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Elon Musk's SpaceX approved to launch 7,518 Starlink satellites into orbit

SpaceX plans to launch about 12,000 internet-providing satellites into orbit over the next six years.

  • SpaceX plans to launch 1,600 satellites over the next few years, and to complete its full network over the next six.
  • Blanketing the globe with wireless internet-providing satellites could have big implications for financial institutions and people in rural areas.
  • Some are concerned about the proliferation of space debris in Earth's orbit.

The Federal Communications Commissions has approved the last key request of SpaceX's plan to provide the globe with wireless internet beamed from thousands of satellites, a project known as Starlink.

On Thursday, the FCC said the private aerospace company can launch an additional 7,518 satellites into orbit, bringing the total number of approved satellites to about 12,000. The commission first approved the launch of 4,400 Starlink satellites in March following the company's successful deployment of two test satellites. SpaceX plans to launch the first 1,600 satellites within the next few years, and to launch a full network of internet-providing satellites over the next six.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said the goal is to create a new kind of global communications system.

"This is quite an ambitious effort," Musk said in 2016. "We're really talking about something which is, in the long term, like rebuilding the internet in space."

Low Earth orbit

Internet-providing satellites have been around for years, as I wrote in an article on the Starlink project from April. However, they're typically expensive and provide slower service than land-based internet infrastructure. This is mainly because it takes a relatively long time for a signal to travel from the satellite to the host. SpaceX plans to solve this problem by launching satellites into low Earth orbit–just hundreds of miles up, in order to reduce the "latency," or time it takes for the signal to travel.

However, the problem with this low-orbit solution is that it reduces the amount of surface area to which each satellite is able to provide service. That means SpaceX will need lots of satellites if it wants to cover the globe with wireless service. To accomplish this, SpaceX plans to launch about one-third of its 12,000 satellites into low Earth orbit, about 680 miles above ground, and the remainder into very-low Earth orbit, about 210 miles up. The satellites would communicate in a peer-to-peer system, using a combination of lasers and radio waves.

The implications of a faster connection

In addition to providing internet access to rural areas and other places where infrastructure is lacking, one institution stands to gain tremendously from the Starlink network: banks.

In the financial practice known as high-frequency trading, shaving mere microseconds off of latency can give traders an extraordinarily lucrative advantage in the market. Financial institutions would likely shell out billions for dedicated service, which would help SpaceX maintain its costly constellation of satellites.

The dangers of space debris

Some are concerned about the proliferation of space debris in Earth's orbit, including NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine.

The U.S. military already tracks more than 500,000 pieces of space junk flying around the planet at lethal speeds.

"My favorite example is an innocuous little screwdriver that slipped through an astronaut's grasp and has been circling low Earth orbit at up to 21,600 miles per hour for the last 35 years," said FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel. "At these speeds, even a common household item can wreak havoc."

On Thursday, the FCC published a proposal designed to limit the amount of space debris brought into orbit by the satellite industry. The commission also signed off on plans for three other companies to launch internet-providing satellites into orbit: Kepler, Telesat and Leosat, all of which are competing with SpaceX to build the world's dominant satellite internet network.

Why space junk is more lethal than a bullet

Neom, Saudi Arabia's $500 billion megacity, reaches its next phase

Construction of the $500 billion dollar tech city-state of the future is moving ahead.

Credit: Neom
Technology & Innovation
  • The futuristic megacity Neom is being built in Saudi Arabia.
  • The city will be fully automated, leading in health, education and quality of life.
  • It will feature an artificial moon, cloud seeding, robotic gladiators and flying taxis.
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Human brains remember certain words more easily than others

A study of the manner in which memory works turns up a surprising thing.

Image Point Fr / Shutterstock
Mind & Brain
  • Researchers have found that some basic words appear to be more memorable than others.
  • Some faces are also easier to commit to memory.
  • Scientists suggest that these words serve as semantic bridges when the brain is searching for a memory.

Cognitive psychologist Weizhen Xie (Zane) of the NIH's National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) works with people who have intractable epilepsy, a form of the disorder that can't be controlled with medications. During research into the brain activity of patients, he and his colleagues discovered something odd about human memory: It appears that certain basic words are consistently more memorable than other basic words.

The research is published in Nature Human Behaviour.

An odd find

Image source: Tsekhmister/Shutterstock

Xie's team was re-analyzing memory tests of 30 epilepsy patients undertaken by Kareem Zaghloul of NINDS.

"Our goal is to find and eliminate the source of these harmful and debilitating seizures," Zaghloul said. "The monitoring period also provides a rare opportunity to record the neural activity that controls other parts of our lives. With the help of these patient volunteers we have been able to uncover some of the blueprints behind our memories."

Specifically, the participants were shown word pairs, such as "hand" and "apple." To better understand how the brain might remember such pairings, after a brief interval, participants were supplied one of the two words and asked to recall the other. Of the 300 words used in the tests, five of them proved to be five times more likely to be recalled: pig, tank, doll, pond, and door.

The scientists were perplexed that these words were so much more memorable than words like "cat," "street," "stair," "couch," and "cloud."

Intrigued, the researchers looked at a second data source from a word test taken by 2,623 healthy individuals via Amazon's Mechanical Turk and found essentially the same thing.

"We saw that some things — in this case, words — may be inherently easier for our brains to recall than others," Zaghloul said. That the Mechanical Turk results were so similar may "provide the strongest evidence to date that what we discovered about how the brain controls memory in this set of patients may also be true for people outside of the study."

Why understanding memory matters

person holding missing piece from human head puzzle

Image source: Orawan Pattarawimonchai/Shutterstock

"Our memories play a fundamental role in who we are and how our brains work," Xie said. "However, one of the biggest challenges of studying memory is that people often remember the same things in different ways, making it difficult for researchers to compare people's performances on memory tests." He added that the search for some kind of unified theory of memory has been going on for over a century.

If a comprehensive understanding of the way memory works can be developed, the researchers say that "we can predict what people should remember in advance and understand how our brains do this, then we might be able to develop better ways to evaluate someone's overall brain health."

Party chat

Image source: joob_in/Shutterstock

Xie's interest in this was piqued during a conversation with Wilma Bainbridge of University of Chicago at a Christmas party a couple of years ago. Bainbridge was, at the time, wrapping up a study of 1,000 volunteers that suggested certain faces are universally more memorable than others.

Bainbridge recalls, "Our exciting finding is that there are some images of people or places that are inherently memorable for all people, even though we have each seen different things in our lives. And if image memorability is so powerful, this means we can know in advance what people are likely to remember or forget."

spinning 3D model of a brain

Temporal lobes

Image source: Anatomography/Wikimedia

At first, the scientists suspected that the memorable words and faces were simply recalled more frequently and were thus easier to recall. They envisioned them as being akin to "highly trafficked spots connected to smaller spots representing the less memorable words." They developed a modeling program based on word frequencies found in books, new articles, and Wikipedia pages. Unfortunately, the model was unable to predict or duplicate the results they saw in their clinical experiments.

Eventually, the researchers came to suspect that the memorability of certain words was linked to the frequency with which the brain used them as semantic links between other memories, making them often-visited hubs in individuals's memory networks, and therefore places the brain jumped to early and often when retrieving memories. This idea was supported by observed activity in participants' anterior temporal lobe, a language center.

In epilepsy patients, these words were so frequently recalled that subjects often shouted them out even when they were incorrect responses to word-pair inquiries.

Seek, find

Modern search engines no longer simply look for raw words when resolving an inquiry: They also look for semantic — contextual and meaning — connections so that the results they present may better anticipate what it is you're looking for. Xie suggests something similar may be happening in the brain: "You know when you type words into a search engine, and it shows you a list of highly relevant guesses? It feels like the search engine is reading your mind. Well, our results suggest that the brains of the subjects in this study did something similar when they tried to recall a paired word, and we think that this may happen when we remember many of our past experiences."

He also notes that it may one day be possible to leverage individuals' apparently wired-in knowledge of their language as a fixed point against which to assess the health of their memory and brain.

Does conscious AI deserve rights?

If machines develop consciousness, or if we manage to give it to them, the human-robot dynamic will forever be different.

Videos
  • Does AI—and, more specifically, conscious AI—deserve moral rights? In this thought exploration, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, ethics and tech professor Joanna Bryson, philosopher and cognitive scientist Susan Schneider, physicist Max Tegmark, philosopher Peter Singer, and bioethicist Glenn Cohen all weigh in on the question of AI rights.
  • Given the grave tragedy of slavery throughout human history, philosophers and technologists must answer this question ahead of technological development to avoid humanity creating a slave class of conscious beings.
  • One potential safeguard against that? Regulation. Once we define the context in which AI requires rights, the simplest solution may be to not build that thing.

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