The Geek’s Reading List – Week of May 29th 2015
I have been part of the technology industry for a third of a century now. For 13 years I was an electronics designer and software developer: I designed early generation PCs, mobile phones (including cell phones) and a number of embedded systems which are still in use today. I then became a sell-side research analyst for the next 20 years, where I was ranked the #1 tech analyst in Canada for six consecutive years, named one of the best in the world, and won a number of awards for stock-picking and estimating.
I started writing the Geek’s Reading List about 12 years ago. In addition to the company specific research notes I was publishing almost every day, it was a weekly list of articles I found interesting – usually provocative, new, and counter-consensus. The sorts of things I wasn’t seeing being written anywhere else.
They were not intended, at the time, to be taken as investment advice, nor should they today. That being said, investors need to understand crucial trends and developments in the industries in which they invest. Therefore, I believe these comments may actually help investors with a longer time horizon. Not to mention they might come in handy for consumers, CEOs, IT managers … or just about anybody, come to think of it. Technology isn’t just a niche area of interest to geeks these days: it impacts almost every part of our economy. I guess, in a way, we are all geeks now. Or at least need to act like it some of the time!
Please feel free to pass this newsletter on. Of course, if you find any articles you think should be included please send them on to me. Or feel free to email me to discuss any of these topics in more depth: the sentence or two I write before each topic is usually only a fraction of my highly opinionated views on the subject!
This edition of the Geeks List, and all back issues, can be found at www.thegeeksreadinglist.com.
1) What Experts Think About the Existential Risks of Artificial Intelligence
You might recall a series of apparently unrelated articles published whereby various luminaries opined on the “dangers” of artificial intelligence. Few such articles bothered to get a counterpoint from actual experts in AI, which is curious because almost every university has an AI program. Asking somebody whether machine super intelligence – even actual experts in AI – would pose an existential threat is a bit like asking whether creating shape shifting monsters would be an existential threat: the creating is the difficult bit. Experts are nowhere near creating anything which could even vaguely approximate intelligence and it is not even clear the path being followed would lead us there. I have little doubt actual thinking machines are possible, however, there is absolutely no reason to worry about that now, or probably over the next 30 or 40 years.
“In January, Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Stephen Hawking, and other sundry academics and researchers wrote an open letter calling for safety standards in industries dealing with artificial intelligence. In particular, they called for the research and development of fail-safe control systems that might prevent malfunctioning AI from doing harm — possibly existential harm — to humanity. “In any of these cases, there will be technical work needed in order to ensure that meaningful human control is maintained,” the letter reads. … “For those of us shipping AI technology, working to build these technologies now,” Andrew Ng, an AI expert at Baidu, told Fusion, “I don’t see any realistic path from the stuff we work on today — which is amazing and creating tons of value — but I don’t see any path for the software we write to turn evil.””
2) Volvo says horrible ‘self-parking car accident’ happened because driver didn’t have ‘pedestrian detection’
You know you are in trouble when self-parking cars start mowing down pedestrians. Except that isn’t even partly what happened here. Some bright spark apparently decided to show people a feature his car didn’t have, using live bodies. Setting aside the dubious wisdom of such a test (its a bit like crashing into a wall to show off airbags) and the questionable judgment of the victims, perhaps it does make sense to bundle auto-braking and pedestrian detection options.
“Last week, a gossip blog based in the Dominican Republic called Remolacha published a disturbing video of what it said was a “self-parking car accident.” A group of people stand in a garage watching and filming a grey Volvo XC60 that backs up, stops, and then accelerates toward the group. It smashes into two people, and causes the person filming the video with his phone to drop it and run. It is terrifying. We reached out to Volvo for answers about what went wrong here, and the company’s response was also a bit disturbing. Volvo spokesperson Johan Larsson explained that the video is mislabeled. He said the car is not attempting to self-park. “It seems they are trying to demonstrate pedestrian detection and auto-braking,” said Larsson by email. “Unfortunately, there were some issues in the way the test was conducted.” The main issue, said Larsson, is that it appears that the people who bought this Volvo did not pay for the “Pedestrian detection functionality,” which is a feature that costs more money.”
3) Driverless truck corridor from Mexico to Manitoba proposed
It is not clear from the article whether the idea is to set aside a “reserved” roadway for autonomous trucks, which would be safer but very expensive, or to simple declare a particular route to be useable by driverless trucks, which would be much easier to do but could result in significant risk to other users of the roadway. A designated corridor, even if it is shared with other vehicles, it probably a better idea than autonomous anarchy where any vehicle could take any route. This would allow for better mapping, complete broadband coverage, and special infrastructure modifications, all of which would result in a more controlled environment and lower risk. Once the vehicles have proved themselves in a limited scenario, additional corridors could be added.
“Trucks hauling cargo from Canada through the United States to Mexico and back navigate border crossings without the need for passports, visas or even a driver to steer them. It’s an idea that’s not too far-fetched, says a group that met in North Dakota last week. Marlo Anderson with the Central North American Trade Corridor Association says members are working to turn the idea into reality. The plan is for an autonomous vehicle corridor along Route 83, which runs north-south through Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota and North Dakota. The road then continues into Manitoba.”
4) New Pedestrian Detector from Google Could Make Self-Driving Cars Cheaper
Lidar (basically laser based radar) is typically the most expensive sensor in an autonomous vehicle and that means they tend to use few of them. Unlike a camera, Lidar can detect distance directly, which makes it particularly useful in such applications. Of course, AVs are relatively new, Lidar, is relatively new, and there has not been much call for cost reduction through volume manufacturing. After all, radar modules can be bought for less than $10 today, a few orders of magnitude less than a few decades ago, so there is precedent. Just as lidar is relatively new, the problem it is solving is relatively new, and alternative solutions will likely be found. Cameras are very cheap, computational performance continues to increase, and algorithms are evolving.
“Anelia Angelova, a research scientist at Google working on computer vision and machine learning, presented a new pedestrian detection system that works on video images alone. Recognizing, tracking, and avoiding human beings is a critical capability in any driverless car, and Google’s vehicles are duly festooned with lidar, radar, and cameras to ensure that they identify people within hundreds of meters. But that battery of sensors is expensive; in particular, the spinning lidar unit on the roof can cost nearly $10,000 (or more if for multiple units). If autonomous vehicles could reliably locate humans using cheap cameras alone, it would lower their cost and, hopefully, usher in an era of robotic crash-free motoring all the sooner. But video cameras have their issues. “Visual information gives you a wider view [than radars] but is slower to process,” Angelova told IEEE Spectrum.”
5) Amazon is Looking for the Perfect Warehouse Worker
Amazon gets a lot of criticism for the working conditions its warehouse workers are subject to. The logistics of hiring and training vast numbers of temporary workers is probably not something the company enjoys either, so there is, in total a strong incentive for the company to “increase the productivity of its warehouse staff” (translation: get rid of as many warehouse employees as possible). The obvious way of doing so is further automation, however, many products do not lend themselves to automated “picking”. The company has started a competition to find solutions to these challenges, and, one way or another, those problems will be solved.
“Amazon.com Inc.’s inaugural “Amazon Picking Challenge” inspired mechanical engineering and computer science students from around the world to design robots that can grab boxes of Oreo cookies and pencils from warehouse shelves and place them in bins, tasks ordinarily done by people. The Seattle retailer hopes to make its challenge a regular event that encourages innovation in robotics and steers academic research toward e-commerce automation.”
6) Fly-catching robot developed by Stanford scientists speeds biomedical research
One area which has benefited enormously from robotics is actually scientific research, where many chemical assays, etc., which used to be done by technicians are now done faster and better by robots. This robot is in the business of fruit fly wrangling, or carefully capturing fruit flies for examination, classification, testing, etc.. Previously this tedious work was done by technicians and/or grad students who anesthetized the creatures then sorted them manually but the robot appears to be far more productive and does not require anesthesia. The video is pretty fun to watch: no doubt fruit flies will soon be telling tales of alien abduction and probing.
“Underlying every significant discovery from fruit fly research – and there have been many, relating to almost every aspect of our own biology – is daily, monotonous time spent by scientists toiling over plastic dishes of conked-out flies. Now a team led by Mark Schnitzer, an associate professor of biology and of applied physics, has introduced a solution to the tedium: a robot that can visually inspect awake flies and, even better, carry out behavioral experiments that were impossible with anesthetized flies. The work is described May 25 in the journal Nature Methods. “Robotic technology offers a new prospect for automated experiments and enables fly researchers to do several things they couldn’t do previously,” Schnitzer said. “For example, it can do studies with large numbers of flies inspected in very precise ways.” The group did one study of 1,000 flies in 10 hours, a task that would have taken much longer for even a highly skilled human.”
7) Farms of the Future Will Use Drones, Robots and GPS
The adoption of mechanical systems by farmers resulted in a tremendous increase in agricultural productivity. My relatively cheap ($10,000) haybine cuts more hay in an hour than a family could cut in a day using scythes. Not only that, but manual work around a farm is hard work and it is near impossible to find people willing to do it. I doubt small family farms will be early adopters of such advanced technology as drones and robots, but I am pretty confident larger operations will be enthusiastic adopters once the bugs are worked out. One challenge will be the brutal work environment (hot, cold, wet, dry) on a farm and the tendency of farmers to be less than gentle with their equipment. Nevertheless, the agricultural sector is a large one and there are significant rewards for companies which develop machines which can do the work.
“Beyond the now de rigeur air conditioning and stereo system, a modern large tractor’s enclosed cabin includes computer displays indicating machine performance, field position and operating characteristics of attached machinery like seed planters. And as amazing as today’s technologies are, they’re just the beginning. Self-driving machinery and flying robots able to automatically survey and treat crops will become commonplace on farms that practice what’s come to be called precision agriculture. The ultimate purpose of all this high-tech gadgetry is optimization, from both an economic and an environmental standpoint. We only want to apply the optimal amount of any input (water, fertilizer, pesticide, fuel, labor) when and where it’s needed to efficiently produce high crop yields.”
8) Netflix Now Accounts for 36.5% of Peak Internet Traffic
Video streaming is used as an excuse for Internet providers to throttle traffic and argue against net neutrality and figures like this show why they are so keen to do so. Of course, the same arguments can (and were) made as the world transitioned from email to web pages and audio to video streams. In many parts of the world, broadband providers have a monopoly or a best minimal competition, and their market positions are a consequence of happenstance and poor regulation, not innovation. The solution to network congestion is a simple one: open the markets to competition. Besides the historical good fortune of market position there is no reason an Internet service provider should return an unusual return.
“A new analysis of Internet data indicates that Netflix now accounts for 36.5% of Internet traffic in North America during peak usage hours. According to the latest Sandvine breakdown of user behavior, the sharp climb in Netflix usage continues to coincide, rather un-coincidentally, with a notable drop in BitTorrent traffic. BitTorrent now accounts for 6.3% of total traffic in North America, and 8.5% in Latin America, notes the hardware vendor. The study notes that YouTube comprised 15.6% of peak downstream Internet traffic, while web browsing was 6%, Facebook 2.7%, Amazon Instant Video 2.0% and Hulu 1.9%. Sling TV accounted for less than 1% of peak downstream traffic. According to Sandvine, during the season five premiere of “Game of Thrones,” HBO’s two streaming properties (HBOGO and HBONOW) accounted for 4.1% of traffic on one US fixed network; an increase of over 300% of their average levels. HBO Now currently sees just 0.7% of peak total downstream traffic, likely due to the fact it’s a new offering only exclusively being offered by Cablevision and Apple.”
9) Internet capacity fears allayed
I missed the original event (https://royalsociety.org/events/2015/05/communication-networks/) and I can’t find any good summary of the comments but rest assured I would have made fun of them if I had. “Exponential growth” never continues forever and it isn’t even that hard to calculate when bandwidth will top out. Imagine every human with electricity watches HD cat videos all the time – that is about 6 billion times 6 million bits per second, or about 36 x 1015 bits, or 36 petabits, per second. As good as that would be for cat video producers, it would result in the collapse of the global economy, but bear with me. Researchers have already shown petabit speeds (http://optics.org/news/4/1/29) and that was in 2013, which is ages ago, meaning all of the world’s HD cat videos could be sent over 36 special fibers. We have the technology. As the BT scientist points out, you build infrastructure to meet the need. No biggie.
“The internet will not need to be rationed in the future because of a “data capacity crunch”, according to a leading scientist from telecoms giant BT. Professor Andrew Lord, who leads optical research at BT, said that while the firm is seeing “exponential growth” in internet use, tests and research the company has done show the current infrastructure can deal with the demand. He was speaking at the opening of a Royal Society discussion on the internet called “Communication networks beyond the capacity crunch”, where the increase in data use and its impact are being discussed by leading scientists. It comes after one of the meeting’s organisers, Professor Andrew Ellis, an expert in optical communications at Aston University, said that at the rate consumers are using the web, existing cables will reach their data capacity limit by the end of the decade, leading to a “potentially disastrous capacity crunch”, and the possible need to ration internet use.”
10) I Fooled Millions Into Thinking Chocolate Helps Weight Loss. Here’s How.
This somewhat lengthy article explains how the author created an apparently scientific basis for the claim you could lose weight by eating chocolate. The idea was to show the abysmal state of science journalism and it accomplished its goal. I don’t really know why he went through so much bother: there isn’t a lot of evidence the media bothers to fact check anything let alone science stories. After all, based on what I have read few journalists even seem to understand basic math, let alone physics or chemistry. Special interest groups and corporation pump out all kinds of unsubstantiated nonsense which never gets questioned let alone fact check. After all, it is the very basis of the neo-environmentalist, naturopathy, and dietary supplements industries that nobody bothers to check anything. Not only that, but peer reviewed research does not, in actually imply something is true, even if it isn’t made up (see item 11)! Thanks to my friend Humphrey Brown for this item.
““Slim by Chocolate!” the headlines blared. A team of German researchers had found that people on a low-carb diet lost weight 10 percent faster if they ate a chocolate bar every day. It made the front page of Bild, Europe’s largest daily newspaper, just beneath their update about the Germanwings crash. From there, it ricocheted around the internet and beyond, making news in more than 20 countries and half a dozen languages. It was discussed on television news shows. It appeared in glossy print, most recently in the June issue of Shape magazine (“Why You Must Eat Chocolate Daily,” page 128). Not only does chocolate accelerate weight loss, the study found, but it leads to healthier cholesterol levels and overall increased well-being. The Bild story quotes the study’s lead author, Johannes Bohannon, Ph.D., research director of the Institute of Diet and Health: “The best part is you can buy chocolate everywhere.” I am Johannes Bohannon, Ph.D. Well, actually my name is John, and I’m a journalist. I do have a Ph.D., but it’s in the molecular biology of bacteria, not humans. The Institute of Diet and Health? That’s nothing more than a website.”
11) Science retracts gay marriage paper without agreement of lead author LaCour
This is a follow on to item 10. The fact the paper was about gay marriage is irrelevant, but the fact the paper was published in Science, one of the most reputable journals, is. To summarize the situation, this paper was published in a prestigious journal without anybody bothering to actually look at any of the numbers (including the coauthors), let alone do basic diligence. Presumably the role of the reviewers was to check spelling and grammar and not ask too many questions. None of this would have come to light if an independent research team had not tried to replicate the results. Attempting to replicate results used to be an important part of scientific progress, because until other people replicate the results you should assume the results cannot be replicated and therefore give no validity to the paper, regardless of who the authors are or which journal it appeared in. Unfortunately, nowadays a paper’s validity is more associated with the number of times it has been cited by other researchers (who, for the most part have not checked the numbers, let alone replicated the results), rather than whether its conclusions have been substantiated.
“Amid a tidal wave of criticism, Science is retracting a study of how canvassers can sway people’s opinions about gay marriage published just 5 months ago. The retraction comes without the agreement of the paper’s lead author, Michael J. LaCour, a political science Ph.D. student at the University of California (UC), Los Angeles. LaCour’s attorney has told Science that LaCour made false claims about some aspects of the study, according to the retraction statement, including misrepresenting his funding sources and the incentives that he offered to survey participants. “In addition to these known problems, independent researchers have noted certain statistical irregularities in the responses,” Science Editor-in-Chief Marcia McNutt wrote in the retraction statement. “LaCour has not produced the original survey data from which someone else could independently confirm the validity of the reported findings.””
12) Analysis: Understanding Tesla’s Potemkin Swap Station
How could I go a week without commenting on Tesla? Actually I had a number of candidates but the nonsense around the company’s numerous “breakthroughs” – which are only breakthroughs to the profoundly ignorant – made it too easy. This article takes a fairly deep dive look at the numerous subsidies around EVs in general and how the company has managed to game them. Unfortunately the subsidies do nothing to solve the real problem of EVs, namely the short lived and staggeringly expensive batteries, instead focusing on relatively meaningless milestones. As we have noted in the past, these sorts of subsidies are inherently self limiting as the state cannot afford to maintain them as the numbers grow. It is a matter of time before the entire illusion comes crashing down. Thanks to Alain Bélanger of NOVACAP for this item.
“The return of battery electric vehicles (BEVs) to the US market nearly a century after internal combustion technology swept them aside is one of the most compelling automotive stories of the last decade, bringing a much-needed injection of fresh ideas and enthusiasm to an increasingly mature and commodified industry. Though BEVs remain less than 1% of global auto sales, they have become immensely important to automakers by aiding compliance with various emissions regulations, as well as creating an aura of environmental responsibility and technological innovation. The immense power of these incentives is made manifest in Tesla, the Silicon Valley-based BEV maker that has defied the industry’s immense challenges to startups and become the hottest automotive brand in the world. Despite selling just 31,655 vehicles in 2014, a tiny fraction of the industry’s global volume, Tesla and its CEO Elon Musk receive huge amounts of (largely favorable) media coverage and enjoy a market capitalization that exceeds far larger competitors like Fiat Chrysler Automobiles.”
13) “Privacy? I don’t have anything to hide.”
Last week I carried a series of recommendations on how to maintain a modicum of privacy online. This article has much more detailed series of recommendations. Thanks to my friend Humphrey Brown for this link.
“Over the last 16 months, as I’ve debated this issue around the world, every single time somebody has said to me, “I don’t really worry about invasions of privacy because I don’t have anything to hide.” I always say the same thing to them. I get out a pen, I write down my email address. I say, “Here’s my email address. What I want you to do when you get home is email me the passwords to all of your email accounts, not just the nice, respectable work one in your name, but all of them, because I want to be able to just troll through what it is you’re doing online, read what I want to read and publish whatever I find interesting. After all, if you’re not a bad person, if you’re doing nothing wrong, you should have nothing to hide.” Not a single person has taken me up on that offer.”
14) AdBlock Plus mobile browser could devastate publishers
As online advertising has become more pervasive and intrusive, ad blocking technology has become more popular. I was an early adopter of ad blocking technology and now the only place I even see ads is when I use “free” apps on my mobile device, and I figure it is a matter of time before somebody figures out how to block those. I don’t know if AdBlock Plus Mobile Browser is that much different from, say, Firefox with Adblock (I prefer uBlock), but it is indicative of a trend.
“Within 24 hours of Adblock Plus launching an ad-free browser for Android devices last Wednesday, it logged more than 200,000 downloads. It took years for desktop ad blocking to become popular, and rapid mobile growth could devastate websites dependent on ad revenue. Experts say there’s a simple solution, however: stop making annoying ads and people won’t need ad blockers. “We’re not against advertising,” says Ben Williams, communications and operations director for Eyeo, which operates Adblock Plus. “We think that advertising can be better.””
15) A Murky Road Ahead for Android, Despite Market Dominance
This article summarizes some of the rivals and challenges to Android in the mobile device marketplace. It is legitimate to question how long Android will dominate, however, it is worth noting that new entrants come and go and very few ever develop market share. An operating system is important because it is an ecosystem, namely OS, apps, and devices. This is one reason Windows has done so well for so long despite its numerous shortcomings. Although I would be cautious to proclaim Google’s position is, in general, unassailable, I suspect both Android and Google could continue on nicely as separate entities. Thanks to Nick Tang for this item.
“Things have changed. In an era ruled by portable computers, Android has become essential to Google’s future. Like an unstoppable friendly bacteria advancing upon a powerless host planet, Android, in the last five years, has colonized much of the known world. Android is now not just the globe’s most popular smartphone operating system but the most popular operating system of any kind. More than a billion Android devices were sold in 2014, according to the research firm Gartner. That’s about five times the number of Apple iOS devices sold, and about three times the number of Windows machines sold.”
16) This Weird Powerbank Phone is Trending in Africa; Here’s Why
We tend to think of electric power as a right whereas in a lot of the world it is a relatively rare treat. For example, a major cost of wireless infrastructure in the developing world is diesel fuel and maintenance, often with a guy on sight to make sure the generator isn’t stolen. Needless to say, having mobile service but no mobile isn’t of much use if your phone isn’t charged. This monster comes with a 10 amp hour battery and, from the looks of it, is probably a relatively low power consumption 2nd generation device. Crude but effective. And remarkably cheap.
“One thing that quickly became clear when I spoke to people is that the number one reason they bought the phone is to use it as a power bank. Ghana is currently experiencing a severe power crisis — city-wide blackouts of 36 hours or more have become the norm in Accra. A brisk business has grown around selling power banks, which are small portable rechargable batteries that can be used to charge small electronics such as MP3 players and, yes, phones.”
17) SanDisk has lightning-fast SSD drives that are as cheap as regular hard drives
The article is rather light on details as is the press release (http://www.sandisk.com/products/ssd/sata/z400s/). The largest drive they expect to offer is 240 GB which is at the low end of what you would install in your laptop, though you could probably get away with the 120 GB unit depending on what you were up to. The thing is, it is hard to find a 240 GB HDD drive to compare pricing with: the smallest HDD I was able to find is 250 GB for CDN $32 (I suspect surplus), while the “sweet spot” for pricing/GB is around 2 TB ($85). Suffice it to say I rather doubt SanDisk is gong to bring a $32 240 GB SSD to market, however, if they can come in well below the current $100 range for SSDs it could have a disruptive effect on the market.
“Solid-state drive (SSD) can significantly increase the performance of a computers compared to regular hard-disk drives (HDD), but flash memory has never been the most affordable option for buyers. However, that’s about to change, as SanDisk on Tuesday announced a new family of SSDs that should be as affordable as regular HDDs. The SanDisk Z400s it the new “cost-effective” SSD announced by the company. The device is supposed to be 20 times faster than HDDs and consume 20 times less power while offering five times better reliability than regular HDDs.”
18) Russian ‘troll factory’ flooding Internet with propaganda
I found this story to be amusing because it doesn’t appear the journalist understands than many, if not most, governments do exactly the same thing, as do many large companies. For example, Reddit has “life pro tips” which appear dominated from time to time with unusual applications of dryer sheets, an obvious attempt by the dryer sheet cabal to manage the narrative. The online discussion of most subjects, in particular political current events is clearly dominated by trolls working over the same carefully scripted talking points. Is it a surprise to CTV and The Associated Press that a lot of the stuff on the Internet isn’t true?
“Deep inside a four-story marble building in St. Petersburg, hundreds of workers tap away at computers on the front lines of an information war, say those who have been inside. Known as “Kremlin trolls,” the men and women work 12-hour shifts around the clock, flooding the Internet with propaganda aimed at stamping President Vladimir Putin’s world vision on Russia, and the world. The Kremlin has always dabbled in propaganda, but in the past year its troll campaign has gone into overdrive, adding hundreds of online operatives to help counter Western pressure over its role in the pro-Russian insurgency in eastern Ukraine. The program is drawing Serbia away from its proclaimed EU membership path and closer to the Russian orbit, and is targeting Germany, the United States and other Western powers. The operation has worried the European Union enough to prompt it to draw up a blueprint for fighting Russia’s disinformation campaign, although details have not yet been released.”
19) Malware is not only about viruses – companies preinstall it all the time
Its been a slow news week, likely because of the US long weekend and it being the beginning of summer, so I figured I’d include this rant from Richard Stallman on the subject of non-free software, which he incorrectly characterizes as malware. He does make some excellent points regarding the nefarious nature of many proprietary vendors and their collaboration with security agencies, however, not all proprietary software is bad and not all GNU software is good.
“In 1983, the software field had become dominated by proprietary (ie nonfree) programs, and users were forbidden to change or redistribute them. I developed the GNU operating system, which is often called Linux, to escape and end that injustice. But proprietary developers in the 1980s still had some ethical standards: they sincerely tried to make programs serve their users, even while denying users control over how they would be served. How far things have sunk. Developers today shamelessly mistreat users; when caught, they claim that fine print in EULAs (end user licence agreements) makes it ethical. (That might, at most, make it lawful, which is different.) So many cases of proprietary malware have been reported, that we must consider any proprietary program suspect and dangerous. In the 21st century, proprietary software is computing for suckers.”
20) NASA Officially Begins Europa Life Searching Mission with Selection of Science Instruments
This is another slow news week kind of story. The headline does overstate the mission somewhat, at least based on the instrumentation they list: looking for the ability to support life is not the same as searching for life, which would likely require a lander of some sort. Most likely this will be the first of several missions leading to a landing and careful biological analysis. Europa is a good candidate for extraterrestrial life, however it might be under a few kilometers of ice. There is some hope that tectonic activity (basically water volcanoes) might deposit onto the surface fossils of whatever critters might exist in the oceans, which would greatly simplify detection.
“NASA has selected nine science instruments for a mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa, to investigate whether the icy moon could harbor conditions suitable for life. NASA’s Galileo mission yielded strong evidence that Europa, about the size of Earth’s moon, has an ocean beneath a frozen crust of unknown thickness. If proven to exist, this global ocean could have more than twice as much water as Earth. With abundant salt water, a rocky sea floor, and the energy and chemistry provided by tidal heating, Europa could be the best place in the solar system to look for present day life beyond our home planet. “Europa has tantalized us with its enigmatic icy surface and evidence of a vast ocean, following the amazing data from 11 flybys of the Galileo spacecraft over a decade ago and recent Hubble observations suggesting plumes of water shooting out from the moon,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “We’re excited about the potential of this new mission and these instruments to unravel the mysteries of Europa in our quest to find evidence of life beyond Earth.””