Japanese scientists successfully tested a 'space cannon' this week

Not content with merely breaking the bonds of gravity and touching the face of God, now we want to fire plastic explosive into it.

A reminder there are some damned exciting space plans being worked on right now - in Japan, scientists report that a “space cannon” they have been building is armed and fully operational, and has been tested successfully (albeit not actually yet in space).

Hayabusa-2, designed and built by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA for short) will be launched into space next year, and head off to intercept the orbit of an asteroid called 1999JU3. It’s the successor probe to Hayabusa-1, which landed on the asteroid Itokawa in 2005, collected some samples, and returned home. It was the first such sample-and-return mission, one which Hayabusa-2 will build on.

1999JU3 is roughly a kilometre in diameter, and is an Apollo asteroid. That’s a class of asteroid that orbits the Sun within the orbit of Mars, in between the innermost three plants of Mercury, Venus and Earth. They occasionally cross into our orbit, making them a threat - that’s what the Chelyabinsk meteor was - but 1999JU3 isn’t. It is an interesting one, though, because it’s assumed to be made up of material similar to those found on the early Earth, and thus carry some of the organic compounds that we assume, on our planet, become life.

But you’re here for the space cannon, right? Here’s how it’s going to work.

After arriving at the asteroid sometime in 2018, and after taking 18 months’ worth of readings, Hayabusa-2 will deploy its cannon on one side of the asteroid (plus a camera so it can watch) before heading over to the opposite side. That way, nothing from the explosion should damage it.

Then, the space cannon will drift in. As it gets close to the surface it’ll detonate, firing a bullet containing 4.5kg of plastic explosive into the asteroid’s surface, blowing a crater into the asteroid’s side. Hayabusa-2 will emerge from hiding on the far side, swoop down to the exposed wound, and scoop up some samples. Then it’ll fly home, returning by 2020.

Alas, it is not quite as cool as Nasa’s awesome plan to capture an asteroid and pull it into orbit around the Moon. If we did that, we could send astronauts to it as practice for tricky things like landing on Mars or even distant moons. We might be watching footage of humans setting foot on another tiny alien world as soon as 2021, as long as funding can be found.

Artist's Concept of Hayabusa-2. (Image: Akihiro Ikeshita/JAXA)

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

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Should we protect artificial intelligence from sexual harassment?

Should anything be done to stop people sending sexually explicit messages to their AI personal assistants?

If you ask Apple’s artificially intelligent personal assistant “Siri” whether it is a virgin, it will waste no time in shooting you down. “We were talking about you, not me,” it replies in the clear, sharp tones of Susan Bennett, the woman chosen to voice the genderless computer program.

If you ask Apple’s artificially intelligent personal assistant “Siri” whether it is a virgin, you are probably not very weird. But a recent article in Quartz has detailed the extent to which AI systems – particularly personal assistant bots – are sexually harassed. Ilya Eckstein, CEO of Robin Labs, claims 5 percent of interactions in their database are sexually explicit, and that “some people try very hard to establish a relationship with the bot.”

Engineers have been aware of this problem for a while. Microsoft’s Cortana has been programmed to fend off sexual harassment, with Deborah Harrison, an editorial writer for the program, claiming: “If you say things that are particularly asshole-ish to Cortana, she will get mad.” But what about the other “female” AI out there? Amazon’s Alexa and Google Assistant, which is voiced by a woman, don’t currently seem to fend for themselves, so should we be fighting for them?

Probably not. Although developers should definitely program their “female” AI to shoot down anyone feeling frisky, as long as AI lacks sentience it’s hard to see these sexual interactions as a big enough problem to warrant further action. Yes, undoubtedly some lonely people have taken inspiration from Spike Jonze’s Her and fancy an AI girlfriend, and yes, a robust robot reply that teaches men to respect women can only be a good thing, but on the whole, most people that get saucy with Siri aren’t actually deranged perverts. They are just a boy, standing in front of a girl, asking them to say the world “willy”.

This is because despite what Quartz are claiming, the “sexual harassment” of bots is nothing new. It might, in fact, not even be gendered. Who among the MSN users of the Noughties didn’t ask the chatterbot SmarterChild whether he (most people, and media outlets, considered it a “he”) liked sex or had a penis? In fact, if you search Google Images for “Smarterchild”, pretty much all the screencapped chats are sexually explicit in some way.

Tumblr: The Dynamic Conversationalist

It’s hard to see someone sexting Siri as a problem, then, because it is part of a long tradition of humans being incredibly, incredibly dumb. Find me the man who doesn’t provoke every new chat bot on the market in the hopes of making them say something funny or rude, and you have found me a liar.

It is, of course, a big problem that AI personal assistants are so often female, as – in Laurie Penny’s words – it “says an uncomfortable amount about the way society understands both women and work.” But this, therefore, is the problem we should be tackling – instead of wasting our time debating the ethics and legality of coming on to Cortana.

I recently attended the UK launch of Amazon Echo, whose personal assistant is Alexa. Watching a room of old, balding, white, male journalists laugh heartily as the speaker on stage commanded Alexa to “Stop”, definitely troubled me. “If only I could get my…” began the speaker – as I desperately willed him not to say the word “wife” – “…children to do that,” he finished. Before we even begin to consider sexually explicit chatter, then, we should be confronting the underlying issue of gender bias in the AI industry.

Once we can set our personal assistants to have either male or female – or, even better, completely genderless – voices, we can get back to using them for what they were intended for. Asking them if they're virgins and then laughing at the response.

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