Tech titans face scrutiny over killer-robot tech

SpotMini and Marc Raibert
Boston Dynamics’ four-legged SpotMini robot may look scary as it shares the stage with company founder and CEO Marc Raibert at Amazon’s re:MARS conference in Las Vegas in June. But a report published this month praises Boston Dynamics’ owner, SoftBank, for confirming that it won’t develop technologies that could be used for military purposes. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

Dutch activists are voicing concerns about technologies that could open the way for lethal autonomous weapons – such as AI software, facial recognition and swarming aerial systems – and are wondering where several tech titans including Amazon and Microsoft stand.

So are some AI researchers in the United States.

report issued by Pax, a Dutch group that’s part of an international initiative known as the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, calls out Amazon, Microsoft and other companies for not responding to the group’s inquiries about their activities and policies in the context of lethal autonomous weapons.

“Why are companies like Microsoft and Amazon not denying that they’re currently developing these highly controversial weapons, which could decide to kill people without direct human involvement?” the report’s lead author, Frank Slijper, said this week in a news release. “Many experts warn that they would violate fundamental legal and ethical principles and would be a destabilizing threat to international peace and security.”

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Big Data is a bigger deal than venture capital in AI

AI panel
Optio3 CEO Sridhar Chandrashekar, far right, discusses issues surrounding artificial intelligence with moderator Melissa Hellmann of The Seattle Times, Dave Thurman of Northeastern University and Ben Wilson of Intellectual Ventures. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

“Data is the new oil” may be a classic cliche characterizing how important raw numbers are for the computer industry, but when it comes to artificial intelligence ventures, the cliche may not go far enough.

“One of the big blocks for AI is data,” Ben Wilson, director of the Center for Intelligent Devices at Bellevue, Wash.-based Intellectual Ventures, said today at a forum about AI presented as part of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce’s Executive Speaker Series. “Traditionally, startup companies need capital. Now, if you’re doing AI, you need capital and you also need data. And you’re going to burn through your data before you burn through your capital.”

Wilson pointed out that the big players in the AI market are the companies that have the data, whether it’s Amazon or Microsoft, Facebook or Google.

“Before you have a good idea, start with data,” he said. “And if you’re someone who has a great idea but you have no data, that’s going to be a big roadblock for you, and you’re going to have to find some collaborators or partners who have access to the data you need.”

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How Jay Inslee moved the ball on the climate issue

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee talks with Marsha Maus, a resident of Agoura Hills, Calif., during a visit to the site of the Woolsey Fire, which Inslee said “was made worse by climate change.” (Jay Inslee Photo via Twitter)

Jay Inslee may be out of the presidential race, but he’s not out of the minds of climate policy campaigners.

The two-term Washington state governor won high praise from his Democratic rivals as well as experts on global climate change after he acknowledged on Aug. 21 that he would not be “carrying the ball” in the presidential campaign, largely due to his failure to attract sufficient support in political polls.

One of Inslee’s problems on the campaign trail was that he didn’t have a “unique selling proposition” for his climate policy initiatives, said Aseem Prakash, founding director of the University of Washington’s Center for Environmental Politics.

He said Inslee’s clarion call on climate was “pioneering” – but easily co-opted by other candidates. “So, in some sense, Jay Inslee is a victim of his own success,” Prakash said.

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Researchers watch Titanic shipwreck crumble

Titanic wreck
The prow of the Titanic wreck is quickly getting rustier, scientists say. (Atlantic Productions Photo)

Scientists and enthusiasts are due to visit the wreck of the Titanic next summer in a submersible built by Everett, Wash.-based OceanGate – but what will they see?

Based on a newly completed expedition, they’ll see a hulk that’s decomposing almost before their eyes.

That’s the word from members of a deep-ocean exploration team who visited the site, nearly 13,000 feet beneath the surface, during a 10-day expedition in late July and early August.

Team leaders included Caladan Oceanic explorer/pilot Victor Vescovo, Titanic historian Parks Stephenson and Rob McCallum of EYOS Expeditions. With the aid of a technical crew from Triton Submarines, they surveyed the wreck during a series of five dives in the DSSV Limiting Factor, a two-person Triton 36,000/2 submersible.

The exploration team captured 4K video footage of the wreck using cameras that were specially adapted for the bone-chilling, high-pressure environment of the deep. The imagery will be used in a forthcoming documentary film by Atlantic Productions – and transformed into photorealistic 3-D models of the Titanic site for augmented-reality and virtual-reality platforms.

Stephenson said he was shocked to see how the wreck has deteriorated. Salt corrosion, metal-eating bacteria and deep currents are contributing to the decay.

“The most shocking area of deterioration was the starboard side of the officer’s quarters, where the captain’s quarters were,” he said in a news release. “The captain’s bathtub is a favorite image among the Titanic enthusiasts, and that’s now gone. That whole deck house on that side is collapsing, taking with it the staterooms, and the deterioration is going to continue advancing.”

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Scientists publish a ‘parts list’ for the brain

Rebecca Hodge with brain
Rebecca Hodge, a senior scientist at the Allen Institute for Brain Science and one of the principal authors of a research study outlining a “parts list” for mouse brains and human brains, holds a section of postmortem human brain that was used in the study. (Allen Institute Photo)

A study led by researchers at Seattle’s Allen Institute for Brain Science lays out a “parts list” for the brain, including a detailed look at the differences between the parts for human brains and mouse brains.

They say the genetic results, published today in the journal Nature, suggest that relying on mice to study how the brains of men and women work could lead neuroscientists down blind alleys.

“The answer may be that you have to go to species that are more similar to humans,” Ed Lein, an investigator at the Allen Institute who’s also affiliated with the University of Washington, told GeekWire.

It’s not that the basic parts list is all that different: The researchers found that most of the 75 different cell types identified in the human brain, based on genetic makeup, are found in the mouse brain as well.

That commonality applies even to cells that the scientists had previously thought might be uniquely human, such as the “rosehip neurons” discovered last year.

But there are significant differences in the way those genes are expressed — differences that have developed over 75 million years of evolution. “The genes themselves haven’t really changed, but their regulation can change a lot,” Lein said.

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Did a black hole just gobble up a neutron star?

Neutron star and black hole illustration
An artist’s conception shows a neutron star swirling around a black hole. (OzGrav ARC Centre of Excellence Illustration via Australian National University / Carl Knox)

The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, or LIGO,  has detected mergers of black holes, and even a couple of neutron star smash-ups. But it hasn’t yet confirmed the signature of a black hole gobbling a neutron star.

That could soon change.

Over the past week, physicists have been buzzing over an Aug. 14 detection made by the twin LIGO detectors in Hanford, Wash., and Livingston, La., as well as by the European Virgo gravitational-wave detector in Italy. Those L-shaped facilities monitor ever-so-slight fluctuations in laser beams to look for wobbles in spacetime caused by passing gravitational waves.

The types of waves that LIGO and Virgo detect are given off only by violent cosmic events such as supernova explosions and cataclysmic collisions. LIGO’s first black hole detection, made in 2015, earned the Nobel Prize in physics two years later. More such detections have been made since then.

Detecting the first neutron star merger, and matching that event up with multispectral observations from a wide array of telescopes, marked another milestone in 2017. Neutron stars are the super-dense stellar cores that are left behind when stars bigger than our sun burn out and collapse.

Picking up on the collision of a neutron star and a black hole would complete a gravitational-wave trifecta. LIGO’s team thought they might have detected such a smash-up back in April, but the signal was weak and couldn’t be confirmed.

Astronomers say the Aug. 14 detection, known as S190814bv and traced to a source roughly 900 million light-years away, could be the one.

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Space Council highlights moon, Mars … and nukes

Vice President Mike Pence delivers opening remarks during the sixth meeting of the National Space Council at the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Va. The space shuttle Discovery towers over him. (NASA Photo / Aubrey Gemignani)

The latest meeting of the National Space Council provided a forum to build support for NASA’s twin-focus plan to send astronauts to the Moon in preparation for trips to Mars – and for the idea of using nuclear-powered rockets to get there.

In contrast to some of the council’s past meetings, today’s session at the National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia produced no Space Policy Directives with capital letters. Instead, administration officials – led by Vice President Mike Pence – summarily approved a set of recommendations aimed at fostering cooperation with commercial ventures and international partners on NASA’s moon-to-Mars initiative.

Pence said the recommendations give NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine a 60-day timeline for “designation of an office and submission of a plan for sustainable lunar surface exploration and the development of crewed missions to Mars.”

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Vulcan rocket chosen for 2021 moon launch

Vulcan rocket illustration
An artist’s conception shows United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan rocket lifting off. (ULA Illustration)

United Launch Alliance’s next-generation Vulcan rocket – and Blue Origin’s next-generation BE-4 rocket engine – have been chosen to send Astrobotic’s Peregrine moon lander as well as Sierra Nevada Corp.’s Dream Chaser mini-shuttle to the final frontier in 2021.

Neither of the past week’s announcements is all that surprising, because Astrobotic and SNC both had previous agreements to use ULA’s current-generation Atlas 5 rocket. But both announcements underscore the importance of holding to the current schedule for rolling out the BE-4 as well as the Vulcan, which is designed to use two BE-4 engines on its first-stage booster.

Blue Origin, the privately held space venture founded by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, is thought to be in the final stages of testing the BE-4’s performance – not only for ULA’s Vulcan but also for its own orbital-class New Glenn rocket, which is also due for its maiden flight in 2021.

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USGS awards $10.4M for Northwest quake alerts

PNSN installation on Mount St. Helens
Karl Hagel and Pat McChesney, field engineers with the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network team at the University of Washington, install earthquake monitoring equipment on the slopes of Mount St. Helens, with Mount Hood visible in the distance. (UW / PNSN Photo / Marc Biundo)

The U.S. Geological Survey is setting aside $10.4 million over the next two years to boost the ShakeAlert earthquake early-warning system in the Pacific Northwest.

About $7.3 million of the funding, which is part of a broader ShakeAlert expansion program announced today, will go to the University of Washington.

Funds will be used to upgrade the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network, or PNSN, which monitors earthquake activity in Washington and Oregon.

“This investment in PNSN represents a major increase in federal support for earthquake monitoring in the Cascadia region,” UW seismologist Harold Tobin, the network’s director, said in a news release. “At the end of the two years of funding we anticipate having essentially doubled the number of seismic stations across our whole region that contribute to real-time earthquake early warning.”

Tobin said the network’s expansion “would allow for full public alerts of any potentially damaging earthquakes, across our entire region of Washington and Oregon, by the end of the two-year period.”

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Rocket Lab launches a foursome of satellites

Rocket Lab Electron launch
Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket lifts off from its launch pad in New Zealand. (Rocket Lab via YouTube)

Rocket Lab sent a foursome of satellites into orbit today for a threesome of customers, including the Seattle-based BlackSky Earth-watching venture.

BlackSky’s sibling subsidiary, Spaceflight, handled the prelaunch logistics for the Global-4 satellite and for a pair of experimental U.S. Air Force satellites. The fourth spacecraft in the set is the first satellite for what’s destined to become a maritime surveillance constellation fielded by a French venture called UnseenLabs.

Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket rose from the company’s launch pad on New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula at 12:12 a.m. local time Aug. 20 (5:12 a.m. PT Aug. 19). It successfully went through second-stage separation and fired up its kick stage to deploy the satellites into a 335-mile-high, medium-inclination orbit.

“That’s now eight Electron launches to date and a total of 39 satellites delivered to orbit,” Rocket Lab said in a tweet.

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