Tuesday, April 17, 2012

A primer on Interplanetary communications

There have been numerous means of sending a message from point a to point b over the span of human existence, within the past couple centuries it has become possible to ask someone at point b what the weather is like without actually sending someone to physically deliver your missive. Naturally people have started to take the ability to receive an instantaneous response for granted and most science-fiction (and a few fantasy) authors have naturally incorporated it into their works, even including some form of “interplanetary internet” in some cases. Though sometimes they don’t think things through too much, making mistakes such as interstellar wi-fi, to prevent such errors why don’t we take a quick look at how communications may work across interplanetary and interstellar distances. Electromagnetic Radiation First off there’s the single most common medium of transmission since the mid-20th century, radio waves. Transmitters translate text, verbalization, or other forms of data into discrete or continuous pulses of electromagnetic radiation (aka light) with wavelengths ranging from 1 millimeter to 100 kilometers and frequencies of 300 GHz to 3 kHz and a receiver detects and re-translates the information sent. Their low frequency and long wavelengths mean that radio waves have very little energy compared to other forms of EM radiation (and most definitely cannot cause cancer) but can potentially carry information for light-years before losing coherence. However radio waves are limited to the speed of light, so any attempt at calling someone further out than a light-minute or two (for reference, the sun is about eight light-min from earth) is going to experience a considerable amount of lag as the time it takes the waves to travel to their destinations becomes noticeable. In addition signals sent using radio will become incoherent with distance, depending on the frequency, the absolute limit being one or two light-years. Another common means of communication is concentrated pulses of visible light, usually along glass fiber-optic cables which shield the signals from interference by the atmosphere. This method allows for far superior data quality than radio but atmospheric gases or particles can block them easily, as can physical objects that radio waves can pass through. In the vacuum of outer space there is considerably less matter in any form that can block an optical signal, however, especially if the signal is transmitted in the form of a laser capable of maintaining integrity over great distances. Lasers are also less susceptible to jamming or disruption by solar flares. But there has to be a clear line-of-sight between the transmitter and receiver and even lasers spread out and become incoherent over interstellar distances. The Internet As for how the internet might cope with space travel, e-mail and social networks would still be possible, and probably the primary form of communication between planets, but instant messaging would no longer be “instant” and if you think AOL back in the 1990s took a long time to load webpages, you probably wouldn’t have the patience to try surfing the internet from Mars. In all likelihood deep space colonies would form their own separate internets, with unique web sites inaccessible on earth or any other fairly distant regions. Certain websites that may be determined to be “important” enough might set up localized servers that would receive updates from one another at specified intervals, but you’d have to wait several hours and most likely need a massive transmitter to look up any other sites based outside your local region of space. Neutrinos Neutrinos, those supposedly massless particles that don’t interact with most normal matter and instead pass right through it, gained some publicity a few months ago when readings by CERN supposedly indicated that they travel slightly faster than the speed of light. Those readings were determined to be an equipment failure (a disconnected wire) but another group of researchers managed to do something not quite as amazing with neutrinos, but still significant. They managed to use neutrinos to send a one-word message through 240 meters of solid rock. (link: http://news.discovery.com/space/minerva-sends-a-message-in-a-neutrino-beam-120320.html ) Granted, the transmission speed was very slow, only 1 bit/second, and it took a particle accelerator to send the message, but still the neutrinos experienced negligible interference from materials that would block radio or optical signals completely. They could be very useful for communicating for people deep underground or underwater, or on the other side of a planet or star even. Neutrino transmission would need to be very tight beams like lasers to compensate for the low transmission rate, but the advantages of a transmission medium that is near impossible to block are considerable. Of course, if someone managed to place a neutrino detector between the sender and the receiver they could read the message without anyone knowing. Quantum Entanglement One of the science “buzzwords” of the century is “quantum mechanics”, relating to the behaviors of subatomic particles. One thing that science-fiction authors have extrapolated from the various “weird” properties covered under quantum mechanics is the use of “entanglement” to send messages instantaneously over any distance. The idea is that when two particles are “entangled” at the quantum level they can be separated and whatever happens to one particle happens to the other one instantaneously. Somewhere along the line someone decided that that could allow communication faster than the speed of light. In addition to sending messages instantaneously a quantum entanglement communique would be impossible to intercept as it would be teleported to the receiver. The harsh reality is that the act of observing an entangled particle breaks the connection with the paired particle, attempting to send data with entangled particles would by necessity require observing them. However, quantum entanglement can be used to encrypt messages sent by conventional (currently only dedicated fiber optic cables) means such that only those who possess one of two “keys” can interpret the data. By encoding a transmission in the form of quantum states of a particle one ensures that the very act of intercepting it would corrupt the data and alert the holders of the keys as to how much of the message was intercepted. And it actually has been done, some governments and companies who consider security worth the expense use quantum cryptography for their most secure data transmissions, the Swiss canton of Geneva used it to send national election ballot results to the capital in 2007 for example. There have also been experiments with sending quantum encrypted messages over radio as well, it seems likely that the technology will become more prevalent over the next few decades. Though of course it only works between two specialized devices that have to be physically transported to their working locations. The utterly Fantastic Of course, even quantum-encrypted FTL neutrinos would take years to travel from one solar system to another, so many authors have turned to the farther fringes of science in order to maintain “instantaneous communication”. For example, tachyons which are highly hypothetical particles that travel faster than light and which most scientists don’t believe exist. Or if their universe allows physical travel through some sort of “hyperspace” they might send radio transmissions through that same dimension where the normal laws of physics don’t apply. Heck, you might even use mentally “bonded” telepaths, worked for Heinlein.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Immortality and Overpopulation

As I'm sure you've noticed Hollywood's latest crop of upcoming poorly thought out films includes "In Time", a film where people no longer age but to prevent overpopulation they are only allowed to live so long and use their remaining time as currency. There are so many ways that could not work.

For one thing, that system would require a lot of new births to prevent deflation as time is depleted, kind of contradictory to the intended purpose. But that's beside the point, there are far less controversial ways to regulate immortal populations.

The simplest one would be to surgically sterilize anyone who becomes immortal. Considering how radical such a procedure would be it should be trivial to add in a vasectomy or tubal ligation. That simple act would discourage many groups from becoming ageless in the first place, unfortunately those same people are the same ones largely responsible for the planet's high population growth in recent decades. Still, the lure of eternal youth is sure to snare a majority of the populace over the centuries.

And if you're concerned about a slow extinction from attrition as no one has kids, don't be. If there's room for more people the government can allow some people to reproduce using stored sperm and ova or as a last resort, cloning.

Still, those measures are most likely not enough, fortunately the technologies to construct habitats in space or the ocean seem to be more feasible than completely halting aging. Thus making more room for our growing population before we have to deal with such a crisis. Though somewhat limited life-extension is probably more doable than transporting a significant proportion of the population out of earth's gravity well.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Computers slowly becoming more human(!)

We are still a very long ways from making a computer that can pass for human, but recently two developments put us a bit closer to that goal...

For one thing, psychiatrist Ralph Hoffman of Yale and computer scientist Risto Miikkulainen of the University of Texas, Austin have made a schizophrenic computer. In an attempt to uncover the roots of the disorder in humans they took an artificial neural network known as DISCERN and began feeding it "stories" while inflicting different forms of damage to its modules. ANNs are programs designed to mimic the processes of a biological brain by isolating small sections of code called "modules" and forming a network between them, rather than being explicitly told what to do like a conventional program DISCERN has to learn the proper response to a given input. To test DISCERN they fed it short stories told in either first or third person and had it repeat the tales back to them. Once the machine had learned how to understand and repeat a story like a normal human adult the researchers began to modify the modules in different ways to mimic various forms of brain damage. In one instance they reprogrammed the memory encoder to learn at an accelerated rate so that it would remember story details normally dismissed as irrelevant.

However, instead of learning faster it got confused, mixing up stories with different plot lines and inserting itself into third-person stories, at one point claiming it had planted a bomb (a detail in a story about a terrorist attack). This resembled the symptoms of schizophrenia known as derailment and delusion, leading the researchers to conclude that accelerated learning might be a cause of schizophrenia.

While this was intentional, it seems to me that an AI could be programmed with a dangerously fast learning rate and go insane by accident.

Now, in slightly less risky to the continued existence of the species news Google is funding a project to teach computers regret. The project most likely will not actually give machines the ability to feel emotion but it should allow them to measure the distance between the desired result and actual results. Hopefully convincing them to try better next time, and with any luck "don't kill humans" will always be in the objective list.

mIGHt wE stILL hAve hopE?

Friday, March 18, 2011

Flog Your Blog

(Copy-pasted in it's entirety from Anassa's Specnology)

This "meme" was started by Shannon Mayer on Wednesday, and I commented which means I have to pass it on. So I am. Strictly copy-pasting with a few changed words. I'm totally not being lazy today, really. Er…

This is your opportunity to FLOG YOUR BLOG! I thought it would be nice if my followers had a chance to show off what their own blog was about and gain some new followers through my blog here.

When you make a comment, don’t just put in your link, tell us a little bit about your blog. Do you write mostly book reviews? Talk about writing angst? Discuss current events? What’s your own writing genre? Are your published? This will help people decide if they want to follow you.

To be completely clear, this is not a contest, you won’t win anything by making a comment, but I am hoping that you will gain some new followers (me too) by participating in the FLOG YOUR BLOG throw down. The only rules are-

1. You must be following this blog, Specnology to make a comment and . . .
2. You must do this on your blog too in order to give your followers a chance to gain new people.

My hope is that more people will not only get active here by commenting and participating but that my followers will get the same thing on their blogs. I think this sounds like a good idea, let’s see how it works.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Plasma cannons, Particle guns and Gauss rifles.

There are many weapons featured in science fiction other than the lasers that are beginning to get phased out as they become less “cool”. This article looks at some of the other commonly used options.


Plasma is the fourth state of matter, similar to gas and both extremely hot and ionized. The “plasma cannon/rifle” is a prevalent ranged energy weapon in sci-fi that throws either “bolts” or continuous streams of plasma that burn holes in enemies if not vaporize them entirely, unfortunately they have a tendency to overheat and explode.
Theoretically this could be done, we currently use plasma cutters to cut sheets of metal, but the jet extends less than a foot from the projector limiting its use as a weapon. We can see that there are some problems to work out.

With current technology air resistance stops the stream and makes a short blowtorch like flame. And even without air resistance (for example in vacuum) the plasma would dissipate into the surrounding environment within 50 centimeters of the aperture from thermal and/or electrical pressure expansion (blooming). This could be prevented by extending the magnetic bottle all the way to the target (nigh impossible), firing the plasma fast enough that blooming doesn’t occur (actually a particle beam), or using high-energy lasers to ionize the air around the stream (would only work in atmosphere).
Particle Beams:
Particle beams are streams of subatomic particles accelerated to near-light speed, striking the target’s atoms like billiard balls with a lot more kinetic energy. Aside from the problem of how large modern particle accelerators are…

…they would suffer from the same atmospheric resistance problems as plasma weapons and would most likely only be useable in space.
Electromagnetically Accelerated Projectiles:

Railguns and gauss/coilguns are similar to ordinary chemically propelled guns in that they launch a piece of metal at the target at high speeds. The difference is that instead of an explosion the projectile is propelled by electromagnetic forces and could potentially reach much greater speeds. These are becoming popular due to the fact that the military is actually testing them…

…and you can make your own from spare parts.

The only problems are that with current technology a handheld model takes a long time to build up a charge, what energy they do deliver is much less than a chemically propelled handgun and the navy’s experimental railguns intended for shipboard use tend to generate a plume of plasma from friction that wears out the barrel after only one or two shots.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Computer that can play Jeopardy

So apparently IBM has developed a supercomputer that can beat the human champions at Jeopardy and answer in the form of a question in an average of three seconds. However the algorithms to do what is intuitive to most humans requires 2,800 Power7 cores in order to answer that quickly (a single core, like in the average PC, takes two hours), the size of ten refrigerators put together.

Considering that's all "Watson" can do it doesn't look good for Singularitarians.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Mind Reading Societies

This article also appeared in Science In My Fiction

A common characteristic of “advanced races” in science-fiction is the ability to communicate without using speech, gestures, or writing, but with their brains. Telepathy can be an inherent ability powered by “magic”, or it can be granted by implanted radios. Though one has to wonder what kind of effect this has on their society, specifically relating to their ability to keep secrets or to deceive one another.

Some say that relationships, and by extension civilizations, are founded on lies and held together by secrets. I expect that would be very hard if everyone could read everyone else’s minds. If such a society existed they would either have to be completely honest and keep no secrets from one another; or they’d make scanning another’s thoughts without permission a serious taboo or crime. In fact, one might expect a naturally telepathic species to be colonial organisms.

And as for collective consciousnesses, most portrayals involve each member broadcasting their every thought to everyone else in the collective, unless they’re all remotes controlled by the queen of course. This shouldn’t be a problem if they are all born into the hive like ants are, but if they were individually sapient beings (such as humans) who joined together as adults their individual pasts might come into conflict. If, for example, a married couple were to join such a group mind would it bring them closer, or tear them apart?

Some possibilities for writing:
• Humanity encounters a telepathic alien race that can only read each other’s minds, human brains are closed to them except through conventional communication. They have no concept of deception and cannot tell when humans are lying to them.
• In the near future brain-computer interfaces are ubiquitous and allow full thought-to-thought communication between two or more people. Someone develops a program similar to Twitter except that it posts thoughts instead of short texts.
• Software that allows constant mental communication between multiple people is developed and becomes the next big thing, followed by a surge of divorces and violent crime.