What more could be out there? Photo: Getty
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Nasa chief scientist says we're (possibly) only a decade away from finding alien life

It's increasingly clear that the Solar System is more life-friendly than we'd previously suspected.

Some provocative news today, as reported by Space.com - Nasa chief scientist Ellen Stofan told a panel yesterday that we're only "decades" from having "definitive proof" of alien life:

I think we're going to have strong indications of life beyond Earth within a decade, and I think we're going to have definitive evidence within 20 to 30 years," Nasa chief scientist Ellen Stofan said Tuesday (7 April) during a panel discussion that focused on the space agency's efforts to search for habitable worlds and alien life.

"We know where to look. We know how to look," Stofan added during the event, which was webcast live. "In most cases we have the technology, and we're on a path to implementing it. And so I think we're definitely on the road."

Former astronaut John Grunsfeld, also speaking on the panel agreed, arguing that evidence for life both in our Solar System and further afield is only "one generation away".

It's heady stuff, bolstered by a range of recent discoveries that have shown us that water is everywhere in the Solar System. Most prominently, we've got Europa, Enceladus and Ganymede, all large moons with vast oceans beneath their icy crusts; but we also know that smaller objects - which, to an extent, had been dismissed as dull and rocky until recently - are also wet, or at least in possession of some surface ice. That group includes Mercury and Ceres, and, of course, Mars. Together with our increasing awareness of the wateryness of asteroids and comets, and it does appear that the Solar System is a place of water - and water is the crucial factor for life as we know it, especially when liquid, as it appears is the case on some of Jupiter's and Saturn's moons where gravity and radiation make up for the distance from the Sun.

What life is present there is, if it exists, microbial at best. The chances that there's anything larger than bacteria floating around beneath the surface of Europa is so slim as to be effectively impossible, but that hasn't put a brake on the excitement felt around the space community right now. And this comes at an important time for Nasa, which is coming towards the end of its current generation of missions and preparing to pitch for funding for its next - and it will have to pick its targets carefully, as the appetite for space exploration within the US government is increasingly hostile to anything without a clear economic or prestige benefit, such as the next-gen Space Launch System heavy lift rocket. That makes the pure science of probes like, say, Cassini, harder to justify.

Despite receiving a slight budget increase in late 2014 after several years of cuts, at the end of March it was revealed that the Opportunity rover on Mars and the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter could both be victims of budget cuts imposed by Republicans in Congress, while key prestige projects - like the agency's much-feted plan to capture an asteroid and bring it into orbit around the Moon - have been repeatedly scaled- and pushed-back as technological and monetary challenges have grown in number. And there are those who question whether its disproportionate focus on Mars - and on the endless search for life elsewhere in the Solar System - is the most effective use of its resources.

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

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A quote-by-quote analysis of how little Jeremy Hunt understands technology

Can social media giants really implement the health secretary’s sexting suggestions? 

In today’s “Did we do something wrong? No, it was social media” news, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has argued that technology companies need to do more to prevent sexting and cyber-bullying.

Hunt, whose job it is to help reduce the teenage suicide rate, argued that the onus for reducing the teenage suicide rate should fall on social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter.

Giving evidence to the Commons Health Committee on suicide prevention, Hunt said: “I think social media companies need to step up to the plate and show us how they can be the solution to the issue of mental ill health amongst teenagers, and not the cause of the problem.”

Pause for screaming and/or tearing out of hair.

Don’t worry though; Hunt wasn’t simply trying to pass the buck, despite the committee suggesting he direct more resources to suicide prevention, as he offered extremely well-thought out technological solutions that are in no way inferior to providing better sex education for children. Here’s a quote-by-quote analysis of just how technologically savvy Hunt is.

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“I just ask myself the simple question as to why it is that you can’t prevent the texting of sexually explicit images by people under the age of 18…”

Here’s Hunt asking himself a question that he should be asking the actual experts, which is in no way a waste of anybody’s time at all.

“… If that’s a lock that parents choose to put on a mobile phone contract…”

A lock! But of course. But what should we lock, Jeremy? Should teenager’s phones come with a ban on all social media apps, and for good measure, a block on the use of the camera app itself? It’s hard to see how this would lead to the use of dubious applications that have significantly less security than giants such as Facebook and Snapchat. Well done.

“Because there is technology that can identify sexually explicit pictures and prevent it being transmitted.”

Erm, is there? Image recognition technology does exist, but it’s incredibly complex and expensive, and companies often rely on other information (such as URLs, tags, and hashes) to filter out and identify explicit images. In addition, social media sites like Facebook rely on their users to click the button that identifies an image as an abuse of their guidelines, and then have a human team that look through reported images. The technology is simply unable to identify individual and unique images that teenagers take of their own bodies, and the idea of a human team tackling the job is preposterous. 

But suppose the technology did exist that could flawlessly scan a picture for fleshy bits and bobs? As a tool to prevent sexting, this still is extremely flawed. What if two teens were trying to message one another Titian’s Venus for art or history class? In September, Facebook itself was forced to U-turn after removing the historical “napalm girl” photo from the site.

As for the second part of Jezza’s suggestion, if you can’t identify it, you can’t block it. Facebook Messenger already blocks you from sending pornographic links, but this again relies on analysis of the URLs rather than the content within them. Other messaging services, such as Whatsapp, offer end-to-end encryption (EE2E), meaning – most likely to Hunt’s chagrin – the messages sent on them are not stored nor easily accessed by the government.

“I ask myself why we can’t identify cyberbullying when it happens on social media platforms by word pattern recognition, and then prevent it happening.”

Jeremy, Jeremy, Jeremy, Jeremy, can’t you spot your problem yet? You’ve got to stop asking yourself!

There is simply no algorithm yet intelligent enough to identify bullying language. Why? Because we call our best mate “dickhead” and our worst enemy “pal”. Human language and meaning is infinitely complex, and scanning for certain words would almost definitely lead to false positives. As Labour MP Thangam Debbonaire famously learned this year, even humans can’t always identify whether language is offensive, so what chance does an algorithm stand?

(Side note: It is also amusing to imagine that Hunt could even begin to keep up with teenage slang in this scenario.)

Many also argue that because social media sites can remove copyrighted files efficiently, they should get better at removing abusive language. This is a flawed argument because it is easy to search for a specific file (copyright holders will often send social media giants hashed files which they can then search for on their databases) whereas (for the reasons outlined above) it is exceptionally difficult for algorithms to accurately identify the true meaning of language.

“I think there are a lot of things where social media companies could put options in their software that could reduce the risks associated with social media, and I do think that is something which they should actively pursue in a way that hasn’t happened to date.”

Leaving aside the fact that social media companies constantly come up with solutions for these problems, Hunt has left us with the burning question of whether any of this is even desirable at all.

Why should he prevent under-18s from sexting when the age of consent in the UK is 16? Where has this sudden moral panic about pornography come from? Are the government laying the ground for mass censorship? If two consenting teenagers want to send each other these aubergine emoji a couple of times a week, why should we stop them? Is it not up to parents, rather than the government, to survey and supervise their children’s online activities? Would education, with all of this in mind, not be the better option? Won't somebody please think of the children? 

“There is a lot of evidence that the technology industry, if they put their mind to it, can do really smart things.

Alas, if only we could say the same for you Mr Hunt.

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