Monday, April 07, 2014

Nerding it up at the cool end of town - Dr Space Junk at Nerd Nite Sydney

Last week I flipped over to our nation's sunny capital for a space policy workshop, then on to Sydney to talk at the Nerd Nite.

This was heaps of fun. I met new people, caught up with old friends, and got to have a warm and sympathetic audience for my ideas. No space junk this time - more astronomy and antennas. They had a lucky escape, though - I didn't get started on cable ties ......

No, I said nerding it up, not nuding it up. Shut up down the back there.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Space Age Archaeology and the future: do I know where I'm going?

Not so long ago, I mused about my last ten years writing Space Age Archaeology. Today, in response to a question posed by Doug Rocks-Macqueen, I'm thinking about the future. What's my vision for the blog?

To be honest, I don't have a plan, and I've never really had one beyond each post. The future consists of the nebulous ideas and lists in my head of things I want to write about. Sometimes I think I should get some professional advice about design and marketing, and then I think it's all too much effort. I don't want to take over the world. It seems enough to have a place where I can write about my ideas with some sense of occasionally reaching other people who are interested, and where I am answerable to no-one but myself.

But maybe there will be outside constraints in the future. As we know, the academic world is now starting to take an interest in social media as a measure of impact. Once upon a time, blogging was a distraction from the main game, a frivolous pastime, and really rather suspect, almost indicative of a personal failing. These views always surprised me when I heard them reported - thankfully no-one has ever expressed them to my face! Now, there's lots of talk about academics being required to engage with the public/community through these avenues, and even more sinister hints of it becoming enforced and monitored.

Now I'm all for communication, obviously, but I don't know how I'd feel about having to meet someone else's expectations, or about the university scrutinising my fluid and organic meanderings around the online world. I think I would NOT LIKE IT AT ALL. I'm not doing this to jump through someone else's hoops.

On the other hand, it's nice to think that an activity I do mainly for pleasure may count in the mad scramble to punt something through the ever-changing goalposts of the academic world.

A couple of years ago, when I was reading around the area of archaeological blogging to prepare a paper for the first ever Digital Humanities Australasia conference, I found that no-one had really studied or written about individual archaeology bloggers. (This may have changed since). Almost all of the papers I came across dealt with institutional blogs based around a university department, a museum, or a project. To date I've seen nothing concrete about how the higher-ups in university administration and policy imagine academic engagement with social media, and I'd be surprised if a great many of them were actively engaged in the Versosphere themselves (I just made that word up - TwitterVERSE + blogOSPHERE. Naturally, it includes everything else). So it's important, I think, to have some data not just about the group blogs but also the individuals.
I also learnt recently, thanks to Noel Hidalgo Tan over at the South East Asian Archaeology Newsblog, that mine is a 'personality-based blog'. I'm not promoting a particular research project, or an organisation, or serving an identified community, so there are no mission statements or policies or performance indicators to consider. (Oh! The freedom!). Perhaps this makes it harder to have a clear vision of where the blog is going. And perhaps it means I don't really need one, either.

One thing is startlingly clear to me, though: we're not in it for the money.

*pours another cup of quince tea*


Friday, February 21, 2014

Robots and habermans, and the body in the deep future

A story I find myself coming back to over and over again is Cordwainer Smith's Scanners Live in Vain (1950). There are many reasons for this, but today I'm thinking more about robots. When Smith was writing this story, it was not known whether humans could survive in space. Or even what space was like - the geomagnetic storms, the plasmas, the corrosive atomic elements, the radiation. All this would have to wait for the first satellites.

Smith didn't imagine physical hazards for the first astronauts: he imagined a psychological hazard. (Actually, now that I write this I realise that is how I interpret it. His vision might have been more physical). Anyway, people in space did not die of radiation or exposure: they died of pain, the pain of space. Just to be in space was to endure unimaginable pain. To overcome this, space ship crews were made into habermans: their bodies were surgically severed from their brains and run by machines. As Martel, the protagonist, says, know what I am. A machine. A man turned into a machine. A man who has been killed and kept alive for duty.

He goes on to say some revealing things about this state of being:

Don't you think I remember what it is to be man and not a haberman? To walk and feel my feet on the ground? To feel a decent pain instead of watching my body every minute to see if I'm alive? How will I know when I'm dead? Did you ever think of that, Luci? How will I know when I'm dead?

The pain of space is almost malevolent, like a surf crashing against a rocky outcrop, trying to get past the blocks to the sentient being within. Any sensation would give it a tiny crack to enter the mind and overwhelm it with pain. The senses have to be obliterated so the mind can withstand the pressure. Martel can't taste, feel, hear, touch. He communicates with his fellow scanners by writing on a tablet. He monitors his physical body with a control box set in his chest, which you can just make out here:

He's not a robot, but he's not quite human either; and as the story unfolds, the ways of thinking that arise from being cut off from the senses become quite important. But I won't go any further in case you haven't read it. (In which case, do .....).

The scanners are the forerunners of many literary explorations of the insertion of human cores of sentience into different types of machine. Normally we would consider, like Martel, that losing our accustomed senses is a sacrifice, something done under compulsion or for the most noble of motives. But it doesn't have to be that way. In the video below, the characters from Sealab 2021 go wild imagining the new worlds of experience open to them in robot bodies:

(Cracks me up every time)

But it's all about the interface, the exact way in which the biological and the technological are meshed. Contemporary late industrial societies have generally inherited an approach to the body in which the skin is coterminous with the individual and more importantly, with the self. What's inside it is me, and what's outside it is not. Things like hair, fingernails, excrement, fluids, are highly dangerous because they transgress the boundary of the skin (see Freud, Mary Douglas, Julia Kristeva and others for more about this). They threaten to overwhelm the sense of self and have to be carefully controlled, socially and ritually. (Think about it).

Other societies in both the past and present have had other ways of understanding the body and the self, and they haven't always mapped directly onto each other. Gatherer-hunter-fisher people, once dominant in the world and now increasingly under threat, frequently have complex logics where boundaries between categories like alive, dead, human, natural, physical and spiritual are drawn in places modern industrial people might not recognise (early colonialists certainly didn't, and used these cosmologies as evidence of 'primitivism'. Another story!).  If you grew up with such a worldview, it might not be such a big deal to have, say, your consciousness distributed over numerous sites, or to have a sense translocated somewhere else.

This isn't quite where I expected to end up when I started writing this, but it turns out there is a point here. In the future, biotechnology and robotics might transform what we think of as human, and there is likely to be a lot of human-machine interfacing in radical ways. We already see it in performance artists and the cutting edge of technology. Science fiction writers have gone much deeper into the social and personal consequences of such changes. But, and this is the bit I wasn't expecting, it might be people from marginalised societies with very different approaches to the body who are going to best at this sort of stuff. The distance they have to travel may not be as great as for western industrial  people committed to a consuming, desiring, capitalist body. It's going to be important to foster cultural diversity so that humans have the capacity to adapt to the future.

As Martel's friend Parizianski observes in Scanners,

Everybody will be Other.

(Well I never thought my doctoral research on body modification would come in handy when discussing space!)

Friday, February 07, 2014

Dead or alive, the Yutu rover says much about how we relate to robots

By Alice Gorman, Flinders University. Originally published in The Conversation, 5 February 2014

This weekend, the moon’s fortnightly rotation cycle turns China’s lunar rover Yutu (the Jade Rabbit) and its solar panels toward the sun once again … but whether the rover wakes up or not remains to be seen, as Yutu already announced its impending death to Earth-based watchers with a series of first-person messages on January 25.

The messages were posted on China’s equivalent of Twitter, Sina Weibo, from an unofficial account believed to be run by a group of enthusiasts.

The rover has been on the lunar surface since December 15, when it was deployed from the Chang’e 3 lander.

Since then, it has covered 100 metres with its six-wheel locomotion.

As space scientists struggled to get Yutu to respond to commands to fold in its solar panels and external equipment, the two-week lunar night descended, plunging the exposed equipment into -150C temperatures without protection.

In 1971, Russia’s Lunokhod 1 similarly failed to make it through to the next dawn, even though it had successfully entered mechanical hibernation.

It’s not impossible that Yutu will survive the night. But it certainly doesn’t look good.

What is different about its probable death, though, is the way that it has been conveyed to the public via the Chinese state news agency Xinhua:
I’ll tell everyone a little secret. I’m actually not that sad. I’m just in my own adventure story, and like any protagonist, I encountered a bit of a problem. Goodnight Earth. Goodnight humans.
More than 6,000 people have responded to the posts with messages of hope and appreciation. (Some, though, thought it “creepy”.)

For them, it doesn’t matter that Yutu is not actually sentient, nor directly responsible for the messages.

Space fandom

Yutu is not the only spacecraft to have a public fan base. Social media such as Twitter and its equivalents play a prominent role in this. Other high profile spacecraft which communicate in first person include @MarsCuriosity and @NSFVoyager2.

But is this a trivialisation of serious scientific endeavours? It could be argued that these engagements are cynical attempts to gain public support for funding space exploration; perhaps a means of glossing over the vast amounts of money spent on space while (in the view of critics, more urgent) terrestrial problems remain underfunded.

However, many of these accounts are not official, but run by fans. This is the case for Yutu’s microblog, as well as @NSFVoyager2 and the popular @SarcasticRover. Unconstrained by communications policies, these accounts sometimes use humour to great effect.

@SarcasticRover in action. Twitter

The question, then, is whether this approach makes for effective science communication. Does following an anthropomorphised spacecraft lead people to engage with the science behind it?

Vanessa Hill, CSIRO’s Social Media Manager, argued in an article last year that:
By personifying the spacecraft in the form of social media accounts we’re characterising spacecraft in an easily accessible way which allows people to connect with specific missions.

Human-robotic interactions

The issue, however, is much broader than it at first appears. We can take this a step further into the field of social robotics.

While the development of the fully humanoid robot has been a longstanding scientific ambition, any human-like feature can be co-opted into building a relationship with machines. We can see this in the natural tendency to see faces in inanimate things.

On rovers like Yutu, cameras and antennas often look a little like necks with a head emerging from the body. It’s enough for us to attribute emotional states to them.

A scale model of the Yutu rover shows its more anthropomorphic attributes. Joel Raupe

In this engagement, whether or not the robot is capable of feeling these emotional states is irrelevant. It’s more whether the robot appears to have them. This is what is commonly known as the Turing Test.

Of course, humans reading emotions into a space robot and conveying them as if they originated from the robot is very different. But perhaps the time when such robots will be designed to translate their mechanical states into statements that they tweet directly is not too far off.

In all of this, though, we are still thinking of “us” and “them”. Even if it’s not actually the case, we like to treat the robot as a separate being with sentience. It makes the communication exciting.

We can even take this a step further. These first-person communications as if from spacecraft bridge the distance between remote and proximate interaction.

Mars: it’s far out (literally). NASA, ESA, the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA), J. Bell (Cornell University), and M. Wolff (Space Science Institute, Boulder)

In remote interaction, humans and robots are separated in space, and even sometimes in time, such as the time lag in communication between Mars and Earth.

In proximate interaction, humans and robots are co-located, for example, in the same room or facility. The physical distance affects how people behave around machines, as well as the robot’s level of autonomy.

What these social media interactions do is make people feel more present in the remote location, collapsing the distinction between near and far. It doesn’t end there, though.

A post-human perspective

If we take a “post-human” perspective, we can look at space robots as extensions of ourselves. We don’t have to anthropomorphise spacecraft: they can actually be our senses. This is how metatechnology researcher Robert Pepperell explained it in a 2004 conference paper:
This state of co-extension requires that we revise our attitude towards human-machine interaction: if technology is now regarded as an extension of human cognition, then the classical model of interaction whereby two distinct entities are interfaced, one sentient and one insentient, is inaccurate. In its place we must posit an exchange of cognitive activity between the sentient user and the cognition embodied in the device.
Yutu’s live microblogging of its own death from the first-person perspective could be seen, on the one hand, as a measure of the extent to which social media have become pervasive in engaging the public with civil space exploration.

But I think it’s something more. Space robots are not yet fully autonomous, as they rely on human commands. As Yutu shows, however, the exchange is not all one way. Even if the machine itself is not generating the posts, there is still an interaction whereby the actions and “experiences” of the rover are translated into a verbal message which elicits human emotional responses.

The public may not be influencing Yutu’s behaviour, but it sure as heck is affecting ours. These kinds of interactions are charting future territory in social robotics. Yutu’s legacy is part of this new cognitive exchange.

Alice Gorman does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.
The ConversationThis article was originally published at The Conversation.
          Read the original article.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Look, but don’t touch: US law and the protection of lunar heritage

By Alice Gorman, Flinders University (Orginally published 29 November 2013)

With India and China planning lunar surface missions, privately-funded space entrepreneurs competing for the US$40 million Google Lunar X Prize and discussions around lunar mining intensifying, working out what to do with our moon’s cultural heritage is becoming urgent.

In an article in the journal Science today, space lawyers Henry Hertzfeld and Scott Pace propose a multilateral agreement at the highest international level, initially between the US and Russia, but open to other moon-faring entities such as China, India and the European Space Agency (ESA).

And while there is much to recommend this, I propose we should consider extending the agreement idea further.

The moon has a rich archaeological record created by nearly 40 missions, from 1959 until the present. Most are robotic, but those that really grabbed the public’s imagination had human crews.

In 1969, at the site of Tranquility Base, humans set foot on another world for the first time. The Apollo 11 astronaut footprints in the thick lunar dust and the controversial flag are among the most iconic images of the 20th century.

Other missions include the USSR Luna series, which deployed two Lunokhod rovers. Wherever Russian spacecraft landed, they left medallions of Lenin and the USSR coat of arms.

More recently, China, India, Japan and the ESA have started crashing spacecraft into the surface of the moon at the end of their mission life.

All up, there are more than 190 tons of artefacts from lunar exploration. Now, these sites may be under threat.

US law to the moon

In 2011, NASA created a set of voluntary guidelines for future missions to avoid damage to Ranger, Surveyor and Apollo sites.

These include measures such as no-go buffer zones, heritage “precincts” and recommendations about how to fly around sites to avoid stirring up destructive dust.

Another proposal, which emerged in July this year, has raised alarm bells. The Apollo Lunar Legacy Act, which is currently before US Congress, aims to declare a National Park on the moon specifically to ensure the protection of US heritage sites.

Space legal experts have pointed out that this is incompatible with the 1967 Outer Space Treaty (OST), to which the US is a signatory. The Outer Space Treaty forbids territorial claims in outer space, by any means – and this includes indirectly, such as the extension of national jurisdiction to space places, as we see here.

It’s not the first time this issue has come up. In 1999, archaeologist Beth Laura O’Leary, from the State University of New Mexico, and her team, catalogued all the material at the Apollo 11 site for the Lunar Legacy Project funded by NASA.

The Apollo 11 command module on display at the Air & Space Museum in Washington. Gouldy99

They proposed designating the artefacts a National Historic Landmark, as they were legally the property of the US under the Outer Space Treaty. Back then, NASA’s response was unequivocal: such a move risked being interpreted by the international community as making a territorial claim.

As well as the legal issues, the Apollo Lunar Legacy Act plays into aspects of US ideology that sometimes cause unease in the international community:

  • manifest destiny (it is a moral duty of Americans to expand their territory)

  • American exceptionalism (America is unique among nation states and not bound by the same rules)

  • the cult of the American flag (the flag as the actual embodiment of the nation rather than just a symbol).

While this is obviously a simplification of more complex ideas, which are by no means universally accepted, elements of all three can be seen in the discourse around the significance of US lunar heritage sites.

All the same, everyone seems to agree that something needs to be done. Is the US bill the best option for the moment? Probably not.

The authors of today’s Science article, Hertzfeld and Pace, argue that a multilateral agreement would not violate the Outer Space Treaty, and would allow the interests of other nations to be represented.

The very sensitive issues around property and resource rights on the moon are side-stepped, leaving the way clear to effectively protect this precious heritage.

I suggest, though, that this proposal could go further. Hertzfeld and Pace limit the agreement to space-faring nations. But if we are to uphold the principle that space exploration is undertaken for the benefit of all humanity, then we need to broaden our view of who has contributed.

Looking Down Under

A replica of the Redstone rocket in Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center in Hutchinson. brentdanley

Let’s look at a couple of Australian examples. In the 1960s, the US used the Woomera rocket range in South Australia to test nose-cones on the Redstone rocket, a precursor of the Saturn V rocket which took astronauts to the moon.

The contribution of the Traditional Owners who were displaced to make way for the range may have been involuntary, but it supported the development of both US and European space industries.

Four of the five successful Apollo missions carried a dust detector experiment, designed by the University of Western Australia’s Professor Brian O’Brien. (The detectors gathered important data which can be used for comparison with new data from NASA’s recently launched LADEE spacecraft.)

No doubt there were many other hardware components designed or manufactured outside the US.

Australia might not be a space-faring nation, but it doesn’t mean we’re not stakeholders in lunar heritage. You can find many similar examples, such as the nations who hosted NASA tracking stations, a critical part of the Apollo programme.

Include more, not less

This kind of approach is consistent with United Nations declarations and principles, which call for space to be more inclusive. It also picks up on the recommendations of the Dublin Principles, created in 2011 by the International Council on Monuments and Sites and the International Committee for the Conservation of the Industrial Heritage.  The Dublin Principles emphasise the importance of recognising networks and multiple locations.

A multilateral lunar heritage agreement could also serve as a model to address another issue that is even more urgent – international cooperation on actively removing hazardous orbital debris.

The extraordinary achievements of the US lunar exploration programme are undeniable. But heritage is inherently political.  Whoever controls the past will have a huge influence on the shape of things to come.

Alice Gorman does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.
The ConversationThis article was originally published at The Conversation.
          Read the original article.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Happy 10th anniversary Dr Space Junk!

Ten years ago, when my sister was attempting to explain to a friend what the hell it was I was doing, he came up with the name Dr Space Junk. I liked it and have kept it ever since. Thanks, AJ!

Dr Space Junk is sort of me and sort of not-me, to use a Zoolanderism. She doesn't have to bow to academic pressures and has some serious hardware at her disposal. She moves somewhat fluidly between the real world and the fictional realm at times. She always stops for afternoon tea.

After all this time, I can't really imagine not having this alter ego who plays a primary role in my online life. In a conference paper a couple of years ago, I mused about the advantages of communicating with an avatar. In December last year, I talked about my experiences in the world of social media at the Australian Archaeological Association Annual Conference.

I found it surprisingly hard to write about this from an academic perspective as it's all so personal. I had no idea what I was doing really when I started blogging in 2004, and I don't really remember what motivated me to start.  I do remember very clearly the day I began the blog. I was in Adelaide for the International Space University Summer Space Programme, at which I was giving a guest lecture, and spending much of my free time in the Woomera archives at the Defence Science and Technology Organisation.

 On this afternoon, I was in Dr Heather Burke's house, alone in the middle of the day while she was at work. It was warm inside the bluestone terrace, and in the small sitting room, I was surrounded by bookcases and beautiful objects ..... bird's nests, bark paintings, carriage lamps ..... I had my feet on the coffee table, an old traveling case, while I slouched on the sofa with my laptop.

 I decided to bite the bullet and just begin. All sorts of decisions had to be made - name, format, design, introductory text, profile. The design templates were fairly limited, and I chose a simple black one to mirror the night sky. (This remains unchanged - every time I play around with new templates I chicken out when it gets to crunch time). At the time I was a bit obsessed with quince tea, and with some research I had been doing around the origins of anthropology and its relationship to theosophy. Thus Dr Space Junk's starship came into being, influenced perhaps also by Gully Foyle .....

I didn't really have much to say in early days. It was the beginning of my space research. I was starting to come to grips with the literature, and a few themes that were very much influenced by my previous work and professional career as a heritage consultant were swirling around in a mass of information. Blogging was also quite new, so the established networks and connections didn't really exist. It felt like it was just me and my brain.

Every now and then someone would stumble across my blog and make a comment. This was very exciting stuff! Then Dr Mick "Cheekbones" Morrison, another early Australian archaeology blogger, recommended that I put a tracker on. Suddenly, I could see that people were actually reading. I was very happy, but it gave me a sort of squirly feeling as well - I felt very exposed, and I realised that previously I had been mainly writing for myself. It took a little mental adjustment to not to censor myself and to regain my voice after this revelation. 

Over time, my posts became longer and longer as my research grew and I had more to say. A few years ago, after reading some of the scholarly and beautiful posts written by various friends and colleagues on their blogs, I had a crisis of confidence. Should I be putting more effort into what I wrote? I asked the advice of (by then) Associate Professor Heather Burke, a notorious avoider of social media and a committed cynic. What she said was very wise. "Think about it", she said to me. "When do you write and what do you write about?" 

"Well", I said, not having really considered this before, "I suppose it's when inspiration hits me. It might be a few sentences or a few paragraphs. I don't spend hours crafting a post, and I don't really have any sort of plan about it - it just happens when it happens". 

"If you had to sit down and work on a post for hours, and approached it like it was an academic paper, do you think you would post very much?" she said. I thought about this some more. It was true. I probably wouldn't. That might work for some people, but the more spontaneous approach was better for me, and the kind of tangents I was sometimes prone to follow. Heather made me feel comfortable with what I was doing, and for that I thank her.

Having said that, the last six months have been a big hiatus as I've grappled with various tedious technical problems (only just resolved) and numerous changes in the shape of my life. But I feel reinvigorated about the power of the blog after having a post selected in the Science Online Open Lab 2013 anthology. It's not just me who feels the cable tie love!

Now Dr Space Junk is on Twitter (@drspacejunk) and even on Soundcloud as DJ Space Junk. There's a T-shirt design (yet to be realised) and a cocktail concept (ever evolving). For ten years Dr Space Junk has accompanied me on my journey through outer space and the increasingly complex layers of social online space. She's not retiring any time soon.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Celestial sigils

My esteemed colleague Dr Lynley Wallis is having a Game of Thrones party for her (ahem) 30th birthday, in a few weeks. Great preparations are being made. These include sigils for every guest, using a generator found online. Of course mine has to have a space theme, easier said than done. Here are my two most successful drafts so far. I can't decide which direction to go in, so there may be some more experimentation.