BEIJING — In Chinese schools, students learn that the United States became a great nation partly by stealing technology from Britain. In the halls of government, officials speak of the need to inspire innovation by protecting inventions. In boardrooms, executives strategize about using infringement laws to fell foreign rivals.
China is often portrayed as a land of fake gadgets and pirated software, where intellectual property like patents, trademarks and copyrights are routinely ignored.
On Monday, President Trump announced the opening salvo in what could become a far-reaching investigation into Chinese trade practices. He has spoken forcefully about the need to protect American intellectual property, accusing Chinese companies of stealing jobs and technology.
Mr. Trump’s action against China came as he has tried to pressure the country to rein in nuclear and missile testing by North Korea, which is economically dependent on China.
Mr. Trump’s demands on Chinese trade practices are likely to be met with deep skepticism in Beijing.
China takes conflicting positions on intellectual property, ignoring it in some cases while upholding it in others. Underlying those contradictions is a long-held view of intellectual property not as a rigid legal principle but as a tool to meet the country’s goals.
Those goals are getting more ambitious. China is now gathering know-how in industries of the future like microchips and electric cars, often by pushing foreign companies attracted by the country’s vast market into sharing their technology. It is also toughening enforcement of patents and trademarks for a day when it can become a leader in those technologies — and use intellectual property protections to defend its position against rival economies.
President Xi Jinping is in the midst of an effort to strengthen laws on patents, copyrights and trademarks, giving fledgling firms in China new sources of revenue and prestige. The country is also pursuing an ambitious plan, called Made in China 2025, to become a global leader in areas like robotics and medical technology and kick off the next phase of China’s development. The efforts reflect the view of Chinese officials that controlling global technologies and standards is on par with building military muscle.
Zhang Ping, a scholar of trade law at Peking University in Beijing, said the West had long used intellectual property laws as a “spear and shield” against Chinese companies, hurting their profits at home and blocking access to foreign markets. Now, she said, it is time for China to fight back.
“If you want to enter our market to cooperate, it’s fine,” Ms. Zhang said, “but you can’t grab us by the neck and not let us grow.”
Trademarks and patents protect companies and inventors, compensating them for their time, ideas and investment. While poorer countries have throughout history worked to obtain inventions from wealthier nations, sometimes running afoul of intellectual property laws, China has rewritten the playbook for acquiring advanced technology.
Since Deng Xiaoping, as leader, opened the Chinese economy to the outside world nearly four decades ago, the country has made it a priority to obtain ideas and inspiration from overseas.
Sometimes it has reverse-engineered what it wants. United States officials say that Chinese companies have also carried out extensive economic espionage through cyberattacks and other means. (Chinese officials have denied those charges.) More recently, China has used its growing wealth to buy into cutting-edge technologies, like genetically modified crops and the latest innovations from American start-ups, and to attract promising talent.
But since those early days, China has relied heavily on one tried-and-true method: forming joint ventures with foreign partners. Big-name companies like I.B.M. and Qualcomm are required to share advanced technology and research with domestic firms in order to set up shop in China. And to entice partners, the country offers access to its enormous market and hundreds of millions of consumers.
Joint ventures helped China build whole industries out of scratch. After using them to explore high-speed rail technology, Chinese firms now dominate the global industry.
Chinese experts say those moves are simply smart deal-making, not violations of intellectual property laws, allowing the country to harness its leverage as the world’s second largest economy to win practical knowledge.
But now China’s efforts are moving beyond routine manufacturing into cutting-edge technologies — and the Trump administration has denounced the arrangements as coercive.
In April, the Office of the United States Trade Representative accused China of “widespread infringing activity,” including stealing trade secrets, tolerating rampant online piracy and exporting counterfeit goods.
Chinese commentators see hypocrisy in American criticism, noting that the United States was once one of the world’s leading pirates, when it worked to challenge British industrial dominance after the American Revolution by obtaining designs for inventions like steam-powered looms. The state-run news media has highlighted the caseof Samuel Slater, often called the father of the American industrial revolution, who brought British textile designs to the United States in the late 1700s.
Still, as China comes up with its own innovations, the country’s leaders are embracing stricter laws on patents, copyrights and trademarks.
The government has created specialized courts to handle intellectual property disputes and awarded subsidies to entrepreneurs who file patent applications. In 2015, more than a million were filed, a record amount.
Li Jian, a vice president of Beijing East IP, a Chinese law firm, said mainland companies increasingly saw strong intellectual property protections as a tool to help protect inventions and earn royalties overseas.
“Many Chinese companies have realized that through patent protection they can gain an advantage in the market,” Mr. Li said. “They have more faith now in the Chinese government to protect their intellectual property.”
The rules have also benefited some foreign firms. New Balance won a landmark case this year against a Chinese company that used its signature slanting “N” logo. China’s highest court last year gave Michael Jordan the rights to Chinese characters of his name.
Enforcement is still inconsistent, experts say. Local officials are often reluctant to aid foreign companies, worried about jeopardizing tax revenues from homegrown companies.
The Made in China 2025 initiative is a key reason the country is improving intellectual property rights. The plan focuses on sectors like electric cars, robotics, semiconductors and artificial intelligence.
By forcing foreign companies to hand over more technology and encouraging local companies to make new products based on that technology, Chinese leaders hope to cement the country’s dominance in critical fields. They also see an opportunity to dictate the terms of the future development of technology and extract licensing fees from foreign firms that use Chinese-made technology.
Several trade organizations and governments have said the plan is protectionist. Some have called for reciprocity, arguing that the United States should impose on Chinese companies the same restrictions China places on foreign companies.
“There is an unmistakable national policy to boost the position of Chinese companies in cutting-edge areas,” said William P. Alford, a Harvard law professor and an expert on Chinese intellectual property laws.
Chinese experts have defended the strategy.
“To become an adult, you have to accumulate knowledge,” said Professor Zhang, of Peking University. “It’s the same for a country.”
As China’s power has grown, Chinese companies have started using intellectual property laws to fend off foreign rivals.
When the United States International Trade Commission last year began investigating Chic Intelligent Technology Company, a manufacturer of self-balancing scooters based in the eastern city of Hangzhou, the company’s executives fought back. The commission was looking into claims that Chic had copied product designs of a California-based competitor, Razor USA.
Chic filed retaliatory lawsuits against American competitors, adopting many of the tactics that American companies have used for years to hobble Chinese competitors. The trade commission has since declined to banimports of the Chic scooters. The lawsuit against Razor USA remains unresolved, according to Chic.
Chic made clear that it saw the investigation as an effort by the United States to use intellectual property laws to bully Chinese companies. In a statement, the company’s leaders compared American regulators to Japanese invaders during World War II.
“The crazier the enemy,” the statement said, “the more we need to prove the necessity of our siege.”
On Monday Liu Jieyi, China’s ambassador to the UN, warned of the risk of escalating tensions on the peninsula
This article is obviously only my personal opinion but it is an opinion that has developed over about 40 years of observations. I know that China has been propping up the North Korean Kim family of dictators now for at least the past 65 years. It is understandable that China would prefer an Ally on the peninsula over having another democracy on the peninsula as the Communist leadership in Beijing is scared of letting the people have freedom in their own country. Beijing is not a friend to anyone anywhere, this Communist Party Leadership is now making the biggest power grab on any Nation in my lifetime and I was born in 1956. The China that we see today claims several other countries to be theirs as well as the seas and the air over them. Folks China’s leadership is no ones friend, they play the long game and that game is total domination. China could have shut down North Korea’s missile program any time they chose to do so, it is obvious that they feel that allowing Kim Jong Un to continue his efforts is in their own best interest. The more the U.S. and the other regional democracy’s are spending their time and efforts toward North Korea the more productive they can be flying under the radar as they try to pretend to be friendly. They are like a pet python that is friendly (or so you think) until it decides to eat you. Just about a week ago the U.S. government put sanctions on a Beijing Bank because it was being used to funnel billions of dollars into North Korea which is against current UN sanctions. I know that personally I would much rather see one person be eliminated in North Korea than to see many thousands die because of that one person.
Back in 2003 when President George W Bush decided to illegally invade Iraq for the purpose of finding and killing Saddam and his two adult sons many thousands of people have died because of his egotistical decision. I said then as I say now about this monster in North Korea that it would have been much better to have killed those three monsters instead of blowing up the Iraqi infrastructure and causing so much damage to the citizens lives. I am rather sure that President Trump and his top Generals are and have been looking at how to do preventive strikes on the Leadership of North Korea and their missile program locations. I am sure that Beijing would be furious if we do such a thing yet if this does end up happening Beijing only have themselves to blame for it. There is no doubt (at least to me) that North Korea’s little crazy boy will make his own preventive strikes as soon as he can manage to get his missiles nuclear tipped and we can not allow this animal to do this. It is just my thoughts/opinion that he is getting his technology help from China and/or Russia as their missile technology is advancing very quickly. I believe that the free world must destroy all of North Korea’s missiles and to cut off the head of this python before he starts eating us instead of us waiting until we are halfway down its gullet.
North Korea claims to have conducted its first successful test of a long-range missile that it says can “reach anywhere in the world.”
Tuesday morning’s missile test, which was conducted on the orders of the country’s leader, Kim Jong Un, reached a height of 2,802 kilometers (1,741 miles), according to state broadcaster Korea Central Television (KCTV).
That’s the highest altitude ever reached by a North Korean missile, and puts the US on notice that Pyongyang could potentially hit the US mainland.
The regime appears to have timed the launch for maximum political effect, giving the order to fire on the eve of the July 4 holiday, just days after US President Donald Trump spoke with Japanese and Chinese leaders about the North Korea threat and before this week’s G20 meeting.
Euan Graham, director of the International Security Program at Sydney’s Lowy Institute, said that one apparently successful test doesn’t necessarily mean that North Korea has the global capability it claimed.
“If the North Koreans are claiming they can launch an ICBM (to) anywhere in the world, that needs to be looked at through a technical lens,” he said, using the acronym for intercontinental ballistic missile.
“One successful test doesn’t get them over the bar; they’re claiming more than they can deliver at the moment.”
Most successful test yet
The missile, referred to as Hwasong-14 on state TV, flew into waters east of the Korean Peninsula and may have landed in Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone, which extends 200 nautical miles from its coastline, according to a Japanese defense official.
The US Pacific Command said it tracked the missile for 37 minutes and described it as a “land-based, intermediate range ballistic missile.” Japan reported that its flight time was 40 minutes.
It was launched from Panghyon, in North Pyongan province, and traveled more than 930 kilometers (578 miles), according to South Korea’s military — further than a May 14 missile launch that analysts described as its most successful test ever. That launch reached a then-record altitude of around 2,100 kilometers (1,300 miles).
South Korea’s evaluation found the missile had an “improved range” compared to the May missile, said Cho Han-gyu, the director of operations for South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff.
A photo from the North Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) purports to show the missile launch.
Bruce Bennett, senior international/defense researcher at RAND Corp., said North Korea had aimed high to limit the distance traveled and avoid a major international incident.
“You can’t hardly fire a missile from North Korea that’s got a thousand-kilometer range without it going into somebody’s exclusive economic zone. The bottom line is, they’ve flown it very high so that they can test the range of the missile. If they were to shoot it on a normal trajectory, it’s probably going to go out 6,000 or so kilometers. By definition, anything over 5,500 kilometers is an ICBM,” he said.
Russia, which shares a small border with North Korea, cast doubt on Pyongyang’s claim that an ICBM was fired.
The Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement it believes the missile reached an altitude of only 535 kilometers (332 miles) and traveled 510 kilometers (317 miles), according to state-run Sputnik news.
“The parametric data of the ballistic target’s trajectory matches the performance characteristics of a medium-range ballistic missile,” the statement said.
How much damage can North Korea’s weapons do?
Trump responds to launch
It’s North Korea’s 11th missile test this year and comes amid increasing frustration from Trump about the lack of progress in curbing Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
Soon after the launch, but before North Korea announced its unprecedented height, the US President responded on Twitter.
“North Korea has just launched another missile. Does this guy have anything better to do with his life?” Trump asked, referring to Kim.
“Hard to believe that South Korea and Japan will put up with this much longer. Perhaps China will put a heavy move on North Korea and end this nonsense once and for all!”
Melissa Hanham, a senior research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, said the ICBM test puts the US in a difficult negotiating position.
“I think there’s room for negotiation, but it’s not the kind of negotiations we want,” she said.
The US can now only work toward limiting, not eliminating, the North Korean missile threat to the US mainland, she added.
Why does North Korea hate the US?
Asian powers condemn action
China, North Korea’s northern neighbor and one of the only countries in the region with diplomatic ties to Pyongyang, urged restraint after the launch.
“The situation on the Korean Peninsula is sensitive and complex,” said Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Geng Shuang. “We hope all relevant parties will exercise restraint and avoid taking actions that may escalate tensions.”
Chinese President Xi Jinping is in Moscow to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin. Neither has commented on the launch.
South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in warned North Korea not to cross the “bridge of no return” and called on China to play a stronger role in resolving the situation.
Language from the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s Cho was much more dire in tone.
“If North Korea ignores South Korean military’s warning and carries on reckless provocations, we warn that the Kim Jong Un regime will face its destruction,” Cho said.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said the launch “ignores repeated warnings from the international community,” and shows the threat had “further increased.”
North Korea’s Hwasong-14 missile in a photo handed out by North Korean state media.
‘Out of control’?
Trump has repeatedly urged China to bring its influence to bear on the issue. He recently tweeted that Chinese efforts on North Korea, while appreciated, had “not worked out.”
On Monday Liu Jieyi, China’s ambassador to the UN, warned of the risk of escalating tensions on the peninsula.
“Certainly we would like to see a de-escalation of tension,” he said in remarks to the media as China assumed the United Nations Security Council presidency for July.
“Certainly if tension goes up and goes up only then sooner or later it will get out of control and the consequences will be disastrous,” Liu said.
CNN’s Paula Hancocks in Seoul, Yoko Wakatsuki in Tokyo and K.J. Kwon in Atlanta contributed to this report. Journalist Yoonjung Seo also contributed reporting from Seoul.
What the Rise of Sentient Robots Will Mean for Human Beings
Science fiction may have us worried about sentient robots, but it’s the mindless ones we need to be cautious of. Conscious machines may actually be our allies.
Jun.19.2017 / 12:45 PM ET
The series T-800 Robot in the “Terminator” movie franchise is an agent of Skynet, an artificial intelligence system that becomes self-aware. | Paramount/Courtesy Of Everett CollectionZombies and aliens may not be a realistic threat to our species. But there’s one stock movie villain we can’t be so sanguine about: sentient robots. If anything, their arrival is probably just a matter of time. But what will a world of conscious machines be like? Will there be a place in it for us?
Artificial intelligence research has been going through a recent revolution. AI systems can now outperform humans at playing chess and Go, recognizing faces, and driving safely. Even so, most researchers say truly conscious machines — ones that don’t just follow programs but have feelings and are self-aware — are decades away. First, the reasoning goes, researchers have to build a generalized intelligence, a single machine with the above talents and the capacity to learn more. Only then will AI reach the level of sophistication needed for consciousness.
But some think it won’t take nearly that long.
“People expect that self-awareness is going to be this end game of artificial intelligence when really there are no scientific pursuits where you start at the end,” says Justin Hart, a computer scientist at the University of Texas. He and other researchers are already building machines with rudimentary minds. One robot wriggles like a newborn baby to understand its body. Another robot babbles about what it sees and cries when you hit it. Another sets off to explore its world on its own.
No one claims that robots have a rich inner experience — that they have pride in floors they’ve vacuumed or delight in the taste of 120-volt current. But robots can now exhibit some similar qualities to the human mind, including empathy, adaptability, and gumption.
Beyond it just being cool to create robots, researchers design these cybernetic creatures because they’re trying to fix flaws in machine-learning systems. Though these systems may be powerful, they are simple. They work by relating input to output, like a test where you match items in column ‘A’ with items in column ‘B’. The AI systems basically memorize these associations. There’s no deeper logic behind the answers they give. And that’s a problem.
Humans can also be hard to read. We spend an inordinate amount of time analyzing ourselves and others, and arguably, that’s the main role of our conscious minds. If machines had minds, they might not be so inscrutable. We could simply ask them why they did what they did.
“If we could capture some of the structure of consciousness, it’s a good bet that we’d be producing some interesting capacity,” says Selmer Bringsjord, an AI researcher at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y. Although science fiction may have us worried about sentient robots, it’s really the mindless robots we need to be cautious of. Conscious machines may actually be our allies.
ROBOT, KNOW THYSELF
Self-driving cars have some of the most advanced AI systems today. They decide where to steer and when to brake by taking constant radar and laser readings and feeding them into algorithms. But much of driving is anticipating other drivers’ maneuvers and responding defensively — functions that are associated with consciousness.
“Self-driving cars will have to read the minds of what other self-driving cars want to do,” says Paul Verschure, a neuroscientist at Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona.
As a demonstration of how that might look, Hod Lipson, an engineering professor at Columbia University and co-author of a recent book on self-driving cars, and Kyung-Joong Kim at Sejong University in Seoul, South Korea built the robotic equivalent of a crazy driver. The small round robot (about the size of a hockey puck) moves on a loopy path according to its own logic. Then a second robot is set with the goal of intercepting the first robot no matter where the first one started, so it couldn’t record a fixed route; it had to divine the moving robot’s logic.
People expect that self-awareness is going to be this end game of AI when really there are no scientific pursuits where you start at the end.
Using a procedure that mimicked Darwinian evolution, Lipson and Kim crafted an interception strategy. “It had basically developed a duplicate of the brain of the actor — not perfect, but good enough that it could anticipate what it’s going to do,” Lipson says.
Lipson’s team also built a robot that can develop an understanding of its body. The four-legged spidery machine is about the size of a large tarantula. When switched on, its internal computer has no prior information about itself. “It doesn’t know how its motors are arranged, what its body plan is,” Lipson says
But it has the capacity to learn. It makes all the actions it is capable of to see what happens: how, for example, turning on a motor bends a leg joint. “Very much like a baby, it babbles,” Lipson says. “It moves its motors in a random way.”
After four days of flailing, it realizes it has four legs and figures out how to coordinate and move them so it can slither across the floor. When Lipson unplugs one of the motors, the robot realizes it now has only three legs and that its actions no longer produce the intended effects.
“I would argue this robot is self-aware in a very primitive way,” Lipson says.
Could Robots Create a ‘Jobless Future’ for Humans?
Another humanlike capability that researchers would like to build into AI is initiative. Machines excel at playing the game Go because humans directed the machines to solve it. They can’t define problems on their own, and defining problems is usually the hard part.
In a forthcoming paper for the journal “Trends in Cognitive Science,” Ryota Kanai, a neuroscientist and founder of a Tokyo-based startup Araya discusses how to give machines intrinsic motivation. In a demonstration, he and his colleagues simulated agents driving a car in a virtual landscape that includes a hill too steep for the car to climb unless it gets a running start. If told to climb the hill, the agents figure out how to do so. Until they receive this command, the car sits idle.
Then Kanai’s team endowed these virtual agents with curiosity. They surveyed the landscape, identified the hill as a problem, and figured out how to climb it even without instruction.
“We did not give a goal to the agent,” Kanai says. “The agent just explores the environment to learn what kind of situation it is in by making predictions about the consequence of its own action.”
The trick is to give robots enough intrinsic motivation to make them better problem solvers, and not so much that they quit and walk out of the lab. Machines can prove as stubborn as humans. Joscha Bach, an AI researcher at Harvard, put virtual robots into a “Minecraft”-like world filled with tasty but poisonous mushrooms. He expected them to learn to avoid them. Instead, they stuffed their mouths.
“They discounted future experiences in the same way as people did, so they didn’t care,” Bach says. “These mushrooms were so nice to eat.” He had to instill an innate aversion into the bots. In a sense, they had to be taught values, not just goals.
In addition to self-awareness and self-motivation, a key function of consciousness is the capacity to focus your attention. Selective attention has been an important area in AI research lately, not least by Google DeepMind, which developed the Go-playing computer.
“Consciousness is an attention filter,” says Stanley Franklin, a computer science professor at the University of Memphis. In a paper published last year in the journal “Biologically Inspired Cognitive Architectures,” Franklin and his colleagues reviewed their progress in building an AI system called LIDA that decides what to concentrate on through a competitive process, as suggested by neuroscientist Bernard Baars in the 1980s. The processes watch for interesting stimuli — loud, bright, exotic — and then vie for dominance. The one that prevails determines where the mental spotlight falls and informs a wide range of brain function, including deliberation and movement. The cycle of perception, attention, and action repeats five to 10 times a second.
The first version of LIDA was a job-matching server for the U.S. Navy. It read emails and focused on pertinent information while juggling each job hunter’s interests, the availability of jobs, and the requirements of government bureaucracy.
Since then, Franklin’s team has used the system to model animals’ minds, especially behavioral quirks that result from focusing on one thing at a time. For example, LIDA is just as prone as humans are to a curious psychological phenomenon known as “attentional blink.” When something catches your attention, you become oblivious to anything else for about half a second. This cognitive blind spot depends on many factors and LIDA shows humanlike responses to these same factors.
Pentti Haikonen, a Finnish AI researcher, has built a robot named XCR-1 on similar principles. Whereas other researchers make modest claims — create some quality of consciousness — Haikonen argues that his creation is capable of genuine subjective experience and basic emotions.
The system learns to make associations much like the neurons in our brains do. If Haikonen shows the robot a green ball and speaks the word “green,” the vision and auditory modules respond and become linked. If Haikonen says “green” again, the auditory module will respond and, through the link, so will the vision module. The robot will proceed as if it heard the word and saw the color, even if it’s staring into an empty void. Conversely, if the robot sees green, the auditory module will respond, even if the word wasn’t uttered. In short, the robot develops a kind of synesthesia.
Conversely, if the robot sees green, the auditory module will respond, even if the word wasn’t uttered. In short, the robot develops a kind of synesthesia.
“If we see a ball, we may say so to ourselves, and at that moment our perception is rather similar to the case when we actually hear that word,” Haikonen says. “The situation in the XCR-1 is the same.”
Things get interesting when the modules clash — if, for example, the vision module sees green while the auditory module hears “blue.” If the auditory module prevails, the system as a whole turns its attention to the word it hears while ignoring the color it sees. The robot has a simple stream of consciousness consisting of the perceptions that dominate it moment by moment: “green,” “ball,” “blue,” and so on. When Haikonen wires the auditory module to a speech engine, the robot will keep a running monolog about everything it sees and feels.
Haikonen also gives vibration a special significance as “pain,” which preempts other sensory inputs and consumes the robot’s attention. In one demonstration, Haikonen taps the robot and it blurts, “Me hurt.”
“Some people get emotionally disturbed by this, for some reason,” Haikonen says. (He and others are unsentimental about the creations. “I’m never like, ‘Poor robot,’” Verschure says.)
A NEW SPECIES
Building on these early efforts, researchers will develop more lifelike machines. We could see a continuum of conscious systems, just as there is in nature, from amoebas to dogs to chimps to humans and beyond. The gradual progress of this technology is good because it gives us time adjust to the idea that, one day, we won’t be the only advanced beings on the planet.
For a long while, our artificial companions will be vulnerable — more pet than threat. How we treat them will hinge on whether we recognize them as conscious and as capable of suffering.
“The reason that we value non-human animals, to the extent that people do, is that we see, based on our own consciousness, the light of consciousness within them as well,” says Susan Schneider, a philosopher at the University of Connecticut who studies the implications of AI. In fact, she thinks we will deliberately hold back from building conscious machines to avoid the moral dilemmas it poses.
“If you’re building conscious systems and having them work for us, that would be akin to slavery,” Schneider says. By the same token, if we don’t give advanced robots the gift of sentience, it worsens the threat they may eventually pose to humanity because they will see no particular reason to identify with us and value us.
Judging by what we’ve seen so far, conscious machines will inherit our human vulnerabilities. If robots have to anticipate what other robots do, they will treat one another as creatures with agency. Like us, they may start attributing agency to inanimate objects: stuffed animals, carved statues, the wind.
Last year, social psychologists Kurt Gray of the University of North Carolina and the late Daniel Wegner suggested in their book “The Mind Club” that this instinct was the origin of religion. “I would like to see a movie where the robots develop a religion because we have engineered them to have an intentionality prior so that they can be social,” Verschure says. ”But their intentionality prior runs away.”
These machines will vastly exceed our problem-solving ability, but not everything is a solvable problem. The only response they could have to conscious experience is to revel in it, and with their expanded ranges of sensory perception, they will see things people wouldn’t believe.
“I don’t think a future robotic species is going to be heartless and cold, as we sometimes imagine robots to be,” Lipson says. “They’ll probably have music and poetry that we’ll never understand.”
General Bipin Rawat met Jammu and Kashmir students coached by the Army under its ‘Super 40’ initiative.
NEW DELHI: For young men and women picking up stones in Kashmir, Army Chief General Bipin Rawat has a message: Pick up books, not stones. And he has some inspiring stories to share – that of 35 children from Jammu and Kashmir who prepped for engineering schools under the army’s ‘Super 40’ initiative.
Nine of them have made it to the prestigious Indian Institutes of Technology this year. The rest have qualified for other engineering schools across India. On Tuesday, the Army Chief came face-to-face with the 35-odd students, a sharp contrast to the ones that the army usually deals with in Jammu and Kashmir.This group had quietly enrolled for coaching under the army’s initiative to give children from the state a better chance to join the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) when their friends were out on the streets..
General Rawat hoped there were more like them in Kashmir.
“They (the youth) should either have a laptop or a book. Whatever time they get they should devote to studies,” General Rawat told the young students according to Press Trust of India, his remarks aimed at the youth back home who have been turning up on the streets in Kashmir, often with stones in their hand, to target security forces.
In recent weeks, the Army Chief has come out strongly in support of army officers using innovative measures to fight what he had called was a proxy war, a “dirty war”.
At one point, he had suggested in an interview that it would have been much simpler if it had people firing weapons at them, instead of flinging stones. “Then I would have been happy. Then I could do what I (want to do),” he told Press Trust of India last month in an interview that echoed the predicament of the army officers in dealing with youngsters.
On Tuesday, General Rawat also told the young students born well after militancy peaked in the 1990s that he had served in the state in 1981-82 when the “situation was good”. The situation started deteriorating during his second posting between 1991 and 1993, the Army Chief said, noting that he also had stints in J-K from 2006-2008 and then from 2010-12.
“Generations have been destroyed due to this. The fear that has set in the mind of people of Kashmir and the youth… (that) a militant or the security forces will come… So you have militants on one side and security forces on the other. How long will we stay in this atmosphere? We have to put an end to it. We wish that peace is restored there and we carry out our daily work without any problem,” Gen Rawat told the students who had broken all previous records this year.
An army statement said a record 26 boys and two girls from the state had cracked the IIT-JEE Mains Exam 2017 including nine cleared the IIT Advanced Exam. This was the first batch in which five girls from Kashmir valley were coached. A PTI report said the ‘Super 40’ students who did not clear the IIT-JEE Mains exam had made it through the state’s entrance test for engineering.
(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF NAUTILUS: SCIENCE AND AUTHOR ANIL ANANTHASWAMY)
In 1979, psychologist Ellen Langer and her students carefully refurbished an old monastery in Peterborough, New Hampshire, to resemble a place that would have existed two decades earlier. They invited a group of elderly men in their late 70s and early 80s to spend a week with them and live as they did in 1959, “a time when an IBM computer filled a whole room and panty hose had just been introduced to U.S. women,” Langer wrote. Her idea was to return the men, at least in their minds, to a time when they were younger and healthier—and to see if it had physiological consequences.
Every day Langer and her students met with the men to discuss “current” events. They talked about the first United States satellite launch, Fidel Castro entering Havana after his march across Cuba, and the Baltimore Colts winning the NFL championship game. They discussed “current” books: Ian Fleming’s Goldfinger and Leon Uris’ Exodus. They watched Ed Sullivan and Jack Benny and Jackie Gleason on a black-and-white TV, listened to Nat King Cole on the radio, and saw Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot. Everything was transporting the men back to 1959.
When Langer studied the men after a week of such sensory and mindful immersion in the past, she found that their memory, vision, hearing, and even physical strength had improved. She compared the traits to those of a control group of men, who had also spent a week in a retreat. The control group, however, had been told the experiment was about reminiscing. They were not told to live as if it were 1959. The first group, in a very objective sense, seemed younger. The team took photographs of the men before and after the experiment, and people who knew nothing about the study said the men looked younger in the after-pictures, says Langer, who today is a professor of psychology at Harvard University.
Langer’s experiment was a tantalizing demonstration that our chronological age based on our birthdate is a misleading indicator of aging. Langer, of course, was tackling the role of the mind in how old we feel and act. Since her study, others have taken a more objective look at the aging body. The goal is to determine an individual’s “biological age,” a term that aims to capture the body’s physiological development and decline with time, and predict, with reasonable accuracy, the risks of disease and death. As scientists have worked to pinpoint a person’s biological age, they have learned that organs and tissues often age differently, making it difficult to reduce biological age to a single number. They have also made a discovery that echoes Langer’s work. How old we feel—our subjective age—can influence how we age. Where age is concerned, the pages torn off a calendar do not tell the whole story.
While we intuitively know what it means to grow old, precise definitions of aging haven’t been easy to come by. In 1956, British gerontologist and author Alex Comfort (later famous for writing The Joy of Sex) memorably defined senescence as “a decrease in viability and an increase in vulnerability.” Any given individual, he wrote, would die from “randomly distributed causes.” Evolutionary biologists think of aging as something that reduces our ability to survive and reproduce because of “internal physiological deterioration.” Such deterioration, in turn, can be understood in terms of cellular functions: The older the cells in an organ, the more likely they are to stop dividing and die, or develop mutations that lead to cancer. This leads us to the idea that our bodies may have a true biological age.
The road to determining that age, though, has not been a straight one. One approach is to look for so-called biomarkers of aging, something that’s changing in the body and can be used as a predictor of the likelihood of being struck by age-related diseases or of how much longer one has left to live. An obvious set of biomarkers could be attributes like blood pressure or body weight. Both tend to go up as the body ages. But they are unreliable. Blood pressure can be affected by medication and body weight depends on lifestyle and diet, and there are people who certainly don’t gain weight as they age.
Where age is concerned, the pages torn off calendar do not tell the whole story.
In the 1990s, one promising biomarker stood out: stretches of DNA called telomeres. They appear at the ends of chromosomes, serving as caps that protect the chromosomes from fraying. Telomeres have often been likened to the plastic tips that similarly protect shoelaces. It turns out that telomeres themselves get shorter and shorter each time a cell divides. And when the telomere shortens beyond a point, the cell dies. There’s a strong relationship between telomere length and health and diseases, such as cancer and atherosclerosis.
But despite a range of studies trying to find such a link, it’s been hard to make the case for telomeres as accurate biomarkers of aging. In 2013, Anne Newman, director of the Center for Aging and Population Health at the University of Pittsburgh, and her student Jason Sanders reviewed the existing literature on telomeres and concluded that “if telomere length is a biomarker of human aging, it is a weak biomarker with poor predictive accuracy.”
“Twenty years ago, people had high hopes that telomere length could actually explain aging, as in biological aging. There was a hope that it would be the root cause of aging,” says Steve Horvath, a geneticist and biostatistician at the University of California, Los Angeles. “Now we know that that’s simply not the case. In the last 10 to 15 years, people realized that there must be other mechanisms that play an important role in aging.”
Attention shifted to how fast stem cells are being depleted in the body, or the efficacy of mitochondria (the organelles inside our cells that produce the energy needed for cells to function). Horvath scoured the data for reliable markers, looking at, for example, levels of gene expression for any strong correlations to aging. He found none.
But that didn’t mean there weren’t reliable biomarkers. There was one set of data Horvath had been studiously avoiding. This had to do with DNA methylation, a process cells use to switch off genes. Methylation mainly involves the addition of a so-called methyl group to cytosine, one of the four main bases that make up strands of DNA. Because DNA methylation does not alter the core genetic sequence, but rather modifies gene expression externally, the process is called epigenetics.
Horvath didn’t think that epigenetics would have anything to do with aging. “I had data sitting there and I would not really touch them, because I thought there was no meaning in it anyway,” he says.
But some time in 2009, Horvath gave in and analyzed a dataset of methylation levels at 27,000 locations on the human genome—an analysis “you can do in an hour,” he says. Nothing in his 10 years of analyzing genomic datasets had prepared him for the results. “I had never seen anything like it,” he says. “It’s a cliché, but it really was a smoking gun.”
Because their minds were taken back to a time when they were younger, their bodies went back too.
After a few more years of “labor intensive” work, Horvath identified 353 special sites on the human genome that were present in cells in every tissue and organ. Horvath developed an algorithm that used the methylation levels at these 353 sites—regardless of the cell type—to establish an epigenetic clock. His algorithm took into account that in some of these 353 sites, the methylation levels decreased with age, while in others they increased.
In 2013, Horvath published the results of his analysis of 8,000 samples taken from 51 types of healthy tissue and cells, and the conclusions were striking. When he calculated a single number for the biological age of the person based on the weighted average of the methylation levels at the 353 sites, he found that this number correlated well with the chronological age of the person (it was off by less than 3.6 years in 50 percent of the people—a far better correlation than has been obtained for any other biomarker). He also discovered that for middle-aged people and older, the epigenetic clock starts slowing down or speeding up—providing a way of telling whether someone is aging faster or slower than the calendar suggests.
Despite the correlation, Horvath says that biological age, rather than being for the whole body, is better applied to specific tissues and organs, whether it’s bone, blood, heart, lungs, muscles, or even the brain. The difference between the biological age and chronological age can be negative, zero, or positive. A negative deviation means that the tissue or organ is younger than expected; a zero indicates that the tissue is aging normally; and a positive deviation means the tissue or organ is older. Data show that different tissues can age at different rates.
In general, diseases speed up the epigenetic clock, and this is particularly striking in patients with Down’s syndrome or in those infected with HIV. In both cases, the tissues tend to age faster than normal. For instance, the blood and brain tissue in those infected with HIV show accelerated aging. Obesity causes the liver to age faster. And studies of people who died of Alzheimer’s disease show that the prefrontal cortex undergoes accelerated aging. Horvath also analyzed 6,000 samples of cancerous tissue and found that the epigenetic clock was ticking much faster in such cases, showing that the tissue had aged significantly more than the chronological age.
Despite this wealth of data, there is a gaping hole in our understanding of this striking correlation between methylation markers and biological age. “The biggest weakness of the epigenetic clock is that we just don’t understand the precise molecular mechanism behind it,” says Horvath. His speculation—and he stresses it’s just speculation—is that the epigenetic clock is related to what he calls the “epigenetic maintenance system,” molecular and enzymatic processes that maintain the epigenome and protect it from damage. “I feel that these markers are a footprint of that mechanism,” says Horvath. But “why is it so accurate? What pathway relates to it? That’s the biggest challenge right now,” he adds.
Even without understanding exactly how and why it works, the epigenetic clock gives researchers a tool to test the efficacy of anti-aging interventions that can potentially slow aging. “It’d be very exciting to develop a therapy that allows us to reset the epigenetic clock,” says Horvath.
While Horvath is thinking about hormonal treatments, Langer’s work with elderly men at the monastery in New Hampshire suggests that we can use the power of our mind to influence the body. Langer didn’t publish her results in a scientific journal in 1979. At the time, she didn’t have the resources to do a thorough study for the leading journals. “When you run a retreat over the course of five days, it’s very hard to control for everything,” Langer says. “Also, I didn’t have the funds to have, for instance, a vacationing control group. I could have published it in a second-rate journal, but I didn’t see any point to that. I wanted to get the information out there and I wrote it first in a book for Oxford University Press, so it was reviewed.”
Also, her argument that mind and body are one was potentially a little too path-breaking for the journals. “I think they were unlikely to buy the theoretical part of it,” she says. “The findings, improving vision and hearing in an elderly population, were so unusual that they were not going to rush to publish and stick their necks out.” Since then, Langer has pursued the mind-body connection and its effects on physiology and aging in rigorous studies that have been published in numerous scientific journals and books.
Traditionally, the mind-body problem refers to the difficulty of explaining how our ostensibly non-material mental states can affect the material body (clearly seen in the placebo effect). To Langer, the mind and body are one. “Wherever you put the mind you are necessarily putting the body,” she says.
So Langer began asking if subjective mental states could influence something as objective as the levels of blood sugar in patients with Type 2 diabetes. The 46 subjects in her study, all suffering from Type 2 diabetes, were asked to play computer games for 90 minutes. On their desk was a clock. They were asked to switch games every 15 minutes. The twist in the study was that for one-third of the subjects, the clock was ticking slower than real time, for one-third it was going faster, and for the last third, the clock was keeping real time.
Most of us are slaves to our chronological age.
“The question we were asking was would blood sugar level follow real or perceived time,” says Langer. “And the answer is perceived time.” This was a striking illustration of psychological processes—in this case the subjective perception of time—influencing metabolic processes in the body that control the level of blood sugar.
Although Langer did not explore a connection between the mind and epigenetic changes, other studies suggest such a link. In 2013, Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin at Madison and his colleagues reported that even one day of mindfulness meditation can impact the expression of genes. In their study, 19 experienced meditators were studied before and after a full day of intensive meditation. For control, the researchers similarly studied a group of 21 people who engaged in a full day of leisure. At the end of the day, the meditators showed lowered levels of activity of inflammatory genes—exactly the kind of effect seen when one takes anti-inflammatory drugs. The study also showed lowered activity of genes that are involved in epigenetically controlling expressions of other genes. The state of one’s mind, it seems, can have an epigenetic effect.
Such studies taken together provide clues as to why the week-long retreat in New Hampshire reversed some of the age-related attributes in elderly men. Because their minds were taken back to a time when they were younger, their bodies too went back to that earlier time, bringing about some of the physiological changes that resulted in improved hearing or grip strength.
But it’s important to point out that biological aging is an inexorable process—and there comes a time when no amount of thinking positive thoughts can halt aging. If body and mind are one and the same—as Langer suggests—then an aging body and aging mind go hand-in-hand, limiting our ability to influence physiological decline with psychological deftness.
Still, Langer thinks that how we age has a lot to do with our perceptions of what aging means—often reinforced by culture and society. “Whether it’s about aging or anything else, if you are surrounded by people who have certain expectations for you, you tend to meet those expectations, positive or negative,” says Langer.
Most of us are slaves to our chronological age, behaving, as the saying goes, age-appropriately. For example, young people often take steps to recover from a minor injury, whereas someone in their 80s may accept the pain that comes with the injury and be less proactive in addressing the problem. “Many people, because of societal expectations, all too often say, ‘Well, what do you expect, as you get older you fall apart,’ ” says Langer. “So, they don’t do the things to make themselves better, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
It’s this perception of one’s age, or subjective age, that interests Antonio Terracciano, a psychologist and gerontologist at Florida State University College of Medicine. Horvath’s work shows that biological age is correlated with diseases. Can one say the same thing about subjective age?
People’s perception of their own age can differ markedly from person to person. People between the ages of 40 and 80, for example, tend to think they are younger. People who are 60 may say that they feel like they are 50 or 55, or sometimes even 45. Rarely will they say they feel older. However, people in their 20s often perceive their age to be the same as their chronological age, and may say they feel somewhat older.
Terracciano and colleagues have found that subjective age correlates with certain physiological markers of aging, such as grip strength, walking speed, lung capacity, and even the levels of C-reactive protein in the blood, an indication of inflammation in the body. The younger you feel you are, the better are these indicators of age and health: You walk faster, have better grip strength and lung capacity, and less inflammation.
Subjective age affects cognition and is an indicator of the likelihood of developing dementia. Terracciano and colleagues looked at data collected from 5,748 people aged 65 or older. The subjects’ cognitive abilities were evaluated to establish a baseline and they were then followed for a period of up to four years. The subjects were also asked about how old they felt at each instance. The researchers found that those who had a higher subjective age to start with were more likely to develop cognitive impairments and even dementia.
These correlation studies have limitations, however. For example, it’s possible that physically active people, who have better walking speed and lung capacity, and lower levels of C-reactive protein in their blood, naturally feel younger. How can one establish that our subjective age influences physiology and not the other way around?
That’s exactly what Yannick Stephan of the University of Grenoble in France and colleagues tried to find out. They recruited 49 adults, aged between 52 and 91, and divided them into an experimental and control group. Both groups were first asked their subjective age—how old they felt as opposed to their chronological age—and tested for grip strength to establish a baseline. The experimental group was told they had done better than 80 percent of people their age. The control group received no feedback. After this experimental manipulation, both groups were tested again for grip strength and asked about how old they felt. The experimental group reported feeling, on average, younger than their baseline subjective age. No such change was seen in the control group. Also, the experimental group showed an increase in grip strength, while the grip strength of the control decreased somewhat.
These correlations do not necessarily mean that feeling young causes better health. Terracciano’s next step is to correlate subjective age with quantitative biological markers of age. While no study has yet been done to find associations between the newly developed epigenetic markers and subjective age, Terracciano is keen to see if there are strong correlations.
Still, the message seems to be that our chronological age really is just a number. “If people think that because they are getting older they cannot do things, or cut their social ties, or incorporate this negative view which limits their life, that can be really detrimental,” says Terracciano. “Fighting those negative attitudes, challenging yourself, keeping an open mind, being engaged socially, can absolutely have a positive impact.”
ANIL ANANTHASWAMY is an award-winning journalist and author. His first book, The Edge of Physics, was named Book of the Year in 2010 by PhysicsWorld. His second book, The Man Who Wasn’t There, was nominated for the PEN/E. O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award. @AnilAnanth
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi announced on April 18 that the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation will be held in Beijing on May 14 and 15.
The Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation will be held from May 14 to 15 in Beijing and President Xi Jinping will attend the opening ceremony and host the round table summit of the leaders, Foreign Minister Wang Yi said yesterday.
Xi has championed the “One Belt, One Road” initiative to build a new Silk Road linking Asia, Africa and Europe, a landmark program to invest billions of dollars in infrastructure projects.
China has dedicated US$40 billion to a Silk Road Fund and the idea was the driving force behind the establishment of the US$50 billion Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.
Among those attending will be Russian President Vladimir Putin, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak and Indonesian President Joko Widodo will also be attending the forum.
British finance minister Philip Hammond will come as Prime Minister Theresa May’s representative, while Germany and France will send high-level representatives.
Wang confirmed Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte as one of the leaders coming, along with the Spanish, Greek, Hungarian, Serb and Polish prime ministers and Swiss and Czech presidents.
“This is an economic cooperation forum, an international cooperation platform that everyone is paying attention to, supports and hopes to participate in,” Wang said.
“One Belt, One Road is to date the most important public good China has given to the world, first proposed by China but for all countries to enjoy,” said.
“The culture and historical genes of One Belt, One Road come from the old Silk Road, so it takes Eurasia as its main region,” he said, adding that representatives of 110 countries would attend the forum.
A section of the New Silk Road is in Pakistan, where some projects run through the disputed Kashmir region.
Wang dismissed concerns, saying the Pakistan project had no direct connection to the dispute and India was welcome to participate in the New Silk Road.
“Indian friends have said to us that One Belt, One Road is a very good suggestion,” he said.
During the forum, China is expected to sign cooperative documents with nearly 20 countries and more than 20 international organizations, Wang told reporters.
China will work with countries along the route on action plans concerning infrastructure, energy and resources, production capacity, trade and investment, which will help to turn the grand blueprint into a clear roadmap, he said.
Another task of the forum will be to push forward delivery of cooperative projects, Wang said.
During the forum, parties will identify major cooperative projects, set up working groups and establish an investment cooperation center.
China will also work with all parties on a set of measures that will include improved financial cooperation, a cooperation platform for science, technology and environmental protection, and enhanced exchanges and training of talent.
Participants will sign financing agreements to support their cooperative projects, Wang said.
China will use the forum to build a more open and efficient international cooperation platform; a closer, stronger partnership network; and to push for a more just, reasonable and balanced international governance system, Wang said.
The Army is pulling out all the stops in its race to make soldiers look as futuristic as possible — and be as safe as possible. Part of the Soldier Protection System, there’s new armor in the works, as well as a new helmet, which looks it was pulled from science fiction, or Airsoft. But the service isn’t forgetting the little things, like the importance of seeing what you’re shooting at, which is why it’s creating new glasses and goggles.
Because the new helmet’s visor isn’t tinted, the new eyewear, officially called Transition Combat Eye Protection, automatically switches from a clear setting to a dark tint, and then back again, depending on the amount of light, according to PEO Soldier.
In less than a second, soldiers operating in sunny arid environments will be able to adjust quickly and easily, without carrying around multiple expensive glasses that are just going to get lost.
At $200 a piece, soldiers will have just one expensive piece of gear to lose. What could go wrong? The eyewear won’t be on the list of items soldiers are required to carry, according to Army Times, but they’re authorized to use and commanders can purchase them for their troops if they want to, because that’s sure to happen.
Looking at the glasses and goggles, then back to the helmet, it does make you wonder: If the idea is to help soldiers operate more easily in varying light conditions, it would be a bit of a pain to get to the button on the eyewear to turn it on, especially while wearing a helmet which encases your head. Fortunately, once the glasses or goggles are on, the transition is automatic. Just don’t forget to activate them before heading out.
The article has been updated to clarify that the TCEP system transitions from light to dark automatically once turned on, according to a statement received from PEO Soldier after publication. (Updated 4/17/17, 3:18 pm EST).
Last week, the Army unveiled a specially modified Stryker Infantry Carrier Vehicle (ICV) prototype outfitted with a special surprise for ISIS militants: an experimental laser weapon that can shoot down enemy drones without firing a single round — or making a sound.
Dubbed the Mobile High Energy Laser (MEHEL), the Army showed off the Stryker at the Maneuver Fires Integrated Experiment (MFIX) at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, blasting more than 50 remote-controlled test targets out of the sky with its 5 kilowatt laser cannon. Here’s the Army account of the test:
On a television screen in a nearby tent off Thompson Hill — a range used during the 10-day Maneuver Fires Integrated Experiment here — observers watched the black and white output of those sensors on two flat-screen televisions, April 12. A crosshair was centered on the screen. When what appeared to be a drone entered the frame, the crosshairs locked on to it and followed it.
After a few attempts to destroy the drone with the laser, the drone fell from the sky, crashing to the ground. Not a bullet was fired, and no sounds were made by the system that accomplished the kill.
“We were skeptical at first, when we were first briefed we’d be shooting down drones with lasers,” the MEHEL commander, Army Capt. Theo Kleinsorge, said of the demonstration. “We achieved a success rate well beyond what we expected we’d have and we are excited to see this go to the next step of the experiment, shooting beyond the horizon, and showing this technology can solve the problem.”
The Army’s Stryker Brigade Combat Teams, already a favorite combat support platform for decades, were slated for upgrades as of 2016, including a medium-caliber cannon and Javelin anti-tank missiles. But given the emerging threats posed by ISIS UAVs, the MEHEL seems like an appropriate pivot for the Pentagon. The War Zone has a great breakdown of the MEHEL’s specs:
A basic Stryker ICV weighs in at nearly 16.5 tons, has a top speed of over 60 miles per hour on improved roads, and usually carries a .50 caliber M2 machine gun or a 40mm Mk 19 automatic grenade launcher. The MEHEL still has a machine gun, but its main weapon is a five kilowatt laser. On top of the laser, the vehicle had has powerful cameras to detect and track targets, as well as electronic warfare equipment. The latter system can try and crash an unmanned aircraft by jamming the signal from its control station, as well as try and pinpoint the location of those sites.
This isn’t the first time the Army has experimented with direct-energy weapons to counter enemy drones. In 2016, the Army’s Space and Missile Defense Command demonstrated the High Energy Laser Mobile Test Truck (HELMTT), outfitted with a 10 kilowatt laser director, during last year’s MFIX.
“Our team did a great job,” SMDC Technical Center HELMTT demonstrator program manager Adam Aberle said at the time. “We absolutely blew lots of stuff up.”
Despite the spectacular test at the 2017 MFIX, it’s unclear when the MEHEL will actually deploy downrange to Afghanistan and Iraq. But based on the excitement of program managers and observers on hand to watch the MEHEL in action, lasers can’t hit the battlefield soon enough.
“It’s mind-blowing stuff to think you are shooting a laser at something,” Spc. Brandon Sallaway said of the MEHEL test at Fort Sill. “Sometimes it’s hard to fathom.”
New images captured by the Event Horizon Telescope will help test basic predictions of Einstein’s general theory of relativity in the extreme-physics environment of black holes.
( ESO/O. Furtak )
Ten nights of staunch observation may have led astronomers to successfully peer inside a black hole and take an image of its event horizon, or its point of no return.
The mass of data collected is now on its way to two supercomputers in the United States and Germany to confirm in early 2018 if it is indeed the very first capture of the renowned gravitational sinkhole.
Black Hole Information Paradox
The ultimate goal for researchers was getting a picture of a region surrounding the black hole. This is the event horizon, or the boundary beyond which not even light can escape the object’s massive grasp.
Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity, born in 1915 and which details how gravity affects the cosmos, has the existence of extremely massive black holes as one of its first predictions.
“They are the ultimate endpoint of space and time, and may represent the ultimate limit of our knowledge,” said radio astronomer Heino Falcke of Radboud University in the Netherlands, adding that the first images will turn black holes from mythical things to concrete evidence that scientists can actually study.
Einstein’s theory notes that all the information crossing a black hole’s event horizon gets lost forever. Yet according to quantum mechanics, information can never be lost.
Back in the 1970s, astrophysicist Stephen Hawking found that black holes can disappear, and so information can be lost forever. The theoretical structure that quantum mechanics puts forward is therefore compromised if the particles’ information could indeed be lost in the black hole.
Event Horizon Telescope
All the scientific inquiry and ambition has led to the widely ambitious Event Horizon Telescope, an international collaboration linking eight observatories to create a virtual telescope dish as wide as Earth. While the method is nothing new, it is the first time that a project is done on a large scale.
The radio-dish network went to work on a 10-day window starting April 4, peering at two supermassive black holes: Sagittarius A*, lying at the core of the Milky Way and 4 million times as huge as our sun; and the Messier 87, a black hole in a neighboring galaxy some 53 million light-years away.
The telescope has investigated the vicinity of each of the monster black holes before, but this marks the first time the network comprised the South Pole telescope as well as the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) telescope located in Chile.
ALMA, for one, increases the Event Horizon Telescope’s acuity 10 times, allowing it to find something as tiny as a golf-sized object on the moon — and potentially the small event horizons of the black holes.
Hurdling The Weather And Months Of Waiting
The image returned is hoped to demonstrate the flow of material moving in and out of the black hole.
“What we expect to see is an asymmetric image where you have a circular dark region. That’s the black hole shadow,” MIT research scientist Vincent Fish told Newsweek, adding the presence of the photon ring or a spherical area of space where gravity is so potent that photons are forced to travel in orbits.
The weather proved to be a crucial factor in the mission as astronomers observe black holes in millimeter radio waves, which water absorbs as well as emits. This means precipitation could cloud the observations.
Mitigating this issue involves placing radio telescopes at high altitudes, although rain, clouds, or snow could still take the observatory offline. Even high-altitude winds could shut down a given telescope.
Thus Fish and his fellow scientists met every day to decide on when to activate the large network and assess weather conditions at every site. Constant weather monitoring and communication among astronomers were done.
The researchers have collected about one petabyte of data, which equates to MP3 songs playing continuously for more than 2,000 years without any repeats. Two research institutes, the MIT Haystack and the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Germany, are receiving the said data.
The telescopes’ recorded information is stored on 1,024 drives, which will be mailed to the research institutes’ processing centers. Hard drives coming from the South Pole telescope, too, cannot be sent out until the end of winter in the region, or by the end of October.
Despite the long wait and other external factors, the team remains optimistic. Falcke said that even if the images emerge as “crappy and washed out,” they can help test basic predictions of Einstein’s theory in the extreme-physics environment of a black hole.
Knowing the black hole’s mass and distance, explained Fish, means one should see the shadow and ring, and that the latter will have a specific diameter and will be quite circular.
“If the shape isn’t circular or the wrong size, then relativity has made a prediction that has failed,” he said.
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