A minor fracas between astronomers and robo-lawnmowers has been making headlines, which sounds painfully futuristic. At issue, whether the maker of Roomba can let its autonomous mower operate on restricted radio frequencies that telescopes use to observe the cosmos.
And the whole thing is futuristic in another, more subtle way, as well. Robot lawnmowers are just one of the many coming gadgets that will be incorporated into the Internet of Things, a wireless network in which even our everyday appliances will participate. And it’s that future that has astronomers on edge.
A Web of Nouns
The trouble began because iRobot doesn’t want its customers to have to do any physical labor — not cutting the grass and definitely not digging the trenches for the underground wires that most autonomous lawn mowers use to sense the edge of their domain. iRobot applied to the FCC to be allowed to use wireless broadcasters instead, at radio frequencies between 6240 and 6740 MHz. Problematically, though, space-based methanol also broadcasts radio waves at those frequencies. Methanol traces star formation and tells us about the evolution of our galaxy, which (taken to its extreme) tells us how we got here. To protect that band, the FCC says “all practicable steps shall be taken to protect the radio astronomy service from harmful interference.” And within that band, it prohibits “fixed outdoor infrastructure.” The National Radio Astronomy Observatory says iRobot’s guiding beacons violate that prohibition and insist the mower-bot stay 55 miles away from its telescopes. iRobot says nuh-uh, “there is little risk of interference,” and 12 miles is sufficient.
If one brand’s wireless landscape-eater can cause such a stir, just imagine what could happen when our world is full of self-adjusting, internet-connected devices all communicating wirelessly with each other and with the Web. They will all need to use the radio “spectrum,” but how they’ll split it up — and share it with astronomers, other industries, and the government — when more devices need a slice of the pie remains to be seen.
Smart thermostats can already make your house the temperature you want while monitoring the outdoor weather. Bluetooth beacons help you find your keys. Sensors monitor inventory and alert vending machine owners that Fruitopia is sold out. This is the Internet of Things, and it’s coming. “There are no spectrum bottlenecks for dedicated Internet of Things systems yet,” Kevin Ashton, co-founder and former executive director of Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Auto-ID Center, told Bloomberg BNA, “but we are seeing Wi-Fi services get maxed out, as there are only so many channels you can cram into the available spectrum.”
Splitting up the Spectrum
The Internet of Things requires wireless devices. A Nest would look stupid with an Ethernet cable snaking out of its circumference. If your wearable glucose monitor had to be plugged into a router to work, you’d never get far from home. Each device operates at a specific radio frequency. In the US, the FCC controls who gets to use which frequencies. In some bands, anyone can transmit radio waves, as long as they stay below a certain power (most Internet of Things things operate here). Other bands require a license, which the government sells to organizations at (surely riveting) auctions. And, finally, some bands are reserved for radio astronomy. Check out this graphic to see how it’s parceled out:
The radio astronomy bands, however, only cover a tiny portion of the spectrum, while radio astronomers are interested in almost all of it. So while the Internet of Things may color within the lines of its own little boxes (which seems dubious if iRobot is a harbinger), objects in space have no such compunctions. They will continue to send out radio waves that have the same frequency as your video-chat dog-treat dispenser. And the signal from your dog’s sockeye-salmon biscuit video could completely swamp a signal that’s been traveling valiantly across space for billions of years. But as the spectrum gets more crowded, we’re more likely to see changes and challenges to its allocation — just like with iRobot — that bleed toward protected bands.
Radio Waves … from Space
Astronomers use radio telescopes like those in Green Bank, WV; Socorro, NM; Jodrell Bank, England; Arecibo, Puerto Rico; and Parkes, Australia to detect the radio waves coming from space. Although cosmic radio waves come from powerful sources like black holes, pulsars, and natural lasers, they have traveled a long way before hitting earthly antennas. Radio waves, like visible light, appear dimmer the farther you are from the source. If you are 1 light-year from a pulsar, and then you step back to 2 light-years, the radio waves will become four times dimmer. Step back 4 light-years, and the waves are 16 times dimmer. By the time radio waves get here, they’re way less than shadows of their former selves. A single cell phone placed on the Moon, for instance, would show up more powerfully in radio waves than almost anything else in the sky.
So when you put a cell phone right next to a telescope, or even miles away, it easily drowns out the pipsqueaks coming from space. Imagine trying to see a flashlight that someone was holding in front of the Sun (hint: rhetorical).
To protect their ability to do radio astronomy without the intrusion of your smartphone, astronomers put their telescopes in remote locations, preferably valleys surrounded by mountains that absorb radio waves trying to trespass from outside. But in a world full of radio-emitting devices, being away from population centers isn’t good enough. Any population is a problem — and not just because of the obvious suspects, like cell phones. Nearly any electronic device emits radio waves (proof? Turn on a portable radio, tune to an empty AM station, and hold it up to your refrigerator/fluorescent light/digital camera/oscillating fan).
Some observatories politely ask people to turn off their cell phones, as if this were the beginning of a movie and not the fate of our understanding of the universe. But others, like Green Bank, have established “radio-quiet zones,” where lots of normal things are against the law. For 13,000 square miles around the observatory — a region that includes parts of Virginia and Maryland as well as West Virginia — broadcasters have to fill out special paperwork to make sure the telescope can’t “see” their transmitters. If it can? Permit denied. So for an hour or so radius around Green Bank, you can’t get cell phone service, no matter how high you hold your iPhone in the air. “Keeping cell service out of the immediate vicinity hinders the utility of lots of gadgets which would potentially transmit on multiple bands, not just their link to the cellular service,” says Green Bank’s Carla Beaudet, the observatory’s radio-frequency interference engineer. “The National Radio Quiet Zone offers protection to Green Bank both directly and indirectly.”
In a smaller, 10-mile radius around the observatory, the rules are stricter: no Wi-Fi, no microwaves, no cordless phones, no wireless game controllers, no Bluetooth transfers. It’s an enforceable law, and NRAO has a truck that can track down rogue radio waves. Employees have knocked on doors to find shorted electric blankets, malfunctioning electric fences, contraband Wi-Fi routers, and once (at least according to legend) was plagued by the radio tracking collars on fast-moving squirrels.
Green Bank has the most well-known and oldest quiet zone, which was established in 1958 (not in small part because the government’s communications station Sugar Grove is just down the valley). But Australia, South Africa, and Chile — home to the next generation of radio telescopes — have or soon will have their own versions. “Geospatial exclusion areas like the National Radio Quiet Zone can go a long distance (pun intended) towards protecting specific radio astronomy facilities,” says Beaudet, “particularly if there is additional protection from terrain obstacles” (such as mountains).
But many telescopes — such as Arecibo — have only terrain obstacles, and no official protection. Soon, they may only be sensitive enough within the officially protected radio astronomy bands — and that’s only if corporations play by existing rules. “The extent to which the Internet of Things will be a threat to radio astronomy will depend upon whether the regulatory standards can be upheld in the face of the massive onslaught of lawyers funded by the private sector,” says Beaudet. “If the regulatory standards are upheld rather than modified every time somebody needs more spectrum, there will still be small windows of spectrum in which astronomers can observe.”
In the future, telescopes outside quiet zones may detect so much blah-blah-blah from our devices that they won’t catch the whispered conversation from space. But the people who live in those quiet zones won’t be able to fully inhabit the modern world. Their dogs will have to eat treats all alone. Their home heating systems will be woefully inefficient. They’ll never buy an app. (Note: Some want it that way and move to places like Green Bank because it’s electromagnetically old-school. )
If we live in a hyperconnected wireless world, which we already do, we learn less about the universe than we would if radio telescopes were the only technology in operation (at least until we can build a radio telescope on the Moon). But we’re not going to stop making smart devices and linking them together, nor should we. We will have to find a way to manage and balance those interests. Not every iRobot will get what it wants. Not every pulsar will be discovered. Conversations like the one between the National Radio Astronomy Observatory and iRobot are just beginning. Go get yourself some popcorn. You won’t believe what happens next.
The recent earthquake in Nepal demonstrated yet again how difficult it is to reliably predict natural disasters. While we have a good knowledge of the various earthquakes zones on the planet, we have no way of knowing exactly when a big quake like the 7.8-magnitude event in Nepal will happen.
But we know that many animals seem able to sense the onset of such events. We could use powerful computers to monitor herds of animals and make use of their natural instincts to provide forewarning of natural disasters.
Immediately before an earthquake, herds of animals often start to behave strangely – for example suddenly leaving their homes to seek shelter. This could be because they detect small, fast-traveling waves or because they sense chemical changes in ground water from an impending earthquake.
Although there are possibilities here, we certainly need more studies – because it’s difficult to find statistically significant links between unusual animal behavior and impending disasters. This is because natural disasters occur relatively rarely and it’s hard to reliably interpret animal behavior after the fact. In fact, this uncertainty was quoted by the Chinese government after reports that zoo animals behaved strangely before the Wenchuan earthquake a few years ago.
Technology enhanced with artificial intelligence is all around us. You might have a robot vacuum cleaner ready to leap into action to clean up your kitchen floor. Maybe you asked Siri or Google—two apps using decent examples of artificial intelligence technology—for some help already today. The continual enhancement of AI and its increased presence in our world speak to achievements in science and engineering that have tremendous potential to improve our lives.
Or destroy us.
At least, that’s the central theme in the new Avengers: Age of Ultron movie with headliner Ultron serving as exemplar for AI gone bad. It’s a timely theme, given some high-profile AI concerns lately. But is it something we should be worried about?
Facebook is watching you, collecting data on your every interaction and feeding it to their data scientists, who are hungry for correlations. But you know that, and you accept it as the price to live in the modern world (you probably even know that Facebook is manipulating you).
And Facebook’s data-science team is particularly interested in your romantic life. They’ve been watching you hook up and break up and, according to a recent presentation by Facebook employee Carlos Diuk, they’ve noticed a few things about you.
But, keep this in mind: these findings are the result of private and proprietary number-crunching, circumventing the normal procedures that let scientists call their output “science.” More on that in a minute.
So without further ado, six things Facebook thinks it knows about your love life:
1. Matchmakers have more friends than the people they’re introducing—73 percent more. (Matchmakers are people who introduce two of their friends, who later become a couple.) And those friends are more disconnected. Matchmakers’ networks include lots of people who aren’t friends with each other. The way I choose to interpret this: matchmakers have to diversify their interactions, so as not to overwhelm any single one with their aggressive extroversion and statements about who would be perrrrfect for whom. Read More
Try to picture a time machine.
You probably envisioned a tricked-out DeLorean or, perhaps, a blue, spinning phone booth, right? But today, time travel isn’t so much about fast cars or alien technology as it is about tweaking our perception of reality. In fact, if you’re reading this on a tablet, you’re holding a time machine of sorts in your hands right now.
Of course, your iPad won’t actually transport you back in time, but it can serve as a window into another world. Imagine visiting the Parthenon, for example, and when you point your iPad toward the crumbled structure, you see the majestic building, but as it was thousands of years ago. You can even walk toward and around the structure, and so long as you’re peering through the tablet, it’s as if you were walking through the past.
This immersive experience, called augmented reality, has captivated archaeologist Stuart Eve, who is trying to change the way we learn history through the five senses. He’s working on augmented-reality technology that not only visually recreates ancient ruins, but also gives you a sense of what they smelled and sounded like.
Think you’re good at classic arcade games such as Space Invaders, Breakout and Pong? Think again.
In a groundbreaking paper published yesterday in Nature, a team of researchers led by DeepMind co-founder Demis Hassabis reported developing a deep neural network that was able to learn to play such games at an expert level.
What makes this achievement all the more impressive is that the program was not given any background knowledge about the games. It just had access to the score and the pixels on the screen.
It didn’t know about bats, balls, lasers or any of the other things we humans need to know about in order to play the games.
But by playing lots and lots of games many times over, the computer learned first how to play, and then how to play well.
Eye tracking devices sound a lot more like expensive pieces of scientific research equipment than joysticks – yet if the latest announcements about the latest Assassin’s Creed game are anything to go by, eye tracking will become a commonplace feature of how we interact with computers, and particularly games.
Eye trackers provide computers with a user’s gaze position in real time by tracking the position of their pupils. The trackers can either be worn directly on the user’s face, like glasses, or placed in front of them, such as beneath a computer monitor for example.
Eye trackers are usually composed of cameras and infrared lights to illuminate the eyes. Although it’s invisible to the human eye, the cameras can use infrared light to generate a grayscale image in which the pupil is easily recognizable. From the position of the pupil in the image, the eye tracker’s software can work out where the user’s gaze is directed – whether that’s on a computer screen or looking out into the world.
But what’s the use? Well, our eyes can reveal a lot about a person’s intentions, thoughts and actions, as they are good indicators of what we’re interested in. In our interactions with others we often subconsciously pick up on cues that the eyes give away. So it’s possible to gather this unconscious information and use it in order to get a better understanding of what the user is thinking, their interests and habits, or to enhance the interaction between them and the computer they’re using.
It’s difficult to deny that humans began as Homo sapiens, an evolutionary offshoot of the primates. Nevertheless, for most of what is properly called “human history” (that is, the history starting with the invention of writing), most of Homo sapiens have not qualified as “human”—and not simply because they were too young or too disabled.
In sociology, we routinely invoke a trinity of shame—race, class, and gender—to characterize the gap that remains between the normal existence of Homo sapiens and the normative ideal of full humanity. Much of the history of social science can be understood as either directly or indirectly aimed at extending the attribution of humanity to as much of Homo sapiens as possible. It’s for this reason that the welfare state is reasonably touted as social science’s great contribution to politics in the modern era. But perhaps membership in Homo sapiens is neither sufficient nor even necessary to qualify a being as “human.” What happens then?
Nuclear power has long been a contentious topic. It generates huge amounts of electricity with zero carbon emissions, and thus is held up as a solution to global energy woes. But it also entails several risks, including weapons development, meltdown, and the hazards of disposing of its waste products.
But those risks and benefits all pertain to a very specific kind of nuclear energy: nuclear fission of uranium or plutonium isotopes. There’s another kind of nuclear energy that’s been waiting in the wings for decades – and it may just demand a recalibration of our thoughts on nuclear power.
Nuclear fission using thorium is easily within our reach, and, compared with conventional nuclear energy, the risks are considerably lower.
Updated 9/16/14 10:15am: Clarified calculations and added footnote
We humans like to think ourselves pretty advanced – and with no other technology-bearing beings to compare ourselves to, our back-patting doesn’t have to take context into account. After all, we harnessed fire, invented stone tools and the wheel, developed agriculture and writing, built cities, and learned to use metals.
Then, a mere few moments ago from the perspective of cosmic time, we advanced even more rapidly, developing telescopes and steam power; discovering gravity and electromagnetism and the forces that hold the nuclei of atoms together.
Meanwhile, the age of electricity was transforming human civilization. You could light up a building at night, speak with somebody in another city, or ride in a vehicle that needed no horse to pull it, and humans were very proud of themselves for achieving all of this. In fact, by the year 1899, purportedly, these developments prompted U.S. patent office commissioner Charles H. Duell to remark, “Everything that can be invented has been invented.”
We really have come a long way from the cave, but how far can we still go? Is there a limit to our technological progress? Put another way, if Duell was dead wrong in the year 1899, might his words be prophetic for the year 2099, or 2199? And what does that mean for humanity’s distant future?