Xenoarchaeology Critical Mass

29 12 2011

The recovery of an alien artifact from the TMA-1 lunar excavation site in 2001: A Space Odyssey (Credit: MGM)

Xenoarchaeology Rising

2011 has been a good year for the nascent pursuit of xenoarchaeology as serious science.  After beginning a conversation with a 2010 Viewpoint article I authored in the journal Space Policy, which was intended as a broad, conceptual justification for the further development of xenoarchaeology as a field, I was rewarded with a generally favorable review from Spacearchaeology.org as well as some fruitful academic sparring with a public relations specialist sporting a long-standing grant from NASA’s Astrobiology Institute (more on the aforementioned fruit to follow).  

Now, I am quite pleased to note that 2011 has seen other space science researchers open up to the idea that conceptually setting up the rigorous and credible search for (and investigation of) suspected alien artifacts is not only warranted, but due.

While most, it seems, find the concept of xenoarchaeology to be at the very least on the forward edge of scientific conception, it appears that an increasing number of scientists are coming around to the same conclusion that I did: For a field aiming for discoveries necessarily encased in enormous scientific and socio-political bombshells, a proactive stance is appropriate.  

Quite simply, now is the time.

With luck, we will soon reach a sort of intellectual critical mass cultimating in a formal xenoarchaeology workshop, the proceeds from which should lay out the groundwork for a new, practicable 21st-Century science.

To this end, I’d like to point out some of this recent relevant work:

Davies’ Footprints  

Eminent researcher Paul Davies of ASU’s Beyond Center penned an article in Acta Astronautica early in 2011 entitled, “Footprints of alien technology.”  Much in the same vein as my own article, Davies considers deep time in combination with the possibility of extraterrestrial life to conclude that there is a possibility of subtle biological, geological, and physical artifacts of xenobiological activity, even on the Earth.  He then suggests means to search for such trace evidence.

Searching Luna

Carrying his work a step further, Davies and undergraduate student Robert Wagner submitted an article this past fall, also to Acta Astronautica, entitled, “Searching for alien artifacts on the moon.”   Applying the logic distilled in the previous work against the current SETI paradigm, this paper details the relevance that indirect evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence in the form of non-human technology would play.  The article suggests a practical, low-cost application of a search for such evidence using increasingly high-resolution imagery of the lunar surface available to the public (via the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, for instance). 

The practice of this remote sensing search, by very definition in my own article, would be considered a practice of xenoarchaeology. 

In point of fact, regarding the applicability of xenoarchaeological guidelines, this is an example of what I called “Scenario 1” in my 2010 article  – that being a remotely-conducted investigation.  This is in contrast to “Scenario 2” xenoarchaeology, being an in-situ human investigation (astronaut), and “Scenario 3,” an investigation involving artifact/sample return to Earth or terrestrial capture of an artifact.

Justifying Solar System Xenoarchaeology

Further hammering home that we have yet to reasonably exhaust the possibility of xenoarchaeological artifacts lingering in our own cosmic backyard, researchers Jacob Haqq-Misra and Ravi Kumar Kopparapu of Blue Marble Space Institute of Science and Penn State, respectively, also submitted an article to Acta Astronautica entitled, “On the likelihood of non-terrestrial artifacts in the Solar System.”  In it, Haqq-Misra and Kopparapu utilize a probabilistic approach to quantify search uncertainty in the Solar System.  They conclude that, “The vastness of space, combined with our limited searches to date, implies that any remote unpiloted exploratory probes of extraterrestrial origin would likely remain unnoticed.”

So, there you have it.  An exciting time, indeed, and further proof that the area is ripe for both academic and practical research!

Artificial Intelligence and Space Exploration

12 09 2010

The server "brain" of IBM's Jeopardy-playing artificial intelligence experiment, Watson. (Credit: IBM)

IBM appears close to cracking functional Artificial Intelligence (AI).   They’ve recently created a computer system named “Watson” that uses hundreds of processing algorithms simultaneously to filter, interpret and understand human language – relating questions to knowledge in a systematic way that lets it answer normal, spoken questions with uncanny results.

-Truly uncanny.

I mean, from the few examples I’ve seen, this computer system produces answers more “human” than those produced by some humans I’ve known.

These IBM researchers are going for AI in a real way – so real in fact, that like Watson’s chess-playing predecessors, IBM is pitting Watson against actual human beings.  However, instead of sitting across a chess board, the competition will be in real-time on the Jeopardy television show against trivia whizzes sometime within the next year.

Turing test, eat your heart out.

The revolutionary Apollo Guidance Computer user interface. (Credit: NASA)

With this in mind, I’d like to take a moment to highlight the intersection of computers and space exploration.  In truth, without computers, intelligent computers, there would be no space exploration at all.

For starters, the Apollo Guidance Computer (AGC) was essential to navigating to and landing on the Moon.  Created at the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory in the early 1960s, the AGC was one of the first computers to be based on integrated circuits, and it enabled mere human beings to pilot Apollo’s Command Module and Lunar Module spacecraft.

These sorts of computer systems only became more prevalent in the future Space Shuttle program of the 1980s through to the 21st Century.

Useful spacecraft computer systems were further popularized at that time by Star Trek, where the fictitious U.S.S. Enterprise’s AI computer system is able to respond to and process any number of human commands and queries, while simultaneously monitoring and operating all essential ship functions.

The HAL 9000 artificial intelligence from 2001: A Space Odyssey. (Credit: MGM)

Unfortunately, much of popular media have made computers in space a negative stereotype.  The most famous became the primary antagonist of Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

In the story, an AI named “HAL 9000,” which (like an expanded AGU) was responsible for interplanetary navigation, communication, guidance, maintenance, and life-support systems on the Jupiter-bound spacecraft Discovery One, suffered a critical malfunction and turned on the crew.  Only one astronaut survived the ordeal.  Decades of AI paranoia ensued.

(Even if you haven’t seen the movie, odds are you’ve heard the computer’s famous, chilling line, “I’m sorry, Dave.  I’m afraid I can’t do that,” punned a thousand times in pop culture.)

If that wasn’t bad enough, the stereotype became even more indelibly entrenched by the Terminator franchise of films.  In it, an AI named Skynet, which was designed to operate a military space defense system, decided that humankind was its primary threat and launched a nuclear strike.  It then mastered the science of time travel and started sending cyborg assassins into the past to defeat what little human resistance survived into the grim, post-apocalyptic future by destroying them before they were born.

Gerty, an artificial intelligence from the movie Moon. (Credit: Sony Pictures)

More recently, this stereotype was put to clever use in the movie Moon.  Reminiscent of the “Mycroft Holmes” AI in Robert Heinlein’s story The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, the film’s HAL-like AI computer system (named “Gerty”) is responsible for operating a lunar mining operation and looking after the mining outpost’s resident(s).  The twist *spoiler if you haven’t seen it* is that in a world of nefarious corporate greed, Gerty turns out to be the only thing the mining outpost’s crew can actually trust.

-This shift in perspective is something I appreciate.  We need to learn to trust the machines we create to help us.   The Three Mile Island accident happened because the workers didn’t trust what the computers were telling them.  They should have.  As human beings, there are tasks and computations we are simply not suited to perform.  This is doubly true in an environment as harsh as space.  We can’t be awake all the time, and we can’t be looking at everything at once.  An AI can.

This is why I am so intrigued by developments like Watson.  -And perhaps, should the experiment prove successful, it will lead to the full-scale development and deployment of functional AI, which will help take us into the next phases of human activity off-world.  We’re going to need help to get us there.

Humanity’s outpost in the sky

8 09 2010

ISS and Atlantis (docked) visible in front of the Sun as seen from Earth. 05/22/2010. (Credit: Thierry Legault)

A short note this morning on humanity in the cosmos.  In the above image, an outstanding French photographer managed to capture what otherwise would have whipped by in the blink of an eye.

Crop of the ISS and Atlantis (docked) in front of the Sun. (Credit: Thierry Legault)

For an instant on May 22nd, the International Space Station (ISS) and the docked Atlantis orbiter (space shuttle) moved between Earth and the Sun as they screamed past at colossal orbital speed (16,500 miles per hour).  Rapid photography, meticulous planning, and much skill managed to catch the fleeting moment.

(The ISS and shuttle are visible to the left of the Sun’s center, with the station’s long pairs of solar panels bracketing the shuttle on the left-hand side, its nose angled away.)

My point in posting this morning, aside from sharing the epic “gee-whiz” factor implicit in this photograph, is to try and bring home something about scale, the cosmos, and our place in it.

While looking at the awe-inspiring photo, try to realize that the point of view of the photo -the Earth’s surface- is nearly 250 miles away from the ISS, but the Sun’s backdrop is a full 93 million miles behind it.

Think about that for a moment.  Another way of looking at it is that the ISS is nearly 360 feet wide.  The sun behind it is 4,567,200,000 feet wide, (or 865,000 miles in width, more than 100 Earths across.)  How big is that?  How far away does that have to be?

-That’s like holding out a matchbox car at arm’s length in California and having it be dwarfed by something sitting in Russia.

The ISS, taken from Atlantis as it undocked on May 23, 2010. (Credit: NASA)

When looking at the photo and realizing this immense reality of scale, the ISS’s cosmic ranking starts to come into perspective.  Even considering that the ISS is likely the most ambitious international effort ever attempted, (and by logical extension, arguably humanity’s most collectively ambitious project to date,) it is still clearly just the beginning of humanity’s toe-hold on the rest of the cosmos.

Space is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is.  (Thanks, Douglas…)  Ahem..

But seriously, maybe by looking at images like the above transit image by Theirry Legault and forcing your brain to accept what it knows to be true – that the station and all of its habitable space (roughly comparable to a 3,000 square-foot house) is just a speck, our entire Earth could be swallowed whole by the Sun without it even noticing, and our Sun is just a mediocre star amongst billions of burning brothers in the cosmos – we’ll all come to realize that we should really start moving out into the rest of the universe… just for safety’s sake.

We’re obviously really significant to ourselves.  Yet, to 99.999% of the rest of the universe, we haven’t even gotten into little league.  Metaphorically, no one knows we exist yet, and minor league players out there like asteroids and comets, (not to mention major league events like nearby supernovas,) can still easily wipe us out.

So, if we want a shot at winning the world series someday, (interpret the cosmic meaning of this increasingly threadbare analogy as you will,) we’d better start playing ball.


Artificial gravity and large-scale settlement space station designed by Wernher Von Braun. (Credit: Courtesy NASA/MSFC Historical Archives)

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