Stephen Hawking warns of ‘AI arms race’

Image: Stephen Hawking
British physicist Stephen Hawking chats with Larry King. (Credit: Ora.TV)

British physicist Stephen Hawking says the potential threat from artificial intelligence isn’t just a far-off “Terminator”-style nightmare. He’s already pointing to signs that AI is going down the wrong track.

“Governments seem to be engaged in an AI arms race, designing planes and weapons with intelligent technologies,” Hawking told veteran interviewer Larry King. “The funding for projects directly beneficial to the human race, such as improved medical screening, seems a somewhat lower priority.”

It’s not surprising that Hawking is worried about AI – he’s been issuing warning for years. But the concern over an AI arms race adds a short-term spin to the long-term concern.

There’s certainly an AI race going on, spanning a spectrum from Microsoft’s vision of AI-enhanced applications to the self-driving cars that so many companies seem to be working on. Hawking has joined forces with SpaceX founder Elon Musk, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and thousands of other techies in expressing deep concern about the military side of AI.

In the “Larry King Now” online interview, available via Ora.TV, Hawking acknowledged that AI can bring lots of benefits to humanity. “Imagine algorithms able to quickly assess scientists’ ideas, catch cancer earlier and predict the stock markets,” he said.

But Hawking said AI’s reach will have to be strictly regulated.

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Curiosity rover might scout for water on Mars

Image: Curiosity selfie
This selfie of NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover shows the vehicle at a drilled sample site called “Okoruso,” on the Naukluft Plateau of lower Mount Sharp. The scene combines several images taken with the rover’s Mars Hand Lens Imager on May 11. (Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSSS)

NASA says one of the Curiosity rover’s future tasks could be to check out sites on Mars that may harbor trickles of salty water.

It’s been nearly four years since Curiosity was dropped into Gale Crater by a rocket-powered crane. Since that touchdown, the six-wheeled, 1-ton robot has foundample evidence that water once flowed through the territory it has explored.

Curiosity is now making its way up the side of Mount Sharp (a.k.a. Aeolis Mons), a 3-mile-high mountain in the middle of Gale Crater – and it’s making further discoveries along the way.

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Computer binges on TV to learn human ways

Image: Big Bang Theory
An AI program analyzed this video frame and predicted that these two characters from “The Big Bang Theory” (played by Sara Rue and Johnny Galecki) would kiss. They did. (Credit: Vondrick et al. / MIT)

Researchers have taught a computer to do a better-than-expected job of predicting what characters on TV shows will do, just by forcing the machine to study 600 hours’ worth of YouTube videos.

The experiment could serve as a commentary on the state of research into artificial intelligence, or on the predictability of sitcom plots. It also calls to mind the scenes from countless science-fiction movies where the alien gets up to speed on human culture just by watching TV.

MIT’s Carl Vondrick and his colleagues are due to present the results of their experiment next week at the International Conference on Computer Vision and Pattern Recognition in Las Vegas.

The researchers developed predictive-vision software that uses machine learning to anticipate what actions should follow a given set of video frames. They grabbed thousands of videos showing humans greeting each other, and fed those videos into the algorithm.

To test how much the machine was learning about human behavior, the researchers presented the computer with single frames that showed meet-ups between characters on TV sitcoms it had never seen, including “The Big Bang Theory,” “Desperate Housewives” and “The Office.” Then they asked whether the characters would be hugging, kissing, shaking hands or exchanging high-fives one second afterward.

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Britain’s EU exit vote throws techies into a tizzy

Image: London and Microsoft Lumia phone
The “Let’s Go” message on a Microsoft Lumia phone takes on an ironic meaning in the wake of Britain’s vote to exit the European Union. (Credit: MIcrosoft Lumia Conversations UK)

Just a couple of days ago, longtime Seattle tech entrepreneur Marcelo Calbucci wasexcited about moving his family to London. But now that Britain has voted to leave the European Union, he’s feeling a different emotion.

“I would use a ‘disappointed’ emoji,” Calbucci told GeekWire today.

He’s still going ahead with the move. His wife will be starting a job at Microsoft in London, and his kids (aged 7 and 10) are ready to go as well. But Calbucci has no idea what “Brexit” will do to the tech environment he was so looking forward to jumping into.

“People were moving to London to build these startups – now they might think twice,” he said.

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NASA orders a 3-D printer/recycler for space

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TUI/Firmamentum’s Positrusion device turns 3-D-printed items into plastic filament. The recycler would be paired with a 3-D printer in Firmamentum’s Refabricator. (Credit: Tethers Unlimited)

Firmamentum, a division of Tethers Unlimited Inc. in Bothell, Wash., says it has won $750,000 in NASA funding to build a combination 3-D printer and plastic recycler for the International Space Station.

The device, known as the Refabricator, is due to be delivered to NASA next year, said Rob Hoyt, president of TUI/Firmamentum.

“This is an experiment to see how many times you can recycle plastic in the microgravity environment before the polymers break down,” Hoyt told GeekWire today at the Space Frontier Foundation’s NewSpace 2016 conference in Seattle.

Firmamentum’s plastic-recycling process, known as Positrusion, was the focus of earlier experiments funded by NASA’s Small Business Innovation Research program, or SBIR. Hoyt said the most recent award was made last Friday, with backing from SBIR as well as the In-Space Manufacturing project at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama.

Another company, California-based Made In Space, already has built a couple of 3-D printers that went into use on the space station. The 3-D printers melt down plastic filament and deposit tiny squirts of the stuff in a computer-controlled pattern to produce tools and other objects.

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World View pivots to balloon-borne ‘Stratollites’

Image: World View balloon
World View is working on balloon-and-parafoil systems that could carry payloads into the stratosphere, as shown in this artist’s conception. (Credit: World View Enterprises)

World View Enterprises made a splash with its plans to send tourists up to the stratosphere, but now it has a more down-to-earth focus: using balloons to send up satellite-style payloads for months-long missions.

The tours are still part of the Arizona-based company’s business plan, CEO Jane Poynter said today at the Space Frontier Foundation’s NewSpace 2016 conference in Seattle. The time frame for testing a full-size mockup of the Voyager crew capsule has been pushed back, however.

In January, Poynter said the flight test would take place in mid-2016. Today, she said that test would be conducted early next year instead.

In the meantime, World View is ramping up its “Stratollite” system i(“Stratosphere” plus “Satellite”). The program involves attaching payloads to a high-altitude balloon, lofting them up beyond 100,000 feet in altitude, and letting them float above the clouds to relay signals, capture imagery, gather weather data or perform other functions that are typically done by satellites or large unmanned aerial vehicles.

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Boeing joins battle over broadband satellites

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An artist’s conception shows a constellation of satellites in orbit. (Credit: OneWeb)

The Boeing Co. is laying out plans to put more than 1,000 satellites into low Earth orbit to provide broadband internet service – and it wants to make sure the Federal Communications Commission preserves the spectrum they’d use.

Boeing thus joins a debate that involves other would-be satellite constellation operators, including OneWeb and SpaceX, as well as the telecom ventures that are planning for 5G broadband mobile services. Like OneWeb and SpaceX, Boeing envisions using a satellite constellation to provide wide-ranging access to the internet and other high-speed data services.

“Next-generation broadband satellite systems can bridge the broadband gap because they are able to deliver advanced communications service to all users at the same cost regardless of location,” Boeing said this week in a filing with the FCC.

Boeing says the system it’s planning would use a range of the radio spectrum known as the V-band, plus another range called the C-band. The V-band is also being eyed by would-be 5G providers, but Boeing argues that the two types of services can co-exist.

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Solar Impulse crosses Atlantic to land in Spain

Image: Piccard and Borschberg
Solar Impulse co-founders Bertrand Piccard and Andre Borschberg salute the crowd after Piccard landed the Solar Impulse 2 airplane in Seville, Spain. (Credit: Zayed Energy Prize via Twitter)

The world’s most traveled fuel-free airplane, Solar Impulse 2, made better time than expected and landed in Spain today, leaving only 10 percent of its round-the-world odyssey to go.

“The Atlantic has always been the symbol of going from the Old World to the New World,” Solar Impulse co-founder and pilot Bertrand Piccard said after landing in Seville. “And everybody has tried to cross the Atlantic – with sailboats, steamboats, airships, airplanes, balloons, even rowboats and kitesurfs. Today, it’s a solar-powered airplane for the first time ever, flying electric, with no fuel and no pollution.”

Piccard was expected to take 90 hours to cross from New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport to Seville, but he made the trip in only a little more than 71 hours.

“Only” is a relative term: A commercial airline flight from New York to Seville takes less than 11 hours, including a stopover in Madrid. But speed isn’t the point of Solar Impulse’s round-the-world odyssey. Rather, it’s sustainability.

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NASA veteran plans commercial space station

Image: Space station
Artwork shows a potential commercial space station. (Credit: Axiom Space via YouTube)

Former space station manager Mike Suffredini says he’s working on a plan to send up a commercial space module that could be attached to the International Space Station – and then disattached to become the foundation for a private-sector outpost in orbit.

“We intend to work on a low-Earth-orbit platform to follow the International Space Station,” Suffredini said today at the Space Frontier Foundation’s NewSpace 2016 conference in Seattle.

Representatives of the new venture, called Axiom Space, are in contact with NASA about the idea, but Suffredini stressed that he’s staying at arm’s length to comply with the space agency’s conflict-of-interest requirements.

Suffredini left NASA last September and is now Axiom’s president as well as the president ofStinger Ghaffarian Technologies‘ commercial space division. Axiom is currently structured as an SGT subsidiary, with SGT co-founder Kam Ghaffarian serving as Axiom’s CEO, Suffredini said.

Axiom already has seed funding, Suffredini said. If NASA gives the go-ahead, the venture would raise additional money from investors to finance the construction of the module and get it launched to the station in the 2020-2021 time frame.

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Dream Chaser gets set for its next reality check

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Technicians at an SNC facility in Colorado inspect the Dream Chaser engineering test article, or ETA, which is due to be put through atmospheric flight tests. (Credit: Sierra Nevada Corporation)

After years of postponements, Sierra Nevada Corp. is planning to deliver a rebuilt test prototype of its Dream Chaser mini-space shuttle to NASA for testing in the August time frame, a company executive said today.

Mark Sirangelo, corporate vice president for SNC Space Systems, also said the company has just satisfied the first milestone in its contract with NASA to develop the Dream Chaser as a cargo transport for the International Space Station.

Sirangelo provided an update on the Dream Chaser at the Space Frontier Foundation’s NewSpace 2016 conference in Seattle.

In January, NASA gave the nod to SNC as well as to SpaceX and Orbital ATK to service the station during the second phase of its Cargo Resupply Services program, also known as CRS-2. Unlike SpaceX’s Dragon capsule and Orbital’s Cygnus craft, SNC’s Dream Chaser has yet to fly.

SNC Space Systems’ facility in Louisville, Colo., is the development center for the winged craft, which looks like a scaled-down space shuttle. The project is just one line of business for Nevada-based Sierra Nevada Corp., which is a significant defense contractor and a key player in Turkey’s TRjet aircraft development project.

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