A market that won't go pop: why helium balloons could one day cost £100 each

Once the US - which supplies 80 per cent of the world's helium - stops selling off its store at an artificially low price, we have a problem.

Here’s a new word for you: phytonugget. It’s a tiny bit of gold, the dimensions of which are roughly half the thickness of a human hair. It doesn’t sound particularly interesting until you hear that it grows on trees. Not all trees, mind. Only trees that are sitting above a deposit of gold ore. Trees mine their soil for water and nutrients; the gold comes up with the good stuff and gets deposited in the tree’s leaves.

Earth science engineers in Kensington, Australia made the discovery. So no more expensive mining and prospecting: you can now do an X-ray analysis of a few twigs and leaves to work out where the gold is buried.

If only we could do the same with lithium. One of the few upsides of Chinese involvement in the next generation of nuclear reactors to be built in the UK is that we may not face the woes now troubling the US.

The US Government Accountability Office (GAO) has issued a warning that an imminent shortage of lithium for its 65 pressurised water reactors “places their ability to continue to provide electricity at some risk”. Every year, the US gets through about 300kg of the isotope known as lithium-7, an essential ingredient to prevent corrosion of water pipes in reactors. Because lithium-7 is a byproduct of processes to produce nuclear warheads, and the US is letting its stockpiles shrink, the US no longer manufactures any. That leaves China and Russia as the only suppliers.

Given the links to weapons programmes, the amounts available in these two countries are a closely guarded secret. With China embarking on a vast nuclear construction programme, the US is facing the possibility that there won’t be enough lithium-7 to go round. The GAO recommended that the US think about restarting domestic production of lithium and look into the possibility of reducing its reactors’ reliance on the element. Both options will take years and the US may not have that long.

There is precedent for this type of problem. When the US department of homeland security started to build a stockpile of bomb detectors for use at airports, it quickly used up reserves of the helium-3 isotope that the detectors needed. Helium-3 is another byproduct of warhead production and the US had stopped making any in 1988.

The biggest losers were the scientists who use the isotope to perform research at below -272° Celsius – helium-3 being the only way to get temperatures so low. And with their stores depleted, many researchers had no choice but to abandon their experiments.

It’s not clear which department is going to be blamed for the impending shortage of the gas that gives our party balloons a lift, though. Supplies of the lighter-than-air isotope helium-4 are falling rapidly. The US supplies 80 per cent of world demand but is trying to get rid of its reserves by 2015 and so it sells helium at an artificially low price.

That means helium consumers such as hospitals – it is used to cool the magnets in MRI machines – and party suppliers are buoyant for now. But once the helium is all gone we’ll have to pull it from the air. That will be so expensive we’ll be filling party balloons at £100 a pop; there will be no squeaky-voiced shenanigans at that price.

We desperately need to find more natural deposits of helium. It does occur, like gold ore, in underground rocks but locating it has proved even harder than finding extractable gold ore. If you spot any trees floating slightly above ground level, let the GAO know.

In the future, helium balloons could cost £100 a pop. Image: Getty

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 30 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Should you bother to vote?

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“Stinking Googles should be killed”: why 4chan is using a search engine as a racist slur

Users of the anonymous forum are targeting Google after the company introduced a programme for censoring abusive language.

Contains examples of racist language and memes.

“You were born a Google, and you are going to die a Google.”

Despite the lack of obscenity and profanity in this sentence, you have probably realised it was intended to be offensive. It is just one of hundreds of similar messages posted by the users of 4chan’s Pol board – an anonymous forum where people go to be politically incorrect. But they haven’t suddenly seen the error of their ways about using the n-word to demean their fellow human beings – instead they are trying to make the word “Google” itself become a racist slur.

In an undertaking known as “Operation Google”, some 4chan users are resisting Google’s latest artificial intelligence program, Conversation AI, by swapping smears for the names of Google products. Conversation AI aims to spot and flag offensive language online, with the eventual possibility that it could automatically delete abusive comments. The famously outspoken forum 4chan, and the similar website 8chan, didn’t like this, and began their campaign which sees them refer to “Jews” as “Skypes”, Muslims as “Skittles”, and black people as “Googles”.

If it weren’t for the utterly abhorrent racism – which includes users conflating Google’s chat tool “Hangouts” with pictures of lynched African-Americans – it would be a genius idea. The group aims to force Google to censor its own name, making its AI redundant. Yet some have acknowledged this might not ultimately work – as the AI will be able to use contextual clues to filter out when “Google” is used positively or pejoratively – and their ultimate aim is now simply to make “Google” a racist slur as revenge.

Posters from 4chan

“If you're posting anything on social media, just casually replace n****rs/blacks with googles. Act as if it's already a thing,” wrote one anonymous user. “Ignore the company, just focus on the word. Casually is the important word here – don't force it. In a month or two, Google will find themselves running a company which is effectively called ‘n****r’. And their entire brand is built on that name, so they can't just change it.”

There is no doubt that Conversation AI is questionable to anyone who values free speech. Although most people desire a nicer internet, it is hard to agree that this should be achieved by blocking out large swathes of people, and putting the power to do so in the hands of one company. Additionally, algorithms can’t yet accurately detect sarcasm and humour, so false-positives are highly likely when a bot tries to identify whether something is offensive. Indeed, Wired journalist Andy Greenberg tested Conversation AI out and discovered it gave “I shit you not” 98 out of 100 on its personal attack scale.

Yet these 4chan users have made it impossible to agree with their fight against Google by combining it with their racism. Google scores the word “moron” 99 out of 100 on its offensiveness scale. Had protestors decided to replace this – or possibly even more offensive words like “bitch” or “motherfucker” – with “Google”, pretty much everyone would be on board.

Some 4chan users are aware of this – and indeed it is important not to consider the site a unanimous entity. “You're just making yourselves look like idiots and ruining any legitimate effort to actually do this properly,” wrote one user, while some discussed their concerns that “normies” – ie. normal people – would never join in. Other 4chan users are against Operation Google as they see it as self-censorship, or simply just stupid.

Memes from 4chan

But anyone who disregards these efforts as the work of morons (or should that be Bings?) clearly does not understand the power of 4chan. The site brought down Microsoft’s AI Tay in a single day, brought the Unicode swastika (卐) to the top of Google’s trends list in 2008, hacked Sarah Palin’s email account, and leaked a large number of celebrity nudes in 2014. If the Ten Commandments were rewritten for the modern age and Moses took to Mount Sinai to wave two 16GB Tablets in the air, then the number one rule would be short and sweet: Thou shalt not mess with 4chan.

It is unclear yet how Google will respond to the attack, and whether this will ultimately affect the AI. Yet despite what ten years of Disney conditioning taught us as children, the world isn’t split into goodies and baddies. While 4chan’s methods are deplorable, their aim of questioning whether one company should have the power to censor the internet is not.

Google also hit headlines this week for its new “YouTube Heroes” program, a system that sees YouTube users rewarded with points when they flag offensive videos. It’s not hard to see how this kind of crowdsourced censorship is undesirable, particularly again as the chance for things to be incorrectly flagged is huge. A few weeks ago, popular YouTubers also hit back at censorship that saw them lose their advertising money from the site, leading #YouTubeIsOverParty to trend on Twitter. Perhaps ultimately, 4chan didn't need to go on a campaign to damage Google's name. It might already have been doing a good enough job of that itself.

Google has been contacted for comment.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.