi-Wan and Yoda served him way back when. Alas, bitter and scraggly-bearded, Luke initially responds with a variation of “Get the hell off my lawn, kid!” But Johnson ultimately has more interesting things in store for both of these characters, as well as for Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), the Darth Vader wannabe who has a complex and tortured history with Luke, and who spends a good portion of the film telepathically linked with Rey.
An exceedingly happy otter, bears caught in the act and a shocked seal feature in this year's Comedy Wildlife Photography Awards. These are the amazing crisp shots of animals doing things you don't often see... and they're hilarious. There were only five official winners across the categories, but many worthy competitors.
After 3,500 entries it was an owl photographed trying to get back onto its branch that scooped the top prize.
Winner Tibor Kercz was given a trophy handmade by disabled men and women in Tanzania and some more camera gear.
He also took home first prize in the Amazing Internet Portfolio category as well as a safari to Kenya, not bad.
Before winning the On the Land award, photographer Andrea Zampatti's picture of a laughing dormouse went viral on social media earlier this year.