Curiosity taking a self-portrait. Image: Nasa
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Curiosity sniffs farts on Mars, could mean extinction of humanity

Fluctuations in methane gas in the Martian atmosphere, detected by the Curiosity rover, could mean that there's life living below the surface of Gale Crater. The implications could be surprising.

There's life on Mars! Maybe. Again. What's going on?

Nasa has announced that the Curiosity rover has detected spikes in methane concentration in the atmosphere within the Gale Crater. Over the last 20 months Curiosity has sampled the chemical makeup of the air around it a dozen times, finding that normally there are seven methane molecules per ten billion other air molecules (which on Mars is about 96 per cent carbon dioxide) - except on two occasions, where it jumped to ten times that. That's a big deal because methane doesn't just linger around; it's produced by some chemical process and then dissipates relatively quickly, so whatever's producing it must be doing it recurrently and frequently.

We all have experience with methane production (particularly around the Christmas season, with brussel sprouts on the table), but it's important to stress this isn't a definitive proxy for Martian life. Sure, it could be microbes, but it could also come from the reaction of the mineral olivine with water, as this Nasa infographic shows, and that's been the suspicion ever since methane was first detected in the atmosphere by astronomers in 2009. But we've always known that Mars' methane is unevenly distributed, and possibly seasonal, and that there are a number of alternative sources for it than bacteria "burping".

The announcement also included the news that the rock sample that Curiosity drilled into in May 2013 yielded further organic molecules when analysed, and also revealed important data about the history of the planet's water - and when it was lost. What we can really say here is that we have even more evidence to support the conclusion that Mars was habitable and Earth-like (or at least from the perspective of microbial life) billions of years in the past, but also that we don't know yet if it still is today.

Something we have to think about when we find life somewhere else - and we will find aliens, eventually, in centuries if necessary - is what the means for us, humanity, in the big picture. Statistically. Those of us who gamble might well consider it a bad omen.

There's this idea that there's a "Great Filter" which none, or very little, life gets through, on the cosmological scale. It was first outlined by economist Robin Hanson in 1996, and others have since refined it or challenged it, but basic premise is this: we haven't met aliens yet because all intelligent life capable of star travel is killed off before it spreads beyond its home star.

We know now that the number of planets far outnumbers the number of stars in the universe, and that it's therefore probable that there are billions upon billions of planets capable of hosting life. And, if life is like us, and works out how to colonise other planets and stars, we know that the amount of time it should take to colonise a large part of, say, a galaxy, should be short compared to galactic timescales - that is, if there's a lifeform that can colonise another star, it's reasonable to assume that it'll colonise almost all the stars it can in pretty short order, at a rate of a few centuries perhaps. So, if there are lots of Earth-like planets with (presumably) Earth-like intelligence on them, where the hell is everybody? (This is the famous Fermi paradox.)

The explanation Hanson and others have suggested is that somewhere, between the emergence of single-cellular life and interstellar travel, there's the Great Filter - many planets reach it, but few get through, because of asteroid strikes or runaway climate change or resource depletion or... anything we have yet to experience as a species. We can't see anybody else, and the universe feels like an empty place, because the cumulative probability of making it through every step - a safe planet where RNA appears and then single-celled life and then multi-celled and then the evolution of a tool-using lifeform that then develops interstellar travel - is so low as to be zero.

What makes the possibility that life evolved independently on Mars (especially multi-cellular life) so worrying from this perspective, then, is that it means the first few stages of that process are even easier than we thought - and that means getting beyond the stage we're at now must be much, much harder than we thought. The probability works out to tell us that we're at the stage of biological and cultural and technological development where we're wiped out before we take the next step.

There are, though, a dozen or more retorts to this: maybe intelligent life is intelligent enough not to have to colonise everywhere, or maybe it's intelligent to the extent that it's able to choose to remain invisible to us. But it's still a sobering thought that the thrilling discovery of alien life could be one of the last great moments in our species before a statistically-likely mishap hits us from left field.

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

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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.