Powerful you have become: a 3D-printed model of Star Wars' Yoda. Photo: Getty
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Made in space: Sending 3D printers into orbit

The ESA wants to test a 3D printer in orbit because this is likely to be the best place and method of building the equipment that will take us further out.

Samantha Cristoforetti is about to enjoy a trip to space. Formerly a fighter pilot in the Italian air force, the 37-year-old Cristoforetti is now a European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut. She will blast off with two others, a Russian and an American, in a Russian Soyuz rocket on 23 November. After a few hours, the trio will arrive at the International Space Station (ISS). We can say this with confidence because people have beenS making this trip for very long. This month marks the 14th year of human life in space.

We’re not stopping at the space station, though. One of Cristoforetti’s tasks will be to test the ESA’s new 3D printer, a means to creating future space technology in orbit.

The development of 3D printing is another quiet revolution in progress. Just like a standard inkjet printer for paper documents, it places microscopic drops on to a surface – but these drops are molten plastic or metal. They solidify immediately and another drop can be placed on top of the first layer. Gradually, the drops build up to form an object created with extraordinary precision.

The ESA wants to test a 3D printer in orbit because this is likely to be the best place and method of building the equipment that will take us further out. On earth, firms such as Rolls-Royce are already making plans to use 3D printers to build parts for cars and aeroplanes. Recently, General Electric 3D-printed a fully functioning miniature jet engine. Nasa has created 3D-printed fuel injectors for its rocket engines. Airbus’s experiments with 3D printers have enabled the company to reduce the number of components in its fuel injectors from 250 to two. Manufacturing has never looked so easy – or so promising.

The next step is 3D printing in space. Cristoforetti’s task is to make sure the technology works in the near-absence of gravity. Molten materials form different-shaped drops in microgravity: without a strong pull towards the centre of our planet, they are almost perfect spheres and may not bond to the structure under construction in the same way as on earth. That would create weaker objects. This matters because the future of space colonisation is likely to depend on microgravity manufacturing of satellite parts, sensors, engines and even housing and storage facilities.

With 3D printers on the ISS, the residents can build whatever they need for their next step in space. At the least, this will reduce the payload problems on supply rockets. Although the materials that feed into the printer will have to be delivered, they’ll be in the form of pellets – much easier to pack, weight for weight, than a fully formed part for a satellite.

Once we have become used to it, 3D printing will be as mundane as printing out a high-resolution photograph is to most people now. Similarly, spacefaring was once a dream but is now routine. The world held its breath at the attempt to land a probe on a comet and Commander Chris Hadfield’s tweets and songs broadcast from space caught our attention for a moment but almost no one notices the ISS passing overhead. Even fewer give a moment’s thought to the human beings living up there.

So, we have colonised space. There was no fanfare, no spectacular jamboree. It required remarkable ingenuity, carefully paced progress and determination in the face of scepticism – for a long time, the ISS was described as a white elephant. In the end, though, our scientists, astronauts and engineers just quietly got on with the programme and, thanks to research by the likes of Cristoforetti, we will 3D-print our way to even greater heights. Our time confined to the planet has ended – not with a bang but with a printer. 

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 20 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The deep roots of Isis

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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.