Orbits 3

Theatrical poster for Chinese release (Wiki)

The third and last of this short series on orbits was inspired by a Chinese science fiction film I have been watching on Netflix, together with an analysis I read of the science proposed. The film is The Wandering Earth, and is based on a novella by Liu Cixin, who is perhaps better known as the author of the splendid book The Three-Body Problem. Chinese science fiction is interesting to read – of course it is based on the same sorts of postulated scientific breakthroughs as European or American books, but the perception of recent history is very different, as is the kind of future society that we might expect to live in. There is an assumption that international cooperation will happen naturally in a crisis, led by Chinese technology and expertise. It’s a refreshing change (for a European) than the typical assumption many American authors make, that a world government would be bound to be based on American soil and largely staffed by US citizens!

Now, The Wandering Earth is set some forty years in the future, in which the sun is rapidly expanding, and humans are forced to try to migrate the entire planet Earth to a new home in the neighbouring star system, Alpha Centauri. The entire journey is expected to take something like 2500 years. It’s a bold twist on the idea of the generation ship, in which a group of a few hundred or thousand individuals live on board a large but conventional spaceship, expecting to pass through many generations before arriving at their destination. Here, the ship is the whole planet, and the hopeful survivors are numbered in billions. To achieve this, the Earth is equipped with a huge number of fusion-powered thrusters which slowly propel the planet away from our sun. The crisis of the film occurs as they attempt to use the gravity of the planet Jupiter as a slingshot to get more speed.

Now, the basic scenario of the sun expanding is not actually expected to occur for another five billion years or so, so a forty year time horizon is a bit crazy… but it does allow us to witness near-contemporary technology and human attitudes at work in a crisis, and I am enthusiastic about books set in this near time horizon! But could the thruster idea actually work? Could the Earth’s orbit be altered by such a means?

Poster – Armageddon film (Wiki)

The perennial threat of a meteor or asteroid on collision course with Earth has triggered a few suggestions as to how we would shift the orbit of that incoming body. A large bomb, for example, or a long series of smaller ones, detonated on the surface of the meteor so as to deflect irts course. These methods only really work on something that is small to start with, and any explosion large enough to shift the Earth’s orbit is probably going to do something catastrophic to the land, sea, atmosphere, or all of them together! So we can forget that one, or similar (but less explosive) variations such as docking a spaceship and pushing the body to one side using the main engines.

You could imagine launching a long series of rockets all from (roughly) the same place, which would tend to push the Earth in the opposite direction. And they would also carry up material from the Earth in the form of body and fuel weight. If you wanted to get our Earth to the orbit of Mars doing this, you’d use up around 85% of the Earth’s mass to do so – in other words you would get there, but with only 15% of the planet left. Doesn’t sound appealing.

NASA xenon ion thruster under test (NASA)

A more effective solution is an ion drive thruster (which I am keen on for other reasons as well, and which features in my own science fiction series). This, indeed, is the solution adopted in The Wandering Earth – large thruster drives are located on the Earth’s surface at major cities, while the population move underground to keep warm and avoid pollution. You keep more of the Earth’s native material this way – getting to Mars only uses up 13% of the Earth. Indeed, lots of the outdoor shots in the film show colossal excavation and earth-moving machinery tirelessly at work to feed the engines.

To avoid swallowing up the Earth as fuel, you have to use some external source. Two come to mind. The first is the light of the sun,. captured with some sort of mirror or solar sail. It’s slow, but you could achieve the desired effect in about a billion years. Not good enough for the film’s plot, but actually it would easily suffice for the real situation our remote descendants will need to tackle. The second is to exploit the huge amount of matter drifting around our solar system in the form of asteroids, and deflect these into new orbits which graze past our Earth. As they do this, the same slingshot effect that we normally use to accelerate small spacecraft can be exploited to move the Earth. Each interaction achieves a minuscule change, but a huge number of them eventually gets the job done. Of course, you’d have to have extreme trust in the orbital calculations, since the method relies totally on getting this long stream of asteroids as close as possible to the Earth without actually colliding with us! This, bizarre as it sounds, seems to be the most effective way to solve the problem. Each asteroid or comet can be used multiple times (until their own orbit degrades so much that they fall into the sun), so you just keep the asteroid train going round and round, pulling the Earth a little at a time. Again, it wouldn’t do for the immediate crisis presumed by the film, but it could work in the real-life long-term scenario.

So here is the conclusion of the series – we have migrated from the problems of getting into Earth orbit, to moving around between orbits, to the vastly bigger goal of moving the entire Earth in its own orbit around the sun. The common feature – you’d better do the calculations right in order to get where you want, and your intuition about how to go from A to B is not always right!

From The Wandering Earth (BBC)

More about Doggerland

Brown Bank, North Sea (BBC)

I was going to do my third post in the series about orbits, but that intention was derailed by reading a rather fascinating preliminary report from the research vessel Belgica, which spent 11 days dredging parts of the North Sea between England and the Netherlands, in the Brown Bank region where, so far as we can tell, the current sea floor is not so very different from the ground surface not long after the last ice age, when the ice had receded north, and Doggerland flourished as an inhabited part of northern Europe. Further south and west, layers of silt from the Thames and Rhine have tended to cover over the ancient layer, so better results are found by exploring north of a line from Great Yarmouth to Rotterdam.

Carved bison bone with zigzag decorations typical of the late Paleolithic (National Museum of Antiquities, Netherlands)

Anyway, the science team on the Belgica found evidence for a fossilised forest, together with peat residues suggesting adjacent wetlands. Both of these terrain kinds are associated with human settlements in this era (around 10-12,000 years ago), and the team are hopeful that a return visit later this year will – quite literally – uncover decisive signs of human settlement. Slowly over recent years, largely through cores drilled out for quite different reasons such as oil prospecting, both human remains and ancient artefacts have been found, but the picture so far is scattered and hard to interpret.

As well as dredging operations, other surveys have been carried out to try to map the original land surface below today’s water, in order to get a sense of the overall topography. This has helped shift the perception of Doggerland from being “just” a land bridge joining what is now the United Kingdom to continental Europe, towards the sense of a huge area containing many different human hunter-gatherer groups, each probably specialising in one particular terrain type. The total population would have been in the thousands. I guess we all know the end – over a period of many years, but probably punctuated by sudden crises every so often, the land

One day, hopefully, I shall get to write a book about Doggerland, probably to be set in the final years of its decline. Meanwhile, I shall be following news of its rediscovery with interest…

Doggerland as the ice retreated (Sonja Grimm)

Orbits 2

Gravity film release poster (Wiki)

Last time I talked a bit about orbital paths for getting from the Earth to the Moon, and how there are several alternatives, each using different amounts of time and fuel. Today I want to talk a bit about orbits around Earth – the kind of trajectories used by a multitude of satellites today. This post was partly motivated by a conversation in the film Gravity – a film which I quite enjoyed for the human interactions, but was seriously disappointed by the cavalier attitude to orbital mechanics! There’s a point fairly late on where George Clooney’s character points out to Sandra Bullock’s character an orbital space station where she can find additional supplies, and directs her to fire her own capsule engines while keeping the other station central in her forward window.

It sounds good – and it would sort of work on Earth if you translate Sandra Bullock’s plight into moving cars around a car park – but there is absolutely no way that such a strategy would get her to her target up in orbit. Quite apart from the matter of getting the two space vehicles to meet up in space, there’s also the problem of matching speeds so that she could easily move across to the second capsule. Earth orbits simply don’t work like that – it is certainly possible (with sufficient fuel) to transition from one orbit to another, but getting the engine burn right is a difficult task, and one which needs to be carried out by computer program rather than optimistic guesswork.

Hohmann transfer orbit (Wiki)

The most energy-efficient way to transition from one circular orbit to another is by means of what is called a Hohmann transfer orbit – an elliptical path that touches both circles at a tangent. Other transfers can be used, and may well take less time to complete, but they will use more fuel. The simple picture here assumes that both orbits are in the same plane – in a more general case it will be necessary to shift orbital plane from the old angle to the new one. But that aside, just looking at the two objects shows that the engine burn required is not at all directed straight at the target – indeed in this case it is almost diametrically opposite. (Hohmann transfers are also used on a larger scale for trajectories between planets, and exactly the same principles apply).

Now, the great majority of satellites are in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) – not a single trajectory, but a zone of space from about 200 to 2000km altitude, or equivalently with an orbital period of under two hours. LEO is easy to get to, and hence economical of fuel, but especially at the lower end of the range, orbits will slowly decay because of the very tenuous atmosphere still present there – hence either the lifetime is limited, or occasional actions must be taken to lift the orbital height. A consequence of such a low orbit is that the spacecraft transits the sky quickly – or equivalently, any one part of Earth stays in view for only a short time. Satellites providing the various GPS systems orbit much higher, around 20-30000km (12-15 hours). And higher still, a little over 40000km, are the geostationary orbits, in which a satellite takes 24 hours to orbit the planet, and so appears to be stationary over a particular place.

Cover - Far from the Spaceports
Cover – Far from the Spaceports

What does this have to do with writing? Well, maneuvering around a planet in low orbit is a tricky thing to get right, and not something you want to leave to intuition. In Far from the Spaceports, Mitnash gets a shuttle up to his spaceship, The Harbour Porpoise, which the AI persona Slate has been keeping in LEO waiting a decision on where they were heading off for. They end up going off to the asteroid belt, but their first move would be to get out of LEO and leave Earth’s gravity well behind. That’s not something where Mitnash would glance out of the window, push a couple of buttons, and hope for the best – Slate, or possibly the ship’s own onboard controller, would do some real calculations before firing up the main engines. And then off they go…

Next time, a zany idea I just read about concerning moving the orbit of the Earth itself…

Orbits 1

Artist’s impression of Beresheet probe mid-flight (Israel Space Agency)

A few weeks ago now, an Israeli space probe called Beresheet (“Beginning”) reached the moon’s surface – sadly a system glitch in the last few seconds of approach meant that it crashed rather than soft-landed, but nevertheless it was a remarkable achievement. A particularly interesting feature of the trajectory that the ground crew chose is that it is quite unlike the method adopted by pretty much every probe before now, including the Apollo spacecraft.

Successive orbit paths (Israel Space Agency)

The typical way to reach the moon has been in three phases – up to Earth orbit first, then a substantial burn of the main engines to escape Earth orbit and head towards the moon, then another burn to enter lunar orbit. The long leg of this is traversed with no engine activity at all, barring some trivial course corrections. Beresheet, however, adopted quite a different approach, as shown in the accompanying picture. A series of much smaller engine burns shifted the orbital path round Earth into ever-longer ellipses, until the path was close enough to the moon to be captured by the gravity there. The probe never attained escape velocity from Earth, and the trip took rather longer to arrive – a couple of months rather than a few days. However, it used less fuel and had the advantage that the successive changes in orbit allowed for lots of checking and fine-tuning.

Almost all probes to date, including Beresheet, have been driven by chemical rockets. They can exert huge acceleration at need, but have the disadvantage that the fuel tanks empty comparatively quickly. The times when the engines are used have to be rationed and carefully calculated, in order to have enough left over for critical events late on in the spacecraft’s journey. About the only exception to this is the Dawn probe, which visited the asteroid belt and returned remarkable new details about Vesta and Ceres. Dawn used an ion drive, which yields comparatively little acceleration but can be run continuously for weeks or months at a time. It’s a neat way to pile up substantial velocity without using much fuel at a time. It’s also the spaceship drive that I presuppose for Far from the Spaceports and successive books in that series – from a human-traveller point of view it has the huge advantage that you don’t have to put up with long periods of weightless travel, as well as considerably reducing travel times. The fact that the drive runs continually for all that time hugely offsets the fact that the actual propulsive power is much smaller.

That’s it for this week – next week there’ll be a few more thoughts on orbits. Meanwhile, here’s the last picture Beresheet took before crashing into the lunar surface…

Beresheet’s final image (Israel Space Agency)

About a podcast

Absolute Business MIndset podcast logo

A short blog today as I get back into blog writing after a very busy Easter. And it’s something a little bit different for me – a friend and former work colleague interviewed me for his podcast series over the weekend, and it has now gone live.

Now, I’ve never really got into podcasts, and Marks’ normal focus for his series is to do with business (as you can tell from his series title, Absolute Business Mindset), but we both managed to make something of the interaction.

Different people use different podcast software, but this site
https://gopod.me/1340548096 gives you a list of different options through which you can access the interview. Alternatively, search for Mark’s series by its title, Absolute Business Mindset.

In it, you can hear me talking with Mark about all kinds of stuff, largely focused around maths, artificial intelligence, Alexa and so on, ultimately touching on science fiction. The whole thing takes about an hour, and Alexa takes more of a central role in the second half. Enjoy!

Another asteroid mission

Artist's Impression of Dawn in orbit (NASA/JPL)
Artist’s Impression of Dawn in orbit (NASA/JPL)

Readers of this blog will know that I have been very enthusiastic about NASA’s Dawn space probe which spent a long time investigating first Vesta, and then for a rather longer time Ceres, before eventually running out of fuel and being decommissioned. The results from that mission have substantially changed our perception of the asteroid belt, and in particular have confirmed the ubiquity of water ice in all parts of the solar system. Of course, it also raised a lot of questions, such as what was responsible for bright surface markings on Ceres, and how the dwarf planet could apparently have supported both ammonia deposits and a large ocean at various times in its history.

Pallas, as seen from the European Southern Observatory

Anyway, I read this week that NASA is considering a smaller and cheaper mission to the third largest asteroid, Pallas. If approved – and the decision will be made later this month – this would launch in August 2022, which gives it a suitable orbit for a gravity assist from Mars. Unlike Dawn, the low price tag means that this is a flyby mission rather than one that aims to go into orbit, so it will be a case of capturing whatever data can be obtained in a relatively short span of time. Basically, it’s cheaper and easier to just race past somewhere, rather than carry the fuel to slow down and be captured gravitationally. Nevertheless, it should provide another batch of results to extend our knowledge of the diverse objects making up the asteroid belt. And in particular it will give some more solid information that – no doubt – wil one day find its way into my Far from the Spaceports series!

Kindle Cover - Half Sick of Shadows
Kindle Cover – Half Sick of Shadows

And in entirely unrelated news, last Friday I had the pleasure of participating in Helen Hollick’s blog series “Novel Conversations”, which focused on an interview with a character. In my case this was Brendan mab Emrys, who some people will know as the bard in the Arthurian section of Half Sick of Shadows. The interview can be found at Helen’s blog. And if you navigate over that way, you will also find an extract.

Finally, it would be sad to finish this blog post without briefly saying RIP Google+, which until yesterday was a place I shared out blog posts, nature photos, and other similar things.

Artificial Intelligence – Thoughts and News

My science fiction books – Far from the Spaceports and Timing, plus two more titles in preparation – are heavily built around exploring relationships between people and artificial intelligences, which I call personas. So as well as a bit of news about one of our present-day AIs – Alexa – I thought I’d talk today about how I see the trajectory leading from where we are today, to personas such as Slate.

Martian Weather Alexa skill web icon
Martian Weather Alexa skill web icon

Before that, though, some news about a couple of new Alexa skills I have published recently. The first is Martian Weather, providing a summary of recent weather from Elysium Planitia, Mars, courtesy of a public NASA data feed from the Mars Insight Lander. So you can listen to reports of about a week of temperature, wind, and air pressure reports. At the moment the temperature varies through a Martian day between about -95 and -15° Celsius, so it’s not very hospitable. Martian Weather is free to enable on your Alexa device from numerous Alexa skills stores, including UK, US, CA, AU, and IN. The second is Peak District Weather, a companion to my earlier Cumbria Weather skill but – rather obviously – focusing on mountain weather conditions in England’s Peak District rather than Lake District. Find out about weather conditions that matter to walkers, climbers and cyclists. This one is (so far) only available on the UK store, but other international markets will be added in a few days.

Who remembers Clippy?

Current AI research tends to go in one of several directions. We have single-purpose devices which aim to do one thing really well, but have no pretensions outside that. They are basically algorithms rather than intelligences per se – they might be good or bad at their allotted task, but they aren’t going to do well at anything else. We have loads of these around these days – predictive text and autocorrect plugins, autopilots, weather forecasts, and so on. From a coding point of view, it is now comparatively easy to include some intelligence in your application, using modular components, and all you have to do is select some suitable training data to set the system up (actually, that little phrase “suitable training data” conceals a multitude of difficulties, but let’s not go into that today).

Boston Dynamics ‘Atlas’ (Boston Dynamics web site)

Then you get a whole bunch of robots intended to master particular physical tasks, such as car assembly or investigation of burning buildings. Some of these are pretty cute looking, some are seriously impressive in their capabilities, and some have been fashioned to look reasonably humanoid. These – especially the latter group – probably best fit people’s idea of what advanced AI ought to look like. They are also the ones closest to mankind’s long historical enthusiasm for mechanical assistants, dating back at least to Hephaestus, who had a number of automata helping him in his workshop. A contemporary equivalent is Boston Dynamics (originally a spin-off from MIT, later taken over by Google) which has designed and built a number of very impressive robots in this category, and has attracted interest from the US military, while also pursing civilian programmes.

Amazon Dot - Active
Amazon Dot – Active

Then there’s another area entirely, which aims to provide two things: a generalised intelligence rather than one targeted on a specific task, and one which does not come attached to any particular physical trappings. This is the arena of the current crop of digital assistants such as Alexa, Siri, Cortana and so on. It’s also the area that I am both interested in and involved in coding for, and provides a direct ancestry for my fictional personas. Slate and the others are, basically, the offspring – several generations removed – of these digital assistants, but with far more autonomy and general cleverness. Right now, digital assistants are tied to cloud-based sources of information to carry out speech recognition. They give the semblance of being self-contained, but actually are not. So as things stand you couldn’t take an Alexa device out to the asteroid belt and hope to have a decent conversation – there would be a minimum of about half an hour between each line of chat, while communication signals made their way back to Earth, were processed, and then returned to Ceres. So quite apart from things like Alexa needing a much better understanding of human emotions and the subtleties of language, we need a whole lot of technical innovations to do with memory and processing.

As ever, though, I am optimistic about these things. I’ve assumed that we will have personas or their equivalent within about 70 or 80 years from now – far enough away that I probably won’t get to chat with them, but my children might, and my grandchildren will. I don’t subscribe to the theory that says that advanced AIs will be inimical to humankind (in the way popularised by Skynet in the Terminator films, and picked up much more recently in the current Star Trek Discovery series). But that’s a whole big subject, and one to be tackled another day.

Meanwhile, you can enjoy my latest couple of Alexa skills and find out about the weather on Mars or England’s Peak District, while I finish some more skills that are in progress, and also continue to write about their future.

Mars Insight Lander, Artist’s impression (NASA/JPL)

Making things

It seems a very long while since I wrote a blog article – this extraordinarily varied job I now have has kept me busy with all kinds of practical things and left me with little time or head-space to blog. But here after a gap are some thoughts triggered by a recent task.

To cut a long story short, we had to build a cupboard, from scratch with struts and planks rather than an Ikea-style assembly kit. The cupboard was intended to replace a room full of racking and shelves which used to hold a collection of necessary linen and such like, plus a whole lot of dumped bits and pieces which were no longer needed and had to find a new home. (The old linen store room was being reworked for a different purpose, but that’s another story).

An early stage - sides but no doors, and nothing has been painted
An early stage – sides but no doors, and nothing has been painted

Now it struck me, as we worked away with timber purchased online and delivered direct to the house, using power tools of various kinds and (eventually) hefty tins of paint – which again we had not needed to go out and collect – that we are living in a fairly unique period for this kind of work. Back in the Bronze age, say three of four thousand years ago, things would have been very different. The same is true of classical, mediaeval, renaissance, and pretty much all other times right through to very recently. I wonder how many stories presuppose that the heroes of the story are able to simply turn their hands to whatever happens to be the next task on the list, regardless of the practical problems? I know I’ve read some like that.

For a start, I would probably not have been in a position to freely decide that the work needed doing. If I’d wanted timber, I would probably have had to fell and shape it myself, or negotiate with others to do this for me. All the woodworking would need to be done by hand, and even for a simple cupboard that takes a fair level of skill and practice. I wouldn’t have had easy access to several kinds of paint (primer/undercoat and topcoat, at minimum).

Midway - doors now fitted
Midway – doors now fitted

In short, a task which took two of us a couple of days to finish (plus waiting time in between paint coats) would have been a seriously long proposition, and one which would have had a much more debatable outcome.

That’s looking back. But if you look forward, to the prospect of making a cupboard in low or zero gravity, a whole set of different problems presents itself. Let’s suppose that I would have either procured some wood, or else used a three-d printer to turn out something similar enough that I could make it. Then I’d have to manoeuvre it into position. In low gravity, mass and weight mean different things – I would have the muscular strength to shift much larger weights than here on Earth, but their mass, and so their inertia, would be exactly the same, so getting the planks to stop moving might be an issue. Most of my Earth-based tools would not work, since most of them rely heavily on friction to have an effect. A saw works by relying on the fact that you can fix both the wood and yourself in place sufficiently well that the teeth cut through the wood fibres. Shift into micro-gravity, and what tends to happen is that you just can’t get enough opposing force at the blade edge to get anywhere.

An astronaut working on the Hubble Space Telescope – note the cordless drill strapped to his belt (NASA)

Similarly for our dinky electric screwdriver. On Earth it’s great – you hold it steady, the screws turn round and work their way through the layers of wood. In microgravity, it’s hard to avoid you turning the opposite way to the screw. My layers of paint wouldn’t have a tendency to drip downwards – which would be very handy- but they’d also tend to disperse into little globules which would then go into all kinds of places you didn’t expect or want. The various space agencies have had to develop very specific – and very expensive – versions of everyday tools just so they can work in low Earth orbit reasonably well. Even so, tasks take much longer – in 2017 some 12 old batteries on the ISS were replaced with 6 new ones. The task took took separate spacewalks, the first of which lasted over 6 hours. Changing those 12 batteries took nearly as long as we took to build the whole cupboard. Fixing and making things in microgravity is hard work, and slow work.


3D-printed items using fake moon dust, or regolith (ESA)

Now, I’m quite convinced that as and when people will want to build a linen cupboard in low Earth orbit, or on the moon, or on an asteroid somewhere, they will be inventive enough to craft different kinds of tools which don’t make the same assumptions about gravity strength and direction that our current generation does. Maybe in a few decades I would simply download the cupboard template and print myself one, in whatever dimensions and colour scheme seemed good to me. Last year there was an interesting article explaining how ESA are testing the use of moon dust as the raw material for printers (at this stage it’s not actually dust from the moon, owing to a shortage of that, but the regolith they used has broadly the same properties). So you don’t send a bunch of tools and construction materials over to the mon, or Ceres, or Charon, or wherever – you send a printer with some pre-programmed templates, and you gather dust from your local environment.

For us, stuck with our 2019 toolset, there was a happy ending – the cupboard got finished quickly, and we can now move on to renovating the previous linen storeroom. And that would scarcely have been possible even fifty years ago, let alone all the previous years of mankind’s time here on Earth.

The finished article...
The finished article…

Emotions

Far from the Spaceports cover
Far from the Spaceports cover

In my science fiction stories, I write about artificial intelligences called personas. They are not androids, nor robots in the sense that most people recognise – they have no specialised body hardware, are not able to move around by themselves, and don’t look like imitation humans. They are basically – in today’s terminology – computers, but with a level of artificial intelligence substantially beyond what we are used to. Our current crop of virtual assistants, such as Alexa, Cortana, Siri, Bixby, and so on, are a good analogy – it’s the software running on them that matters, not the particular hardware form. They have a certain amount of built-in capability, and can also have custom talents (like Alexa skills) added on to customise them in an individual way. “My” Alexa is broadly the same as “yours”, in that both tap into the same data store for understanding language, but differs in detail because of the particular combination of extra skills you and I have enabled (in my case, there’s also a lot of trial development code installed). So there is a level of individuality, albeit at a very basic level. They are a step towards personas, but are several generations away from them.

Now, one of the main features that distinguishes personas from today’s AI software is an ability to recognise and appropriately respond to emotion – to empathise. (There’s a whole different topic to do with feeling emotion, which I’ll get back to another day). Machine understanding of emotion (often called Sentiment Analysis) is a subject of intense research at the moment, with possible applications ranging from monitoring drivers to alert about emotional states that would compromise road safety, through to medical contexts to provide early warning regarding patients who are in discomfort or pain. Perhaps more disturbingly, it is coming into use during recruitment, and to assess employees’ mood – and in both cases this could be without the subject knowing or consenting to the study. But correctly recognising emotion is a hard problem… and not just for machine learning.

From the article ‘Emotion Science Keeps Getting More Complicated. Can AI Keep Up? ‘ by Dr Rich Firth-Godbehere

Humans also often have problems recognising emotional context. Some people – by nature or training – can get pretty good at it, most people are kind of average, and some people have enormous difficulty understanding and responding to emotions – their own, often, as well as those of other people. There are certain stereotypes we have of this -the cold scientist, the bullish sportsman, the loud bore who dominates a conversation – and we probably all know people whose facility to handle emotions is at best weak. The adjacent picture is taken from an excellent article questioning whether machines will ever be able to detect and respond to emotion – is this man, at the wheel of his car, experiencing road rage, or is he pumped that the sports team he supports has just scored? It’s almost impossible to tell from a still picture.

From a human perspective, we need context – the few seconds running up to that specific image in which we can listen to the person’s words, and observe their various bodily clues to do with posture and so on. If instead of a still picture, I gave you a five second video, I suspect you could give a fairly accurate guess what the person was experiencing. Machine learning is following the same route. One article concerning modern research reads in part, “Automatic emotion recognition is a challenging task… it’s natural to simultaneously utilize audio and visual information“. Basically, the inputs to their system consist of a digitised version of the speech being heard, and four different video feeds focusing on different parts of the person’s face. All five inputs are then combined, and tuned in proprietary ways to focus on details which are sensitive to emotional content. At present, this model is said to do well with “obvious” feelings such as anger or happiness, and struggles with more weakly signalled feelings such as surprise, disgust and so on. But then, much the same is true of many people…

A schematic learning network (from www.neuroelectrics.com)

A fascinating – and unresolved – problem is whether emotions, and especially the physical signs of emotions, are universal human constants, or alternatively can only be defined in a cultural and historical context. Back in the 1970s, psychological work had concluded that emotions were shared in common across the world, but since then this has been called into question. The range of subjects used for the study was – it has been argued – been far too narrow. And when we look into past or future, the questions become more difficult and less answerable. Can we ever know whether people in, say, the Late Bronze Age experienced the same range of emotions as us? And expressed them with the same bodily features and movements? We can see that they used words like love, anger, fear, and so on, but was their inward experience the same as ours today? Personally I lean towards the camp that emotions are indeed universal, but the counter-arguments are persuasive. And if human emotions are mutable over space and time, what does that say about machine recognition of emotions, or even machine experience of emotions?

One way of exploring these issues is via games, and as I was writing this I came across a very early version of such a game. It is called The Vault, and is being prepared by Queen Mary University, London. In its current form it is hard to get the full picture, but it clearly involves a series of scenes from past, present and future. Some of the descriptive blurb reads “The Vault game is a journey into history, an immersion into the experiences and emotions of those whose lives were very different from our own. There, we discover unfamiliar feelings, uncanny characters who are like us and yet unlike.” There is a demo trailer at the above link, which looks interesting but unfinished… I tried giving a direct link to Vimeo of this, but the token appears to expire after a while and the link fails. You can still get to the video via the link above.

Meanwhile, my personas will continue to respond to – and experience – emotions, while I wait for software developments to catch up with them! And, of course, continue to develop my own Alexa skills as a kind of remote ancestor to personas.

Timing Kindle cover
Timing Kindle cover

Future life in space

Two quick bits of space news this week that – all being well – could make their way into a story one day.

Prototype of steam-propelled space probe (University of Central Florida, via Independent.co.uk)

The first was an idea of powering space probes by steam. Now, at first read this sounds very retro, but it deserves some thought. In space, you can’t move along by means of steam pressure turning wheels – there is nothing against which to gain traction. Steam-propelled rockets work like any other rocket – something gets ejected at great speed in one direction, so as to accelerate the rocket in the opposite direction. The steam engine part of the probe is a means of converting the fuel supply into something that can be directed out of the thruster nozzle. The steam, heated as hot as possible to give a high nozzle exit temperature, is the propellant.

The cool thing about pushing steam out of the back, is that it comes from water, and in particular ice. And, as we have been discovering over the last few decades, water ice is extremely common throughout the solar system, and more widely through the universe. So as and when the steam-powered spaceship starts to run low on fuel, it can land on some promising object and collect some more ice. The fuel supply, while not strictly unlimited, is vastly common wherever we’re likely to go. As and when needed, solar panels or (further from the sun) a standard radioactive decay engine can give a boost, but the steam engine would do the grunt work of getting from one refueling station to the next.

Is there wine on Mars? (JPL/Caltech via livescience.com)

Secondly, pursuing my occasional theme of alcohol in space, I read about a firm from Georgia (the country, not the US state) that wants to develop grape varieties that would survive on Mars and, in due course, be convertible into decent wine. This would be a serious challenge, given the low air pressure, high carbon monoxide levels, and wide temperature swings of said planet. As a rough rule of thumb, the air at the Martian surface is about the same as at 20,000′ here on Earth. Apparently, white varieties are reckoned to be more adaptable than red, but I suspect that we are a little way away from resounding success here.

Other attempts to ensure that future space travellers will not have to go without booze include Budweiser sending barley seeds into space to identify the effect of microgravity on germination, steeping and kilning – three steps in the production of malt. See this link. Allegedly, also, a bottle of Scotch Whisky spent three years on the ISS before returning to Earth for analysis… the resulting taste was said to be disappointing. I hope the ISS crew got a few measures out of the bottle before sending it back down again.

That’s it for today, except to wonder again how each of these ideas could be storified. My own near-future science fiction books assume an advanced version of today’s ion drives for propelling spacecraft, but there’s no reason why steam propulsion might not appear as a previous experiment. As to wine in space, well I have already assumed that the problems of fermenting beer in microgravity have been resolved, so again this would have to be a retrospective view of historical developments. Basically, both of these innovations are set between today and my own future world. So I’m looking forward to seeing how they get sorted out in the next decade or two…

Writing, both historical and speculative