This panorama is a mosaic of images taken by the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on the NASA Mars rover Curiosity while the rover was working at a site called "Rocknest" in October and November 2012. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems
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The Emirates paves way for a Middle East space programme with its mission to Mars

The United Arab Emirates now has its own space agency, and plans to launch a mission to Mars by 2021.

The United Arab Emirates has announced plans to launch a mission to Mars by 2021. A first for the Arab world, the mission and accompanying Space Agency are a big deal for the UAE – scientifically and politically.

Investing in space activities is not new territory for the UAE. Its investments in space-related technology has already exceeded some US$5.4 billion, developing satellite data, mobile satellite communications and earth mapping and observation facilities. This is not surprising when we live in an age where space hardware is important for a range of practical everyday uses such as telecommunications and navigation. Accordingly, many countries have invested in purchasing satellites and their launches, data from space, and other space infrastructure.

Next level space missions
But there is something unique about the UAE’s announcement of plans to create a space agency and launch an unmanned mission to Mars by 2021. The plans indicate that the UAE will develop its own spacecraft building and perhaps also launching capabilities. While many countries participate in space activities through the purchase of hardware and launches from external providers, the ability to build and launch their own craft domestically lifts a country to the next level of the space faring elite.

The announcement also implies that the UAE plans to pursue hugely expensive space activities with a primarily scientific purpose. Yes, this project has a practical purpose in that it is to inspire UAE technology growth and the education of forthcoming scientists. However a country is also making a statement when it moves from space-related activity for purely practical purposes, to the more heady goals of exploration, inspiration and science.

Power, prestige and politics
The leap from practical to primarily scientific space activity is noteworthy. This is partly because a space programme is a way for states to assert their prestige. There is historical precedent that undertaking space activities for exploration garners prestige and indicates power: financial strength, technological capabilities and also ideologically the capability to be at the forefront of an area of research that taps into humanity’s biggest goals.

The origins of putting human-made objects into space were during the Cold War between the US and the USSR, often referred to as the first space race.

But we have moved on from the days where space was a bipolar activity: many countries have space capabilities and activities are undertaken for a wide range of reasons. Also non-state actors are increasingly active in space, including several (such as Mars One) that have planned manned missions to Mars.

Still, the UAE’s Mars mission has a political subtext on several levels. Domestically, it is timed to shore up nationalistic sentiment for the 50th anniversary of the country’s formation. Regionally, the project indicates leadership within the Middle East region. And globally, the mission marks the entry of an Arab nation into the elite club of countries with such ambitious space programs.

Success guaranteed?
Will this project work, both scientifically and in order to build international prestige? Scientifically, Mars missions have proved tricky. Many have failed, including the UK’s Mars Beagle 2 rover, which reached Mars in 2003 but failed upon landing on the Martian surface. Therefore it remains to be seen what exactly the plans are for the UAE’s Martian device, and what it will achieve.

Politically, the planned programme to Mars and also the creation of an UAE Space Agency makes a powerful statement. It puts the Middle East on the map with regards to space exploration for scientific purposes. It could also drive the creation of a Middle East space programme, akin to that of the European Space Agency.

This does not undermine the scientific value or importance of the project proposed by the UAE. The space science research community is well-networked transnationally, and a well-funded project to the red planet by the UAE should be welcomed.

Jill Stuart volunteers occasionally for the UK Labour Party.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.The Conversation

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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.