January 28, 2017

Asimov’s Children - Robots in Space

When I was a child, we used to spend Durga Puja at the foot of the Ayodhya Hills, Purulia where one of the fascinations was to spot artificial satellites, with our naked eyes, as they darted through the stars across the night sky. This Deepawali, parked in the pristine gardens of the Tumsong Tea Retreat near the dreamy town of Ghoom, Darjeeling, I was looking forward to a similar sky show when a thought struck me. Chinese fireworks may be out of favour this year, but right above me in the sky, was Tiangong 2, the Chinese permanent space station where two Chinese taikonauts had just arrived for their month long tour of duty.

Living in space is tough and the technology necessary to make space habitable and safe for humans is very difficult and expensive to develop. Hence China’s Taikonauts@Tiangong is an impressive feat, but is it really necessary? Should India try to catch up? Or is there an alternate, inexpensive approach? The sci-fi stories of Isaac Asimov’s famous “positronic” robots, that assist man in exploring space, suggest an elegant solution.

picture credit roberlan
Given the degradation and deterioration of the terrestrial environment, it is but inevitable that humanity will eventually escape into the vastness of space. But with our current knowledge of physics and state of rocket technology, nearby stars in the galaxy are simply too far to reach in a single human lifespan. So our search for habitable places is restricted to four principal candidates in our solar system. Mars is a close cousin of Earth in terms of terrain but has a very thin atmosphere. Titan has a dense atmosphere of nitrogen and methane and since it rains methane it has huge hydrocarbon lakes. Both Enceladus and Europa have huge oceans of good, life-friendly liquid water and the latter has a thin oxygen atmosphere as well. All these are potential places where human can plan on setting up colonies but unfortunately none of them will natively support life as we know it on Earth. The limitations of our terrestrial biology makes us unfit to survive in almost every space location. Our fragile human bodies have to be covered in either space suits or we have to create closed habitats that mimic our Earth in terms of temperature and atmosphere. How can we create such habitats that are big enough for a sustainable human population?

Given the astronomical amounts, pun intended, of energy required to lift material against our gravity and propelling them across space, it is clearly infeasible to have these habitats built on Earth and transported to their destinations. We have to look for ways to build them at the destination using materials that are sourced locally. Moreover, using human labour for construction leads us to a chicken-and-egg situation because for humans to live and work safely on biologically hostile locations, the location has to be first made habitable. This is where robots can step in. But these need not be anthropomorphic or humanoid robots that we come across in popular imagination -- the ones with blinking eyes that can walk or dance on two legs. Instead, they would be the kind of industrial robots that are already in widespread use in many automated factories today.

The first kind of robot that we would need would be like Google’s autonomous vehicles that can navigate across the terrain either on wheels or on tracks. Alternatively they could be drones that fly through whatever atmosphere that is available or autonomous  submersibles that could explore the methane lakes on Titan or the ocean depths that lie under the ice sheets of Europa and Enceladus. These robots would be the pioneers, the pathfinders that will explore the terrain and search for locations where we may find the right kind of materials necessary for building the habitats..

The second kind of robots are the ones that can drill into, excavate, or otherwise collect material and transport them to a central fabrication location. Basically these would be advanced versions of current mining and material handling technology that is already in use or is being tried in autonomous mining operations in many countries today.

The third category of robots would be the kind that are used in automated factories to build or assemble components -- components of living quarters, of energy sources, of chemical plants,  of material transportation systems and of the factories themselves and its robots. In fact robots must build other, simpler robots. All this manufacturing would in turn have to be done using either traditional material forming processes to create desired shapes or with 3D printers that are modified to work with the kind of materials that are excavated at the site. The 3D printed concrete castle built by Andrey Rudenko is a step in this direction.

In fact, the technology for building these robots is well understood. But in space, they need modifications. First they need to operate under different environmental conditions -- low gravity, bitter, sub-zero temperatures and a very different chemical environment. Secondly they need to ensure compatibility and interoperability between available material, the process of its extraction, transportation, processing and subsequent assembly into products. But what is most important is reliability. On Earth, equipment can be repaired or replaced but in space that is not possible because that will take years. Since faults are inevitable, these robots must be built with redundancies and self healing capabilities without increasing the weight. That is the real challenge.

These robots would also require an astonishing level of artificial intelligence to be able to operate almost autonomously. Asimov had playfully referred to the robots having “positronic” brains to distinguish them from simple electronic circuits that were then popular. Today, when hyper-exponential growth of deep learning and cognitive computing technologies is about to make digital intelligence more powerful that biological intelligence, it is important that these technologies be integrated into the next generation of extraterrestrial robots.

While the difficulty, and expense, of building, transporting and deploying these robots is high, they are several orders of magnitude lesser than what would be encountered if we send human beings. This is because a human being would need, in addition to all this capability, its own complex life support system along with redundant backups to address the inevitable accidents and failures. We can write off the expenses of a robot -- a piece of machinery -- if things go wrong, but the moral hazards of allowing a crew member to die in space because of a technical fault are far higher. So eliminating a human crew and replacing them with a crew of autonomous robots will lead to a dramatic reduction in costs and hence an equally dramatic increase in the economic feasibility of any such project.

One of the lingering tragedies of the Apollo program, that successfully landed men on the moon six times between 1969 and 1972, was that while it demonstrated man’s ability to arrive, it failed to initiate the process of building habitats. In the forty five years since man last walked and worked on the moon, even if a single habitable lunar colony was built, we would have had acquired by now, the confidence for building habitats on Mars or Titan. Unfortunately, the focus then, and perhaps even today, is to be able to simply go there and claim bragging rights. What we also need is to focus on what to do once we are there. Unlike tourists ticking-off important tourist destinations, we should plan to be immigrants who create homesteads and economic assets that will not only ease pressure on Earth but also serve as stepping stones to other destinations.

Today, NASA, ESA, ISRO and private entrepreneurs like Musk,  Bezos and Team Indus are racing each other to build the technology to travel into deep space. This technology is based on the efficient conversion of energy and smart control of very complex systems. There is no doubt that this is absolutely necessary if mankind has to liberate itself from an Earthbound existence and become a space faring species. But we also need another set of entrepreneurs who will focus on the complementary technology necessary to create a non-human construction crew that builds habitats. This technology will be based on robotics hardware that is controlled by artificial intelligence (AI) software --  the technology of autonomous robots. Team Indus is perhaps the only company in India that plans to go to the Moon by 2018 as part of the Google X-Prize competition and it would be nice if many more Indian companies were to create robots that ride on their craft and carry out mining and fabrication experiments on the Moon.

Fortunately, terrestrial business opportunities have created a big market for robotics and AI and today, instead of teaching machines how to perform tasks, we teach them to learn on their own how to perform these tasks. We need to adapt these technologies for use in space. That will be the grand realisation of Asimov’s fictional robots and a gigantic step for man’s journey towards the stars.


This is the third and last part of a 3-post series on Man in Space. The two previous posts are (1) Engineering India for the Space Age and (b) Habitats in Space - Our Second Home

This article originally appeared in Swarajya, the magazine that reads India Right

January 22, 2017

Donald Trump -- why am I not perturbed?

I just read in the newspapers that Donald Trump has been sworn in as 45th President of the United States and so the world is about to come to an end. It is the end of globalisation and the beginning of new protectionist order where the new mantra is buy American and hire American. It is the end of liberal democracy and the beginning of a new Putin-style illiberal autocracy. Francis Fukuyama and his thesis of "end of history" is now history -- "communist" USSR, in its new avatar of plutocratic Russia has eventually triumphed over the Anglo American vision of a new world order.

image footwearnews
But should all this matter to me? Obviously it does, as otherwise why am I commenting on Trump's inauguration? Trump is now the key person in the world's richest and most powerful nation and he certainly has the capacity to both help and hurt me -- or rather my interests. My interests are of course related to Calcutta, India and of late, and still rather tangentially, to the United States. So let me how Trump stacks up in my perception.

To begin with I really cannot quarrel with his philosophy of --  Buy American and Hire American. If I was in his place, or if I was the Prime Minister of India I would have said something identical. I need to look after the people near me, around me and most importantly those who have elected me and so I cannot criticize him if he does exactly the same.

One of the claims of globalisation was that it was a win-win for all parties but this far from true. By exporting good or services from region A to B, we make A richer and B poorer. Win-win is possible if there is a bilateral flow of goods and services. A one way flow of goods, as is the case from China to the US ( and also to India) cannot be a win-win however much we twist and turn our words. Its a win for China and a loss for the other. Similarly, one way loss of jobs from the US to India cannot be win-win. It is a win for India and loss of the US. A win-win is possible if there is a balance in the value that flows across the border in both directions.

As long as the US economy was big enough, when it was far, far bigger than, say, China, India, it could tolerate a loss -- or haemorrhage --  of jobs and wealth across its border but, as anyone who has solved the "water flowing out of tank" series of  problems in Jadav Chandra Chakraverty's classic book on arithmetic would know, there will come a time when the tank will run dry and not all the wishy washy theory on the win-win of globalisation will work. Let us admit it, the globalisation that we have had so far was never really a win-win game, its a zero-sum game. Someone wins and someone loses. As long as Americans were rich enough, they could talk big about globalisation and all that, while we, the poor in India would never allow imports of good and services because we had to save our precious "foreign exchange". But now that the US has been bled dry  -- well you can always debate on how dry or poor the US -- it is impossible for them to be as generous as they once were. Let us face, when push comes to shove, everybody looks after his or her own interest.  So is the case with Donald Trump. [ update ] Wonder how many of us in India would cheer if people from Bangladesh were allowed to come in and start working in our shops and establishments at lower wages?

Now let me see the Trump phenomenon from my narrow, selfish perspective of being an Indian, living in India and being a beneficiary of a buoyant Indian economy. What does the US buy from India? I looked at 2012 data and found that the US accounts for only 25% India's export of US$ 142 billion which again would be around 10% of India's  2012 GDP of US$ 1800 trillion. So if the US stops buying anything from India -- and this is  highly unlikely -- the impact is about 2.5% of India's GDP. Now let us see from the other side and estimate the possibility of the US stopping all imports from India? My data shows that India accounts for only 2% of all US imports! China accounts for 22% of all US imports, while Mexico and Canada accounts for 13% each and so any hostile action towards exporting countries would first be directed towards these three. India's 2% is quite safe and so is our 2.5% of the GDP that finds its way to the US!

So if Trump starts to restrict imports, the one to get hurt the most is China, who of course is no friend of India and so what hurts a non-friend, is of little concern to me.

Now let me turn to "Hire American" part of his agenda and as we all know that this can only impact our H1B "IT professionals" who are in the US. India's IT industry -- of which I have been a participant -- is worth US$ 147billion in 2015, out of a GDP of  about US$ 2000 billion. Of this US$ 100 billion is exports mainly to the US. This is about 5% of the GDP. A lot of this, US$100 billion is in the form of offshore delivery that does not need H1B visas and is delivered digitally out of India. The total number of H1B visa holders in the US is about 800,000 in 2013 and about 65,000 visas are issued every year. Assuming that 65% H1B visa holders are from India this would be only 18% of the 3 million people who are directly employed by the IT industry in India. So assuming that all Indians with H1B visas are booted out of the US, the loss is capped to 18% of the IT industry which in turn is about 5% ( US$ 100B / US$ 2000B) of India's GDP. That is an impact of about 1% assuming -- rather ominously -- that all H1B visa holders from India lose their  jobs and all Indian IT professionals are working on US project. In reality, the impact will be far less, because with at worst, new visas will may not be issued or renewed.

In fact, the threat to the IT industry is not so much from Trump's H1B policies but from automation of services and the reduction in the number of people required to deliver IT services. Most of our IT professionals are rather low end "techies" often referred to as cyber-coolies who have joined the profession, not because of any love or aptitude for the trade but because of the easy money to be made there. As automation eliminates many other blue-collared jobs, so too will these jobs gets eliminated and Trump has no role in that. In fact, if the IT industry in India has to survive, it has to wean itself from the labour arbitrage model of delivering inexpensive services and move into the high end of high value products -- but that is another story that has already been explored, ad nauseum, by many others.

Now that fear of the "Buy from America and Hire from America" is behind us, let us look at the other "grotesque" aspects of the Trump presidency!

We are told that he has no respect for women and is hostile to the LGBT community. Condemnable as that may be, our politicians in India are no better and if we can live with them right here in India, I am sure we can live with Trump and his misogynism in distant America. It is up to the American citizen and the American electorate to deal with him as they think fit. Just as I do not want Americans to interfere with our caste, religious and social issues, I have no interest in getting entangled with their affairs. We have enough problems here of our own making right here. In fact I only hope that unlike Barack Hussein Obama he does not instigate a hypocritical firestorm around the fake issue of "intolerance" in India -- on the instructions of the India's secular enemies.

Which brings us to his attitude towards minorities or to put it rather bluntly towards political Islam.

Hillary Clinton was in the pay of her Saudi Arabian paymasters, which is why she and Obama encouraged the rise of ISIS to counter the Iranian influence in the Middle East in general and Iraq and Syria in particular. The Great Game in the Middle East today is that the new Russia, under Putin, is trying to muscle into traditional Anglo-American turf, from Ukraine to Syria and in this they are opposed by the Saudi led Sunnis and hence assisted by the Iran led Shia. In this Great Game, Clinton was firmly in the Saudi - Sunni camp, hence opposed to the Iran - Shias, and so Russia's Putin threw in his weight behind Donald Trump so that he would win and support, or at least not oppose, Putin's grandiose plans in the Middle East.

How does that impact India?

India is in the crosshairs of political Islam with Ghazwa-i-Hind being a long sought political goal of both the Sunni and the Shia factions, neither of whom have any love lost for the Indic way of life and its inclusive philosophy. However, in the near term, Wahabbi Sunni Islam, funded by Saudi Arabia and provisioned by Pakistan is the more potent and dangerous threat both for India and the world. Hence, the Saudi-funded, Saudi-affiliated Hillary Clinton would have been an utter disaster.

But is Trump a friend of India and of Indic civilisation? Unlikely. His first interest is in himself and then his in cronies. Fortunately he and and his cronies are now allied against political Sunni Islam -- and as long as he remains so, their interests would be aligned to mine and ours.

Finally, Trump is supposed to be illiberal or anti-liberal. Unfortunately, the whole concept of being "liberal", of being "tolerant" of others and of "agreeing to differ" has disappeared. Violent intolerance is the new normal. For example, political Islam does not seek dialogue, only dominance. So if you are tolerant and liberal you are considered weak and liable to be hurt if not actually exterminated. In effect, you can be tolerant only if  you tolerate intolerance and if  you do so you would be eliminated along with your tolerant beliefs. So  you can be liberal and tolerant if and only if you have a death wish! As I have explained in my blog post, and in Swarajya, the Second Law of Thermodynamics tells us that we will inexorably move towards more and more chaos, not just in the world of physics but also in society.

In all this rise of violent intolerance, Trump is neither here, nor there. He is just another milestone in the long march to chaos. So what is there to be unduly alarmed by his ascendancy?

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