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Meet the robot 'dog' NASA is sending to Mars
Boston Dynamics' notorious robot goes on an interplanetary mission.
- NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory announces the deployment of a robotic "dog" for Mars exploration.
- The robot is a modified Boston Dynamics cyberdog familiar to the internet from YouTube videos over the last few years.
- The bot will be autonomous and smart enough to explore Martian caves that may one day provide shelter for human visitors to the Red Planet.
While Mars rovers have been and are unquestionably amazing, they're not the most adaptable or speedy little bots. Curiosity, for example, rolls across flat-ish parts of the Red Planet's surface at a decidedly un-blistering .09 miles per hour. That's about a third as fast as most people walk.
At the December 14, 2020 meeting of American Geophysical Union (AGU), held online this year, NASA/JPL-Caltech announced a new family of robotic explorers referred to as "Mars Dogs."
They're calling it "Au-Spot," and it's based on Boston Dynamics' infamous Spot robot that we've been seeing evolve over the last few years in YouTube videos. We've watched it survive falling down and getting kicked, and we've even seen it dance to "Uptown Funk." Spot has already evoked all kinds of emotions. It's creepy enough to drive an episode of "Black Mirror," and even without a face—or head—it's also somehow oddly endearing.
In a way, it's the abuse we've seen Spot suffer on YouTube that makes it such an ideal candidate for Mars missions. If Au-Spot falls over, it can right itself, a not insignificant capability when exploring alien terrain—it's one of the current rovers' most significant shortcomings. "Toppling does not mean mission failure," noted the scientists introducing the bot. "Using recovery algorithms, the robot can self-right from a multitude of falls."
The 70-pound Au-Spot is also capable of moving three times faster than existing rovers.
This means that Au-Spot will be ideal for exploring Martian caves, an area of great interest to those planning future manned missions to the planet. Satellite images of the red planet have revealed over 1,000 potential cave openings already. It may be possible on such journeys for humans to shelter in caves away from the planet's brutal dusts storms, extreme cold, and punishing UV radiation. These places, however, are not places into which current rovers can be sent.
On the other hand, Au-Spot's remarkable flexibility and smarts will allow Earth-bound scientists to see if the caves can really be of use to future astronauts. The bot pup can get down into such caves and then get itself back out. While there, it can produce 3D maps of the terrain thanks to onboard LIDAR. Built-in AI allows the bot to learn the terrain too, so it can avoid entrapment or damage from collisions with obstacles. It strategically deploys communications modules along the way to keep its command personnel appraised of what it's doing when it's beneath the surface.
Au-Spot can even intelligently choose between multiple pathways forward, making it a far more flexible tool than current rovers. Most things that rovers do are pre-programmed routines—improvisation requires communicating with a human controller back on Earth some 22 minutes away as the signal flies.
The rise of Au-Spot
Au-Spot is the child of a team of 60 scientists and engineers working together as CoSTAR, or the Collaborative SubTerranean Autonomous Resilient Robots. They've customized a factory-fresh Spot, outfitting it with the NeBula (Networked Belief-aware Perceptual Autonomy) system that makes it autonomous enough to successfully navigate new environments, as shown in the DARPA Subterranean Robotics Challenge video above.
To get Au-Spot mission-ready, the CoSTAR team is putting it through its paces here on Earth. In addition to sending it up and down staircases and such, it's gone on field trips to Northern California's Tulelake lava tubes for some practice on Mars-like terrain and some cave exploration as well.
At the presentation, the CoSTAR scientists predicted, "These behaviors could one day enable revolutionary scientific missions to take place on the Martian surface and subsurface, thereby pushing the boundaries of NASA's capability in exploring traditionally inaccessible sites."
- NASA images of Mars reveal largest canyon in the solar system ›
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- Spot, Boston Dynamics' robot dog, is finally for sale - Big Think ›
How would the ability to genetically customize children change society? Sci-fi author Eugene Clark explores the future on our horizon in Volume I of the "Genetic Pressure" series.
- A new sci-fi book series called "Genetic Pressure" explores the scientific and moral implications of a world with a burgeoning designer baby industry.
- It's currently illegal to implant genetically edited human embryos in most nations, but designer babies may someday become widespread.
- While gene-editing technology could help humans eliminate genetic diseases, some in the scientific community fear it may also usher in a new era of eugenics.
Tribalism and discrimination<p>One question the "Genetic Pressure" series explores: What would tribalism and discrimination look like in a world with designer babies? As designer babies grow up, they could be noticeably different from other people, potentially being smarter, more attractive and healthier. This could breed resentment between the groups—as it does in the series.</p><p>"[Designer babies] slowly find that 'everyone else,' and even their own parents, becomes less and less tolerable," author Eugene Clark told Big Think. "Meanwhile, everyone else slowly feels threatened by the designer babies."</p><p>For example, one character in the series who was born a designer baby faces discrimination and harassment from "normal people"—they call her "soulless" and say she was "made in a factory," a "consumer product." </p><p>Would such divisions emerge in the real world? The answer may depend on who's able to afford designer baby services. If it's only the ultra-wealthy, then it's easy to imagine how being a designer baby could be seen by society as a kind of hyper-privilege, which designer babies would have to reckon with. </p><p>Even if people from all socioeconomic backgrounds can someday afford designer babies, people born designer babies may struggle with tough existential questions: Can they ever take full credit for things they achieve, or were they born with an unfair advantage? To what extent should they spend their lives helping the less fortunate? </p>
Sexuality dilemmas<p>Sexuality presents another set of thorny questions. If a designer baby industry someday allows people to optimize humans for attractiveness, designer babies could grow up to find themselves surrounded by ultra-attractive people. That may not sound like a big problem.</p><p>But consider that, if designer babies someday become the standard way to have children, there'd necessarily be a years-long gap in which only some people are having designer babies. Meanwhile, the rest of society would be having children the old-fashioned way. So, in terms of attractiveness, society could see increasingly apparent disparities in physical appearances between the two groups. "Normal people" could begin to seem increasingly ugly.</p><p>But ultra-attractive people who were born designer babies could face problems, too. One could be the loss of body image. </p><p>When designer babies grow up in the "Genetic Pressure" series, men look like all the other men, and women look like all the other women. This homogeneity of physical appearance occurs because parents of designer babies start following trends, all choosing similar traits for their children: tall, athletic build, olive skin, etc. </p><p>Sure, facial traits remain relatively unique, but everyone's more or less equally attractive. And this causes strange changes to sexual preferences.</p><p>"In a society of sexual equals, they start looking for other differentiators," he said, noting that violet-colored eyes become a rare trait that genetically engineered humans find especially attractive in the series.</p><p>But what about sexual relationships between genetically engineered humans and "normal" people? In the "Genetic Pressure" series, many "normal" people want to have kids with (or at least have sex with) genetically engineered humans. But a minority of engineered humans oppose breeding with "normal" people, and this leads to an ideology that considers engineered humans to be racially supreme. </p>
Regulating designer babies<p>On a policy level, there are many open questions about how governments might legislate a world with designer babies. But it's not totally new territory, considering the West's dark history of eugenics experiments.</p><p>In the 20th century, the U.S. conducted multiple eugenics programs, including immigration restrictions based on genetic inferiority and forced sterilizations. In 1927, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that forcibly sterilizing the mentally handicapped didn't violate the Constitution. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes wrote, "… three generations of imbeciles are enough." </p><p>After the Holocaust, eugenics programs became increasingly taboo and regulated in the U.S. (though some states continued forced sterilizations <a href="https://www.uvm.edu/~lkaelber/eugenics/" target="_blank">into the 1970s</a>). In recent years, some policymakers and scientists have expressed concerns about how gene-editing technologies could reanimate the eugenics nightmares of the 20th century. </p><p>Currently, the U.S. doesn't explicitly ban human germline genetic editing on the federal level, but a combination of laws effectively render it <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">illegal to implant a genetically modified embryo</a>. Part of the reason is that scientists still aren't sure of the unintended consequences of new gene-editing technologies. </p><p>But there are also concerns that these technologies could usher in a new era of eugenics. After all, the function of a designer baby industry, like the one in the "Genetic Pressure" series, wouldn't necessarily be limited to eliminating genetic diseases; it could also work to increase the occurrence of "desirable" traits. </p><p>If the industry did that, it'd effectively signal that the <em>opposites of those traits are undesirable. </em>As the International Bioethics Committee <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">wrote</a>, this would "jeopardize the inherent and therefore equal dignity of all human beings and renew eugenics, disguised as the fulfillment of the wish for a better, improved life."</p><p><em>"Genetic Pressure Volume I: Baby Steps"</em><em> by Eugene Clark is <a href="http://bigth.ink/38VhJn3" target="_blank">available now.</a></em></p>
Meteorologists propose a stunning new explanation for the mysterious events in the Bermuda Triangle.
One of life's great mysteries, the Bermuda Triangle might have finally found an explanation. This strange region, that lies in the North Atlantic Ocean between Bermuda, Miami and San Juan, Puerto Rico, has been the presumed cause of dozens and dozens of mind-boggling disappearances of ships and planes.
A unique exoplanet without clouds or haze was found by astrophysicists from Harvard and Smithsonian.
- Astronomers from Harvard and Smithsonian find a very rare "hot Jupiter" exoplanet without clouds or haze.
- Such planets were formed differently from others and offer unique research opportunities.
- Only one other such exoplanet was found previously.
Munazza Alam – a graduate student at the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian.
Credit: Jackie Faherty
Jupiter's Colorful Cloud Bands Studied by Spacecraft<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="8a72dfe5b407b584cf867852c36211dc"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/GzUzCesfVuw?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Scientists discover burrows of giant predator worms that lived on the seafloor 20 million years ago.
- Scientists in Taiwan find the lair of giant predator worms that inhabited the seafloor 20 million years ago.
- The worm is possibly related to the modern bobbit worm (Eunice aphroditois).
- The creatures can reach several meters in length and famously ambush their pray.
A three-dimensional model of the feeding behavior of Bobbit worms and the proposed formation of Pennichnus formosae.
Credit: Scientific Reports
Beware the Bobbit Worm!<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="1f9918e77851242c91382369581d3aac"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/_As1pHhyDHY?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The idea behind the law was simple: make it more difficult for online sex traffickers to find victims.