Saturn’s Barbs

The Cassini robot, still in orbit around Saturn, continues to pick out very cool features of the ringed planet. Recently, it discovered perturbations of the F ring, caused by half-mile size chunks of ice; large enough to disturb the orbits of the tiny ice crystals that make up the ring. Some of these features are transitory, and some appear relatively permanent. At any rate, they’re quite beautiful.

There’s a great article with videos on the Cassini homepage at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory web-site, and a composite of several images below.


Artificial Intelligence

What do we mean by AI?

By the start of the 21st century it was clear that encoding a set of behavioral rules did not constitute intelligence. Despite the increasingly complex decision trees built into expert systems, and the variety of responses that could simulate human interaction, nothing even close to resembling a thinking machine was on the horizon; the claims of prominent researchers in the mid-20th century that the problem was substantially solved were proved optimistic.

It was not until the middle part of the 21st century that meaningful progress was made, enabled by the convergence of three critical disciplines.

The final scaling of planar semiconductor technology reached its zenith, culminating in trillion transistor chips with thousands of processor cores and gigabytes of on-board memory. Coupled with unprecedented data storage capacity, entire simulated 3D worlds were being created across the connected globe, building the fledgling infrastructure that would eventually provide a home to a new form of life: synthetic sentience.

At the same time, neuroscience research penetrated the behavioral relationships between individual neurons, collections of cooperating neural networks, and the emergent cognitive abilities that resulted. Although the picture was incomplete and fractured, the insights that were gained during this renaissance era cannot be understated.

Molecular self-assembly was the last piece of the puzzle to fall into place, arriving late on the scene, but becoming an enabling force as scientists and engineers from divergent disciplines experimented with the seemingly infinite possibilities the technology opened before them. Leaping from the broad platform that the microelectronics industry had created in nearly a century of progress, silicon-cell electronics became the scaffold of abstract thought that had eluded scientists for generations.

In hindsight, it seems almost inevitable that man-made life should emerge from this cauldron of ingenuity, but at the time it was anything but a foregone conclusion.

Personal notes, Henrietta Climbsworth, On the Construction of a new World Mind; Dublin, Ireland; August, 2201

Mars Science Laboratory

With its rover, Curiosity, MSL is enroute to Mars, due to land this coming summer on August 5. This lander is the most sophisticated robot ever designed to move around on Mars. The size of a small SUV and equipped with a host of science instruments and cameras, it promises to return a wealth of data about the red planet, and the prospects it may have had for microbial life in the past, or perhaps even now.

So where is the Mars Science Laboratory now? The image below is from a NASA site that keeps track of how far the mission has traveled. It’s arcing its way toward Mars now, but still has quite a distance to cover.

Mars Science Laboratory location as of this post

The landing zone was chosen as a prime location for discovering clues of a wetter martian past. The picture below shows the expected touchdown point. It’s not an exact location, since mission scientists won’t know exactly where the rover touches soil until it actually gets there.

The rover, Curiosity, landing zone inside the rim of Gale crater
Above images from NASA/JPL 

If you’re interested in a more interactive version of the landing zone, checkout this Google Mars view. The ellipse is only approximate, hand-drawn as it was, but it represents a rough analog of the static image above. You can zoom around on Mars the same way you can on Earth, including tilting the view and looking from a different direction.