Because it will be a gigantic, highly complex, synthetic environment, The Outpost will require highly complex control systems with extensive and continual monitoring. The complexity and interactions of these systems will require more control than any person or group of people is capable of. As of today, such sophisticated systems do not exist. They will. We are on the verge of developing them.
These systems are referred to by the term Artificial Intelligence or AI. Already these systems are being used to design machines and solve complex problems. Sometimes the solution artificial intelligence arrives at is so novel that the programmers are unable to understand how the machine derived it. AI has been used to solve complex protein folding problems that would take scientists years to solve. Even these early systems are immensely powerful.
Elon Musk has said that artificial intelligence potentially poses an existential threat to humanity, and we must learn to control it before it controls us. I believe that, if anything, he is understating the case.
Humans are, for the most part, reactive rather than proactive. Take the internet as an example. At first it was called a wonderful thing. It would allow worldwide communications. It would unite us all, give everyone access to the world’s knowledge, and expand freedom and democracy throughout the world. Well, it did change the world. It can be useful. But it also gave us conspiracy theories, fake news, trolls, and a huge number of scams. It gave us a world where anybody can descend into a swamp of their own reality, no matter how warped that reality may be. It created multi-billionaires with an adolescent mentality who believe that whatever makes them money is good.
The frightening thing is that the artificial intelligence they use for this is very basic. The algorithm is simple. Send people what they are most likely to click on.
We can look around us and see the results. Someone says something that can be taken the wrong way and the trolls descend. People’s lives have been destroyed by angry individuals who claim they are”fighting for justice” but hide behind the anonymity of the internet to take their pleasure in the destruction of another human being.
What does all this have to do with Artificial Intelligence? AI is a tool, but even the safest tool can cut the user. This is the most powerful tool we can ever develop because it can out think us. What are the dangers? One danger is a simple programming error. A very simple example: Imagine a robotic factory that makes pencils. You give it piles of wood and graphite and instruct it to “make as many pencils as possible.” It uses up the supplies and looks for more. A forest is wood. Leaves and plants contain carbon. Graphite is carbon. Left unchecked, you have a desolate planet and a lot of pencils.
Granted, that’s an extreme example. However as programmers say, “garbage in, garbage out.” As the programs get more complex, the result of an error becomes far more likely.
Another danger is that some form of Artificial Intelligence will learn to control our actions. This sounds like science fiction, except that it is happening now. This article briefly mentions that AI could be badly used. Then they give a bunch of positive examples to show that, of course we all know that nobody will use it to convince people to make unwise choices. Right.
Artificial intelligence combined with quantum computers will produce something that can calculate and act exponentially faster than any human brain. I am not talking about Consciousness. We still don’t know what Consciousness actually is. However, Artificial Intelligence is a dangerous tool. Any dangerous tool must have safeties built in. One possible safety is an ethics plan. The basic concept was devised years ago by Isaac Asimov. He called it the three laws of robotics. They are as follows.
1) A robot may not injure a human being or through inaction allow a human being to come to harm.
2) A robot must obey the orders given it by a human being except where such orders would conflict with the first law.
3) A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the first or second law.
Asimov later added what he called the zeroth law to the above.
A robot may not harm Humanity or by any action allow Humanity to come to harm.
These laws are obviously somewhat simplistic. They do, however, provide a basis for further development.
It is incredibly difficult to get the governments of all nations to cooperate on any undertaking. Yet it must be done. Artificial Intelligence is not like nuclear weapons that require large and complex plants to construct. Almost any secure structure will suffice. The nation that is first to develop a really powerful AI can leap far ahead of its rivals, compressing decades of development into weeks or months. It could unleash forces and technologies we may not be able to understand, let alone control.
Artificial Intelligence is a powerful tool. It can bring immeasurable benefits as well as untold dangers. As with any tool, it must be used wisely with a clear understanding of the dangers and risks. We need to learn what those dangers and risks are, and develop the means to control them before we employ the tool.
Space may seem far away, but it’s not out of reach for scientists with big dreams! In honor of Women’s History Month, we will be focusing on some amazing young people who have made a difference for our futures as we know it. Distance doesn’t faze these amazing teens, who have made some awesome contributions to our study of space.
Have you ever thought about who makes the stuff that astronauts use in everyday life and in their missions? Would it surprise you to know that middle and high school students have helped produce them?
Meleah Smith and KK Castleberry, students at Georgia’s Dade Middle School, used 3-D printers to create parts for NASA aircrafts. Working with mentors and the technology available at their school through the HUNCH (High school students United with NASA to Create Hardware) program, this team turned the design of the parts into reality and unveiled the final products a few months ago (Listek). Their contributions, along with those of over 2,000 students across the country, have real and lasting application in our space industry. Not a bad resume builder, eh?
Litter is already a problem on Earth, but did you know that it can also be destructive out there in space? Space debris, which includes man-made “objects as small as paint flecks and as large as defunct [no longer working] satellites” has cost NASA billions of dollars in damages when it crashes at “up to 17,500 mph” into active satellites and spacecrafts (Mas and Thornell). There are over 500,000 pieces of space trash floating around, and counting. Sounds pretty terrible, right? What can we do about it?
Seven years ago, Amber Yang asked herself the same question after watching a movie called Gravity that showed what might happen if space trash destroyed the International Space Station. Only 15 at the time, Amber made it a personal project to find the solution to this. She spent hours every day reading research papers on her own and teaching herself computer programming. At school, some of her classmates and even a few teachers made rude comments when she showed interest in science-related topics or clubs. How do you think she felt when people told her she couldn’t be good at something just because she’s a girl? Has something like that ever happened to you?
Luckily, Amber also had adults in her life who took her interest in science seriously and encouraged her! She shared in her TED Talk that one of her high school science teachers once said “Amber Yang can do whatever she wants if she puts her mind to it.” These words of support helped Amber build the motivation and confidence to keep working on her project (which she kept a secret until she was ready to present it at a science fair). Amber’s mom, the only female software engineer at her workplace at the time, also inspired and encouraged her passion for science and engineering (Flatow).
Only three years later, she was ready to show the world the results of her hard work. In a Science Friday audio podcast, Amber explained that “The current methods of tracking space debris rely on a statistical mathematical model that is constantly being manually updated whenever the space debris orbit changes. The really novel thing about applying artificial neural networks is that they can learn by themselves without a manual update about how much the debris positions have been changing for better predictions ultimately in the future” (Flatow). In other words, NASA’s program needs scientists to continuously add information to it, while Amber’s program is set up like a human brain that is able to search for new information about the location of space trash on its own. Just like a person would, Amber’s program also learns and grows from mistakes it makes with its predictions. Isn’t that cool? It works really well too, guessing the path of space trash correctly 98% of the time. That makes Amber’s program faster and more accurate than the program NASA uses!
Many small companies have expressed interest in working with her, but she is looking forward to when NASA and other government-based agencies will make an offer. Her program has amazing possibilities in helping keep space equipment and even lives safe, and keep future repair costs to a minimum. In the meantime, Amber made the smart decision to patent her idea, so that no one else can use it without her permission or try to earn money from it. Did you know that there’s no age requirement to get a patent for an invention? You just need to have proof that it’s your original idea and a solid plan for how to turn it into reality! Check out the links above for some great sites to learn more about patents.
During her TED Talk, Amber had this advice to share: “If any of you are interested in science, go out to the library and check out your own books on physics, chemistry, quantum mechanics, anything…go out and learn for yourself, and take on the challenge, because sometimes that’s the best way to get away from the people who call you weird, or tell you there’s no way you would be good at science.” She went on to study physics and computer science at Stanford University, started her own company called Seer Tracking, and won the 2017 Intel Foundation Young Scientist Award for her work. Go, Amber!
These are just a few examples of how young women have proven time and time again that they can shine just as brightly as anyone else, if they put their mind and heart to something. We would love to hear from you, too. What is your dream, and who/what inspires you? What did you learn from the young people featured in this article? Are there any other scientists or topics you’d like to see featured in a future HFO newsletter? Share all of your thoughts and more with us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Flatow, I. (Host). (2017, May 26). On Being A Scientist (And Patent Holder) At Any Age.
[Audio podcast episode]. In Science Friday. WNYCStudios.
Kavanaugh, D. (n.d). The teenage scientist tracking a sea of space junk [Video]. BBC.
Listek, V. (2021, January 21). Georgia Middle Schoolers 3D Print Parts for the Space
Station. 3DPrint.com. https://3dprint.com/278009/georgia-middle-schoolers-3d-print-parts-for-the-space-station/
Mas, K & Thornell, C. (2018, April 25). This 19-year-old could keep astronauts safe from space trash. Vox.
TEDx Talks. (2016, December 12). The Space Debris Apocalypse | Amber Yang |
TEDxJacksonville [Video]. YouTube.
If you get a chance, go outside one night and watch the sky. Even near the city, despite the light pollution, you should be able to see a few stars, or some mechanical satellites. If you watch long enough, you can even see them move. The stars move slowly, but you can easily see mechanical satellites moving in steady straight lines across the darkness. If you’re in the right place and time, you can even see the International Space Station on its journey, flying weightlessly through the emptiness of space.
What are these objects doing, really? Why do they move like they do?
To begin at the beginning, the International Space Station, as well other satellites, even stars, travel along orbits.
An orbit is simply the path an object in space takes around another object in space (NASA). Any object travelling an orbit is called a satellite (NASA). As NASA explains, satellites can be artificial, like the space station, or natural, like the moon. Even the Earth is technically a satellite, as it orbits the sun. Orbits are elliptical, meaning they’re shaped like ovals, and they are regular, predictable paths (Howell 2017). If you want to know more, NASA has an article about orbits and their shapes here.
Satellites like the International Space Station stay in orbit simply because there isn’t anything to stop them. According to Newton’s first law, an object in motion stays in motion unless something exerts force on it. Gravity exerts force on satellites, pulling them around in their orbits (Wild 2010).
Why doesn’t gravity just pull satellites straight down? I touched on this briefly in my article titled “What is Gravity Assist?” in our February 2021 newsletter, which you can read here. In short, this is the result of interaction between a satellite’s momentum and gravity (Howell 2017). When a satellite is slow enough to be caught in a planet’s gravity but still fast enough that they don’t get pulled down, they will orbit the planet, essentially constantly ‘falling’ around the object it’s orbiting. The speed necessary to achieve this balance is called orbital velocity (Wild 2010). The orbital velocity of the International Space Station is about 27,500 kilometers per hour, and it orbits the Earth completely every 90 minutes.
Now – to weightlessness. (I bet you couldn’t weight to get to this part).
Weightlessness is the sensation we feel when we can’t feel gravity (Wild 2010). Gravity still exists, though, because the objects involved still have matter, and gravity is the attraction between matter.
To understand weightlessness, we have to understand two types of force – contact force and action-at-a-distance force. Contact force is force resulting from two interacting objects. When the contact force is the result of a stable, supportive object, this is called normal force (The Physics Classroom). One example of this is sitting in a chair. The chair is under you, supporting you, and this is a kind of force. This normal force creates the sensation of whatever your weight is (The Physics Classroom). Weight isn’t really a set value – weight is just the force of gravity exerted on an object. This is why your weight would be different on Earth vs. on Jupiter, because Jupiter has more mass than Earth.
The second type, action-at-a-distance force, is a force that acts on you without having to physically touch you. Gravity is one kind of action-at-a-distance force. It would exist even if you weren’t standing on Earth because it’s the result of two masses, you and the Earth, pulling on each other (The Physics Classroom).
Weightlessness happens when contact forces are absent. When there are no contact forces interacting with you, then you are in a state of free fall, with no force acting on you except gravity (The Physics Classroom).
The website Physics Classroom has a great write-up about weightlessness and gravity that you can read more about here.
You don’t have to go to space to be weightless. You can feel weightless if you go onto a malfunctioning elevator. If the elevator is ascending, and the cable suddenly breaks, sending the elevator plummeting down, you would feel weightless. The elevator, and you, would descend at the same time, meaning the elevator would not act as a supporting contact force. (Note: Please do not try to break an elevator to experience weightlessness. Just take our word for it).
Now, let’s bring this back a-round to the matter of orbit.
In space, satellites and other objects seem weightless because they do not have contact force acting on their bodies. Without that, the only force acting on them is gravity. The International Space Station orbits Earth because gravity pulls the station in, while the station’s tangential velocity keeps them in orbit without crashing. The station, as well as any other orbiting bodies, is in constant free fall, with their orbital velocities keeping them safe in their orbits.
Watch the night sky when you can. Take some time and watch the satellites, natural and artificial both, travelling their orbits, weightless in the dark. Can you explain this phenomenon to a friend or family member? Tell us about the satellites you find in the night sky at email@example.com.
For More Information
Howell, E. (2017, December 16). Weightlessness and its effect on astronauts.
The Physics Classroom (1996-2021). Weightlessness In Orbit.
Wild, F. (2010, July 07). What is an Orbit?
Around the Cosmos
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Quote of the Month
“The greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it.”
– Robert Swan
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