Introducing the Deep Space Food Challenge.
NASA has big plans for the coming decades. The agency's Artemis program has set its sights on returning to the Moon after an absence of nearly 50 years. Once there, the first woman and next man to walk the lunar surface will begin establishing a base camp, laying the foundation for the sustained exploration and economization of Earth's solar sibling. Then it's off to Mars.
But a journey to the ruddy planet, a distance of roughly 114 million miles, will require NASA to solve a myriad of logistical and engineering problems. Chief among them is the problem of food.
Although humans have maintained a continuous presence in space for 20 years aboard the International Space Station (ISS), food hasn't proven an issue as the station orbits a mere 220 miles above our terrestrial home. NASA and other space agencies can easily send astronauts care packages containing fresh fruit and veggies alongside shelf staples.
Mars-faring astronauts, however, will not have it so easy. The time and distance required for the expedition will make regular resupply infeasible. Astronauts will need to bring all their food with them, alongside the means of producing that food, and keep those supplies within the volume constraints of the spacecraft.
It's a problem with no obvious solution. That's why NASA is challenging entrepreneurs, college students, hobbyist investors, and you, if you're up for it, to help them devise one.
The way to an astronaut's heart
An image showing the different challenges a viable space-food system solution must overcome.
In a paper written for The Journal of Nutrition, Grace Douglas, NASA's lead scientist for advanced food technology at Johnson Space Center in Houston, outlined the necessities for food technologies in long-term space exploration. The most critical being, of course, survival.
"In the history of humankind, explorers set off to see what was over the horizon, and literally millions did not return because of food and nutrition failures," Douglas and her co-authors wrote.
The difficulty is that the processes we rely on to cook meals on Earth—such as boiling water, hot surfaces, and food preparation—work as they do because they are bound to an environment with gravity, atmosphere, atmospheric pressure, and even certain microbes. Spaceflight replaces that environment with one of microgravity, scarce resources, cabin pressure fluctuation, and unmitigated radiation, each adding their own variable to the cooking calculus.
To date, space food preparation has been limited to adding water or heating pre-packaged foods. When supplemented with fresh produce from Earth, the system works fine. But as mentioned, such a system would be infeasible for the more than two-year roundtrip to Mars and back.
Douglas and her coauthors conclude that any viable solution must provide safe, stable, palatable, and reliable food, while also overcoming environmental constraints, using minimal resources, and producing minimal waste. It would also need to provide all the micro- and macronutrients a spacefaring astronaut needs.
That alone is a tall order, but there is another wrinkle engineers must consider: the astronauts' mental wellbeing. Douglas and her co-authors note that it's a "common misperception" that astronauts will eat anything to complete the mission. While astronauts are high-performing individuals, they still require moments to revitalize their wellbeing against the stress, workload, and isolation inherent in such a mission.
Delicious, nutritious meals can provide such moments of mental reprieve, but they also must have variety. Even the tastiest meal in the finest of restaurants would become a mental chore if eaten day-in, day-out for two whole years. Substitute that with a tasteless, yet nutrient-dense food paste in the vacuum of space, and even the highest performers will develop a case of cosmic cabin fever.
One tough space nut to crack
To meet these challenges, NASA is crowdsourcing solutions through its Deep Space Food Challenge. In collaboration with the Canadian Space Agency, NASA is offering a $500,000 prize purse for solutions that add some flavor to extended spaceflight.
"NASA has knowledge and capabilities in this area, but we know that technologies and ideas exist outside of the agency," Douglas told UPI in an interview. "Raising awareness will help us reach people in a variety of disciplines that may hold the key to developing these new technologies."
The agency hopes the winning technologies will also bolster food production on Earth. If a system can offer tasty meals with minimal resources in space, the reasoning goes, then it may be modified for deployment to disaster areas and food-insecure regions, as well. The challenge is open to all U.S. citizens and closes on July 30, 2021. Information on the Canadian Space Agency's challenge is available on its website.
If food isn't your forte but you've got engineering chops, you can still help NASA solve the many other engineering and logistical problems facing the future of space exploration. Through the NASA Solve initiative, the agency is seeking ideas for breaking lunar ice, shrinking payload sizes, and developing new means of energy distribution.
And even if engineering isn't for you, you can still call your Congressional representative to request they support NASA and restore funding from budget cuts. We can all play a small, yet important, role in the future of space exploration and the advancing of scientific knowledge.
Creators of the popular protein-folding game, Foldit, are seeking help to design a treatment for COVID-19.
- Since being founded in 2008, the crowdsourced protein-folding game, Foldit, has helped solve many novel problems.
- In recent months, the Foldit team has presented its community with problems relating to COVID-19.
- Foldit founder, David Baker, says over 20,000 different designs for potential COVID-19 antiviral proteins have been submitted.
In 2008, University of Washington professor David Baker created the Foldit research project. As a protein research scientist he had spent a good portion of his career designing methods to predict three-dimensional structures associated with proteins. His group initially developed an algorithm for protein structure prediction called Rosetta, which they then turned into a distributed computing project.
The initial incarnation, Rosetta@home, allowed citizen scientists to help out, much as astronomy enthusiasts have crowdsourced research and discovered new planets. Foldit is the evolution of Rosetta@home. Upon the project's launch it boasted 240,000 registered users. By gamifying protein folding, Baker's team helped the field of citizen science blossom.
There have been many rewards. Since its launch, Baker's team has posed over 2,000 design puzzles to their community. Foldit players helped to solve a 15-year problem relating to a monkey virus in 2011. The following year, gamers successfully redesigned a protein initially created by Baker's team. Now this community is being asked to help out with another daunting task: solving the coronavirus problem.
Foldit Lab Report 7: Quarantine Edition
While most Americans are self-isolating, which certainly helps stop the spread of COVID-19, Baker is asking Foldit gamers to help hunt for proteins that could stop the virus in its tracks. They're specifically seeking proteins that block the viruses's entry into new cells upon entering the human body. If successful, new antiviral drugs could be developed that would reduce the symptoms once you're infected.
Brian Koepnick, who works in Baker's lab and helps run Foldit, says the diversity of responses they receive to problems posed is a necessary step in discovering new solutions.
"We find that the creativity of crowdsourcing is really, really useful—if you ask 100 people to do something, they'll do it in 100 different ways. That's really valuable for us in protein design problems."
As COVID-19 plagues the entire planet, driving fear and uncertainty in citizens, at least there is precedent for this disease. We know that this type of virus infects cells through its spike protein, which latches onto certain cells and proliferate. Baker says that a protein that "grabs the coronavirus's spike protein might be able to run interference," preventing it from attaching to other cells and spreading.
Every puzzle Baker's lab publishes is online for roughly a week. They work with up-to-the-minute information about COVID-19; thus, the team is constantly updating its puzzles. According to Baker, a few entries seem promising—there have been 20,000 different designs submitted already—though as with any treatment, each design will require real-world testing.
Baker notes that they've successfully crowdsourced strategies for dealing with flu, which brings hope that a treatment could be found in this situation. "In general, the coronaviruses appear to mutate less than influenza viruses. So that makes them a little bit easier of a target."
Foldit players have come up with more than 20,000 different designs for potential COVID-19 antiviral proteins. Scientists plan to test 99 of the most promising designs (shown here) in the lab.
This is truly an unprecedented moment in history. While researchers have worked on pandemics across the planet before, there has never been such a sense of urgency. Our global response to this coronavirus is likely to set the stage for how we treat diseases of this magnitude in the future. And as science writer Ed Yong says, there is reason for hope.
"The first steps so far have actually been encouragingly quick. A vaccine candidate has already entered early safety trials after a record breakingly short time from actually identifying and sequencing the genome of this new virus."
There is a long road from trials to implementation, Yong says. We're 12 to 18 months away from a vaccine. Still, the rapidity of this process has been aided by the sheer number of researchers simultaneously working on the problem.
Give the number of players on Foldit's platform, it's not about expertise as much as, in Baker's words, persistence and ingenuity. Citizen science is one of the greatest benefits of the digital age. In many ways, platforms like Foldit are leading the way to a new form of education. If you're interested in contributing, download the software and start playing.
Medical researchers put a ring on it to learn more about the onset of COVID-19.
There's so much information out there about the symptoms that accompany the onset of COVID-19 that it's easy to forget how little is actually known about the disease's trajectory from novel coronavirus infection to COVID-19 disease. With individual responses to infection varying as widely as they do, who knows what to think. Clearly, the medical community would like to have a better grasp of what happens once an individual becomes infected.
A new project to do just that has just been announced in San Francisco. Over 2,000 emergency medical workers will soon begin wearing smart rings from a company called Oura that track their heart rate, respiratory rate, and temperature. They will also fill out daily surveys. Together, the managers of the project hope to get a clearer picture of a patient's early days of COVID-19, develop diagnostic software, and keep a closer watch on the medical personnel bravely working on the front lines of the pandemic.
Image source: University of California at San Francisco Medical Center/ŌURA
The TemPredict study is a project of University of California at San Francisco Medical Center (UCSF) and Oura, in collaboration with Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital (ZSFGH).
The purpose of this study is to collect information from a wearable sensor that may allow researchers to develop an algorithm that can predict onset of symptoms such as fever, cough, and fatigue, which can characterize COVID-19," reads a statement on the UCSF SEA Lab website.
Image source: ŌURA
Data for TemPredict is sourced from a commercially available wearable, the Oura ring. The rings are typically marketed as activity monitors that help customers develop healthier sleeping habits. Nonetheless, they're packed with technology that the TemPredict team hopes can help them track the advance of COVID-19.
Each titanium Oura ring is equipped with infrared LEDs, NTC temperature sensors, an accelerometer, and a gyroscope to capture measurements such as heart rate, temperature, respiration, and steps. The rings are also accompanied by a smartphone app that collects the data that Oura and UCSF need for this project.
While no one claims that the Oura ring can detect COVID-19 in and of itself, that could change if the TemPredict team is able to successfully develop their diagnostic algorithm from the collected data.
Getting into the project
TemPredict plans to equip emergency workers with an Oura ring if they don't already own and wear one. (If you're a UCSF or ZSFGH healthcare employee, there's a brief online questionnaire that will tell you if you're eligible to join the study.)
Participants in TemPredict are expected to download the Oura app and connect it to their rings, which they agree to wear every day for three months after completing a screening and baseline survey.
On each day of the project, participants will fill out a survey recording any symptoms they've acquired, including fever, cough, fatigue, and other symptoms. In addition, they're expected to share the data their ring has collected — including temperature, heart rate, respiratory rate, sleep, and activity — with Oura, who will presumably forward it to the TemPredict data-crunchers. The company already collects data from some 150,000 of its rings worldwide and is also making that trove of data available to the TemPredict team.
An elegant, 400-year-old means of navigating the stars takes flight.
- The Planetary Society is about to launch LightSail 2, a crowdfunded light sail craft.
- LightSail 2 uses photons from the sun as fuel.
- Space X's Falcom Heavy rocket will carry LightSail 2 aloft, 720 kilometers up.
In a 1608 letter to his friend Galileo Galilei, the German astronomer Johannes Kepler described his idea for space travel thusly:
"Provide ships or sails adapted to the heavenly breezes, and there will be some who will brave even that void."
Observing one of the 75-year transits of Earth by what would come to be known as Halley's Comet, he'd correctly intuited that the widening of that comet's tail, or coma, was produced by sunlight pushing material out and away from the main object.
Kepler seemed to immediately see the possibilities — i.e., a light sail.
Now — no later than June 24, 2019, as of this writing — the Planetary Society will be launching what they hope will be the first controlled light sail ever to enter and maintain Earth orbit. Their crowdfunded Lightsail 2 will ride aboard a Space X Falcon Heavy rocket departing from Launch Complex 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida for a year-long orbit.
"This is history in the making — LightSail 2 will fundamentally advance the technology of spaceflight," says Bill Nye, CEO of the Planetary Society.
The pieces of Kepler's dream have been falling into place bit by bit since that letter to Galileo. The discovery of photons in the late 1800s by James Clerk Maxwell revealed the energetic particles in light whose momentum could be transferred to other objects.
Friedrich Zander envisioned the "tremendous mirrors of very thin sheets" propelling craft through space, and then Carl Wiley foresaw a solar sail as a shiny, reflective, parachute-like material opening in the direction of sunlight.
By 1976, Carl Sagan went on TV to show off a demonstration model of a light sail craft, enthusing about the amazing technology and its potential.
Among Sagan's students some 40 years ago was Nye, a frequent Big Think contributor. The Society was founded by Sagan, Bruce Murray and Louis Friedman in 1980. In 2005, the Society launched the world's first light sail craft, the Cosmos 1, aboard a submarine-based ICBM. Unfortunately, it was lost when the ICBM failed before allowing Cosmos 1 a chance to fly on its own.
About the Planetary Society
The Planetary Society is the world's largest non-profit space organization, crowdfunded by over 50,000 members from over 100 countries, and supported by hundreds of volunteers. The Society was founded as outlet for the general public's interest in space, a level of interest not always reflected in governmental budgets. In addition to mounting projects such as the LightSail craft, the Society serves as an educational connection between the scientific community and the general public, advocates for robust governmental funding of space programs, and provides anyone an opportunity to get involved in some real space science.
The Society’s Lightsail craft
At the center of each frankly beautiful LightSail craft is a cubesat. While we tend to think of satellites as large, bus-sized objects, they can be much smaller for simpler missions. The cubesat for the upcoming LightSail 2, for example, is about the size of a loaf of bread.
At launch, the cubesat and sails are encased in four solar panels. Once in orbit, the panels swing up into operational position, exposing the cubesat and stored sails.
The sails themselves are four shiny Mylar sheets 4.5 microns thick — that's thinner than a human hair. They're next pulled outward by four cobalt-alloy booms that extend like tape measures. The process takes about three minutes. When deployed, the triangular sails together form a square that's just 32 square meters, about the size of a boxing ring.
The primary force to be overcome by LightSail craft is atmospheric drag, its collision with gas particles in the Earth's upper atmosphere. Think of it as friction that causes a satellite to slow and thus drop from orbit. In order for a craft to catch enough photon "propellant" — and to be high enough to get away from the upper atmosphere, its orbit needs to be above about 700 kilometers.
The Society has built two LightSail craft.
Image source: Planetary Society
Around 2014, NASA offered the Society a free ride aboard an Atlas V rocket as part of the agency's Educational Launch of Nanosatellites (ELaNa) program. Even though the Lightsail craft would be placed into orbit below the necessary 700-kilometer height, the Society decided to use one of their LightSails to test the mechanics of the sail deployment system.
Dubbed "LightSail 1," the sails successfully unfurled, as this selfie taken by LightSail 1 attests.
Image source: Planetary Society
And now LightSail 2
The second craft, now known and "LightSail 2," was slightly modified — particularly its software — according to insights gleaned during the first mission. It's scheduled as of this writing to go up from Kennedy Space Center in Florida later this month aboard a SpaceX Falcon Heavy as part of the U.S. Air Force's STP-2 mission from Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
This time, LightSail 2 will be carried within another, slightly larger satellite, Prox-1, developed by students at Georgia Tech. The Prox-1 will be placed into orbit around 720 meters up, and a week later will launch LightSail 2.
After a few days of diagnostics, LightSail 2 will open up its solar arrays, and then a day later, unfurl its sails. Over the next month, it will continually re-position its sails relative to the sun to raise its orbit — this is the main part of the mission, the actual solar sailing.
Mission complete, the craft will orbit for about a year before drag takes its toll, and LightSail 2 burns up plummeting down through the atmosphere. During this year, its position will be tracked via ground-based laser ranging, and it may be visible to the naked eye. The Society will offers an online dashboard that can tell you where and when to look up to se this most elegant spacecraft.
The Human Diagnosis Project project is building the world's "open medical intelligence" system.
- The Human Diagnosis Project can develop medical diagnoses with startling accuracy.
- The platform combines the knowledge of medical professionals and artifical intelligence.
- The goal of the project is to provide open, readily available high-level guidance and training to health care professionals across the globe.
The world-class Mayo Clinic is often the place patients go for a second opinion on a medical diagnosis. It's a good thing they do. According to a report issued by the clinic in 2017, 88 percent of them return home with either a completely different diagnosis or a significantly altered one. Only 12 percent receive confirmation of their doctors' original conclusions.
It's hard to overstate the life-and-death importance of medical misdiagnoses, and with all the artificial intelligence and data collection tools out there, you'd think there might be a way to improve on these statistics. This said, the goal of the Human Diagnosis project, or "Human Dx," (a triple pun their site explains) is to create the world's open medical intelligence system, a "collective intelligence" that can produce vastly improved diagnostic accuracy.
In early March, JAMA published the results of an experiment conducted by Human Dx in cooperation with Harvard, and the results were impressive. Where 54 individual human medical specialists correctly diagnosed 156 test cases 66.3 percent of the time, collective intelligence achieved an 85.5 percent accuracy rate. Nine medical professionals contributed to the collective intelligence conclusions.
Human Dx founder Jayanth Komarneni tells Big Think that, "We can get numbers in the 97th, 98th [percentile], and even — if we have sufficiently large numbers of participants — we can get to super intelligent results. That means that it outperforms 100 percent of individual participants."
About Human Dx
The Human Dx project is a partnership between the social, public, and private sectors — in the U.S., it's a 501 (c)(3) not-for-profit/public-benefit corporation. According to Komarneni, Human Dx's business model is as free of cost to users as possible while still generating enough income to be self-sustaining. There are now nearly 20,000 medical professionals in almost 80 countries contributing. Among Human Dx's partners are, as the company states: the American Medical Association, the Association of American Medical Colleges, American Board of Medical Specialties, and the American Board of Internal Medicine. They're also working in collaboration with researchers at Harvard, Johns Hopkins., University of California San Francisco, Berkeley, and MIT.
While diagnoses produced by Human Dx do bring together the opinions of multiple medical professionals, it's far from a simple voting system. It incorporates its own massive data set, machine learning, and artificial intelligence in addition to the input from medical professionals to develop its diagnoses. In designing their collective intelligence, says Komarneni, Human Dx had to first re-think the idea of open intelligence itself.
"We believe that open intelligence is the third form of open knowledge," he explains. The first was open source-protocols such as those on which the internet is based, as well as operating systems such as Linux. These protocols enabled the second form, open content: Wikipedia, data libraries, and so on. Open intelligence combines the first two: "And when you think about A.I. in the context of software," says Komarneni, "it really is code which is smartly delivering content to you based on what you put into the system."
The importance of open intelligence is that without it being available at low cost or free, the cost of A.I. is going to be so prohibitive that it'll "exacerbate, as opposed to close, income, health, and other disparities in society," warns Komarneni. Nowhere will the ramification be more serious than in health care, since "there is nothing we care more about than the well-being of the people we love and ourselves."
How Human Dx collective intelligence works
Collective intelligence in the Human Dx project is not unlike a panel of participants, when are referred to as "agents." Some of these are medical professionals, but they may also include the outputs of other systems. For example, Komarneni mentions that it's entirely possible IBM's Watson could be one of these agents, or even a data set from the National Institutes of Health.
Of course, individual agents, even the human participants, express themselves in their own ways — is a lump "blue" or "blueberry-colored," for example — not to mention that contributions from some agents such as A.I. or datasets may be in the form of raw data. Before any meaningful synthesis of all these opinions can be performed, the first step is to convert them all into a common language of some sort. Human Dx's AI uses natural language processing, text prediction, and medical ontologies to derive these translations as the process's first step.
Human Dx establishes the capability, or CQ ("clinical quotient"), of each agent. To do this they rank agents' skills using test cases with known diagnoses, including "some of the most wickedly complex cases," says Komarneni. This allows Human Dx to determine how accurate agents' diagnoses can be expected to be, and how heavily they should be weighted against other participants' contributions in solving the current case.
A.I. joins the panel
At this point, the agents' inputs are synthesized to derive the most likely diagnosis, and this is combined in an A.I. model with all of the aggregated case data that's ever been captured by Human Dx — interactions in the "tens of millions" — including how "lots of other participants over many other cases have solved these cases." This A.I. model then joins the panel in arriving at the final diagnosis.
"And those [agents] combined," says Komarneni, "are how we can get to results that outperform the vast majority of individual participants."
The Harvard and Johns Hopkins studies
The Harvard study published in JAMA is the first public demonstration of the Human Dx system as a diagnostic tool. Working with an international cohort of medical students and professionals, the results were unquestionably amazing. There were 2069 users working 1572 cases — again, these were cases with known correct answers — from the Human Dx data set. About 60 percent of the participants were residents or fellows, 20 percent were attending physicians, and another 20 percent were medical students. In the study, as more medical professionals were added to the collective intelligence "panel," up to nine individuals, its accuracy consistently rose. Physicians who weren't specialists in their test-case areas achieved just a 62.5 percent accuracy score.
A previous study published in JAMA in January, and done in cooperation with Johns Hopkins, looked at Human Dx as an automatic platform for assessing the diagnostic abilities of health care professionals and students. That the scores of participants looking at 11,023 case simulations were consistent with their training level shows, in Komarneni words, "that we provided a valid, quantitative, scalable measure of medical reasoning." While he admits this doesn't sound like a big deal, it is, since it offers a far more accurate and scalable option to current multiple-choice assessments, which have been shown to correspond poorly to real-world diagnostic skills.
The future of health care and Human Dx
Komarneni says that there are basically only two ways to provide global universal health care, a pressing need since, "Almost half the world has no access to essential health services." One way, he says, would be to create a God-like A.I. system to provide health care to everyone, but, "We know that's not going to happen." God-like AI is just too hard, potentially requiring having to know everything about a patient from the tiniest details — say, the quantum behavior of electrons in mitochondria — to the huge, as in the kind of environment a patient lived in as a child.
In addition, Komarneni says, "In a world where data is locked up in many disparate silos, there isn't going to be a single collective agent. There's going to be a collective of many intelligent agents, both human and machine. The key is how do you integrate intelligence into larger buckets of intelligence than can solve the world's hardest problems."
This is where the Human Dx project, and the second approach, comes in. It actually has two components:
- The first is the expansion of existing medical professionals' diagnostic accuracy skills by providing them access to the Human Dx platform and its collective intelligence as a diagnostic tool.
- The second is helping to train new professionals, and Human Dx Training is already offering this on the Human Dx site.
For those concerned with privacy in a system such as Human Dx, Komarneni says it'll be a non-issue, explaining with an example. When two people converse, "We don't have access to the underlying data of each others' minds. We're agents that are interacting with each other to gain relevant and useful information from each other." Similarly, Human Dx's system of interacting agents doesn't require the exposure of patients' personal data. What's shared with Human Dx are the conclusions agents draw from that data, not the data itself. In the case of a dataset operating as an agent, the data would be anonymized.
Human Dx's interest in all this is developing a platform it hopes others find uses for. "We believe we're just building the enabling technology that many other stakeholders could use." As examples, Komarneni imagines, "The VA could implement their own version of this. Kaiser Permanente could implement their own version. Employers could contract with us or with their own insurers. You could even also have individual and group practices use Human Dx software to serve patients directly."
Human Dx is currently looking at ways to open up as much of the project for non-professionals as possible, and they've already made a start: On their home page is a diagnosis cloud — mouse over the various blue bubbles to see different conditions, and then click for further details. In addition, just beneath the cloud is a search field with which you can look up diseases and symptoms.