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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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.