Something a little bit different today for this week’s blog.
I was watching ‘stargazing’ live the other day where a scientist man was talking through the technology of the new ‘Gaia’ telescope/satellite that will be imaging our galaxy to the highest level of detail yet, enabling us to ‘build up’ a 3D model when it is done. (Check out the website for the science stuff: http://sci.esa.int/gaia/). This also reminded me of a Brian Cox lecture where he said that we are actually able to find the composition of celestial bodies by monitoring the returned light to our sensors (that carry back a kind of ‘signature’ that allows us to know what the light particles been in contact with?!)… it’s all baffling and very exciting.
That got me thinking, as I am prone to do, about the future. A future where we are far more advanced at imaging and representing our Universe than we are able to reach it in physical space. Also a future where our (resurging) interest in immersion video games and entertainment (virtual reality and suchlike) has continued apace.
So, as a new premise that I may or may not run with to write some new Sci-Fi stories (or one big story – or a script), I projected these thoughts a few hundred years or so into the future, and wrote a speech introducing a concept in which to base a world. This is a good exercise for science fiction which is so often based around a technological premise. In this instance, however, I thought I would share this very early stage of writing with you, and see what you think. Cheers.
Transcript of speech by Dr. Raelan W. Krueger (NASA Head Administrator)
Introducing ‘The Great Connection’ project.
“For time immemorial we have been looking to the stars, to distant galaxies, to the very edges of our known Universe. Like a captain with his telescope, looking out ahead for new lands, we have developed the most amazing techniques to observe our Universe in exquisite detail. Where once we saw planets as simple dips in light as they passed by their suns, we can now see the mountains, see the rocks, see the particles of dust as they settle on extraterrestrial plains. With our network of telescopes and sensors we have built a moving picture of our world, far beyond our reach, but within our sights.
Unlike the Captain who spies land, however, we cannot sail our ships to these places. While we have excelled in our ability to observe, we have barely travelled beyond our own solar system, restricted by laws of nature that we currently cannot bend or break. This leaves us with a question: “If we cannot travel to the places we can see, how do we explore them?”
Before now, two answers were posited. Firstly the pessimist would say, “we will never explore them – it is beyond us”, whereas the optimist would say “we will break through the physical restrictions one day, we will make it.” While I favour the optimist, that mantra has persisted for generations, and yet the breakthrough never comes. Today, I propose a third option. If we can’t travel to the farthest reaches of the observable Universe, we will bring the Universe to us.
The data we reap, in real time, from our satellite and imaging network is vast. Our computers can store and analyse this data, but they cannot induce from it, they cannot marvel at it, they cannot explore in the way that you and I would understand that to mean. What computers do, very well, is represent precisely and follow instructions – instructions that until now were usually relayed via very dry, impersonal methods: symbols on a screen and complicated patterns of data that only a trained observer could comprehend with a degree of difficulty. While we are finding more and more potential signs of life in the Universe, we are pouring over them in such minute detail it could take us another thousand years to realise they are insignificant, while just over there, where the computer didn’t think to look, in the corner of the eye, are the answers we have been searching for.
Alongside the advancement in how we observe our outward universe, so too have we developed how we immerse ourselves in simulation. From the less invasive virtual experience centres, to the sensory direct link systems that we now find in almost every living-room, we have been stepping into our fantasy and fiction worlds for a generation now. At first we were scared, sceptical of this new level of interaction between us and technology. Game players loved it, parents loathed it, but one way or the other we all came to accept it as the value offered for education and expression far outweighed our reservations.
And so now we are drawing a line between dots that were already in place. We have developed a method whereby we can now relay the data into an incredibly detailed and accurate simulated model that can be explored via the same technology used for immersion entertainment. Teams of explorers, of simunaughts, can now enter and explore the landscapes of a changing Universe.
But we need your help. You may already be familiar with the concept of citizen science. It is a technique we have used for centuries to sift through and classify large quantities of data in the way that only we humans can. Typically it involves experts compiling and making available a database for the general public to either interrogate or contribute towards, helping to identify and flag points of interest for further scrutiny by specialists. Some of the earliest examples around the 20th Century were for spotting birds or surveying the insects living in and around our homes. This potential was expanded so that rather than just logging our own observations, we could help to classify the findings of others. In this way, people from across the world came together to help the scientists of the 21st century and beyond to survey the ocean beds, unlock DNA sequences, and yes, even explore the stars.
So what’s different about this project to what has gone before? Three things: scale, immersion and potential. We’re not going to be looking at stills on a view screen here. We need you to plug in and move around. Our galaxy alone has 100 billion stars. Each of those stars probably has a planetary system. Each of those planets may have moons. Currently, we have the data available for over a million galaxies – a figure that is increasing daily.
The task is vast. One hundred billion stars in our galaxy alone, it sounds inconceivably big, but then that is just two star systems for each person living on this planet today. If we could get everyone on the earth to spend just a little time connected, we could have the milky way mapped in a month. Of course, we don’t expect everyone will want to help, and access to the required technology is not universal. But if every user of immersion entertainment were to plug in for just a fraction of the time they already spend in worlds of fiction, and contribute to the world of fact, we could make great strides, very quickly.
So what happens when you plug in? Firstly you will be asked to form or join a team of other simunaughts, because together we are better. Each of the teams who enter the simulation will be assigned a ship of sorts, a kind of virtual vessel that will help induce the feeling of exploration as you investigate uncharted worlds assigned to you by our mission computers. You will land and walk on these moons and planets, traverse through a resolution that can only be described as near-reality, almost indistinguishable from the real thing. If you find anything of interest, assisted by an array of simulated vehicles and equipment, you will flag this for further study. Back in the real world more resources will be trained on your marked locations, increasing fidelity and detail even further in the simulated landscapes.
We’re not talking about gathering rock samples here, we’re talking about finding the extraordinary. The possibilities are as endless as there are stars in the Universe. Imagine finding a planet with golden mountains, volcanoes of diamonds and clouds of fire. Imagine finding forests and seas teeming with alien life, or even finding the planet that brings us our first signs of highly intelligent life. Great cities in the stars. It is all possible.
What we do, is what no computer can yet achieve: think creatively and move impulsively towards discovery. No computer has yet spotted something out of the corner of its eye, no computer has had a thought of its own, and we will harness this unique gift of ours to our advantage. Human kind will become an explorer of worlds, without having even left our own.
So I endorse to you, I commend your support and raise my hand in contemplation to the stars that are now in our grasp, and I ask you to sign up, log in and join me in ‘The Great Connection’.”