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Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Risk of robot uprising wiping out human race to be studied

http://www.bbc.co.uk 


Cambridge researchers are to assess whether technology could end up destroying human civilisation.

The Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER) will study dangers posed by biotechnology, artificial life, nanotechnology and climate change.

The scientists said that to dismiss concerns of a potential robot uprising would be "dangerous".

Fears that machines may take over have been central to the plot of some of the most popular science fiction films.

Perhaps most famous is Skynet, a rogue computer system depicted in the Terminator films.

Skynet gained self-awareness and fought back after first being developed by the US military.

'Reasonable prediction'
 
But despite being the subject of far-fetched fantasy, researchers said the concept of machines outsmarting us demanded mature attention.

"The seriousness of these risks is difficult to assess, but that in itself seems a cause for concern, given how much is at stake," the researchers wrote on a website set up for the centre.

The CSER project has been co-founded by Cambridge philosophy professor Huw Price, cosmology and astrophysics professor Martin Rees and Skype co-founder Jaan Tallinn.

"It seems a reasonable prediction that some time in this or the next century intelligence will escape from the constraints of biology," Prof Price told the AFP news agency.

"What we're trying to do is to push it forward in the respectable scientific community."

He added that as robots and computers become smarter than humans, we could find ourselves at the mercy of "machines that are not malicious, but machines whose interests don't include us".

Survival of the human race permitting, the centre will launch next year.

The discovery of strange, plentiful bacteria in a lake sealed beneath ice boosts the chance that extraterrestrial life might exist



Lake life survives in total isolation for 3000 years

It is seven times as salty as the sea, pitch dark and 13 degrees below freezing. Lake Vida in East Antarctica has been buried for 2800 years under 20 metres of ice, but teems with life.

The discovery of strange, abundant bacteria in a completely sealed, icebound lake strengthens the possibility that extraterrestrial life might exist on planets such as Mars and moons such as Jupiter's Europa.

"Lake Vida is a model of what happens when you try to freeze a lake solid, and this is the same fate that any lakes on Mars would have gone through as the planet turned colder from a watery past," says Peter Doran of the University of Illinois, Chicago. He is co-leader of a team working in the Dry Valleys of Antarctica where Vida is situated. "Any Martian water bodies that did form would have gone through this Vida stage before freezing solid, entombing the evidence of the past ecosystem."

The Vida bacteria, brought to the surface in cores drilled 27 metres down, belong to previously unknown species. They probably survive by metabolising the abundant quantities of hydrogen and oxides of nitrogen that Vida's salty, oxygen-free water has been found to contain.

Co-research leader Alison Murray of the Desert Research Institute in Reno, Nevada, is now investigating this further by growing some of the extracted cells in the lab. "We can use these cultivated organisms to better understand the physical or chemical extremes they can tolerate that might be relevant to other icy worlds such as Europa," she says.

Surprise composition

Murray and her colleagues were surprised to find so much hydrogen, nitrous oxide and carbon in the water. They speculate that these substances might originate from reactions between salt and nitrogen-containing minerals in the surrounding rock. Over the centuries, bacteria denied sunlight may have evolved to be completely reliant on these substances for energy. "I think the unusual conditions found in the lake have likely played a significant role in shaping the diversity and capabilities of life we found," she says.

But the existence of life in Lake Vida does not necessarily increase the likelihood that life exists in much older, deeper lakes under investigation in Antarctica, most notably Vostok and Ellsworth, which are 3 kilometres down and have been isolated for millions rather than thousands of years.

"It doesn't give us clues about whether there's life in Vostok or Ellsworth, but it says that under these super-salty conditions, life does OK," says Martin Siegert of the University of Bristol, UK, and leader of an expedition to Ellsworth which set off on 25 November. "We'll be drilling down 3 kilometres into the lake," he says.


Thursday, November 8, 2012

'Super-Earth' exoplanet spotted 42 light-years away

http://www.bbc.co.uk 

Astronomers have spotted another candidate for a potentially habitable planet - and it is not too far away.







The star HD 40307 was known to host three planets, all of them too near to support liquid water.
But research to appear in Astronomy and Astrophysics has found three more - among them a "super-Earth" seven times our planet's mass, in the habitable zone where liquid water can exist.

Many more observations will be needed to confirm any other similarities.

But the find joins an ever-larger catalogue of more than 800 known exoplanets, and it seems only a matter of time before astronomers spot an "Earth 2.0" - a rocky planet with an atmosphere circling a Sun-like star in the habitable zone.

HD 40307, which lies 42 light-years away, is not particularly Sun-like - it is a smaller, cooler version of our star emitting orange light.

But it is subtle variations in this light that permitted researchers working with the Rocky Planets Around Cool Stars (Ropacs) network to find three more planets around it.

The team used the Harps instrument at the European Southern Observatory's La Silla facility in Chile.

Harps does not spot planets directly - it detects the slight changes in colour of a stars' light caused by planets' gentle gravitational tugs - the "redshift" and "blueshift" that small motions cause.

Most recently, the instrument was used to spot an exoplanet circling our second-nearest stellar neighbour, Alpha Centauri B.

It is by its nature a high-precision measurement, and it has only been with the team's improved analysis of the natural variations in HD 40307's light that the team could unpick just how many tugs were changing it.

"We pioneered new data analysis techniques including the use of the wavelength as a filter to reduce the influence of activity on the signal from this star," said University of Hertfordshire researcher and lead author of the paper Mikko Tuomi.

"This significantly increased our sensitivity and enabled us to reveal three new super-Earth planets around the star known as HD 40307, making it into a six-planet system."

The outermost of the three new finds, HD 40307g, orbits the star in about 200 Earth-days and has a mass at least seven times that of Earth, joining a growing class of exoplanets called super-Earths.

The team say that the next step is to used space-based telescopes to get a more direct look at the planet and assess its composition.