The Weekend “Planet Earth Report” –Google’s CIA Origins, Hubble’s ‘Time-Machine’ Successor, Destructive Bitcoin Behemoth





December 9, 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 "DeepThink: Alien Chess from Another Dimension,"  Zeno's Paradox: Life as a Film,  Apollo 11 Astronauts React to Lunar Conspiracy Theories (Video),  Jurassic Park: Fallen Kingdom  Trailer –Serves Up Science Questions.

Google’s True Origin Partly Lies in CIA and NSA Research Grants for Mass Surveillance



Two decades ago, the US intelligence community worked closely with Silicon Valley in an effort to track citizens in cyberspace. And Google is at the heart of that origin story. Some of the research that led to Google’s ambitious creation was funded and coordinated by a research group established by the intelligence community to find ways to track individuals and groups online.

The intelligence community hoped that the nation’s leading computer scientists could take non-classified information and user data, combine it with what would become known as the internet, and begin to create for-profit, commercial enterprises to suit the needs of both the intelligence community and the public. They hoped to direct the supercomputing revolution from the start in order to make sense of what millions of human beings did inside this digital information network. That collaboration has made a comprehensive public-private mass surveillance state possible today.

The story of the deliberate creation of the modern mass-surveillance state includes elements of Google’s surprising, and largely unknown, origin. It is a somewhat different creation story than the one the public has heard, and explains what Google cofounders Sergey Brin and Larry Page set out to build, and why.

But this isn’t just the origin story of Google: It’s the origin story of the mass-surveillance state, and the government money that funded it.

In the mid 1990s, the intelligence community in America began to realize that they had an opportunity. The supercomputing community was just beginning to migrate from university settings into the private sector, led by investments from a place that would come to be known as Silicon Valley.

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The JWST –What Will NASA’s Biggest-Ever Space Telescope Study First?



To fully utilize the long-awaited James Webb Space Telescope, researchers will have to squeeze a generation of scientific studies into the multibillion-dollar observatory’s short lifetime. What Will NASA's Biggest-Ever Space Telescope Study First? Astronomers are scrambling to keep a rapidly approaching date with destiny—a chance to gaze farther than ever before into the universe’s hidden depths.

After decades of development, the nearly $9-billion James Webb Space Telescope is set for launch from French Guiana in spring 2019. Built in cooperation with the European and Canadian space agencies, Webb is NASA’s biggest, costliest and most powerful observatory yet, boasting a 6.5-meter primary mirror that will be the largest ever flown in space.



Unlike its famous predecessor the Hubble Space Telescope, which mostly was set up to gather visible and ultraviolet light, Webb is optimized to view the cosmos in infrared. At some wavelengths, infrared light can pass through dust almost unscathed, like a sunbeam through a windowpane; at others, it mingles with matter to carry away imprints of its atomic and molecular structure. It is also the brightest light we have from the most distant (and oldest) stars because their otherwise-visible light arrives stretched out to longer, redder wavelengths by more than 13 billion years of the universe’s expansion.

Webb’s infrared eyes make it equal parts x-ray scanner, mass spectrometer and time machine. With them it will peer through the creaking, dusty cosmic eons to study much that astronomers using Hubble and other telescopes have barely begun to glimpse: the universe’s very first galaxies, nascent stars and planets in mid-creation in nebulous wombs, the atmospheres of worlds both within and beyond our solar system.

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Bitcoin Mining Guzzles Energy—And Its Carbon Footprint Just Keeps Growing


If you’re like me, you’ve probably been ignoring the bitcoin phenomenon for years — because it seemed too complex, far-fetched, or maybe even too libertarian. But if you have any interest in a future where the world moves beyond fossil fuels, you and I should both start paying attention now.

Last week, the value of a single bitcoin broke the $10,000 barrier for the first time. Over the weekend, the price nearly hit $12,000. At the beginning of this year, it was less than $1,000.

If you had bought $100 in bitcoin back in 2011, your investment would be worth nearly $4 million today. All over the internet there are stories of people who treated their friends to lunch a few years ago and, as a novelty, paid with bitcoin. Those same people are now realizing that if they’d just paid in cash and held onto their digital currency, they’d now have enough money to buy a house.

That sort of precipitous rise is stunning, of course, but bitcoin wasn’t intended to be an investment instrument. Its creators envisioned it as a replacement for money itself—a decentralized, secure, anonymous method for transferring value between people.

But what they might not have accounted for is how much of an energy suck the computer network behind bitcoin could one day become. Simply put, bitcoin is slowing the effort to achieve a rapid transition away from fossil fuels. What’s more, this is just the beginning. Given its rapidly growing climate footprint, bitcoin is a malignant development, and it’s getting worse.

Today, each bitcoin transaction requires the same amount of energy used to power nine homes in the US for one day. And miners are constantly installing more and faster computers. Already, the aggregate computing power of the bitcoin network is nearly 100,000 times larger than the world’s 500 fastest supercomputers combined.

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“It’s Like Chess from Another Dimension” –DeepMind Plays “Alien” Chess, Showing the Power and Weirdness of AI




AlphaZero AI beats champion chess program after teaching itself in four hours. Google’s artificial intelligence sibling DeepMind repurposes Go-playing AI to conquer chess and shogi without aid of human knowledge. AlphaZero’s victory is just the latest in a series of computer triumphs over human players since Computer programs have been able to beat the best IBM’s Deep Blue defeated Garry Kasparov in 1997.

AlphaZero, the game-playing AI created by Google sibling DeepMind, has beaten the world’s best chess-playing computer program, having taught itself how to play in under four hours. The repurposed AI, which has repeatedly beaten the world’s best Go players as AlphaGo, has been generalised so that it can now learn other games. It took just four hours to learn the rules to chess before beating the world champion chess program, Stockfish 8, in a 100-game match up.

AlphaZero won or drew all 100 games, according to a non-peer-reviewed research paper published with Cornell University Library’s arXiv.

“Starting from random play, and given no domain knowledge except the game rules, AlphaZero achieved within 24 hours a superhuman level of play in the games of chess and shogi [a similar Japanese board game] as well as Go, and convincingly defeated a world-champion program in each case,” said the paper’s authors that include DeepMind founder Demis Hassabis, who was a child chess prodigy reaching master standard at the age of 13.

"What’s also remarkable, though," Hassabis explained, "is that it sometimes makes seemingly crazy sacrifices, like offering up a bishop and queen to exploit a positional advantage that led to victory. Such sacrifices of high-value pieces are normally rare." In another case the program moved its queen to the corner of the board, a very bizarre trick with a surprising positional value. “It’s like chess from another dimension,” Hassabis said.

“It’s a remarkable achievement, even if we should have expected it after AlphaGo,” former world chess champion Garry Kasparov told “We have always assumed that chess required too much empirical knowledge for a machine to play so well from scratch, with no human knowledge added at all.”

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New Human Consciousness Theory Says Life Is a Film




A new study out of the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne posits a very interesting idea of human consciousness: Rather than experiencing the world continuously, humans must observe discrete moments flashing past at a slightly variable pace. The best metaphor for life, if the groundbreaking meta-study proves out, is clearly a film. And that idea may help resolve some ancient issues.

The theory offers rare progress in the study of human perception and goes a long way toward resolving an ancient puzzle. Zeno’s Paradox, which suggests that it is possible to experience an infinite number of things in a finite amount of time, has long made the borderlands between physics and psychology a confounding swamp of contradictory ideas. The paradox still stands, but the French may have just given humans a way to circumnavigate the muck.

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Why Antarctica is So Important in a Warming World




Ever since the ancient Greeks speculated a continent must exist in the south polar regions to balance those in the north, Antarctica has been popularly described as remote and extreme. Over the past two centuries, these factors have combined to create, in the human psyche, an almost mythical land – an idea reinforced by tales of heroism and adventure from the Edwardian golden age of “heroic exploration” and pioneers such as Robert Falcon Scott, Roald Amundsen and Ernest Shackleton.

Recent research, however, is casting new light on the importance of the southernmost continent, overturning centuries of misunderstanding and highlighting the role of Antarctica in how our planet works and the role it may play in a future, warmer world.

What was once thought to be a largely unchanging mass of snow and ice is anything but. Antarctica holds a staggering amount of water. The three ice sheets that cover the continent contain around 70% of our planet’s fresh water, all of which we now know to be vulnerable to warming air and oceans. If all the ice sheets were to melt, Antarctica would raise global sea levels by at least 56m.

Where, when, and how quickly they might melt is a major focus of research. No one is suggesting all the ice sheets will melt over the next century but, given their size, even small losses could have global repercussions. Possible scenarios are deeply concerning: in addition to rising sea levels, meltwater would slow down the world’s ocean circulation, while shifting wind belts may affect the climate in the southern hemisphere.

In 2014, NASA reported that several major Antarctic ice streams, which hold enough water to trigger the equivalent of a one-and-a-half metre sea level rise, are now irreversibly in retreat. With more than 150m people exposed to the threat of sea level rise and sea levels now rising at a faster rate globally than any time in the past 3,000 years, these are sobering statistics for island nations and coastal cities worldwide.

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The New Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom Trailer Serves Up Big Dinos and Big Science Questions




Judging by the first trailer for next summer's Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, the scientists behind the Jurassic series have decided to address some of the World's biggest problems head-on. For one, Howard's Claire Dearing isn't wearing high heels. For another, this installment seems more focused on the big questions and ethical implications of what humanity should do after bringing back pre-historic beasts, with Jeff Goldblum's Dr. Ian Malcolm reemerging to remind everyone that "these creatures were here before us, and if we're not careful, they're going to be here after." He also, naturally, throws in a good ol' "life finds a way," proving that there are some discoveries that not even chaos theory can explain. We'll see if he's right when Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom opens in June.



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DeepMind Plays “Alien” Chess –Shows the Power and Weirdness of AI




The latest advance from DeepMind behaves in a very surprising way. Expect other AI systems to be just as odd. The latest AI program developed by DeepMind is not only brilliant and remarkably flexible—it’s also quite weird.

DeepMind published a paper this week describing a game-playing program it developed that proved capable of mastering chess and the Japanese game Shoju, having already mastered the game of Go. Demis Hassabis, the founder and CEO of DeepMind and an expert chess player himself, presented further details of the system, called Alpha Zero, at an AI conference in California on Thursday. The program often made moves that would seem unthinkable to a human chess player.

“It doesn’t play like a human, and it doesn’t play like a program,” Hassabis said at the Neural Information Processing Systems (NIPS) conference in Long Beach. “It plays in a third, almost alien, way.”

Besides showing how brilliant machine-learning programs can be at a specific task, this shows that artificial intelligence can be quite different from the human kind. As AI becomes more commonplace, we might need to be conscious of such “alien” behavior.

Alpha Zero is a more general version of AlphaGo, the program developed by DeepMind to play the board game Go. In 24 hours, Alpha Zero taught itself to play chess well enough to beat one of the best existing chess programs around.

What’s also remarkable, though, Hassabis explained, is that it sometimes makes seemingly crazy sacrifices, like offering up a bishop and queen to exploit a positional advantage that led to victory. Such sacrifices of high-value pieces are normally rare. In another case the program moved its queen to the corner of the board, a very bizarre trick with a surprising positional value. “It’s like chess from another dimension,” Hassabis said.

(Image credit: With thanks to

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How Apollo 11's Astronauts Reacted to Lunar Conspiracy Theories

On July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 landed on the moon, making history as the first humans set foot on the moon. Here lunar module pilot Buzz Aldrin is photographed during extra-vehicular activity by mission commander Neil Armstrong.

"It would have been harder to fake it than to do it," astronaut Neil Armstrong once said. On July 20, 1969, Armstrong and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin Jr. — two of NASA's Apollo 11 astronauts — became the first human beings to ever walk on the moon. Orbiting above them at the time was the third member of their crew, aviator Michael Collins, who was busy piloting their command module.


Together, these three entered the history books. The lunar landing was a defining moment, a technical achievement made possible by centuries of scientific progress and the hard work of more than 400,000 people.

But according to a 2013 poll, 7 million Americans think the entire thing never happened. And a more recent 2016 British poll found that more than half (52 percent) of Brits think that the Apollo 11 moon landing was faked (and an astonishing 73 percent of Brits aged 25-34 believe the entire thing was a hoax).

On Dec. 18, 1969, four months and 25 days after Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins returned to Earth, John Noble Wilford of The New York Times ran a story about "a few stool warmers in Chicago bars" who'd gone on record to claim that all the Apollo 11 moonwalk footage was fake and must have been secretly filmed somewhere out in the Nevada desert. The popularity of this misguided belief mushroomed during the Watergate scandal, an actual government conspiracy that seems to have left people more susceptible to believing other big government coverups were plausible.



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