Leaked Documents Show How Facebook Controls Speech Across the Globe

Leaked documents showing how Facebook controls speech online raise deep questions about the future of the company's role in international discourse.

Unfriended

Documents obtained by the New York Times show how the social giant’s international content moderation strategy is dictated by thousands of pages of PowerPoint presentations and spreadsheets that “sometimes clumsily” tell thousands of moderators what to allow and what to delete. The revelation raises deep questions about the future of Facebook’s role in international discourse — especially in the wake of damaging revelations about how the platform allowed propaganda during the 2016 U.S. presidential elections.

“Facebook’s role has become so hegemonic, so monopolistic, that it has become a force unto itself,” political scientist Jasmin Mujanovic told the Times. “No one entity, especially not a for-profit venture like Facebook, should have that kind of power to influence public debate and policy.”

It’s Complicated

Facebook moderators who spoke to the Times under condition of anonymity said they felt hamstrung by the extraordinarily complex rule set, which forces them to make rapid decisions, sometimes using Google Translate, about fraught topics including terrorism and sectarian violence.

“You feel like you killed someone by not acting,” said a moderator who spoke to the paper on condition of anonymity.

The result, according to the Times, is that Facebook has become a “far more powerful arbiter of global speech than has been publicly recognized or acknowledged by the company itself.”

“A Lot of Mistakes”

Facebook executives pushed back against the implication that its content moderation efforts were murky or disorganized, arguing that the platform has a responsibility to moderate the content its users post and defending its efforts to do so.

“We have billions of posts every day, we’re identifying more and more potential violations using our technical systems,” Facebook’s head of global policy management Monika Bickert told the Times. “At that scale, even if you’re 99 percent accurate, you’re going to have a lot of mistakes.”

READ MORE: Inside Facebook’s Secret Rulebook for Global Political Speech [The New York Times]

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Gov Shutdown Means 95 Percent of NASA Employees Aren’t At Work

The ongoing government shutdown means that 95 percent of NASA's workforce is home on furlough during New Horizons' historic flyby.

Get Furlough

When NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft soars by the space rock Ultima Thule on New Years Eve, it will be the most distant object humankind has ever explored.

Though you’ll be able to stream the historic flyby on the YouTube channel of Johns Hopkins Univerisity’s Applied Physics Laboratory, the event — which is arguably the most awe-inspiring item of space news all year — won’t be available on NASA TV, which typically offers extensive commentary and access to subject matter experts regarding the space agency’s projects. The reason: the ongoing government shutdown means that 95 percent of NASA’s workforce is home on furlough.

“Act of Ineptitude”

NASA employees are disgusted by the legislative dysfunction that’s keeping all but the most mission-critical workers home during the historic flyby, according to the Houston Chronicle — and their ire is reportedly focused on politicians who have allowed the science agency’s work to grind to a halt.

“We have not heard from a single member who supports the president’s inaction,” said the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, a union that represents federal workers, in a statement quoted by the paper. “Most view this as an act of ineptitude.”

Heat Death

The Chronicle also pointed to a post by Casey Dreier, a senior space policy adviser to the nonprofit scientific advocacy organization The Planetary Society, that chastised leaders for failing the nation’s scientific workers — and worried that the political brinkmanship of a shutdown could lead talented workers away from government work entirely, altering the dynamics of space exploration.

“I fear that we will see more and more NASA employees ask themselves why they put up with such needless disruptions and leave for jobs the private sector,” Dreier wrote. “We know that NASA can get back to work, but how long will the best and the brightest want to work at an agency that continues to get callously tossed into political churn?”

READ MORE: NASA, other federal workers not as supportive of government shutdown as Trump claims, union rep says [Houston Chronicle]

More on government shutdowns and space travel: Government Shutdown Hampers SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy Testing

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Demand for Combustion Engine Cars May Have Peaked in 2018

combustion engine

No Sale

The reign of the fossil fuel-powered car may be ending.

In a report published on Sunday, several experts told the Financial Times that they believe sales of fossil fuel-powered internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles peaked in 2018, meaning that it’s unlikely that more ICE cars will be sold in any future year— and if they’re correct, this epochal change in the auto industry could majorly benefit the environment.

Going Down

Many experts predicted at the beginning of 2018 that demand for ICE vehicles wouldn’t peak until 2022 at the earliest, according to the FT report. But a combination of several factors — including Brexit, the U.S.-China trade war, and new emissions targets in Europe — has dealt a major blow to global car sales this year.

“When you look at 2018 since the summer, new car sales in all of the important markets are going down,” Axel Schmidt, global automotive lead at Accenture, told FT. “Selling combustion engine cars to customers — this will not grow in the future.”

Even if overall car sales increase in 2019, ICE sales would likely fall thanks to the continued adoption of electric vehicles (EVs).

Road to Recovery

This might not be what ICEcar manufacturers want to hear, but it’s excellent news for the environment.

According to energy research group Wood Mackenzie, a mid-sized EV produces 67 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions than a comparable gasoline-powered ICE vehicle. That figure doesn’t just take into account the emissions produced while the car is in use, either — it includes emissions caused by everything from electricity generation to crude oil refinement.

In 2016, transportation was the primary source of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., so if EVs continue to replace ICE cars in this nation and others, the world could significantly cut down on the climate-destroying emissions emanating from its roadways.

READ MORE: Combustion Engine Car Sales to Hit Peak Demand in 2018, Say Analysts [Financial Times]

More on ICE cars: These 7 Countries Want to Say Goodbye to Fossil Fuel-Based Cars

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Scientist Who Gene Edited Babies Is Being Held By Mysterious Guards

Ball and chain.

Spotted

After Chinese scientist He Jiankui shocked the scientific community by announcing last month that he had edited the genes of human babies, he mysteriously vanished.

And now he’s been found. The New York Times reports that guards are holding He in a guesthouse at his university, the Southern University of Science and Technology. It’s unclear whether the guards work for the Chinese government, the university, or another organization — but their presence is the latest sign that He’s transgressive research upset the delicate balance of the genetics research community and regulatory systems, prompting retaliation from powerful interests.

Plainclothes Guards

The Chinese government condemned He’s work after he announced it, launching an investigation and banning him from continuing his research. What was unclear, however, was whether He’s disappearance was a result of him laying low or being held somewhere.

Now the Times has found that He is staying at a university guesthouse normally used to house visiting scholars, where a dozen plainclothes guards refused to identify themselves to a Times reporter. He is able to communicate over email and phone calls, according to the Times, and has corresponded with business colleagues.

“He was extremely irresponsible to the employees, partners and investors,” said Liu Chaoyu, with whom He co-founded the gene-testing company Vienomics, in an interview with the Times. Liu last saw He the day before the conference at which he disclosed the existence of the gene-edited babies. “He did not discuss anything with us before he made his announcement and we had to deal with all of it unexpectedly.”

Shock and Awe

The university and Shenzhen police both declined to comment to the Times. In fact, all employees of the university have been barred from speaking to the press, according to a message obtained by the paper.

What’s clear is that He’s unprecedented work sent shockwaves not just through the research ecosystem but through the powerful machinery of international government — and as the saga of his treatment in the wake of the announcement unfolds, it could be a roadmap to the challenges other researchers would face if they follow in his footsteps.

READ MORE: Chinese Scientist Who Claimed to Make Genetically Edited Babies Is Kept Under Guard [The New York Times]

More on He Jiankui: Chinese Scientists Claim to Have Gene-Edited Human Babies For the First Time

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Scientist Who Gene Edited Babies Is Being Held By Mysterious Guards

Washington May Become the First State to Legalize Human Composting

Washington State may be set to become the first state to allow human composting

Death Reimagined

Grandma is in the garden. No, literally.

There’s something beautiful in deciding how one’s final moments should be confined to the memory of our loved ones. Advances in technology and changing mindsets seem to have people wondering why a coffin in the ground should have to be the only option of final resting place. Residents in Washington state have a brand new vision of returning to the Earth. Now a bill being sponsored in the state’s legislature could see Washington become the first state to legalize human composting.

A Tree of Me

The bill, backed by state Senator Jamie Pedersen, would allow for the “recomposition” of human remains, a process which speeds up decomposition and turns remains into a nutrient-packed soil which could be returned to families.

“People from all over the state who wrote to me are very excited about the prospect of becoming a tree or having a different alternative for themselves,” Pedersen told NBCnews.

Although “becoming a tree” and other futuristic burial ideas aren’t entirely new concepts, Washington would become the first state to allow human composting if the bill is passed. The idea isn’t just futuristic, it’s also economical. More and more Americans are turning to crowdfunding to support funeral costs, with the average funeral costing more than $7,000 in 2017, according to the National Funeral Directors Association. The recomposition process in comparison is somewhat cheaper with costs expected to fall around $5,500.

Safety First

The process is very similar to traditional composting. Unembalmed human remains are placed in a composting chamber and left to decompose with organic material like woodchips or straw. Air is occasionally pulled into the chamber to help microbes speed up decomposition and in about one month all that remains is a cubic yard of compost.

A five-month study, in which six donor bodies were decomposed, was led by researcher Lynne Carpenter-Boggs, Associate Professor of Sustainable and Organic Agriculture at Washington State. The study was carefully controlled to prevent spreading any harmful pathogens, a concern which led to the defeat of a similar bill sponsored by Pederson in 2017.

Carpenter-Boggs’ study concluded in August that the remains produced were safe and she plans to submit her research for publication in 2019. If the bill passes, it would take effect May 1, 2020. Until then, we can keep dreaming of “becoming trees” but Pederson’s bill could open doors to new burial alternatives and ways we can choose to have our memory honored.

READ MORE: Washington could become the first state to legalize human composting [NBCNews]

More on Burial Alternatives: 7 Futuristic Things To Do With Your Body When You Die

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Washington May Become the First State to Legalize Human Composting

NASA Clears “Dream Chaser” Space Cargo Plane For Full-Scale Production

Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Dream Chaser cargo spacecraft has been cleared by NASA for full-scale production

Space Plane

Watch out space, there’s a new commercial cargo carrier entering the race.

Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) has been given the go ahead from NASA to begin full-scale production of it’s “Dream Chaser” commercial space cargo plane. Scheduled to make its first mission in 2020, the company announced on December 18 that it had cleared the last milestone in its Commercial Resupply Services 2 contract. Now the company is able to move ahead with the full-scale production of the carrier which will be used to deliver cargo to the International Space Station (ISS).

T-minus 2 Years

The Dream Chaser was originally conceptualized for NASA’s commercial crew program but ultimately sidelined by NASA in favor of designs from Boeing and SpaceX. A redesigned version of the original Dream Chaser, the cargo version includes fold-able wings and is capable of carrying 5,500 kilograms (approximately 12125 lbs) of cargo to the International Space Station and return 1,850 kilograms (approximately 4078 lbs) to Earth in a runway landing.

SNC was one of three companies, alongside SpaceX and Orbital ATK (now Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems), to receive a commercial cargo contract from NASA in 2016. The contract guarantees each corporation at least six missions to the ISS.

Various components of the full-scale Dream Chaser have already been produced and tested. At a conference last October, Steve Lindsey, Steve Lindsey, Vice President for Space Exploration Systems at SNC said he expected to be “the majority of the way through” assembly and testing of the first Dream Chaser by next October.

Commercial Space Race

High launch costs are one of the most limiting factors in commercial space operations. Increased competition between corporations is helping to reduce the cost of launches opening new doors for smaller companies.

“When those launch vehicle prices come down — which, by the way, is about 80 percent of our costs on every mission we fly — that opens up the commercial market,” said Lindsey. As both competition and innovation increase, companies will face new pressure to stake their claim among the stars.

READ MORE: Private Dream Chaser Space Plane Cleared to Begin Full-Scale Production [Space]

More on Dream Chaser: United Nations Set To Launch Its First Ever Space Mission for 2021 

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Edible Coating Can Keep Food Fresh Longer and Cut Down on Waste

A new FDA-approved food coating can double a vegetable's shelf life. It may help reduce the $2 trillion cost and carbon emissions of food waste.

Greenhouse Gas

People waste a lot of food. In America alone, the National Resources Defense Council estimates that as much as 40 percent of the food people buy ends up in the trash, not to mention the perfectly-good food that never leaves the grocery store or even the farm.

The United Nations estimates that the world wastes 30 percent of all produced food, the total cost of which adds up to about $2.6 trillion. But the problem is bigger than an embarrassing misstep in your weekly budget — the methane emissions of all that rotting food are worse for the climate than if we had simply thrown that cash into the incinerator.

Slap a Fresh Coat on it

Since people struggle to avoid wasting all that food and the market for unsightly-but-good vegetables still isn’t there, a Californian startup called Apeel Sciences developed a thin, transparent, edible coating that can keep food fresh much longer than normal, according to CNBC.

The coating, Epideel, preserves food by preventing the two main causes of spoilage. Acting as a physical barrier, Epideel blocks the water in the food from evaporating away and also blocks atmospheric oxygen from reacting with the food. Reportedly, the coating can double the shelf life of notoriously finicky foods like avocados.

Big Strides

Epideel, which is made up of fats and other compounds taken from fruits and vegetables, was designed in accordance with “Generally Recognized as Safe” U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulations that allowed Apeel Sciences to circumvent the FDA’s normal approval process. Epideel-coated avocados are already on the shelves of grocery chains Kroger, Costco, and Harps Food.

Part of that success likely comes from the involvement of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which donated a sizable portion of the $110 million that Apeel Sciences has raised since its start back in 2012. The company has already found its way to CNBC‘s 2018 list of the top 50 disruptors, which highlights how CEO James Rogers hopes Epideel-coated foods can help feed the world’s hungry.

READ MORE: This Bill Gates-backed start-up is fighting world hunger by making your avocados last longer [CNBC]

More on food waste: Reducing Food Waste in Creative Ways Could Help the World’s Hunger Problem

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Edible Coating Can Keep Food Fresh Longer and Cut Down on Waste

Bill Gates: U.S. Leaders Must Embrace Nuclear Energy

Gates nuclear energy

Power Play

Think your New Year’s resolution to hit the gym is daunting? Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates wants to change an entire nation’s energy policy in 2019.

On Saturday, the billionaire philanthropist released a letter detailing what he learned in 2018 and what he hopes to accomplish in 2019. One of his goals for the next year is to persuade U.S. leaders to “get into the game” of advanced nuclear energy — and the future of our environment could be riding on his success.

Nuclear Option

Nuclear energy is produced by splitting the nucleus of an atom (fission) or combining the nuclei of two atoms (fusion). Nuclear fission reactors already meet 20 percent of the U.S.’s electricity needs. But while fission doesn’t produce greenhouse gas emissions, the technology is currently less than ideal — the U.S. built most of its reactors more than 30 years ago, and they require plutonium, which isn’t exactly easily accessible. The process also produces unwanted byproducts, some of which are radioactive.

Researchers have yet to figure out a way to produce stable nuclear fusion, but they’re getting closer. If — or, hopefully, when — they do succeed, we’ll have a near-limitless source of clean energy that we can create from hydrogen, which is far more accessible than plutonium, and the only byproduct would be a small amount of helium.

Worthy Investment

According to Gates, “Nuclear is ideal for dealing with climate change, because it is the only carbon-free, scalable energy source that’s available 24 hours a day.”

But the U.S. has been slacking off in terms of nuclear energy research in recent decades. To regain its position as a global nuclear energy leader it needs to “commit new funding, update regulations, and show investors that it’s serious,” wrote Gates.

He believes this renewed commitment will allow the nation to overcome the limitations of existing nuclear technology in a way that could significantly benefit the environment.

“The United States is uniquely suited to create these advances with its world-class scientists, entrepreneurs, and investment capital,” Gates wrote, later adding that the “world needs to be working on lots of solutions to stop climate change. Advanced nuclear is one, and I hope to persuade U.S. leaders to get into the game.”

READ MORE: As China Option Fades, Bill Gates Urges U.S. To Take the Lead in Nuclear Power, for the Good of the Planet [GeekWire]

More on nuclear energy: Nuclear Power Used to Seem Like the Future. Now Its Fate in the US Is in Question.

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Bill Gates: U.S. Leaders Must Embrace Nuclear Energy

The EU Is Banning Almost All Coal Mining on Jan 1

Come January 1, all unprofitable coal mines in the European Union will be shut down. In Spain, that means 26 new closures.

No More Handouts

Every unprofitable coal mine in the European Union must cease production by the first day of 2019, the date on which all public funds for the mines will come to an end. In Spain, that means that 26 coal mines are about to close up shop, according to Reuters.

This move away from coal is a refreshing bit of bluntness — letting the failed remnants of a fossil fuel industry fade away — compared to how the federal government in the U.S. is grasping at anything to keep coal alive. But it remains to be seen how much of an impact the coal closures will have in the ongoing effort to curb climate change.

Always a Bigger Fish

The deadline was set back in 2010 as the EU sought to move away from fossil fuel dependence, according to Telesur. The EU wanted to end public aid to coal mines sooner, but groups from Germany — which shuttered its last coal mine earlier this month — and Spain are responsible for extending the deadline all the way to the end of 2018.

Spain has already decreased the portion of its electricity generated by coal down to about 14 percent, according to United Press International. And 90 percent of the coal burned in Spain is imported from Russia and Colombia anyway.

Still, the deal that Spain struck with the EU dictates that nine of the 15 coal-burning plants in Spain must close by 2020, according to Telesur. That on its own is huge news for the transition to cleaner power, and marks a clear sign that major world powers are taking their responsibility to help prevent our impending climate change catastrophe seriously.

Think Ahead

Once again in stark contrast to the U.S., where coal miners in Appalachia face a weak job market with few prospects, Spain’s socialist government — largely supported by coal mining communities — made a deal with mining union in October to ensure that displaced workers will be taken care of, according to Reuters.

About 60 percent of the people who worked in closing mines are expected to take advantage of an early retirement offer, while others have access to the 250 million euros that the government is making available to help launch new businesses or repurpose the land around the coal mines.

READ MORE: Spanish coal miners work last shifts before mines shuttered [Reuters]

More on coal: More Than 40 Percent of the World’s Coal Plants Lose Money

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The EU Is Banning Almost All Coal Mining on Jan 1

Foreign Cyberattack Cripples Major U.S. Newspapers

A cyberattack targeting the printing presses of several newspapers, delaying their delivery this weekend, appears to have originate from outside the U.S.

Late Delivery

This weekend, several of the most widely circulated newspapers in the United States found themselves the target of a cyberattack that reportedly originated on foreign soil.

Many questions about the attack remain unanswered, but one thing is certain: the media is under attack — and if something isn’t done to protect it, we could be headed toward a future in which we can’t believe anything we read.

Stop the Presses

The malware attack targeted newspaper printing plants run by The Los Angeles Times and Tribune Publishing, which owned The Los Angeles Times from April 2007 until June 2018 (and which, in a much-lampooned episode, briefly changed its name to Tronc in 2016.)

The malware prevented editors from transmitting pages of the papers to printing presses, and it delayed the scheduled printing and delivery of the Saturday editions of several newspapers, including The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.

Nobody is sure of the source of the attack, but several people with inside knowledge of Tribune told The Los Angeles Times that the attack appeared to be Ryuk ransomware. Experts have linked this software to groups in North Korea and Eastern Europe, but for now, all The Los Angeles Times has confirmed is that the attack appears to have originated from outside the U.S.

Media Under Attack

As the name implies, ransomware attacks are typically financially motivated — attackers disrupt a company’s operations and demand a ransom to end the disruption — but neither Tribune Publishing nor The Los Angeles Times has reported any ransom demand. An anonymous source told The Los Angeles Times that the attackers didn’t appear to steal any information either.

That means a likely motivation behind the attack was preventing newspaper readers from getting their news — and that is highly troubling.

Just this month, the majority of Americans admitted for the first time that they prefer to get their news from social media platforms than from traditional print newspapers. While the latter sources are held to journalistic standards that place a premium on fact-checking and context, the former are notoriously rife with misinformation and bias.

If foreign actors are able to further cripple the U.S.’s already vulnerable newspaper industry by literally preventing the printing of newspapers, the “fake news” that dominates our social media feeds could one day overshadow the real news — and we’ve already gotten a glimpse of the disturbing impact that can have on a democracy.

READ MORE: Malware Attack Disrupts Delivery of L.A. Times and Tribune Papers Across the U.S. [The Los Angeles Times]

More on newspapers: For News, Americans Now Officially Prefer Social Media to Newspapers

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Foreign Cyberattack Cripples Major U.S. Newspapers

Tiny Robots That Repair Pipes Could Eliminate Road Work

The U.K. is investing millions of dollars into the development of micro-robots capable of navigating and repairing underground pipes.

Micro-Robots

The road workers of the future could be smaller. And a lot less human.

On Monday, the United Kingdom’s Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy announced an $8.9 million investment into a project to develop micro-robots capable of inspecting and repairing the nation’s network of underground pipes.

If successful, the project could save the country billions of dollars annually — and change how road work gets done across the globe.

Pipe Dream

According to a government press release, a team of researchers from four U.K. universities will work together to develop the micro-robots, which will each be approximately just one-centimeter long. The goal is for these bots to fly, swim, or crawl through the pipes that transport water, gas, and sewage beneath U.K. streets.

One of the researchers working on the project, the University of Sheffield’s Kirill Horoshenkov, told The Daily Telegraph that the team plans to develop two versions of the robots.

One will be an “inspection bot” that can autonomously navigate and examine the pipes using sonar technology. The other will be a “worker bot” capable of repairing pipes using cement and adhesives or cleaning them with a high-powered jet. That robot will be slightly larger and steered via remote control.

According to Horoshenkov, the bots could be ready for use within five years.

Down the Road

Each year, 1.5 million road excavations take place in the U.K., and the traffic closures and business disruptions caused by this roadwork cost the nation an estimated $6.3 billion.

That means if this $8.9 million investment in the development of micro-robots pans out the way the U.K. is hoping, it’ll soon pay for itself many times over. There’s also the possibility of other nations adopting the same or similar tech after witnessing the U.K.’s success.

As U.K. Science Minister Chris Skidmore noted in the press release, “While for now we can only dream of a world without roadworks disrupting our lives, these pipe-repairing robots herald the start of technology that could make that dream a reality in the future.”

READ MORE: UK Invests in Micro-Robots Which Could Make Roadworks a Thing of the Past [The Telegraph]

More on micro-robots: Rolls-Royce Is Building Cockroach-Like Robots to Fix Plane Engines

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Tiny Robots That Repair Pipes Could Eliminate Road Work

Elon Musk Tweets Image of SpaceX’s Stainless Steel Starship

Stainless steel starship

Big Picture

Christmas came early for Elon Musk’s Twitter followers.

The SpaceX CEO took to the social media platform on Christmas Eve to share a new image of a prototype version of the Starship spacecraft at the company’s Texas testing facilities.

The massive rocket with the ever-changing name — it was previously known as the “Mars Colonial Transporter,” the “Interplanetary Transport System,” and the “Big Falcon Rocket” — could one day ferry passengers to Mars. And Musk’s new photo reveals that the key to making that possible might be a material you’ve got in your kitchen right now.

Stainless Steel Starship

The new Starship is made out of stainless steel,  according to the tweet, a material which handles extreme heat very well — polish it up, and its mirror-like finish will reflect thermal energy far better than the carbon-based materials used for many rockets.

That could help Starship withstand the strain of long-term spaceflight, but stainless steel is heavier than carbon fiber, and keeping weight down is extremely important in space travel.

From an impromptu Twitter Q&A following the reveal of the Starship prototype, we learned that by exposing the stainless steel to extremely cold temperatures — that is, giving it a cryogenic treatment — SpaceX was able to get around the issue of the material weighing more than carbon fiber. According to a Musk tweet, “Usable strength/weight of full hard stainless at cryo is slightly better than carbon fiber, room temp is worse, high temp is vastly better.”

Stainless Steel Starship pic.twitter.com/rRoiEKKrYc

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) December 24, 2018

Countdown to Liftoff

Perhaps the most exciting Starship revelation of the past week, though, is Musk’s assertion that the prototype could be ready for liftoff in just a few months’ time.

On December 22, he tweeted that he would “do a full technical presentation of Starship” after the prototype’s test flight, which could happen in March or April. If all goes well with that test flight, SpaceX could be one step closer to achieving Musk’s vision of making humanity a multiplanetary species.

READ MORE: SpaceX CEO Elon Musk: Starship Prototype to Have 3 Raptors and “Mirror Finish” [Teslarati]

More on Starship: Elon Musk Just Changed the BFR’s Name for a Fourth Time

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Elon Musk Tweets Image of SpaceX’s Stainless Steel Starship

Elon Musk Pledges Tesla Superchargers For All of Europe Next Year

According to Elon Musk's tweet, Tesla will provide 100 percent supercharger coverage to Europe by the end of 2019. Then it will move to Africa.

Big Promise

Electric car maker Tesla will expand its network of Superchargers to provide service for all of Europe by the end of 2019, CEO Elon Musk tweeted Wednesday.

If the plans come to fruition, the vast expansion will represent not just a coup for Tesla but also for the growing global infrastructure that supports practical transportation by electric car.

Yes. Supercharger coverage will extend to 100% of Europe next year. From Ireland to Kiev, from Norway to Turkey. https://t.co/7FQZgLCTVJ

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) December 26, 2018

Hit and Miss

Right now there are 1,386 Supercharger stations worldwide, according to a map on Tesla’s website. But there are still large gaps in planned coverage throughout Eastern Europe as well as in Sweden, Finland, and Norway — all of which Musk pledged to cover next year in the tweet.

Musk has a notable habit of tweeting Tesla updates from his personal account, and a spotty record when it comes to promising expansions to Tesla’s Supercharger network. Electrek reported that Musk had similarly promised 18,000 chargers worldwide by the end of 2018, but according to the map there are currently just 11,583 spread over the 1,386 stations.

But with most of the European Supercharger infrastructure already in place, total coverage by 2020 seems like a feasible goal.

Then What?

In another tweet, Musk said Tesla said it would set its sights on Africa in 2020. At the moment, there is not a single Supercharger on the entire continent, according to The Verge.

2020

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) December 27, 2018

It’s unclear which African or European countries will receive Superchargers first and how they will be distributed. But if Musk is to be taken at his word, Tesla will be working hard to expand electric vehicle use throughout the world very soon.

READ MORE: Elon Musk promises 100 percent Tesla Supercharger coverage in Europe next year [The Verge]

More on Superchargers: Tesla Just Announced the Site of the Largest Supercharger Station in Europe

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China Is Building Its First Huge Battery Storage Facility

The Chinese government just approved plans for a massive energy storage grid that will help the Gansu Province better rely on renewable electricity.

Batteries Not Included

The Chinese government approved the plans for a massive energy storage grid in Gansu Province on Monday, according to a statement by the Gansu Provincial Development & Reform Commission.

The project is scheduled to be completed this coming year according to Bloomberg — a colossal infrastructure investment that underscores China’s growing financial commitment to clean, renewable energy.

Biggest Yet

The proposed energy storage grid, also known as a virtual power plant because it serves as a source of energy even if the batteries store rather than generate it, would be the largest in the country — the first phase of construction is expected to cost 1.2 billion yuan ($174 million.)

As of September, China generated 706 gigawatts of solar and wind electricity, Bloomberg reports. But without infrastructure to support the power being generated, some of it went to waste.

More Flexible

According to the government statement, the virtual power plant would have a capacity of 720 MWh and could store unused electricity for four hours. For comparison, that’s almost two thirds the capacity of Tesla’s proposed “Megapack” energy storage system, which would bring a 1,200 MWh virtual power plant to California.

With a large-scale battery storage facility, people in Gansu will be able to rely on clean energy as needed rather than having to revert to fossil fuels when the sun goes down or the wind stops blowing.

READ MORE: China Approves Its 1st Big Power Storage Pilot in Renewable Push [Bloomberg]

More on virtual power plants: Tesla Gets Green Light To Create The World’s Largest Virtual Solar Plant In South Australia

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China Is Building Its First Huge Battery Storage Facility

Startup Claims Its Underwear Stay Odor-Free Through Weeks of Wear

Startup Organic Basics claims its silver-coated underwear remain odor-free after weeks of wear, but several testers disagree.

Under Where?

Want to wear the same pair of underwear for weeks at a time? Go right ahead.

A Danish startup called Organic Basics claims its underwear remain fresh through weeks of wear, eliminating the need for frequent washing. And this could be a boon for the environment — if it’s actually true.

Silver Skivvies

When your sweat meets your clothing, it creates an ideal environment for bacteria. It’s this bacteria that actually produces a foul-smelling odor. Silver is antimicrobial, meaning it kills bacteria and other microorganisms.

By treating their underwear with Polygiene, a product that uses silver chloride to control smells, Organic Basics says it can prevent the growth of 99.9 percent of this bacteria, which it claims prevents the underwear from smelling bad as quickly.

“It works,” CEO Mads Fibiger told Business Insider Nordic in May. “You can wear our underwear much longer before washing.”

Smell Test

Fibiger might claim the coating “works,” but not everyone agrees.

A reporter for New York magazine claimed she noticed a “less-than-fresh scent” on just the second day wearing Organic Basics’s women’s briefs, noting that she “didn’t feel comfortable pushing [her] luck with a third day of testing.” Her male colleague also tossed his Organic Basics boxer briefs in the laundry hamper after just 48 hours.

Even if the underwear did maintain the desired level of freshness, though, people might not be able get over the mental hurdle of wearing the same undergarments for weeks at a time — just this week, Elle reporter R. Eric Thomas wrote that reading about the undies made him want to “bleach [his] eyes.”

Futuristic Fashion

Organic Basics isn’t just trying to help people avoid laundry day, though. “The traditional way of buying, wearing, washing, and throwing away overpriced underwear is…extremely harmful to the environment,” Fibiger told Business Insider.

And he’s right. Washing and drying clothing requires water and energy, so the more often you clean your underwear, the greater the garment’s impact on the environment.

Still, the environmental benefits of wearing the same pair of underwear for weeks at a time might not be enough to get even the most environmentally conscious among us to wear Organic Basics’s underwear if they don’t actually smell fine on day three and beyond.

READ MORE: A Danish Startup Invented Underwear You Can Wear for Weeks Without Washing [Business Insider Nordic]

More on sustainable fashion: These Clothes Grow With Your Child and Are a Step Towards Sustainable Fashion

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Startup Claims Its Underwear Stay Odor-Free Through Weeks of Wear

Microorganisms That Eat Seaweed Can Create Biodegradable Plastic

bioplastic

Ocean of Opportunity

Earth’s oceans contain tens of millions of tons of plastic pollution. But a new technique that creates biodegradable plastics out of seaweed could finally give the oceans relief.

Bioplastics are plastics manufactured from biomass sources instead of fossil fuels. Many degrade far more quickly than traditional plastics, but creating them typically requires fertile soil and fresh water, which aren’t available everywhere.

Now, researchers have found a way to create a bioplastic using seaweed, a far more accessible resource — a promising new approach that could both reduce strain on the plastic-clogged oceans and reduce the Earth’s dependence on fossil fuels.

Scarfing Seaweed

Researchers from the University of Tel Aviv describe their new bioplastic production process in a study published recently in the journal Bioresource Technology.

Certain microorganisms naturally produce a polymer called polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA). Some factories already create plastics from PHA, but they do so using microorganisms that feed on plants that grow on land using fresh water.

Through their experiments, the team found it was possible to derive PHA from Haloferax mediterranei, a microorganism that feeds on seaweed.

“We have proved it is possible to produce bioplastic completely based on marine resources in a process that is friendly both to the environment and to its residents,” researcher Alexander Golberg said in a press release.

Plastic Problem

Every year, 8 million metric tons of plastic finds its way into the Earth’s oceans, and researchers estimate that plastic will outweigh fish by 2050. That plastic is killing marine life, destroying coral reefs, and even affecting human health.

Efforts are already underway to remove plastic from the ocean, and several governments are banning certain plastics altogether. But plastic pollution is a huge problem that will require a multi-pronged solution — and a biodegradable plastic could be one of those prongs.

READ MORE: Sustainable “Plastics” Are on the Horizon [Tel Aviv University]

More on plastic pollution: The EU Just Voted to Completely Ban Single-Use Plastics

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Apollo Astronaut: It Would Be “Stupid” to Send People to Mars

According to Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders, crewed missions to Mars and hyped-up chatter of settling the planet are all a waste of time and money.

Fool’s Errand

According to one of the astronauts aboard NASA’s 1968 Apollo 8 mission, it would be “stupid” and “almost ridiculous” to pursue a crewed mission to Mars.

“What’s the imperative? What’s pushing us to go to Mars? I don’t think the public is that interested,” said Bill Anders, who orbited the Moon before returning to Earth 50 years ago, in a new documentary by BBC Radio 5 Live.

Anders argued that there are plenty of things that NASA could be doing that would be a better use of time and money, like the unmanned InSight rover that recently touched down to study Mars’ interior. The comments, by one of the most accomplished space explorers in human history, illustrates a deep and public philosophical rift about whether the future of spaceflight will be characterized by splashy crewed missions or less expensive automated ones.

Mars Bars

The crux of Anders’ argument on the BBC boils down to his perception that NASA is fueling a vicious cycle of highly-publicized missions that bolster its image, improve its funding, and attract top talent so that it can launch more highly-publicized missions. Sending an astronaut to Mars would dominate the news cycle, but wouldn’t push the frontier of practical scientific knowledge, Anders argued — a mismatch, essentially, between the priorities of NASA and those of the public.

That skepticism places Anders among the ranks of other high-profile critics of NASA, Elon Musk’s SpaceX, and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin — all three of which have set their sights on the Red Planet.

For instance, science communicator and advocate Bill Nye predicted last year that no layperson would want to settle Mars. Nye also doubled down last month to say that anyone planning on terraforming Mars must be high on drugs.

Robust Explanation

But Anders’ own Apollo 8 crewmate Frank Borman disagreed, arguing in the documentary that crewed exploration is important.

“I’m not as critical of NASA as Bill is,” Borman told BBC. “I firmly believe that we need robust exploration of our Solar System and I think man is part of that.”

However, even Borman draws the line somewhere between exploration and settlement.

“I do think there’s a lot of hype about Mars that is nonsense,” Borman said. “Musk and Bezos, they’re talking about putting colonies on Mars. That’s nonsense.”

READ MORE: Sending astronauts to Mars would be stupid, astronaut says [BBC]

More on reaching Mars: Four Legal Challenges to Resolve Before Settling on Mars

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Cacti-Inspired Tech Could Keep You Hydrated After the Apocalypse

water collection

Good Nature

If the world ever devolves into a post-apocalyptic desert wasteland, you’ll probably need to watch out for dust storms and violent bikers gangs. But you might not have to worry about finding enough water.

That’s because a team of researchers at the Ohio State University (OSU) has been studying how some of the desert’s most efficient water collectors manage to quite literally pull water from midair — and what they learned could help ensure we all have enough clean drinking water, before or after the breakdown of social order.

Beneath the Surface

In a study published Monday in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, researchers from OSU describe how cacti, desert grass, and desert beetles collect water from the fog that falls over the desert at night. The researchers then used 3D printers to create surfaces that mimicked the natural ones of those three desert dwellers.

They covered some of the surfaces in grooves similar to those that help a desert grass channel water toward its roots. Other surfaces bore cones designed to mimic the water-collecting spines of the cactus.

The researchers also tested out different materials, including ones that were heterogeneous — a mix of water-collecting and water-repelling spots —  like the surface of a beetle’s back, which plays a major role in its water collection.

Then they tested the various surfaces by placing them in a room with a humidifier. The result: they determined that the best surface for water collection would incorporate a heterogeneous material and multiple grooved cones, each inclined at a 45-degree angle.

Water Everywhere

The researchers believe a large-scale structure based on their findings could one day gather water from fog or condensation that people in dry environments could then drink.

“Water supply is a critically important issue, especially for people of the most arid parts of the world,” researcher Bharat Bhushan said in a press release. “By using bio-inspired technologies, we can help address the challenge of providing clean water to people around the globe, in as efficient a way as possible.”

Let’s just hope they manage to scale-up their tech well before any sort of apocalypse.

READ MORE: Collecting Clean Water From Air, Inspired by Desert Life [The Ohio State University]

More on a post-apocalyptic world: How to Survive a World-Ending Scenario, According to Science

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Your Christmas Tree Could Be Recycled Into Paint or Sweeteners

Pine needles on a green Christmas tree

Prickly Situation

Gifts have been opened, cookies have been eaten, Christmas has come and gone. Still, the last vestige of holiday festivities remains: the slowly decaying Christmas tree husk in your living room.

Even as fake tree sales rise, as many as 30 million real Christmas trees are sold in the United States each year. After serving as Yuletide decorations, many of these trees will head to landfills.

But now, in a flourish of environmental Christmas magic, researchers from the UK’s University of Sheffield have found a way to break down a component in pine needles called lignocellulose and use it to create paints and sweeteners — a heartening seasonal example of how biotech discoveries can reduce waste at unexpected points on the global supply chain. 

Lignocellulose Jam

Lignocellulose is ugly. No, really. Its chemical structure makes it difficult to use for biomass energy, and it serves little industrial purpose. Sheffield PhD student Cynthia Kartey’s work has focused on examining ways to make use of this material, and now she may be on to something.

Using heat and glycerol Kartey was able to break down the pine needles into two components, one of which was made mostly of materials like glucose, acetic acid and phenol. All three have uses in other industries — glucose is used to make food sweeteners, phenol is used in products like mouthwash, and acetic acid for making adhesives, vinegar, and even paint.

“In the future, the tree that decorated your house over the festive period could be turned into paint to decorate your house once again,” Kartey said in a press release.

Green Again

Recycling and repurposing waste products is almost certain to become an increasingly important aspect of the future economy.

We’re already beginning to see the process in action, from recycling space junk to reusable beer bottles and even bricks made from literal human urine. Soon, perhaps even Christmas trees will keep our future green and fresh-pine scented.

READ MORE: Pine needles from old Christmas trees could be turned into paint and food sweeteners in the future [University of Sheffield]

More on the Future of Recycling: New Powder Captures CO2 Before It Can Hit the Atmosphere

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Space Travel Doesn’t Seem to Shorten Astronauts’ Lives, Says Study

Astronauts and professional athletes have similar mortality rates, according to a new study, which suggests that space travel doesn't cause premature death.

Life Goes On

We’ve long known that traveling in space carries numerous health risks — it exposes astronauts to higher levels of radiation than the rest of us, and they have reported such health problems as partial blindness upon returning to Earth — but we never actually knew if working in space caused astronauts to die prematurely.

“The challenge has always been to understand if astronauts are as healthy as they would be had they been otherwise comparably employed but had never gone to space at all,” mortality researcher Robert Reynolds told Reuters in an interview published on Wednesday. “To do this, we needed to find a group that is comparable on several important factors, but has never been to space.”

Luckily, he found one — but while his comparison of the two groups resulted in good news for today’s astronauts, the same might not hold true for the people we send to space in the future.

Space Ballin’

Astronauts tend to be more physically fit and affluent than the average American, with access to better healthcare. That makes studying astronaut mortality difficult — they’re too different from the average person to draw any sound conclusions. But they aren’t all that different from National Basketball Association (NBA) and Major League Baseball (MLB) players, who also tend to be fit, affluent, and treated by top-of-the-line medical professionals.

In a study published in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine, Reynolds and his colleagues at Mortality Research & Consulting, Inc. describe how they compared data on men who played for either the NBA or MLB between 1960 and mid-2018 with data on male U.S. astronauts.

This comparison led them to conclude that both athletes and astronauts had a lower risk of premature death than the general U.S. population. Astronauts also died from heart disease at a lower rate than the athletes and of cancer at about the same rate.

“We cannot be sure from the data we have, but we speculate that cardiovascular fitness in particular is the most important factor in astronaut longevity,” Reynolds told Reuters.

Past ? Future

This study fills an important gap in our understanding of the impact of space travel on astronauts, but we still have much to learn. For example, we know space affects female astronauts differently than their male colleagues, so do they also have lower mortality rates than the general population?

We’ve also only been sending people to space for 57 years and fewer than 600 have made the trip. That’s not a lot of data to work with, and the conclusions on astronaut mortality might change as more becomes available.

As Francis Cucinotta, an expert in radiation biology who wasn’t involved in the study, told Reuters, just because space travel isn’t linked to premature death in today’s astronauts doesn’t mean the same would hold true in the future. Crewed missions to Mars are in the works, for example, and those would expose astronauts to a dose of radiation 50 to 100 times higher than past off-world missions, said Cucinotta.

And radiation is just one factor. There’s also a chance anything from Martian dust to the psychological strain on longterm space travel could impact future astronauts’ mortality, so before we risk taking years off anyone’s life by sending them into space, we’ll need to be sure we conduct as much research as possible here on Earth.

READ MORE: Work in Space Does Not Seem to Shorten Astronauts’ Lives [Reuters]

More on astronaut health: Traveling to Mars Could Cause Life-Threatening Damage to Astronauts’ Guts, Says Study

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