Sputnik Day: Could We have a New Space Race?

Exactly fifty-eight years ago, the Soviet Union rocked history with the successful launch of Sputnik 1 – the first time for humans to contribute a satellite to Planet Earth. While Sputnik was a pretty small satellite – only 58 cm in diameter – its launch triggered the Space Race, in which U.S.A and the Soviet Union tried to impress the world with their innovations, rockets and astronauts. The Space Race came to exciting culmination with the Moon landing on 1969, with a gradual decline ever since.

Today, we are swamped with 3,000 satellites orbiting the Earth. Without these satellites, our lives would not have been as easy as they are now. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, satellites help us forecast the weather, enable us to navigate with GPS, send television signals straight to households, and many other things. In short, they’re incredibly useful, and it’s clear that we’re now reaping the investment made during the Space Race – even though at that time, the two superpowers mainly fought over the prestige of being the first, the best and the brightest.

So today, the day in which Sputnik 1 was launched, it’s interesting to me to think about a hypothetical scenario in which another technological breakthrough occurs: a real game-changer which forces all the world’s citizens to rethink their old beliefs, and drags all the superpowers into another race. What would that scenario look like?

First, it’s clear that the world is a fair bit more cynical today than it was during the Cold War. There are no longer two market and national philosophies at war today. Capitalism has clearly won the game, at least for now. While radical religion could be presented as a rival to democracy, the only place right now where the truly radical, unapologetic expressions of religion can be found are in the Islamic State. And while ISIS has proliferated in an unbelievably rapid pace, it lacks the capacity to make new scientific and technological discoveries. And let’s say gently that they’re not really impressing the world with their contributions to the humanities or the arts.

Since the world is largely uninterested in prestige anymore, we need a technological breakthrough whose impact and consequences would be clear from the outset. What breakthrough might that be?

Free Resources from Space

There are many answers to that question, like discovering a source of free energy (possibly cold nuclear fusion), or finding a way to play with the law of gravity and change the weight of buildings and even human beings (imagine that!). However, scientific breakthroughs are often made on the shoulders of giants – i.e. they rely on plenty of previous research and past successes – and the current scientific literature does not provide us any reassurance that anyone has even gotten close to figuring out these two challenges.

So let’s opt for a more likely scenario, and imagine that sometime in the next ten years, a private firm will succeed in mining an asteroid in deep space, and will bring back to orbit sacks full of gold and platinum. We could definitely imagine this scenario becoming reality, since there are currently at least two companies (Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries) competing between themselves to be the first to mine asteroids and bring back their riches to Earth.

Were such a venture to succeed, it would have far-reaching consequences for the future of the Earth. At the moment, the developed world relies on many precious materials that can be found mostly in developing nations. According to data from Fast Company, these materials include fluorspar (CaF2, used for high-performance optics) from Mexico, cobalt and tantalum from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, niobium (Nb, used in microcapacitors and pacemakers) from Brazil, and an estimated $1 trillion in mineral deposits in Afghanistan. These countries would essentially lose a significant part of their income, if precious materials were to be imported from space.

This chart by Visual Capitalist shows how long the resources on Earth will suffice. Please note the image here is about half of the full chart, which can be found in Venture Capitalist's site.
This chart by Visual Capitalist shows how long the resources on Earth will suffice.
Please note the image here is about half of the full chart, which can be found in Venture Capitalist’s site.

The developed and powerful nations would face other difficulties. Russia, the U.S.A., China, India, Japan and the European Union have all the means necessary to start space mining themselves, and they will strive to do so as soon as possible, so that each of them can be the first to get to the ‘easiest to pick’ asteroids – the ones whose trajectories bring them closest to Earth, and contain the largest concentrations of precious metals. At the same time, they will go into overdrive developing anti-spacecraft weapons, so that they can protect their investment in space. After all, nobody wants to drag an asteroid all the way to Earth, just to have a competing nation take control over it.

A space mining race, then, is one likely result of this scenario. An alternative, though, might be found in collaboration. Deep space has plenty of asteroids waiting for mankind to mine them, and 13,000 of those asteroids have orbits that bring them close to Earth. A single platinum-rich asteroid contains 174 times the yearly world output of platinum. Perhaps pooling together humanity’s resources, then, and coordinating every nation’s efforts, would be the best way to move forward and to share the abundant wealth to come.

Conclusion

I have no idea which way the world will turn to, but one thing is clear: this scenario forces everyone to rethink their positions regarding space, and to take action of one sort or the other. No nation would be able to afford itself to stay out of the new space race, or at least out of the debate for reallocation of resources that would come for it. There shall be much gnashing of teeth and a lot of anxiety on behalf of world leaders, but in the long term this development would prove to be one of the greatest boons even bestowed on humanity, leading to an era of abundance in precious metals and materials.

Interestingly, we are already starting to consider these scenarios seriously. In a recent workshop conducted by Dr. Deganit Paikowsky and yours truly, the full impact of a similar scenario was analyzed by students who role-played the different nations of the Earth. The results of the workshop will be publicized soon, but until they do, I would love receiving feedback from you: how do you think the nations would react to this scenario? Will we see a new space race, or a joint thrust forward? And which do you think will be the most efficient and successful way for humanity as a whole?

The answers to these questions could truly shape our future.

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A School Is Engineering Children’s Brains with Electrical Current

Your child comes home from school, crying again. As you try to gently comfort him, he weeps openly on your shoulder – “The numbers won’t stop moving on the blackboard, and I couldn’t do my homework again and Tom said I was stupid!”

After a prolonged talk on the phone with Tom’s mother, you decide that something needs to be done. By now you know that your son has been diagnosed as suffering from dyscalculia: a difficulty in understanding numbers, which afflicts 3 – 6 percent of the population. But what can you do about it? If he had ADHD, you would’ve prescribed Ritalin for him, but there’s no easy and simple treatment you can give him to fix the problem. He’ll just have to work much harder than everyone else to understand math, because of the way his brain is shaped. That’s just the way nature works, right?

Well, we humans are particularly good at circumventing Mother Nature’s whims, and now there’s a new treatment for dyscalculia of a very different sort than anything else before it: basically, this treatment is all about re-engineering the brain of the child, from the inside.

The treatment, which goes by the scary name of Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS), relies on a helmet that generates magnetic fields inside the brain. Those magnetic fields, which can be focused on small areas in the brain, can enhance or inhibit the communication of the neurons in those areas. Essentially, we’re performing a brain surgery from within the skull, without lifting a finger or using an invasive tool of any sort. And the results are nothing less than astounding.

Despite the fact that TMS is a relatively young technology (the first successful study using TMS was conducted in 1985), it has already been approved by the FDA to treat depression and migraine. The only problem with TMS was that it requires a strong magnetic field, which can be generated (currently) only by a large and cumbersome equipment. In short, this means that TMS can only be used in the lab.

Transcranial magnetic stimulation.jpg
An illustration depicting the magnetic field being operated on a human brain.

But we did say that humans are good at circumventing problems, right? And so, meet TMS’ more nimble brother, the Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation, or TDCS. The idea here is to deliver a low electrical current to the area of the brain you want to influence. Scientific studies have shown that by focusing on specific areas of the brain we can enhance language skills, attention span, memory and – yes, you guessed it – mathematical ability. What’s more, the technology can be used with a pinpoint accuracy, and without having any serious side effects (at least as far as we know).

You’re waiting at the school for children with learning difficulties. Your son sits in front of you, serene and calm, with his eyes closed. After twenty minutes, the school’s nurse removes the electrodes from his forehead, and he opens his eyes again and smiles. She shows him the numbers on a blackboard, and this time he reads them all fluently.

 

This scenario is not science fiction or fantasy. In fact, it’s happening right now. In a recent research conducted by Roi Cohen-Kadosh from the University of Oxford, twelve children at the Fairley House school received nine training sessions with a variant of the TDCS technology. Six of them received the actual treatment, and the rest wore the cap and the electrodes, but did not receive any stimulation. As expected, the children who received the stimulation reached significantly better mathematical achievements than their friends.

A child using Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation. Is this the new form of learning? Image originally from a blog post in Scientific American, by Gary Stix.

The Age of Brain Engineering

There is still a debate whether or not TMS and TDCS can be used to enhance the brain’s function to more-than-human levels, or ‘just’ to negate quirks in the brain like dyscalculia and ADHD, and elevate the person to the normal level of the population. But what are those ‘normal’ levels? Is that an IQ of 100? Or maybe 120, or even 150? Approximately half of the population has an IQ lower than 100. How much would they benefit from a weekly treatment that would jumpstart their brains to the average level?

The debate about human enhancement, therefore, largely misses the full consequences of brain-engineering technologies like TMS and TDCS. Those technologies allow us to engineer the brain, and what’s more – they’re becoming cheap and easy enough to use, that anyone who really wants to can use them. There are already companies working on bringing the technology to the masses, like Foc.us – a company that sells transcranial stimulators that should enhance the brain’s functions for gamers. There’s even a Youtube vid that shows you how to make a TDCS of your own for about 20 dollars (careful, I’m not endorsing that!)

Cohen-Kadosh himself is already envisioning a future in which people “…plug a simple device into an iPad so that their brain is stimulated when they are doing their homework, learning French or taking up the piano.” And while we are obviously not quite there yet, there is no reason we couldn’t get to that point within ten years. After all, Facebook changed the entire way people communicate in just ten years. Why not brain technologies, particularly when they are of the non-invasive sort?

Admittedly, these commercial technologies are still in their diapers right now, and are probably more razzle dazzle than real substance. However, as the technologies mature, we will gain the ultimate power over our brains, and will reach a time of Cosmetic Neurology – when we’ll be able to alter our moods, our abilities and our perceptions according to our wishes. This development might happen in ten or twenty or even thirty years from now, but when it comes, you, me and everyone else will need to answe the question: will we re-engineer our brains?

You’re back at the house. The kid is happily solving mathematical equations in his notebook, while simultaneously watching TV and chatting with his friends on Facebook. You, in the meantime, are still struggling with that new coding language the boss asked you to study this week. You’re tired and miserable from exerting your brain so much. You take a glance at the kid’s TDCS kit, which the school supplied you with, and for a moment… you wonder.