Let the Martian Die

Matt Damon is the Martian to be saved in the film adaptation of Andy Weir’s book, but neither book nor movie address ethics around allocating resources between exploring the universe and saving lives. To save the Martian, China agrees to redirect their space rocket from scientific exploration to rescue mission. They shouldn’t have.

Primitive societies make choices balancing the short term and the long, gathering food for today and building tools for tomorrow. Technology allows such choices to be more extreme, and Weir’s scenario brings a twist. China must have neglected millions of poor people (seeking better safety, food, shelter, education) in favor of a bold scientific mission to space. Then, for political reasons (the public relations value of doing something the United States could not was lost between book and movie), China redirects their mission to save a single life. In effect, millions sacrificed for the one. On the world stage those millions were faceless and the one was personal.

Humans evolved in small groups to protect family and tribe. That behavior benefited our genes because we shared them with many in our small group. Technology can make the most remote person (even on Mars!) feel like part of our tribe and worthy of great sacrifice to save. It is instinctive to identify with someone whose story we know and whose face grows familiar. Even technology fails at connecting our instincts with millions of people. Contrast the one life in the iconic photo of an emaciated child watched by a vulture with the millions of lives represented by a chart on malaria deaths:



Our instinct to protect each other is good. So is our instinct to invest in our collective future. But instinct that evolved in a tribal world with primitive technology is insufficient today. As Daniel Kahneman reveals in his brilliant book Thinking Fast and Slow, our intuitive and fast mode of thinking fails miserably at evaluating novel situations, especially those involving probability or statistics. In familiar, practiced situations it is fast, requires little effort, and can be very effective.

Technology gives us choices ever farther removed from the familiar. If we don’t take the time to “think slow” then the evolutionary tail wags the technological dog. And we feel good about saving a person we think we know using the resources withheld from millions we’re sure that we don’t know. If one of our explorers is ever stranded on Mars, the wise and humane choice is to let the Martian die.

Nano-Link Conference 2014

nano-link-3The 2014 Nano-Link Conference in Minneapolis focused on nanoscience/ nanotechnology education. I (Miguel) attended to learn about teaching nanotechnology in high school. Here is some of what interested me:

Nano_LogoKaren Arnold of Nanocopoeia said a great high school project would be anything that requires students to define a problem, design an experiment, execute it, and then prove their results. It would not have to be nano to be useful to her nano company. The qualities her company looks for in employees are technical skills, analytical skills, critical thinking, curiosity, teamwork, and fearlessness. Her company has an every Friday “lunch & learn” during which someone introduces a new idea, nano or not, and teaches everyone else about it.

imgresJustin Patten of Hysitron looks for these key skills: instrumentation, statistics, technical knowledge, problem-solving, attention to details, precision, reliable, motivated, passionate, willing and able to learn, and be the master of something. He told stories about how applicants often think that they know how to be precise, but nano is a whole ‘nother level of precision. Justin recommended developing a diverse background. For instance learn tech and marketing or graphic arts, or information technology and nano. It will make you much more valuable.

RJA_Logo_copy2Joseph Ward of RJA Dispersions looks for this in potential employees: math and chemistry labs, the ability to create formulas in spreadsheets, follow a recipe, get down and dirty (there’s no such thing as “it’s not my job”), learn new skills quickly, understand process, diagnose problems, propose solutions, be creative, get comfortable with trying out new things, identify needs and volunteer, understand company goals, be ready to grow, (always stretching), and have fun with it.

boston-scientific-logoVincent Ijioma of Boston Scientific described his career into and through nanotechnology. He provided many interesting examples of how the very definition of nanotechnology has been confused, and is even feared. By not advertising them as such, he has used his nanotechnology and nanoscience skills to create “miracles.” When asked how he would teach nano to high school students, he said to make nano instrumentation merely tools in the service of a greater project. Once the challenge is properly structured, instructors could shift from lecturing to facilitating students’ access of tools such as SEM or AFM.

maya_blue_02Maya Blue is the name of the colorant  found in murals from Mesoamerica dating back many centuries. The remarkable thing about Maya Blue is that it lasts, it does not degrade with time, chemicals, or ultraviolet light. Thomas Higgins of Harold Washington College gave a fascinating presentation on Maya Blue and a variant called Maya Green, explaining how they’re made, their nano structure, and their cultural context. Natural colorants tend to be in the warmer part of the spectrum, orange to red. Because of that, blue green pigments were rare in preindustrial society. That makes Maya Blue stand out. Maya Blue is made from indigo, which gives its blue color, palygorskite, which is a clay that gives it its enduring nature, and copal, a tree sap that burns at just the right temperature to drive water from the clay channels and allow the indigo in. While Thomas is confident about the formulation for Maya Blue, he says that his creation of a green colorant by using copal not just as a fuel source but as an ingredient is speculative. Still, what he calls Maya Green does appear to match some areas of Mayan murals.

Both indigo and palygorskite can be used for health: indigo as a disinfectant, one reason bluejeans don’t smell, and palygorskite clay is used in Kaopectate (the Canadian version, not the US). Paul speculated that since Maya Blue uses no metals to achieve its color or durability, it might be useful in future healthier tattooing. What interested me most is the possibility of using the creation of Maya Blue as a high school student project, which would get them focused on something for which they would need to conduct experiments and use characterizing instruments such as an SEM.

logoPaul Wagner of Minnesota Wire opened with an admission that he knows little about carbon nanowire but a lot about funding and selling carbon nanowire. I was hesitant because I like technical talks, but his talk was energizing and refreshing. He told stories about forming DefenseAlliance.com to connect those in the military with needs (generals with defense budget) to businesses that could provide solutions. He focuses on finding new needs, something that needs a quick solution, that’s not a commodity. Start with the money, whether it’s an organization that has budget or a funding source like SBIR, Title 3, or RIF (rapid innovation funding).

The qualities that he looks for in new hires are attitude, communication skills, creativity, determination, dedication, motivation, being well-rounded, and the ability to get along. He recommends that students trying to find a job do not go through HR but find a company that has money, perhaps from a new investment or an award from the government. Use press releases to find out about this. In the press release look for a quote from an executive. Figure out the email address for that executive, then contact with “I’m a student, I’m interested in your key technology, I’m trained or experienced in a related area, and could you answer this technical question?” Paul said executive almost certainly pass it off to to a subordinate will understand the technical question (executive probably did not write the quote attributed). That subordinate will answer your question and my even hire you. It’s much better than cold calling HR departments, and much better than contacting businesses that may not have money.

When Paul retires, which does not seem soon, he said he like to teach. He would make an excellent teacher.

The speakers have been skilled at using humor and stories to convey a great deal of technical and business information.

Who or what pulls the trigger?

A landmine is autonomous. However indiscriminate its selection of a target, a landmine does not require intervention by a human. Deadly weapons that do not require human intervention date back to pits with spikes, but something new is on the horizon: weapons that are selective in their targets. Concern that artificial intelligence will facilitate a new arms race has mobilized prominent scientists to publish an open letter warning of the dangers.

MQ-9 Reaper (Photo by Ethan Miller - Getty Images)
MQ-9 Reaper (Photo by Ethan Miller – Getty Images)

What are autonomous weapons? Technology that selects its own targets to destroy. This goes beyond the proximity fuse of World War II, kept as important an Ally secret as the atomic bomb. That caused an anti-aircraft shell to detonate when close to an airplane, but was aimed and launched by humans. In 2015, the U.S. Army developed guided bullets. The so-called “smart bullets” would follow the target at which they were shot. But they were still aimed and launched by humans. Weaponized drones that can independently identify targets and attack them are, perhaps, the first manifestation of autonomous weapons. The category, however, could stretch our imagination.

Why would we use autonomous weapons? For many of the same reasons that we automate anything: accuracy, speed, economy, scale. While humans are still better and often faster at recognizing patterns, for instance an appropriate target, technology is rapidly catching up. Technology has long been cheaper and easier to replicate than humans. Train a robot to do something, and then make copies.

One driver of autonomous technology is space exploration. Sending humans to other planets is both expensive and dangerous. But the distances mean that even speed-of-light communication is slow: Mars is minutes away and Saturn is over an hour. So some decisions have to be made by the technology. Imagine driving a car and feeling the lane-separating bumps only an hour after your tires touch them.

How could autonomous weapons change us? As imagined in the Open Letter, they could make it easier for dictators to control their populace, for warlords to murder by ethnicity, or for terrorists to target their attacks. Terrorists already deploy a poor-man’s autonomous weapon: suicide bombers. Someone clad in explosives can enter an area to choose the time and place of detonation. Autonomous weapons could bring economy and scale to this threat.

How can we change autonomous weapons? Thinking critically, we can understand and evaluate them. This essay has applied some of KnowledgeContext’s ICE-9 questions. Once we understand and evaluate, one possible act is the Open Letter. Another would be a treaty similar to the Ottawa Treaty or Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention. Civilization can choose its direction.

Last Person to Know Everything

Has anyone grasped all human knowledge? Aristotle, two millennia before the printing press? The lesser-known Thomas Young, who published on tides, light, bridges, languages, and Egyptian hieroglyphics? Will our technological progeny ride an exponential growth curve to catch up with all human-computer knowledge? Or does the shoreline of the unknown inevitably expand with the island of knowledge?

My aim, less ambitious than knowing everything, is knowing where my knowledge fits into the totality, the context of my knowledge. Start with science: a map could show us how concepts connect. Any science demonstration or experiment could be located–Your phenomenon is here 👉🏽 and it connects to related phenomena. Students could start anywhere, with the most recent experience provoking their curiosity. With persistence to follow their curiosity, they could reach all of science, or at least know where their interests fit in a big picture.  That would give them a sense of place and a seed for future research.

Science concept map

The map here is a draft–perhaps it will always be a work in process because of the nature of knowledge. One of my students is interested in quarks, so the science concept map frames and guides our discussions, clarifying what we don’t know. And then the map grows from those discussions. Other students will add their own areas to the map.

Some students may go “meta” by reorganizing the map or porting it to virtual reality so that detail can be intelligently hidden, keeping the map uncluttered but progressively revealing what interests individual viewers. Or dynamically-generating the map from meta-tags on Wikipedia or Google Graph.

Conversations with professors and grad students from nearby universities have resulted in interest in the map, but no recognition of it already having been developed. Perhaps specialization makes those familiar with the details that would go into this map too busy with their field or sub-field to develop such a general map.

If this map already exists elsewhere, please comment on this post. But even if it does, my students and I learn from creating it, so we would learn from those parallel efforts, not abandon our own.