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Leave space missions to billionaires and robots, says astronomer royal | Space

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The world’s space agencies should scrap plans to send astronauts to the moon and Mars and leave them to explorers and billionaires who can privately fund and risk such adventures, the astronomer royal says.

Lord Martin Rees said technical improvements and more sophisticated artificial intelligence meant robotic missions were becoming ever more capable of exploration, and even construction, in space, making it unnecessary for space agencies to front far-flung human missions.

“We should not have publicly funded programmes to send people to the moon, still less to Mars,” said Rees. “It’s hugely risky, hugely expensive, and there’s no practical or scientific benefit to sending humans. It’s a pretty bad bargain for the taxpayer.”

His comments prompted a robust defence from some experts, who stressed that government-backed spacefaring is a way to project soft power and provided huge inspiration, adding that the private sector could turn space into the “wild west”.

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But Rees argues we should encourage and cheer on explorers and billionaire entrepreneurs who want to leave Earth in search of adventure in the spirit of Shackleton and Scott – both of whom died on Antarctic expeditions. The SpaceX founder, Elon Musk, has long enthused about moving to Mars, noting “there’s a good chance of death”.

While human genetic modification should be heavily regulated on Earth, Rees said, Mars settlers would be free to enhance their children to cope with life on the red planet. Doing so could drive the divergence of the species, he added, raising the unsettling prospect of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs being the seed stock for a bunch of puny post-humans, given the weak Martian gravity.

Martin Rees
Martin Rees says there is no practical or scientific benefit to sending humans to space. Photograph: Niklas Halle’n/AFP/Getty Images

“They will have every incentive to try to redesign themselves and these changes are going to be rapid compared with Darwinian evolution,” Rees said. “If something evolves that’s rather different from present day human beings, it’s likely to evolve from them, not us.”

Astronauts last set foot on the moon half a century ago. Since then, humans have not ventured further than a few hundred miles into space, mostly to the International Space Station. Space agencies, including from the US, Europe, China and Russia, are now on course to return to the moon. Mars is next in line.

The cost is considerable because humans are fragile. The US president, Joe Biden, has requested $26bn (£20.6bn) for Nasa in 2023, with $7.5bn earmarked for the Artemis programme which aims to put the first woman and the first person of colour on the moon as early as 2025.

“I think many people support the idea of science in space and assume humans are an essential part of that. In a way they are, because an astronaut knows more geology than a present-day robot,” Rees said. “But the kinds of robots we will send in 20 years may be able to decide where to dig on Mars as well as any actual geologist could.”

Closer to Earth, Rees fears the phrase “space tourism” underplays the danger in the activity. He wants it rebranded as high-risk adventure so inevitable tragedies do not become national traumas, as happened when Nasa lost space shuttles in 1986 and 2003.

Even brief trips to the edge of space, such as those planned by Virgin Galactic, are risky. “There are going to be crashes even on these suborbital flights, and they’ll be less traumatic and seem less of a disaster if they are viewed in the way of someone falling off Everest, rather than a civilian airliner crash,” he said.

The astronomer, who argues the case in a new book, The End of Astronauts, believes private spacefarers will inspire people as much as space agency astronauts. But others are sceptical.

Prof David Southwood, a former chair of the UK Space Agency and senior research investigator at Imperial College, said: “If you’ve ever been in a room with Tim Peake and a couple of hundred schoolchildren, there’s a buzz and enthusiasm because he’s done something very few people have done, out on the final frontier. They think ‘he’s like me’. You don’t have to be a billionaire.”

Didier Schmitt, the head of the strategy and coordination group for robotic and human exploration at the European Space Agency, said the trend for human spaceflight being used as soft power and power projection would continue.

“The robotic versus human spaceflight rhetoric is an old debate that has definitely been superseded by the US and Chinese new race for the moon and Mars,” he said.

Leaving human exploration to the private sector risked “a wild west approach in space”, he added, stressing it was important to balance private exploitation with public exploration in space.

“It is a duty for governments, and not the free market, to enthuse the younger generation,” he added. “Taking into account the 22,500 candidates for the next European Space Agency astronaut corps is a clear message to politicians.”

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Tinder is the most hated app in Ireland

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Ireland is one of 19 countries worldwide that strongly dislikes Tinder. One in five Tweets by Irish people about all apps are negative.

According to Electronics Hub’s analysis of the most hated apps in the world, Tinder is the most loathed app in Ireland.

Irish people are not alone in their hatred for the dating app. Tinder was the most hated app in 19 countries in total, with Canadians, Americans, Nigerians, Kenyans and our neighbours in the UK also singling it out as their least favourite.

Electronics Hub determined the most hated apps in each country by analysing Twitter data. It processed more than 3m geotagged tweets related to 87 social media, dating, mobile games, entertainment, cryptocurrency and money transfer apps.

Researchers calculated the percentage of tweets about each app that were negative using a sentiment analysis tool which identifies whether a tweet has positive, negative or neutral sentiment.

Infographic of the most hated apps in the world by country.

Click to enlarge and see the most hated apps in the world by country. Infographic: Electronics Hub

Ireland was found to be one of the most negative countries when it came to attitudes towards apps. One in five Tweets posted by Irish people about apps were negative, Electronics Hub found.

Despite Irish people’s professed loathing for Tinder, the dating platform tried to play a role in keeping daters safe in the pandemic. It hooked up with the HSE to promote vaccines by adding badges to users’ profiles.

Tinder was only the second-most hated app in the world, with Roblox taking first place. More than 20 countries said the child-targeted gaming app was their most hated app. Other unpopular apps include Snapchat, Disney and Reddit.

Neighbouring countries tend to dislike similar apps, with the Scandinavians professing a dislike for Reddit and South Americans hating e-commerce apps.

Dating apps, meanwhile, are disliked the world over. In Iraq, 71.4pc of all tweets about Tinder are negative, which is the highest out of any country. A state-by-state breakdown of the most hated apps in North America also found Tinder took the top spot in 21 states.

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‘A sweatshop in the UK’: how the cost of living crisis triggered walkouts at Amazon | Industrial action

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Amazon workers say they are working in a “sweatshop” as safety concerns and worries about the cost of living crisis have triggered walkouts at warehouses around the country.

The Observer has spoken to four staff involved in the walkouts, who work at three Amazon warehouses, including Tilbury in Essex, where protests began on 4 August. All say they will struggle to survive this winter with pay rise offers between 35p and 50p an hour – far less than the rate of inflation, which is currently at 9.4%.

The workers, who spoke anonymously for fear of reprisals from Amazon, said they were speaking out to highlight how the firm’s ultra-cheap, ultra-convenient, super-fast delivery model works.

Amazon employs more than 70,000 people in the UK, adding 25,000 staff in 2021 alone. Many work at the company’s 21 fulfilment centres, where some workers say they are asked to carry out long, physical shifts, with difficult targets, for low pay.

Starting pay in Amazon warehouses will shortly be increasing to between £10.50 and £11.45 per hour, depending on location. An Amazon spokesperson said this was a 29% increase in the minimum hourly wage paid to staff since 2018. They said it is also augmented by a comprehensive benefits package worth thousands of pounds a year, and a company pension plan.

But staff say it is too low for the type of work being done and given the current economic crisis, especially at a company that just posted $121bn (£100bn) in revenues in the second quarter of 2022 alone.

“When we heard the news, it was shocking,” said one worker at Amazon’s warehouse in Tilbury. “It’s ridiculous. Inflation is [forecast to reach] 13%, and our salary increases barely 3%.” The worker rents a house with her husband for £1,350 a month without bills. “My salary is £1,600. … I’m lucky I’m married, otherwise I’d be homeless.”

Some staff are seeking a pay rise of £2 an hour from the tech giant.

Hundreds of Amazon employees stop working over disputed pay rise – video

Another worker at Amazon’s warehouse in Tilbury said they were “petrified” about how they would survive this winter. “We had a scenario recently where someone was living in [an] Amazon [warehouse],” he said. “If I’m honest, I can probably see that happening again.

“I can see people staying in the canteen all the time because they can’t afford to go home.”

The worker is protesting against the poor pay offer, as well as conditions that lock staff in cages for entire shifts at the warehouses, from where they pick items to be delivered to customers. (Amazon says the workstations are to protect workers from moving robotics.)

“It’s a Chinese sweatshop in the UK,” said the second worker at Tilbury. “It’s how they set up their model.”

The worker has struggled with his mental health while working for the company. “I’ve realised how bad Amazon is for my mental health,” he said. “The anxiety of going into work, knowing you’ve got to do the same stuff day in, day out, is horrible.”

That concern is echoed by a worker at an Amazon facility near Bristol, who has worked there with his wife for three years. “It was good initially,” the worker said. “There was a lot of safety consciousness, and the targets were pretty reasonable. But now they’re just pushing it higher and higher, and exploiting people.”

Around 100 Amazon staff at Bristol staged a sit-in at the company canteen on 10 August – action for which they say they were docked pay by management at the site. “The vast majority of people went back to work at that point, because at the end of the day, as much as they want to fight for it, they have to think about themselves financially.”

The Bristol warehouse worker says that managers used to stop employees from lifting heavy items from bins on high shelves in the warehouse without a ladder. “If you overstretched yourself for 10 hours, you’d end up with a bad neck and a bad back,” he said.

That has subsequently changed as staff said they felt pressured to meet ever-escalating demand. Staff pushing carts around the warehouse used to be limited to using one cart at a time for safety reasons; now it is claimed managers turn a blind eye to staff pulling two carts at once. “They don’t say nothing because all they care about is getting the work done as fast as possible,” he said. “Safety just goes out the window.”

He says he has personally lifted items weighing up to 25kg by himself, despite rules saying anything heavier than 15kg should be lifted by two people.

A worker at an Amazon facility in the north-west of England said that managers at his warehouse similarly ignored rules around not running on site and lifting down heavy items from high areas in an attempt to meet targets, which at his site require two items to be picked every minute.

Amazon declined to respond to specific claims.

Martha Dark, director at Foxglove, a non-profit organisation working to highlight issues within tech companies that supports Amazon workers, said: “None of the workers we’re supporting wanted to protest.

“They’re desperate and can’t survive on these wages. Meanwhile, Amazon threatens to dock pay and send workers to HR for revealing the truth about life in the warehouse.”

She added: “Amazon needs to respect workers’ rights to organise, stop penalising people who are fighting to survive and provide a real pay rise now.”

Two workers said they plan to leave the company because of the conditions and pay. However, some hope to stay put – to change things.

“If a lot of us who are experienced leave Amazon at this point they’ll get a new group of people in who they can mould into this depressing way of work,” said the Bristol worker. “That’s the problem.”

This article was amended on 14 August 2022. Inflation is at 9.4%, not 13% as stated in an earlier version; the latter is a forecast rate.

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AI could save future firefighters from deadly explosions • The Register

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AI could help save firefighters’ lives by predicting fire flashovers before they occur, according to new research published this week. 

Flashovers occur when combustible material in a room suddenly starts igniting all at once, leading to a huge surge of heat and flammable gases that can break walls and burst windows. Around 800 firefighters have been killed and more than 320,000 injured on the job in the US over a 10-year period, from 2008 to 2018, and it is estimated that 13 per cent of those accidents are the result of flashover events.

Firefighters have to rely on their experience to predict if a flashover is about to happen, such as judging from levels of smoke and heat, but it’s not easy considering how quickly they can creep up. Computer scientists have tried to develop methods capable of detecting flashovers in real time for the last two decades, but it’s a difficult task to model something so erratic.

Researchers from the US government’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), Google, as well as the Hong Kong Polytechnic University and the China University of Petroleum, built a system using graph neural networks (GNN) to learn relationships between different sources of data, represented as nodes and edges, from simulated fires.

“GNNs are frequently used for estimated time of arrival, or ETA, in traffic where you can be analyzing 10 to 50 different roads.” Eugene Yujun Fu, the study’s co-first author and a research assistant professor at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, said in a statement.

“It’s very complicated to properly make use of that kind of information simultaneously, so that’s where we got the idea to use GNNs. Except for our application, we’re looking at rooms instead of roads and are predicting flashover events instead of ETA in traffic.”

The team simulated all sorts of data, from building layouts, surface materials, fire conditions, ventilation configurations, location of smoke detectors, and temperature profiles of rooms to model 41,000 fake fires in 17 different building types. A total of 25,000 fire cases were used to train the model, and the remaining 16,000 were used to finetune and test it.

The GNN’s performance was assessed by whether it was able to predict whether a flashover event would occur within the next 30 seconds. Initial results showed the model had an accuracy of 92.1 percent at best. 

The system, dubbed FlashNet, is more advanced than the team’s previous machine learning model P-Flash.

“Our previous model only had to consider four or five rooms in one layout, but when the layout switches and you have 13 or 14 rooms, it can be a nightmare for the model,” said Wai Cheong Tam, co-first author of paper and a mechanical engineer at NIST. “For real-world application, we believe the key is to move to a generalized model that works for many different buildings.”

FlashNet may seem promising, but it is yet to be tested with data from real fire rescues. That would require the model to analyze data from thermostats, carbon monoxide and smoke detectors, in smart homes, Tam explained to The Register. How firefighters could then be alerted to the model’s predictions is unclear.

“The focus of the research was to rely on building data that is or could easily be provided from available building sensors. One way to translate the research into reality is to integrate the model into a smart fire alarm control panel that would gather the temperature data from installed heat detectors and includes a computer module that can process the data and make the real-time predictions.”

“From the fire alarm control panel or other suitable piece of equipment, the prediction would be sent to the incident commander, or individual firefighters if deemed suitable. The exact mechanism of providing such predictive analytics is not decided and would require input from the fire service to develop a consensus,” Tam concluded. ®

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