Wanted: One couple, extremely confident in their love for each other, to go to Mars

Dennis Tito wants to give you the trip of a lifetime.

How much do you love your partner? Enough to move in with them? To a house with just under 17 cubic meters of space? And then not leave that house for just over 500 days straight? While drinking your own recycled urine?

If you do, you're odd. But, you may be able to find gainful employment on a spacecraft to Mars. The New Scientist reports:

This week the Inspiration Mars Foundation, a newly formed non-profit organisation, announced plans for a mission to Mars launching on 5 January 2018 and arriving at the planet in August of that year. Dennis Tito, who in 2001 became the first space tourist to visit the International Space Station, heads the foundation. The trip will be funded primarily by philanthropic donations – but Tito has committed to personally covering the first two years of mission development, no matter how much it costs.

"This is not a commercial mission," Tito said at a press conference on 27 February in Washington DC. "Let me guarantee you, I will come out to be a lot poorer as a result of this mission. But my grandchildren will come out to be a lot wealthier through the inspiration that this will give them."

Orbital trajectories shared on Twitter by team member Michael Loucks show plans for a spacecraft to leave Earth, fly past Mars and then come home – all within 501 days. The craft will pass over Mars at a distance of about 160 kilometres carrying a two-person crew, probably a married man and woman who will be paid to make the trip.

I'm hoping the specificity of "married man and woman" is an overreach on the part of the New Scientist, because that would be excluding all the wannabe astronauts who are unmarried or in same sex relationships. Hell, you could probably make the case that there should be a requirement that the explorers be a couple of the same sex. Because 501 days is considerably longer than nine months, and the one thing you don't want any chance of is space babies.

(Kidding, space babies would be awesome, but re-entry would be pretty tricky. An infertile couple could also work, of course.)

The full New Scientist piece makes clear that the trip is no easy task. Even ignoring the psychological troubles of being cooped up with someone you love(d) for almost 18 months, there's radiation, piloting, and then a ten-day orbital deceleration to deal with. And if you pull all of that off, you still don't get to actually go to Mars—just circle it from space. It's like that time a friend of mine was refused entry into the USA because they didn't have the right visa, only, I'd imagine, considerably more annoying.

The lucky couple's above for 501 days. Photograph: Inspiration Mars

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Don’t shoot the messenger: are social media giants really “consciously failing” to tackle extremism?

MPs today accused social media companies of failing to combat terrorism, but just how accurate is this claim? 

Today’s home affairs committee report, which said that internet giants such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat extremism, was criticised by terrorism experts almost immediately.

“Blaming Facebook, Google or Twitter for this phenomenon is quite simplistic, and I'd even say misleading,” Professor Peter Neumann, an expert on radicalisation from Kings College London, told the BBC.

“Social media companies are doing a lot more now than they used to - no doubt because of public pressure,” he went on. The report, however, labels the 14 million videos Google have removed in the last two years, and the 125,000 accounts Twitter has suspended in the last one, a “drop in the ocean”.

It didn’t take long for the sites involved to refute the claims, which follow a 12-month inquiry on radicalisation. A Facebook spokesperson said they deal “swiftly and robustly with reports of terrorism-related content”, whilst YouTube said they take their role in combating the spread of extremism “very seriously”. This time last week, Twitter announced that they’d suspended 235,000 accounts for promoting terrorism in the last six months, which is incidentally after the committee stopped counting in February.

When it comes to numbers, it’s difficult to determine what is and isn’t enough. There is no magical number of Terrorists On The Internet that experts can compare the number of deletions to. But it’s also important to judge the companies’ efforts within the realm of what is actually possible.

“The argument is that because Facebook and Twitter are very good at taking down copyright claims they should be better at tackling extremism,” says Jamie Bartlett, Director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos.

“But in those cases you are given a hashed file by the copyright holder and they say: ‘Find this file on your database and remove it please’. This is very different from extremism. You’re talking about complicated nuanced linguistic patterns each of which are usually unique, and are very hard for an algorithm to determine.”

Bartlett explains that a large team of people would have to work on building this algorithm by trawling through cases of extremist language, which, as Thangam Debonnaire learned this month, even humans can struggle to identify.  

“The problem is when you’re dealing with linguistic patterns even the best algorithms work at 70 per cent accuracy. You’d have so many false positives, and you’d end up needing to have another huge team of people that would be checking all of it. It’s such a much harder task than people think.”

Finding and deleting terrorist content is also only half of the battle. When it comes to videos and images, thousands of people could have downloaded them before they were deleted. During his research, Bartlett has also discovered that when one extremist account is deleted, another inevitably pops up in its place.

“Censorship is close to impossible,” he wrote in a Medium post in February. “I’ve been taking a look at how ISIL are using Twitter. I found one user name, @xcxcx162, who had no less than twenty-one versions of his name, all lined up and ready to use (@xcxcx1627; @xcxcx1628, @xcxcx1629, and so on).”

Beneath all this, there might be another, fundamental flaw in the report’s assumptions. Demos argue that there is no firm evidence that online material actually radicalises people, and that much of the material extremists view and share is often from mainstream news outlets.

But even if total censorship was possible, that doesn’t necessarily make it desirable. Bartlett argues that deleting extreme content would diminish our critical faculties, and that exposing people to it allows them to see for themselves that terrorists are “narcissistic, murderous, thuggish, irreligious brutes.” Complete censorship would also ruin social media for innocent people.

“All the big social media platforms operate on a very important principal, which is that they are not responsible for the content that is placed on their platforms,” he says. “It rests with the user because if they were legally responsible for everything that’s on their platform – and this is a legal ruling in the US – they would have to check every single thing before it was posted. Given that Facebook deals with billions of posts a day that would be the end of the entire social media infrastructure.

“That’s the kind of trade off we’d be talking about here. The benefits of those platforms are considerable and you’d be punishing a lot of innocent people.”

No one is denying that social media companies should do as much as they can to tackle terrorism. Bartlett thinks that platforms can do more to remove information under warrant or hand over data when the police require it, and making online policing 24/7 is an important development “because terrorists do not work 9 to 5”. At the end of the day, however, it’s important for the government to accept technological limitations.

“Censorship of the internet is only going to get harder and harder,” he says. “Our best hope is that people are critical and discerning and that is where I would like the effort to be.” 

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