Monday, April 19, 2021

What could AI become in future generations?

     We lost one of our great scientific and philosophical minds not long ago. Before he left us, Stephen Hawking gave us a warning about the encroachment of artificial intelligence (AI), which has already almost imperceptibly worked its way into our society and taken control of several aspects of our lives. Robots build our cars and even perform delicate precision surgeries. GPS can guide us to any destination (I call the one in my car Daisy). Giant server facilities store all our information down to our finances and what brands of underwear we prefer and what we eat and what we watch on TV.

     Our cars can keep us safely in our lanes and hold a preset interval to the next vehicle ahead and even parallel park themselves, and driverless cars are appearing on our roads. Our computers converse with us and store and manage all our knowledge; a library at NC State University can robotically store and retrieve thousands of requested old-fashioned printed books.

     There are computers that can fly and land giant airplanes and conduct experiments and perform exhaustive flawless calculations and create perfect simulations and control complex space missions and beat us at chess and even grow smarter by themselves over time with what is being called deep learning, which mimics the human learning process. We’ve become addicted to our smart phones and laptops and tablets and PCs and we’re heavily dependent on the Internet.

     In China, Xiaoice (pronounced Shau-ice) is a national celebrity. She’s a guest on talk shows, sings popular songs beautifully, and acts as a personal advisor and confidant to millions. She’s taken part in billions of conversations as people who consider her a personal friend seriously seek her advice, confess their deepest secrets to her, and value her counsel.

    Xiaoice, however, is not human. She’s a software program created by Microsoft. She can flirt, make jokes, even identify photos. The Chinese love her.

     Other software programs can best humans with their expertise. Alexa knows far more than any human and instantly comes up with the correct answer to almost any legitimate question you could possibly ask her. Google translator is precise and lightning fast. LipNet can read lips faster and with more accuracy than a person can. (Hmmm. Could a protagonist in a story use this program to spy on a villain? With a zoom lens, she could take a video from distant concealment and then have the software read it to learn the villain’s evil intentions, perhaps.)

     Lots of fodder for sci-fi writers.

     Hawking’s warning may become all too real when computers soon reach the stage where they begin to teach themselves more and more knowledge at exponential rates. It’s an ever-steepening upward curve. The more they know the more quickly they’ll be able to learn anew, without fatigue or the need for sleep, with inhuman logic and precision, with unlimited instant storage and retrieval, without self-distorting emotions, ultimately with levels of intelligence far in excess of ours. Elon Musk has also suggested we move into this AI realm with caution.

     Will AI devices begin making autonomous decisions about all things, including the human presence in what they might well consider their world?

Phil

www.philbowie.com

For some exiting reading, try the thriller novel series Guns, Diamondback, Kllrs, and Deathsman, set in the misty folds of the Great Smokies and endorsed by top gun bestselling authors Lee Child, Ridley Pearson, and Stephen Coonts. Available in print or Kindle from Amazon.

 

Monday, April 12, 2021

Forgotten Space Missions

    Since its establishment in 1958, NASA has sponsored over 200 space programs, some involving dozens of individual launches, like the Space Shuttle series of 135 missions that built the ISS and put the famous Hubble and other space telescopes in orbit to reveal new wonders of the Universe in stunning detail. A series of huge Saturn V rockets thundered aloft from Florida to place two men on the moon half a century ago and took ten more daring adventurers there in following missions. Satellite launch missions have given us critical weather and geography data and communications and GPS technology we’ve all come to rely on heavily in everyday life. Robotic explorations of all our star’s planets have yielded astonishing details about how our solar system formed and has evolved.

    But there have been so many hundreds of missions that most have faded from the public consciousness despite their considerable revelations and contributions. Programs like the X-Planes, Pioneer, Mariner, Galileo, and Cassini-Huygens have passed into history as each has added priceless knowledge to our collective mind bank, each building more experience and breeding new ideas and providing valuable fallout science that has benefited humanity in myriad practical ways right here on Earth. Two Voyager spacecraft launched in 1977, after performing flawless tours of the outer planets and sending back revealing images, have streaked out of the solar system into interstellar space, but are still sending back faint data streams as they speed toward alien stars.

    Many missions, especially in recent years, have focused on Mars with a view to one day sending astronauts there. Perseverance and its tiny drone have been in the news lately with yet more astonishing data on the red planet. There’s a related forgotten mission that celebrated its 20th anniversary last week. Odyssey launched on April 7, 2001, and after a seven-month journey, it began orbiting Mars and sending back a wealth of data. It's still operational. It has created the most accurate map of the entire planet to date, photographing and measuring every feature and charting in detail all the existing surface water ice and ice deposits that lie not far beneath the surface. This will be critical to personed missions, because they'll need that water to survive and it means much less will have to be carried with them. It can produce breathing oxygen and be converted to rocket fuel and to rover propulsion fuel. It can nourish indoor gardens and serve as a solvent for all kinds of chemistry.

    We’ve never stopped learning about the vast Universe we live in, and a portion of that knowledge will soon help send astronauts on the greatest adventure of all time.

    The exploration of another world.

Phil

www.philbowie.com

   The thriller novel series Guns, Diamondback, Kllrs, and Deathsman, set in the misty folds of the Great Smokies and endorsed by top gun bestselling authors Lee Child, Ridley Pearson, and Stephen Coonts, is available in print or Kindle from Amazon (Easy buy link on my website.)

   Thanks to all those who’ve reviewed the series favorably on Amazon and kindly sent notes and e-mails. You’re much appreciated

Monday, April 5, 2021

 Can we voyage to an alien star?

   The early colonists who voyaged here in fragile craft powered only by the wind could not have known what a mighty, complex, and advanced nation would grow from their daring adventures. Just over a century ago, the Wright Brothers, taking turns, powered themselves into the air in a precarious machine they crafted of wood and cloth and wires. They, too, could not possibly have imagined what their early ingenuity would become, with thousands of huge jet airliners routinely winging all around the planet and men walking on the moon and astronauts inhabiting a large orbiting space station where they carry out exotic science experiments.

   Such pioneers have explored every realm of our Earth and our solar system. The next quest—the next far horizon—is outer space and the beckoning stars. The nearest one beyond our sun is Proxima Centauri at just over four light years away. Because light travels at 186,000 miles per second, each light year spans six trillion miles, so Proxima Centauri and its orbiting planetary system float 25 trillion miles from us. That’s 25 thousand billion miles—a nearly inconceivable distance.

   But there are some space pioneers, like Harvard astrophysicist Avi Loeb, who believe we can send a robotic probe on a voyage to Proxima Centauri and get back photos and science data from it just 20 years after launch. To do that it will have to accelerate to 20 percent of lightspeed (130 million mph). To achieve that, the craft must be very small to limit its mass and, like those early pioneers, it will rely on sail power, with systems power from an onboard atomic battery charged by radioactive decay. The sail will be pushed not by atmospheric currents, of course, but by laser light, a concept proven by a 2010 Japanese space mission named IKAROS that used photons from the sun to push a sail to 890 mph. Laser light will work even better than sunlight. Russian billionaire Yuri Milner has generously funded research to develop and refine the necessary technology, much of which is already within reach (consider the amazing high-quality photos we get from our tiny smartphone lenses).

   The project is called Starshot, and it’s well under way.

   Like the early pioneers and the clever Wright Brothers, we probably cannot begin to imagine what wonders Starshot will reveal to us.

   Or where in the Universe it will lead us over future generations.

Phil

www.philbowie.com

Try the thriller novel series Guns, Diamondback, Kllrs, and Deathsman, set in the misty folds of the Great Smokies and endorsed by top gun bestselling authors Lee Child, Ridley Pearson, and Stephen Coonts. In print or Kindle from Amazon, with an easy buy link on my website. Thanks to all those who’ve reviewed the series favorably on Amazon and kindly sent notes and e-mails. You’re much appreciated.

Monday, March 29, 2021

What Happened Before the Big Bang?

   A few centuries past, people thought the Universe was static. Then we invented better and better telescopes and finally eccentric astronomer Edwin Hubble found that star cities called galaxies exist, that everything out there is moving, and that galaxies are dispersing.

   So cosmic theory went from static to expansive with the logical probability that expansion ought to eventually slow down under gravitational attraction and then contract all the way back to a singularity that might again expand into a new Universe.

   But then we discovered that the Universal rate of expansion is not slowing at all but is instead accelerating under some strange unknown repulsive force we're calling dark energy, posing the prospect that the Universe we know and love is doomed to eventually cool, with star and planet formation slowing and eventually ceasing, and the whole grand show dying.

   We know our lives can't last forever and neither can our solar system because our private star only has a finite fuel supply and is already in middle age, having burned for 4.5 billion of our years. But to think the whole Universe also has a finite life with only utter darkness before and after is supremely depressing. It has been some 13.5 billion years since the Big Bang and maybe the Universe is middle aged or more, too.

   There has been a theory floating around that ours is just one of multiple parallel universes, but this is intuitively improbable and unsupported by any evidence whatever, lacking even credible theoretical support from various disciplines such as astronomy, mathematics, and physics.

   Leaving us with a profound question. We think we know the sad fate of our Universe, but what happened before the big bang birthed it?

   Some highly respected scientists believe they have a good idea.

   Sir Roger Penrose is a genius Oxford physicist, mathematician, and philosopher. He and several equally bright colleagues from various disciplines have developed a promising theory they call Conformable Cyclic Cosmology or CCC, which suggests there has been and will continue to be a succession of Universes, one after the other, each growing from a singularity and eventually dissipating. They call the whole process from birth to death an eon. Their theory says it's possible there has been eon after eon in the past before ours and there will be still more eons in never ending succession after ours is gone. There is both mathematical and geometric support for this theory, and there may even be hard evidence for it in physics. Part of the theory says that effects lingering from the previous eon to ours should be detectable.

   In 2002, a physics experiment called LIGO was set up in Hanford, Washington, and Livingston, Louisiana. to detect gravitational waves for fundamental studies. That has been a success. They found those waves with much deserved exuberant celebration. The experiment, however, also picked up signals thought to be mere noise, and this data was summarily discarded as unhelpful. But Sir Penrose suggested they take a closer look at the noise. The Universe has been thoroughly mapped by various means over the years and is known to have a filamentary structure of stars connecting clusters of galaxies. Our own Milky Way galaxy lives within a cluster called the Local Group. Here and there within this Universal structure there are odd patches empty of stars but filled with a mysterious magnetism. Sir Penrose suggests those areas may be leftover ingredients from the previous eon cycle.

   And that in turn suggests the good news that life itself may well regenerate and endure.

Phil 

www.philbowie.com

Check out the North Carolina suspense series GUNS, DIAMONDBACK, KLLRS, and DEATHSMAN on Amazon in print or Kindle. Find easy buy links on my website. And thanks to all those who have kindly sent me e-mails and posted reviews. You're the reason I do it.


 

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Where Does the ISS Get its Water?

   Transporting enough water to the International Space Station for the astronauts to drink, rehydrate their food, keep them clean, and help them carry out science experiments would cost billions of dollars if it all had to be rocketed up to them. So, NASA has devised ingenious ways to recycle 90 percent of the supply they have. Their perspiration, urine, and even their moist exhalations are captured, treated. and stored as fresh water for reuse over and over. (The rest is sent to them in resupply ships.)

   Sounds kind of gross, doesn’t it?

   But our Spaceship Earth also only has pretty much the same finite supply of water she was born with billions of years ago. She must also carry out endless recycling of that supply.

   Water hardly ever gets destroyed. It only changes form, of course, from liquid to vapor or solids like snow and hail and ice, which, except for permanent ancient ice at the poles, melts with seasonal change. The liquid evaporates into clouds, leaving behind any contaminants it had carried, and the clouds then kindly return it as a clean liquid once again.

   We’re all drinking water molecules that have had a complicated and often even a sordid past, from washing cars to hosing out gutters to putting out fires to nourishing billions of plants and animals and other humans. It’s nature’s best solvent and balm, with nearly uncountable thousands upon thousands of critical uses.

   From space, our planet looks like a beautiful water world with vast oceans far bigger than the verdant land masses, but most of that water is salty and thus undrinkable. Only three percent of the supply is fresh, and only just over one percent is drinkable without further treatment. mostly because we constantly pollute our rivers and lakes and atmosphere so badly.

   The astronauts on the ISS respect their supply of water as the precious resource it is. They know they can’t live without it.

   I think maybe more of us here on Spaceship Earth need to adopt that same attitude.

Phil

www.philbowie.com

Try the thriller novel series Guns, Diamondback, Kllrs, and Deathsman, set in the misty folds of the Great Smokies and endorsed by top gun bestselling authors Lee Child, Ridley Pearson, and Stephen Coonts. The yarns are available in print or Kindle from Amazon, with an easy buy link on my website. Thanks to all those who’ve reviewed the series favorably on Amazon and kindly sent me notes and emails. You’re much appreciated.



Monday, March 15, 2021

 It’s About Time (again) 

     Like the periodic debate over whether to abolish the electoral college, which pops up every four years just before a presidential election but is forgotten just after the election, a debate over whether to simply keep daylight savings pops up every year before the time change but is forgotten just after the change until the next cycle. This year some states are saying the heck with all that and are electing to keep daylight savings year round.

     This brings up a question, though. What time is it ever, really?

     Turns out that depends on many things.

     Military people count time quite sensibly, as minutes and seconds within 24 of our hours.  

For them, 2:20 in the afternoon is simply 1420.  The rest of us are often unsure whether someone means before or after noon when they suggest a time to rendezvous for romance.  And time is always different for all the zones around the globe, of course.  It must be confusing for those poor folks near a time zone border who live on one side and work on the other.  They could get to work at a time before they left home, for example. 

     We divide our year arbitrarily into 12 months, but what is a year?  For us, it’s one trip around our star, or about 365 days, and a day, of course, is one earth rotation.  But on Mars a year is 687 of our days, and a single day on Venus is 243 of our days, but a day on Jupiter is only 10 of our hours.  A year on Uranus lasts over 84 of our years, on Pluto it’s 165 of our years.  Nobody on Earth can live so much as a single Pluto year even if they drink veggie smoothies and don’t watch politicians debate or Congress attempt to legislate something.

     It takes our star about two minutes to rise and clear the horizon; in other words it appears to move its own diameter in 2.13 of our minutes.  But on Mars sunrise takes 1.44 of our minutes, on Mercury it’s 16.13 of our hours, while for a maximum type-A Neptunian, it’s but 2.85 Earth-seconds.  Yet of course the sun is not really moving at all in relation to any of us.

     All this was hard enough to sort out, but then along came that electric-haired Einstein who, one of our centuries ago, told us in his relativity theory—long since now a proven fact—that time is not a constant and is really quite unreliable because it moves slower under increasing gravity or under increasing speed.  Near the speed of light (186,000 miles in a single one of our Earth-seconds) time nearly brakes to a relative stop.  This means that time moves a little slower for somebody standing at our equator, zipping along at 1,100 miles per hour as the earth rotates, than for somebody standing on the north pole, who is only turning around in place as the earth rotates (you’d think they’d get dizzy), but astronauts on the ISS are in an even slower relative time frame because they’re doing 17,150 mph to keep from falling onto Disney World or New Jersey.  But wait just an Earth-minute, they’re in zero gravity so they also experience a faster time factor.  Luckily, all their time variations don’t work out to zero or they’d never get anything done.  They’re already wasting enough of whatever their time frame is playing with their weightless food and beverages.

     On some huge dervishing distant planet, a hundred of our years unfold while only a single minute elapses for us.  Wow.  Imagine how THOSE poor creatures would feel waiting in line at the DMV. 

     And consider the geniuses who figured out how to make the GPS system work.  The satellites are speeding so their time slows down by our Earth-based reckoning.  They’re in elliptical orbits so their distances from earth and their speeds are constantly varying too, so . . .  Anyway, those clever GPS math wizards had to accommodate half a dozen different time-shifting gremlins just so you can find your way to the World’s Biggest Gator Attraction somewhere in Florida before you run out of ethanoled gas.

     The next, ah, time somebody asks you the time, it’s okay if you tell them you honestly don’t know and nobody else in the whole Universe does either.

Phil

If you're looking for an interesting way to pass some leisure time, check out the North Carolina suspense novel series Guns, Diamondback, Kllrs, and Deathsman in print or Kindle on Amazon for some distracting pandemic reading. And thanks to all those out there who have sent complimentary and encouraging e-mails about the series. You’re much appreciated.  www.philbowie.com


Monday, March 8, 2021

 Why Go to Space? (Part Two)

   Last post we thought about why the space effort can ultimately prove critical to humankind’s survival in the Universe. But there are hundreds of other ways space program developments are already benefiting us. Here are just a few:

   Improvements in Mechanics: magnetic bearings that eliminate friction and thus wear; plasma coatings that eliminate lubricants in moving parts; laser-based welding that’s stronger and more uniform; micro lasers for precision drilling and cutting materials; structural analysis software that’s used extensively in manufacturing; cleaner paint stripping methods; weight reduction materials with increased strength.

   Medical and Safety Advances: a voice-controlled wheelchair, ultrasound skin damage assessment; emergency rescue cutters; a self-righting life raft; personal medical alarms; a tollbooth purification system to protect workers; better environmental sensors; an enriched baby food ingredient to enhance infant mental and physical development; improved swimming pool purification; a miniature programmable pacemaker; safer ocular screening for children; a digital imaging breast biopsy procedure that greatly reduces pain and scarring; a fast automated urinalysis system.

High tech advances: highly efficient telemetry systems; semiconductor stacking for faster processing speeds; computer scheduling of complex tasks; scratch resistant and stay-clean lens coatings; interactive computer training methods.

Improved Environmental Systems: great solar energy advances; a device for continuously measuring atmospheric pressure; satellite weather monitoring; satellite scanning for forest management; a more accurate lightning warning device; much improved air quality monitors.

Miscellaneous fields: improved school bus chassis design; a flywheel energy storage system;  advances in hydroponics for better global vegetable production; a stronger wing design for jet aircraft along with cleaner, quieter, and more efficient jet engines; studless winter tires; much improved 12v portable coolers and heaters for campers, truckers, and medical transport; improved golf ball aerodynamics.

    These are but a few of the advances in almost every field of human endeavor that have spun off from the space program, with more to surely come.

    When we send a rover like Perseverance to Mars, for one stellar example, it needs the best solar energy system we can invent, it need stronger, lighter materials, it needs long endurance, it needs advanced robotics, it needs bearings that won’t wear out under the harshest conditions, it needs advanced cameras and telemetry. Developing new materials and products and systems to meet all these many requirements means much of that vastly improved technology can also be put to work right here at home in myriad ways.

    Does anybody still think the Space Program is a wasted effort?

Phil

www.philbowie.com

Check out the North Carolina suspense novel series Guns, Diamondback, Kllrs, and Deathsman in print or Kindle on Amazon for some distracting pandemic reading. And thanks to all those out there who have sent complimentary and encouraging e-mails about the series. You’re much appreciated.