28th January 2016
Doomsday Clock stays at three minutes to midnight
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Science and Security Board has announced that their closely monitored "Doomsday Clock" will remain at three minutes to midnight.
The Doomsday Clock is a symbolic clock face, representing a countdown to possible global catastrophe (e.g. nuclear war or climate change). It has been maintained since 1947 by the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which includes 18 Nobel Laureates. The closer they set the Clock to midnight, the closer the scientists believe the world is to global disaster.
The position of the Clock hands in the past has ranged from two minutes to midnight in 1953 (after the U.S. began testing hydrogen bombs, which was followed by Soviet tests shortly after), to 17 minutes to midnight in 1991 (when the Cold War ended and deep cuts were made to nuclear arsenals).
Last year, the Clock hands were moved from five to three minutes to midnight, with the Bulletin stating: "Unchecked climate change, global nuclear weapons modernisations, and outsized nuclear weapons arsenals pose extraordinary and undeniable threats to the continued existence of humanity, and world leaders have failed to act with the speed or on the scale required to protect citizens from potential catastrophe. These failures of political leadership endanger every person on Earth."
This week, it was announced that the Doomsday Clock will remain at three minutes to midnight, since recent progress in the Iran nuclear agreement and the Paris climate accord "constitute only small bright spots in a darker world situation full of potential for catastrophe."
The statement accompanying the Doomsday Clock decision opens with the following words: "Three minutes (to midnight) is too close. Far too close. We, the members of the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, want to be clear about our decision not to move the hands of the Doomsday Clock in 2016: That decision is not good news, but an expression of dismay that world leaders continue to fail to focus their efforts and the world's attention on reducing the extreme danger posed by nuclear weapons and climate change. When we call these dangers existential, that is exactly what we mean: They threaten the very existence of civilization and therefore should be the first order of business for leaders who care about their constituents and their countries."
While recognising the important progress of the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate accord, the Bulletin cautions that these positive steps have been offset in large part by foreboding developments: "Even as the Iran agreement was hammered out, tensions between the United States and Russia rose to levels reminiscent of the worst periods of the Cold War. Conflict in Ukraine and Syria continued, accompanied by dangerous bluster and brinkmanship, with Turkey, a NATO member, shooting down a Russian warplane involved in Syria, the director of a state-run Russian news agency making statements about turning the United States to radioactive ash, and NATO and Russia repositioning military assets and conducting significant exercises with them. Washington and Moscow continue to adhere to most existing nuclear arms control agreements, but the United States, Russia, and other nuclear weapons countries are engaged in programs to modernise their nuclear arsenals, suggesting that they plan to keep and maintain the readiness of their nuclear weapons for decades, at least — despite their pledges, codified in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to pursue nuclear disarmament."
On the climate front, the Bulletin statement points out: "Promising though it may be, the Paris climate agreement came toward the end of Earth's warmest year on record, with the increase in global temperature over pre-industrial levels surpassing one degree Celsius."
Other more positive climate developments cited in the statement include the Papal encyclical related to climate change, the movement among investors toward divestment of fossil fuels, new advances in sustainable energy systems, more climate-friendly governments in Canada and Australia. However, the statement cautions that even these developments must be seen "against the steady backtracking of the United Kingdom's present government on climate policies and the continued intransigence of the Republican Party in the U.S., which stands alone in the world in failing to acknowledge even that human-caused climate change is a problem."
The Bulletin also reflects concerns about "the nuclear power vacuum" around the globe: "The international community has not developed coordinated plans to meet cost, safety, radioactive waste management, and proliferation challenges that large-scale nuclear expansion poses ... Because of such problems, in the United States and in other countries, nuclear power's attractiveness as an alternative to fossil fuels has decreased, despite the clear need for carbon-emissions-free energy in the age of climate change."
Rachel Bronson, executive director of the Bulletin, comments: "Last year, the Bulletin's Science and Security Board moved the Doomsday Clock forward to three minutes to midnight, noting: 'The probability of global catastrophe is very high, and the actions needed to reduce the risks of disaster must be taken very soon.' That probability has not been reduced. The Clock ticks. Global danger looms. Wise leaders should act — immediately."
Lawrence Krauss, chair of the Bulletin's Board of Sponsors: "Developments have been mixed since we moved the clock forward a year ago. In spite of some positive news, the major challenges the Bulletin laid out for governments then have not been addressed, even as the overall global challenges we need to face become more urgent. The clock reflects our estimate that the world is as close to the brink as it was in 1983 when US-Russian tensions were at their iciest in decades."
Sharon Squassoni, Bulletin Science and Security Board member, and a director of the Proliferation Prevention Program at the Centre for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, DC, said: "North Korea's recent nuclear test illustrates the very real danger of life in a proliferated world. Nuclear proliferation isn't a potential threat — we still have few controls over the kinds of capabilities that Iran succeeded in acquiring. In addition, regional tensions and conflict increase the risk of theft or use of these weapons."
Sivan Kartha, Bulletin Science and Security Board member, senior scientist and climate change expert, states: "The voluntary pledges made in Paris to limit greenhouse gas emissions are insufficient to the task of averting drastic climate change. These incremental steps must somehow evolve into the fundamental change in world energy systems needed if climate change is to ultimately be arrested."
So, what steps need to be taken?
The Bulletin statement accompanying the Doomsday Clock announcement identifies the following as the most urgently needed:
• Dramatically reduce proposed spending on nuclear weapons modernisation programs.
• Re-energise the disarmament process, with a focus on results.
• Engage North Korea to reduce nuclear risks.
• Follow up on the Paris accord with actions to sharply reduce greenhouse gas emissions and fulfil the global agreement to keep warming below 2°C.
• Deal now with the commercial nuclear waste problem.
• Create institutions specifically assigned to explore and address potentially catastrophic misuses of new technologies.
22nd January 2016
Brain implant will connect a million neurons with superfast bandwidth
A neural interface being created by the United States military aims to greatly improve the resolution and connection speed between biological and non-biological matter.
The Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) – a branch of the U.S. military – has announced a new research and development program known as Neural Engineering System Design (NESD). This aims to create a fully implantable neural interface able to provide unprecedented signal resolution and data-transfer bandwidth between the human brain and the digital world.
The interface would serve as a translator, converting between the electrochemical language used by neurons in the brain and the ones and zeros that constitute the language of information technology. A communications link would be achieved in a biocompatible device no larger than a cubic centimetre. This could lead to breakthrough treatments for a number of brain-related illnesses, as well as providing new insights into possible future upgrades for aspiring transhumanists.
“Today’s best brain-computer interface systems are like two supercomputers trying to talk to each other using an old 300-baud modem,” says Phillip Alvelda, program manager. “Imagine what will become possible when we upgrade our tools to really open the channel between the human brain and modern electronics.”
Among NESD’s potential applications are devices that could help restore sight or hearing, by feeding digital auditory or visual information into the brain at a resolution and experiential quality far higher than is possible with current technology.
Neural interfaces currently approved for human use squeeze a tremendous amount of information through just 100 channels, with each channel aggregating signals from tens of thousands of neurons at a time. The result is noisy and imprecise. In contrast, the NESD program aims to develop systems that communicate clearly and individually with any of up to one million neurons in a given region of the brain.
To achieve these ambitious goals and ensure the technology is practical outside of a research setting, DARPA will integrate and work in parallel with numerous areas of science and technology – including neuroscience, synthetic biology, low-power electronics, photonics, medical device packaging and manufacturing, systems engineering, and clinical testing. In addition to the program’s hardware challenges, NESD researchers will be required to develop advanced mathematical and neuro-computation techniques, to transcode high-definition sensory information between electronic and cortical neuron representations and then compress and represent the data with minimal loss.
The NESD program aims to recruit a diverse roster of leading industry stakeholders willing to offer state-of-the-art prototyping, manufacturing services and intellectual property. In later phases of the program, these partners could help transition the resulting technologies into commercial applications. DARPA will invest up to $60 million in the NESD program between now and 2020.
8th June 2015
New mobile app could revolutionise human rights justice
The International Bar Association (IBA) today launched the eyeWitness app – a new tool for documenting and reporting human rights atrocities in a secure and verifiable way, so the information can be used as evidence in a court of law.
With social media increasingly the forum for communicating human rights, many online images have raised awareness of atrocities around the world but typically lack the attribution or information necessary to be used as evidence in a court of law. Now anyone with an Android-enabled smart phone – including human right defenders, journalists, and investigators – can download the eyeWitness to Atrocities app and help hold accountable the perpetrators of atrocity crimes, such as genocide, crimes against humanity, torture and war crimes.
"The eyeWitness to Atrocities app will be a transformational tool in the fight for human rights, providing a solution to the evidentiary challenges surrounding mobile phone footage," said IBA Executive Director Mark Ellis. "Until now, it has been extremely difficult to verify the authenticity of these images and to protect the safety of those brave enough to record them. As an advocate for the voiceless, the International Bar Association is dedicated to empowering activists on the ground who are witnessing these atrocities with the ability to bring criminals to justice."
The app design is based on extensive research on the rules of evidence in international, regional and national courts and tribunals. It includes several features to guarantee authenticity, facilitate verification and protect confidentiality by allowing the user to decide whether or not to be anonymous.
"Putting information and technology in the hands of citizens worldwide has a powerful role to play in advancing the rule of law," said Ian McDougall, EVP and General Counsel of LexisNexis Legal & Professional, which partnered with the IBA. "LexisNexis Legal & Professional's world class data hosting capabilities will provide the eyeWitness programme with the same technology that we use to safeguard sensitive and confidential material for our clients every day. It's all part of our company's broader commitment to advancing the rule of law around the world, as we believe every business has a role to play in building a safer, more just global society."
How the App Works
When a user records an atrocity, the app automatically collects and embeds into the video file GPS coordinates, date and time, device sensor data and surrounding objects, such as Bluetooth and Wi-Fi networks. The user has the option of adding any additional identifying information about the image. This metadata will provide information integral to verifying and contextualising the footage. The images and accompanying data are encrypted and securely stored within the app. The app also embeds a chain of custody record to verify that the footage has not been edited or digitally manipulated. The user then submits this information directly from the app to a database maintained by the eyeWitness organisation.
Once the video is transmitted, it is stored in a secure repository that functions as a virtual evidence locker safeguarding the original, encrypted footage for future investigations and legal proceedings. The submitted footage is only accessible by a group of legal experts at eyeWitness who will analyse the footage and identify the appropriate authorities, including international, regional or national courts, to pursue relevant cases.
"The IBA is proud to be spearheading the project and allocating $1 million of IBA reserves as part of its efforts to promote, protect and enforce human rights under a just rule of law," said David Rivkin, IBA President. The IBA is working in partnership with LexisNexis Legal & Professional, a part of RELX Group, which is hosting the secure repository, database and backup system to store and analyse data collected via the app. The IBA is also partnering with human rights organisations to put the app in the hands of those working in some of the world's most severe conflict zones.
"The eyeWitness app promises to revolutionise the effectiveness of ground-level human rights reporting," said Deirdre Collings, Executive Director of the SecDev Foundation, a Canadian research organisation. "We also see the app's usefulness for media activists in conflict and authoritarian environments who undertake vital but high-risk reporting. We're proud to include eyeWitness in our training programme for our partners in Syria and will be rolling it out across our projects in the CIS region and Vietnam."
Established in 1947 and headquartered in London, the IBA is the world's leading organisation of international legal practitioners, bar associations and law societies. Through its global membership of individual lawyers, law firms, bar associations and law societies, it influences the development of international law reform and shapes the future of the legal profession throughout the world.
30th May 2015
Cheetah robot can jump over obstacles
Engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have developed a new version of the Cheetah robot, which is able to leap over obstacles while running at high speed. The eerily lifelike machine uses a laser distance sensor and real-time algorithms to perceive its environment. In this demonstration video, it is shown hurdling objects up to 40cm (16") in height, and performing multiple jumps without a safety harness.
"A running jump is a truly dynamic behaviour," says Sangbae Kim, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, in a press release. "You have to manage balance and energy, and be able to handle impact after landing. Our robot is specifically designed for those highly dynamic behaviours."
In the future, this robot – and others like it – may serve important functions in the military. They could scout ahead of soldiers to provide real-time information on the battlefield, for example, or relieve troops of the burden of carrying ammunition, food, medical supplies, batteries and other equipment. These machines could also be useful in search and rescue operations, able to access difficult or remote terrain that would defeat other types of vehicle.
1st February 2015
U.S. Navy announces progress with railgun technology
The Electromagnetic Railgun – a weapon that will play a major role in the future of the U.S. Navy – will be shown to the public for the first time on 4th-5th February at a technology expo in Washington DC, the Office of Naval Research (ONR) has announced.
The EM Railgun is a long-range weapon that fires projectiles using electricity instead of chemical propellants. Magnetic fields created by high electrical currents accelerate a sliding metal conductor, or armature, between two rails to launch projectiles at 4,500 mph – nearly six times the speed of sound. Unlike traditional artillery that destroy targets using explosive materials, the railgun inflicts damage by the extreme speed of impact. The kinetic energy of the warhead also eliminates the hazards of storing high explosives in the ship and leaving unexploded ordnance on the battlefield. Its pinpoint accuracy and phenomenal range (over 100 miles) will be a "game-changing and disruptive technology" according to the U.S. Navy. Each 18-inch projectile will cost about $25,000, compared to $500,000 to $1.5 million for conventional missiles.
A prototype program was started in 2005 and demonstrated proof-of-concept at 32 megajoules of energy. Phase II, which began in 2012, has been focussed on rep-rate fire capability and thermal management techniques required for sustained use. This program continues to make progress and is now scheduled for at-sea testing aboard a Joint High Speed Vessel – USNS Millinocket – in 2016. When perfected, it is hoped that the final version of the railgun will achieve 64 megajoules of energy, with an even longer range.
Experts from the ONR, Naval Sea Systems Command and BAE Systems will showcase the railgun to the public, for the first time, on 4th-5th February at the Naval Future Force S&T EXPO, the Navy's premier event to share information, discuss research opportunities and build science and technology partnerships between the Navy and Marine Corps, industry and academia.
"This year's Expo will showcase the naval portfolio of innovative breakthrough technologies that are shaping our warfighting tactics today and changing the way our Sailors and Marines will operate in the future," says Rear Admiral, Mat Winter. "The Electromagnetic Railgun is among several disruptive capabilities that the Naval Research Enterprise is championing to ensure a dominant, capable and relevant naval force for the future."
"The Electromagnetic Railgun brings significant technological advances to our Sailors and Marines," says Roger Ellis, program manager at ONR. "As the system moves forward along its planned schedule from the laboratory launcher, we've achieved breakthroughs in compact power and gun design, and will test the next phase of prototype at both sea- and land-based sites in 2016 and 2017."
The video below is of some earlier testing conducted in 2012. Further advances in reducing the mass, size and cost of the required power supplies could lead to railguns becoming practical and used routinely on U.S. Navy ships by 2025.