Budget proposal tightens the screws on science

Space Launch System

An artist’s conception shows NASA’s Space Launch System in flight. (NASA Illustration)sls

The White House’s $4.7 trillion spending plan for fiscal year 2020 aims to give a boost to the Space Force, but would dial down work on NASA’s Space Launch System, zero out the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope, leave salmon in the lurch and slash science spending on other fronts.

When it comes to outer space, the brightest spotlight falls on lunar exploration and space commercialization — which is in line with the priorities of the National Space Council, headed by Vice President Mike Pence. And when it comes to earthly realms in science and technology, artificial intelligence and quantum computing shine.

It’s important to remember, however, that every year’s budget request is pronounced “dead on arrival” by critics in Congress. That’s particularly so this year, with Democrats in control of the House.

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737 MAX jet crash kills 157 in Ethiopia

Ethiopian Airlines crash site

Ethiopian Airlines CEO Tewolde GebreMariam visits the accident scene. (Ethiopian Airlines Photo via Twitter)

Airlines in China and three other countries have suspended flights of their Boeing 737 MAX 8 jets in light of March 10’s catastrophic crash in Ethiopia.

Ethiopian Airlines reported today that both of the “black boxes” from the 737-8 that crashed — the cockpit voice recorder and the flight data recorder — have been recovered. However, The Associated Press quoted an unnamed airline official as saying that one of the recorders was partially damaged. “We will see what we can retrieve from it,” the official told AP.

The crash killed all 157 people aboard the plane, including at least 21 U.N. workers. Many of those workers were heading to an environmental conference in Nairobi, Kenya.

It was the second fatal accident involving the 737-8 model in less than five months. The earlier crash killed 189 people on a Lion Air flight in Indonesia.

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Boeing will offer biofuel for jet deliveries

Filling up Alaska Airlines jet with biofuel

Alaska Airlines says it will take a biofuel fill-up from Boeing when its 737 MAX jets are delivered. (Alaska Airlines Photo)

Boeing says it will begin offering airlines and operators the chance to have their jets powered by biofuel when they take off for their new homes, and Seattle-based Alaska Airlines is the first to sign up for the option.

The program was unveiled today, in the wake of this week’s first-ever Washington Sustainable Aviation Fuels Summit in Seattle. Boeing and Alaska Airlines were among the event’s sponsors.

Like the summit, Boeing’s new option is aimed at advancing the use of aviation biofuels, which studies have shown can reduce carbon emissions by up to 80 percent on a typical flight.

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SpaceX Crew Dragon splashes down to end test run

SpaceX Crew Dragon splashdown

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spaceship hits the waters of the Atlantic Ocean for splashdown. (NASA via YouTube)

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spaceship splashed down into the Atlantic Ocean today, ending a six-day uncrewed test run preparing the way for astronaut trips to the International Space Station later this year.

Scorch marks were visible on the side of the 27-foot-long craft as it descended at the end of four red-and-white parachutes and hit the water at 5:45 a.m. PT. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk had said the hypersonic plunge through the atmosphere was his “biggest concern,” but the capsule survived intact.

The Dragon looked like a giant toasted marshmallow as it was pulled up onto its “nest” on SpaceX’s recovery ship, about 200 miles out from Florida’s Atlantic coast. The ship, GO Searcher, will bring the spacecraft back to shore for inspection.

The last time a crew-capable spaceship splashed down in the Atlantic was 50 years ago, at the end of NASA’s Apollo 9 mission.

After today’s splashdown, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine gave a shout-out to predecessors going back more than a decade, crediting them for setting up a commercial crew program aimed at filling the gap left by the space shuttle fleet’s retirement in 2011.

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Who’ll be the watchdog for AI technology?

AI policy panel

Seattle University’s Tracy Kosa, the University of Maryland’s Ben Shneiderman and Rice University’s Moshe Vardi take questions during an AI policy workshop at the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, moderated by AI2 CEO Oren Etzioni. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

Do we need a National Algorithm Safety Board? How about licensing the software developers who work on critical artificial intelligence platforms? Who should take the lead when it comes to regulating AI? Or does AI need regulation at all?

The future of AI and automation, and the policies governing how far those technologies go, took center stage today during a policy workshop presented by Seattle’s Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, or AI2. And the experts who spoke agreed on at least one thing: Something needs to be done, policy-wise.

“Technology is driving the future — the question is, who is doing the steering?” said Moshe Vardi, a Rice University professor who focuses on computational engineering and the social impact of automation.

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Vtrus raises cash for indoor inspection by drone

Vtrus drone

Vtrus’ ABI Zero drone is designed to conduct indoor inspections autonomously. (Vtrus via YouTube)

Seattle startup Vtrus has raised investment for a different kind of drone — one that’s designed to conduct precision inspections of industrial facilities.

SEC filing published today shows a $2.9 million cash infusion for Vtrus. Renato Salas-Moreno, the company’s CEO and co-founder, declined to comment on the new funding when contacted by GeekWire.

Salas-Moreno was previously the co-founder of Surreal Vision, a computer vision startup that was sold in 2015 to Oculus, Facebook’s VR subsidiary. He went on to work at Oculus VR for more than a year as a research scientist in Redmond, Wash., then helped lay the groundwork for Vtrus, which he launched in 2017 with chief technology officer Jonathan Lenoff and chief design officer Carlos Sanchez.

The company, based near Fishermen’s Terminal in Seattle’s Interbay neighborhood, has developed an indoor autonomous drone known as the ABI Zero that can navigate its way around the tricky surroundings of a warehouse environment without the need for a remote operator or GPS waypoints.

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WellSaid creates well-spoken robot voices

WellSaid platform

A screenshot illustrates how WellSaid’s voice synthesis platform could be used. (WellSaid Illustration)

We’ve got Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana, Amazon’s Alexa and Google Assistant — so do we really need more synthesized voices to do our bidding?

Absolutely, say the founders of WellSaid Labs, a startup that’s being spun out from Seattle’s Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence (also known as AI2).

“We’re just solving a different problem,” co-founder and chief technology officer Michael Petrochuk told GeekWire. “Alexa and Google Home are trying to solve the problem of clearly, slowly communicating — pronouncing everything the same way, in a monotone format so it could be understood by everyone.”

WellSaid, in contrast, is developing a stable of AI-powered voices customized for different context, and sounding so lifelike that you wouldn’t believe they’re robots. During a recent video demonstration for a roomful of AI aficionados, most folks guessed that the images were generated by an algorithm, but not the voices.

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