Today the US Department of Defense announced that they would be collaborating with Carnegie Mellon University to develop an autonomous copilot for DARPA’s upcoming “helicopter jeep” project. Yes, the military is developing a helicopter jeep.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has awarded a 17-month, $988,000 contract to Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute to develop an autonomous flight system for the Transformer (TX) Program, which is exploring the feasibility of a military ground vehicle that could transform into a vertical-take-off-and-landing (VTOL) air vehicle.
America’s current plans for human space exploration seem horribly slow, considering we won’t leave Earth’s orbit until 2025 and won’t reach Mars until 2035. Worse than that, solar radiation spikes could keep us grounded for decades more.
The Sun emits a steady stream of potentially deadly cosmic radiation. As long as humans remain within the Earth’s atmosphere, the threat posed by this radiation is practically nil, but any extended trips into deep space require careful shielding to protect astronauts from the threat of radiation sickness or cancer. The exact levels of radiation vary depending on the severity of solar activity, which falls into a number of predictable cycles.
That’s where the problem starts, according to a new study by NASA scientist John Norbury. We already know about the Schwabe cycle, which shows sunspot activity reaches its peak, known as the solar maximum, every 11 years. When this occurs, there’s a big increase in solar flares and coronal mass ejections, which together spread deadly radiation throughout the solar system. The last solar maximum was reached in 2002, so we’re headed for more in 2013, 2024, and 2035. Those last two dates are worrying, considering the current “2025 out of orbit/2035 to Mars” plans of the United States.
The world is getting old. Most developed nations have an aging population that outnumbers the young ‘uns. Ted C. Fishman’s new book, Shock of Gray, argues that this huge wave of elderly just might change the world. Recently interviewed at Salon, Fishman talked about a potential anti-agism civil rights movement, globalization fueled by young people immigration (get on my lawn?), and my favorite old-person related topic, super-longevity:
Our life span averages have leaped in the past century, as you point out, and I wonder if you think there’s a point where we’ll hit a ceiling. Now that you’ve read the science, is there really a possibility for immortality?
I only read the science as a layman and I can only tell you who I trust, which is based on emotional signals as much as empirical ones. I do think maybe eventually we’ll be able to reengineer the human body so that it’s some mix of mechanization and biological miracle and we live forever. But in the lifetime of anybody who’s reading the book, I think there are big limits to the expansion of the human life span. Our genetic makeup is such that the genes that help us grow when we’re young tend to turn against us as we get old.
[What's] more important than antioxidants [for extending our lives]?
I don’t know, I’m not a scientist. But looking over all the places where longevity is more common, sociability is a telling characteristic. Antioxidants might be very promising, but this is the cycle of all promises of anti-aging — hype and debunking, hype, debunking. But we do know what the sure things are. Public health, sociability and literacy.
Those last three pieces - public health, sociability, and literacy – would seem to rule out most of the “eat this food, not that food” logic around longevity. Combine that with advice of the oldest twins in Britain, to enjoy “laughter and having a joke with each other” and you’ve got a pretty good recipe for long life: read a bunch, hang out and laugh with friends, and live somewhere nice. That is a set of goals I can shoot for with gusto.
I do, however, hope that, as Fishman says, we might be able to “reengineer the human body so that it’s some mix of mechanization and biological miracle and we live forever.” While we’re waiting for that to happen, it seems the key to living a long time is to just enjoying being alive. Maybe if I enjoy being alive long enough, I’ll live to see super-longevity become a reality. Then I can enjoy being alive for a really, really long time. On that note, I’m going to go read a book and have a laugh.
Image from manuel | MC on Flickr
WBEZ, the Chicago affiliate of National Public Radio, recently gathered together several of my fellow science and engineering researchers at Northwestern University to talk about the science of science fiction films. The panel, and just short of 500 people from the community and university, watched clips from Star Wars, Gattaca, Minority Report, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and The Matrix. I was the robot/AI guy commenting on the robot spiders of Minority Report; Todd Kuiken, a designer of neuroprosthetic limbs, commented on Luke getting a new arm in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back; Tom Meade, a developer of medical biosensors and new medical imaging techniques, commented on Gattaca; and Catherine Wooley, who studies memory, commented on Eternal Sunshine.
The full audio of the event can be streamed or downloaded from here.
Ever noticed that in the Star Trek universe, no one’s communicator runs out of charge? And Darth Vader never worried about whether he’d remembered to plug in his lightsaber overnight, nor does The Doctor ever dash back into the TARDIS to grab his sonic screwdriver charger. It just never happens.
Possibly we’re to understand that these devices have their own tiny power supplies, but more likely these devices have some other way to get their juice. And wouldn’t it be nice to dispense with the problem of recharging once and for all? In our own local space-time continuum, a number of companies labor to make wireless power possible using a host of technologies, but there are two strategies that show a lot of promise, one using lasers, another using magnetic resonance.