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What would the first human on Mars say?  The words chosen will echo through history in the same way that Neil Armstrong’s famous line has.  That’s a lot of pressure for whomever is chosen to be the first person on the planet.  They’d better pick something profound!

The BBC has been asking people to contribute on Twitter, using the hashtag #BBCMARS, and in the comments of this article.  Here are some of the best (serious and otherwise):

hum “Mars, the Bringer of War” by Gustav Holst (@oz_penguin)

It was once said ‘a small step for man’ but today we make that giant leap 4 mankind (@welsh_steve25)

once again my dear friends we take a step into the unknown (@SirPhil1983)

‘Well, for this night we will repose us here: /To-morrow toward London back again’ Shakespeare 2H6 II.i. (@Shakes_Today)

Where’s the Mars bar? (@JohnnyReaction)

‘we step beyond the capability of man kind, yet again.’ (@caitlin_ent)

“It’s land, Jim, but not as we know it.” (@eridanus)

Here are my suggestions.  Bonus points for people who recognise the source of inspiration for the first few.

“Quick!  Get the Easy Listening music!”

“Dark is the suede that mows like the harvest.”

“Yesterday, the moon.  Today, Mars.  Tomorrow, the universe!  Mwa-ha-ha-ha-haaaa!”

“Hey, what are all these dead cats doing here?”

And, more seriously,

“That’s just one more step in mankind’s journey to the stars.”

What would you like the first person on Mars to say?  What would you say if it were you?

Kickstarter is a good place to find new technology (and rubbish, but that’s a different matter).  This one was actually reported on by the BBC (in passing at the end of this article), which is how I found it.

Imagine powering your phone just from walking around.  The developers reckon they can charge an iPhone from the amount of walking the average person does in a day.  In today’s sedentary world, that’s quite impressive!

I want one.  Or two, rather, one for each shoe.

Not only does it reduce our dependence on traditional means of generating electricity, but it also encourages people to get more exercise.  That’s win-win as far as I can see.  It’s no wonder they’ve already met their funding target.

I’m particularly amused by the fact that you also need a pair of glasses to make it work.

The Rapyuta Database is a project by European scientists – part of the Robo Earth project which aims to help standardise the way robots look at the world.  It can describe objects that they have met in terms they will understand, which means they won’t have to figure out how to deal with items they’ve never seen before.

…the goal of RoboEarth is to allow robotic systems to benefit from the experience of other robots, paving the way for rapid advances in machine cognition and behaviour, and ultimately, for more subtle and sophisticated human-machine interaction.

It can also help do complicated computations, helping those which need to do lots of number-crunching just to get around, like self-driving cars.

For those who understand what it means:

Robots can start their own computational environment, launch any computational node uploaded by the developer, and communicate with the launched nodes using the WebSockets protocol.

It is, the developers believe, a necessary step in getting robots out of the assembly line and into closer interaction with humans.  Otherwise each robot needs to do everything itself, and the cost of development and processing power would be enormous.

Which all sounds fine and dandy.  It’s hard to know what others think of the idea, since their blog doesn’t have much in the way of comments on it.

But to me it sounds eerily like the start of something bigger.

Something dangerous.

Something like a cross between this and this.

Have you ever watched a TV show where the main character decides to murder their ex-husband’s daughter’s dog, and been utterly confused as to the reason why?  How about someone who walks up to a complete stranger in the street and kisses them?  How would you like the ability to ask your TV for a summary of the reasons behind it?

That possibility is coming closer.  With all the episodes that are now stored in digital TV recorders (a whole week’s TV plus every episode of the six different series’ you are watching, for example), all we need is the software to analyse them, and it’s here.

StoryVisualizer, created by scientists in France, can analyse the faces, surroundings, and key phrases spoken by the characters in a show and stitch together a summary of the parts of the plot that contain them.  At the moment it’s PC based, but it won’t be long before it’s integrated into TVs – perhaps in combination with a Siri-like command structure (“TV, show me what Jimmy Olsen did which led to him jumping out of the plane without a parachute.”).

I can see it being useful if you’ve had a long break from a show and lost the plot, something which given the lunacy that surrounds TV scheduling these days seems to be ever more common.

 

Japanese phone users will soon have the option to have their conversations translated as they talk, using the new app from NTT Docomo, one of the country’s mobile networks.  The app provides a translation, both written and spoken, after a short pause.

They aren’t the only ones working on this, either.  France’s Alcatel-Lucent is developing a version for landlines (more tricky because of the lower sound quality), and their ultimate aim is to be able to do conference calls with many people, in many different languages, with each person hearing the conversation in their own language.  They even have a project to make a synthetic voice that sounds like your real one.

This is beginning to sound like an episode of Star Trek.  All we need now is for it to be able to analyse new languages and learn them on the fly, and we’ll be set to go!

Some people are not holding their breath, though.

“These kind of real-time technologies have been ‘two to three years away’ for the past decade,” said Benedict Evans, technology expert at Enders Analysis.

 It does bring to mind another question, though.  Language learning, so we are told, helps to stave off the effect of Alzheimer’s.  If we invent technologies which eliminate the need to learn new languages, are we contributing to the declining health of the human species?

In addition to that, there is the consideration that speaking to someone in their own language can be seen as a sign of respect.  One which would be lost if everyone had access to Universal Translators.

What do you think?  Is the ability to communicate with anyone more important than the effort involved to do so?

Two things have caught my attention today.

The first is this, an article about the skydiving record attempt that Matt Williams talked about on his blog.  However, in contrast to most mentions of it, this one is about how he smashed the record for most live streaming views on YouTube.  It’s nice that they have their priorities straight.

The second is the attempt by the US Navy to produce a robot that acts like MacGyver.  Yes, you read that right.  Of course, as you might expect, the robot will not be able to prevent nuclear explosions using only a shoe lace and a piece of chewing gum, or escape from madmen using duct tape and a false eyeball*.  But stacking boxes to climb and building a functional bridge out of debris are no mean feat for a robot, which will need to both recognise the objects and figure out whether they are strong enough to hold its weight before combining them to create the solution.

 

* I have no idea whether these are actual MacGyver plots or not, but they sound plausible, don’t they?

 

What would it be like to have three parents?  This is a question which may get answered in the not-too-distant future.  Research is underway to fix problems with the mother’s mitochondrial DNA by using donations from a third person.

In normal IVF, the egg and sperm are collected and combined outside of the human body, before being transferred back into the mother.  This procedure, in contrast, takes the nucleus of the mother’s egg and combines it with a donor egg from another woman which has had the nucleus removed.  This is then combined with the sperm.

This means you end up with the DNA of the mother and father, and the mitochondrial DNA of the donor woman.

The scientists say experiments to confirm the safety of the technique may take three to five years to complete, and then there is the ethical debate to consider.  But that is still well within my expected lifetime – possibly even within my reproductive lifetime, although I’m not expecting to need it.

There are a number of potential storylines arising from this.

    • How would you feel if you were told that you had three genetic parents?  A struggle to figure out who you are and where you come from.  Kind of like stories where children discover they are adopted, only with a slight twist.
    • What if there is a trait which is carried in the mitochondrial DNA?  I’m thinking psychic powers, primarily, but it could work for other things.  When a child discovers they have this trait when neither of their parents do, it raises questions which they must strive to answer.
    • This becomes common, but it is later discovered that it has side effects.

But which world?

This is artist Kelly Richardson’s depiction of the future of Mars.  Littered with dead and dying robots, gusts of wind blow sand and dust in gentle swirls.  Nobody is coming.  It’s possible nobody has been there.  It is a sad scene.

Yet somehow soothing.

How hard is it to mine an asteroid?

Planetary Resources is a company that intends to try, and this article at the New Scientist asks some questions about how they might go about it and what problems they might encounter.

Problem 1: The technology for most of this hasn’t been invented yet.

Solution: Lots of money, lots of time, and lots of people working on the problem.

Problem 2: Bringing the asteroid closer to Earth to make it more economically feasible.  Problems with this include overcoming the Sun’s gravitational control, getting the parking trajectory right (assuming they’re going to park it around the Earth), not hitting anything with it.

Solution: Er… lots of money, lots of time, and lots of people working on the problem?

Problem 3: Not floating off into space when you try to dig your shovel into the asteroid.  A problem due to very low gravity and lots of spinning!

Solution: Bolt everything down.  Including the people.  And find a way to mine an entire asteroid from one location.  This sounds like it’s going to involve, you guessed it, lots of money, time, and people working on the problem.

It’s going to take some time to be in a position where we can actively mine asteroids, I think.  It’s also going to involve an awful lot of very intelligent people.  Far from the “space grunt” image that many science fiction novels portray for asteroid miners.

The Author

Nicola Higgins is a 30-something martial artist who runs two Brownie packs and works full time. She somehow still finds time to write.

Her favourite genres are near-future and alternate world science fiction and fantasy.

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