Today’s “Planet Earth Report” –Recognizing an Alien Probe, Will AI Become Conscious, Ten SETI Messages We May Dread Receiving

 

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December 12, 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.  

Telescopes in Africa are Poised to Reveal the Universe’s Secrets

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One of the world’s largest collaborative science projects is about to enter its most exciting year yet. This will see researchers in a remote stretch of South Africa’s Karoo testing Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity; imaging neutral hydrogen—the building blocks for stars – in the distant universe; and examining galaxies that were formed billions of years ago.

The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) will consist of thousands of dishes and antennas spread over large distances linked together to form one giant telescope. It will be tens of times more sensitive and hundreds of times faster at mapping the sky than today’s best radio telescopes. A precursor to the SKA—the MeerKAT telescope – is being built right now and remarkable progress has been made in the last 12 months.

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Will AI Become Conscious?

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Forget about today’s modest incremental advances in artificial intelligence, such as the increasing abilities of cars to drive themselves. Waiting in the wings might be a groundbreaking development: a machine that is aware of itself and its surroundings, and that could take in and process massive amounts of data in real time. It could be sent on dangerous missions, into space or combat. In addition to driving people around, it might be able to cook, clean, do laundry – and even keep humans company when other people aren’t nearby.

A particularly advanced set of machines could replace humans at literally all jobs. That would save humanity from workaday drudgery, but it would also shake many societal foundations. A life of no work and only play may turn out to be a dystopia.

Conscious machines would also raise troubling legal and ethical problems. Would a conscious machine be a “person” under law and be liable if its actions hurt someone, or if something goes wrong? To think of a more frightening scenario, might these machines rebel against humans and wish to eliminate us altogether? If yes, they represent the culmination of evolution.

As a professor of electrical engineering and computer science who works in machine learning and quantum theory, I can say that researchers are divided on whether these sorts of hyperaware machines will ever exist. There’s also debate about whether machines could or should be called “conscious” in the way we think of humans, and even some animals, as conscious. Some of the questions have to do with technology; others have to do with what consciousness actually is.

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How to Recognize an Alien Spaceship

 
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If an emissary from an alien civilisation visited the solar system, how would we detect it? In October 2017 the first interstellar visitor ever spotted by human astronomers passed through our solar system.

It had been passing through for years and was on its way out at high speed, having slingshotted around the Sun, when the Hawaii-based Pan-STARRS telescope noticed the interloper. Even so, astronomers were able to figure out it was no spaceship; it was a weirdly-shaped asteroid they christened `Oumuamua, which in Hawaiian means “a messenger from afar arriving first”.

Too bad for alien enthusiasts. But what if it had been an extraterrestrial spacecraft? What tell-tale signs would give it away?We know there are at least a few spaceships exploring outer space because we sent them. In 2012 the Voyager 1 spacecraft made history when it became the first man-made object to enter interstellar space, and Voyager 2 is close on its heels. New Horizons reached Pluto in July 2015 and is on its way to rendezvous with an object way out in the Kuiper belt by 2019.

One day our probes will explore nearby star systems, and they might do more than just beam back data. One possibility, proposed by mathematician John von Neumann in 1966, would be to send robotic probes that clone themselves using raw materials mined from asteroids and then spread out across the galaxy.

Other intelligent, spacefaring civilisations – if they exist – would surely come up with the same elegant idea. So if an alien probe does turn up in our corner of the galaxy, how would we recognise it? It’s hard to interrogate a faint, fast pin-prick of light in the vast blackness of space. The only reason we have any chance of spotting interstellar objects is thanks to new automated surveys like Pan-STARRS, the Catalina sky survey and the ATLAS survey, which scour the sky for moving objects.

So what can we find out about such alien objects? The first thing that stood out about `Oumuamua was its orbit. Though it passed through our solar system, it was not captured by the gravitational pull of the Sun.

“It is the only object seen so far with a strongly hyperbolic orbit, meaning that it is travelling so fast that the Sun's gravity cannot hold it back,” explains astronomer David Jewitt at the University of California, Los Angeles.

This immediately indicated `Oumuamua could be something novel, according to Jonti Horner, an astrobiologist at the University of Southern Queensland. But “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, so people across the planet went into a frenzy to get more observations and lock things down.”

`Oumuamua showed significant fluctuations in its brightness, suggesting it was an asteroid. Computer analysis of the shifting brightness pattern concluded the rock was highly elongated, roughly ten times as long as it is wide, leading some armchair scientists to draw comparisons to science-fictional artifacts like the monoliths from 2001: A Space Odyssey and the starship from Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama.

[Image credit: with thanks to Darink-the Monoliths

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Ten SETI Messages We May Not Want to Receive

An exploration of alternative SETI messages that may not say hello.

 

Physicists Just Experimentally Confirmed The Existence of 'Excitonium' –A strange new form of matter

 

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Researchers at the University of Illinois have announced an exciting finding – the discovery of a new form of matter: excitonium made up of a kind of boson, a composite particle that could allow the matter to act as a superfluid, superconductor, or even as an insulating electronic crystal.

Physics professor Peter Abbamonte and his team worked together with colleagues at Illinois, University of California, Berkeley, and University of Amsterdam to prove once-and-for-all the existence of this strange and mysterious type of matter that was theorised more than 50 years ago.

Excitonium is a condensate made up of excitons, which are what you get when you combine escaped electrons and the "holes" they left. This quirky quantum-mechanical pairing is possible because, in semiconductors, electrons on the edge of one energy level in an atom are able, when excited, to jump into the next energy level, leaving behind a "hole" in the previous level. This hole acts like a positively charged particle, attracting the negatively charged electron that escaped.

To prove the existence of excitons, this team studied crystals doped with dichalcogenide titanium diselenide (1T-TiSe2), a transition metal. They were even able to reproduce their results five separate times. Until now, scientists had not had the experimental tools needed to distinguish with certainty whether they were detecting excitonium or another similar phase of matter.

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How Russia Hacked America—And Why It Will Happen Again

During the 2016 presidential campaign, Russian hackers attacked the U.S. on two fronts: the psychological and the technical. Hackers used classic propaganda techniques to influence American voters, bought thousands of social media ads to propagate fake news, and broke into Democratic party email servers to steal information.

 

And it won't be the last time. Russian-backed psychological cyber warfare will only get better, and its methods more sophisticated.

What Forensic Science Can Reveal About the JFK Assassination

 

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Popular television shows such as the “Law & Order,” “CSI” and “NCIS” franchises glorify forensic science as a magical, near-flawless tool for identifying criminals. Not surprisingly, Hollywood’s depiction of forensic science needs a reality makeover.

The “CSI effect” is well-documented. As long ago as 2009, scientists with the National Research Council noted that no forensic method (except for nuclear DNA analysis) can reliably and consistently connect evidence to a specific individual or source. More recently, President Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology reported that pattern-matching forensic procedures are unreliable. The Innocence Project has exonerated many hundreds of wrongfully convicted people, and bad forensic science was found to be a contributing factor in about half of the original cases.

These problems are not new. Six years before the National Research Council’s 2009 report, I was on a panel of the council that looked at a particular forensic technique used to match bullets found at crime scenes (typically murders) to bullets found in a suspect’s possession. That procedure, called comparative bullet lead analysis, was first used in the investigation into the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. What the panel found 40 years after the event contradicted the FBI’s analysis of the evidence at the time, and caused the bureau to stop using the technique altogether.

How many shooters were there?

One of the main questions around the Kennedy assassination was whether Lee Harvey Oswald was the only person shooting at the president in Dallas that November day in 1963. Investigators had found three bullet casings on the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository, where Oswald had been shooting from. Audio evidence found there had been another shooter who had fired once.

The official congressional investigation found that Oswald’s first shot had missed, the second had hit Kennedy and the third had hit and killed him. The other shooter had missed, the investigation concluded.

These findings were based on the testimony of noted University of California-Irvine chemist Dr. Vincent C. Guinn. He claimed that each individual bullet was chemically unique. By looking at the fragments of bullets that were recovered from Kennedy’s body and from Texas Governor John Connally, who was also shot that day (and survived), Guinn determined that there were two and only two bullets, fired by Oswald, that struck Kennedy and Connally.

Guinn’s testimony may have been as accurate as was possible in the 1970s, but by the 1980s FBI agents were routinely testifying in court that “bullets from the same manufacturing batch were chemically indistinguishable.”

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Mass Starvation is Humanity’s Fate If We Keep Flogging the Land to Death

 

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George Monbiot

The Earth cannot accommodate our need and greed for food. We must change our diet before it’s too late. Brexit; the crushing of democracy by billionaires; the next financial crash; a rogue US president: none of them keeps me awake at night. This is not because I don’t care – I care very much. It’s only because I have a bigger question on my mind. Where is all the food going to come from?

By the middle of this century there will be two or three billion more people on Earth. Any one of the issues I am about to list could help precipitate mass starvation. And this is before you consider how they might interact.

The trouble begins where everything begins: with soil. The UN’s famous projection that, at current rates of soil loss, the world has 60 years of harvests left, appears to be supported by a new set of figures. Partly as a result of soil degradation, yields are already declining on 20% of the world’s croplands.

Now consider water loss. In places such as the North China Plain, the central United States, California and north-western India – among the world’s critical growing regions – levels of the groundwater used to irrigate crops are already reaching crisis point. Water in the Upper Ganges aquifer, for example, is being withdrawn at 50 times its recharge rate. But, to keep pace with food demand, farmers in south Asia expect to use between 80 and 200% more water by the year 2050. Where will it come from?

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