The Tianhe-1 module that launched this week is the core of what is supposed to be a three-part space station. On the surface, it seems to pale in comparison to the 22-year-old ISS. The ISS is a football-field-size behemoth weighing about 420 metric tons, while the much smaller T-shaped Chinese Space Station (CSS) will be a mere 80 to 100 tons, closer to the size and mass of Russia’s former Mir station. The Tianhe-1 module is just 22 tons and 16.6 meters long. And after 12 missions this year and next to put the whole thing together, the completed station will still be roughly half the length of the ISS.
China seems fine with that. “We did not intend to compete with the ISS in terms of scale,” Gu Yidong, chief scientist of China’s human exploration program, told Scientific American.
And it doesn’t mean the station won’t boast some useful space capabilities. Tianhe will be the primary living quarters for any astronauts on board, and the next two segments, Wentian and Mengtian, will support an array of scientific experiments taking advantage of the station’s microgravity. They may investigate the study of fluid dynamics and phase changes, for example, or the growth and evolution of organisms.
There will be 14 refrigerator-sized experiment racks inside the station, and another 50 docking points for experiments that can be mounted outside to expose materials to the vacuum of space. China has already reached out to international partners to solicit experiments. Five docking ports and a host of robotic arms will ensure safe visits from other spacecraft and set up the possibility of expanding the station itself.
Perhaps most exciting, the station will play an important role in helping China deploy and operate a brand-new space telescope, Xuntian, meant to rival NASA’s aging Hubble Space Telescope, with a field of view 300 times larger and a similar resolution. It will make observations in ultraviolet and visible light, running investigations related to dark matter and dark energy, cosmology, galactic evolution, and the detection of nearby objects. Scheduled to launch in 2024, Xuntian will be able to dock with the CSS for easy repairs and maintenance.
Furthermore, the station can act as a platform for testing technologies that will be critical for sustaining a long-term presence on the moon and Mars one day. These include habitation and life support systems, solar power, and shielding from radiation and micrometeorite impacts.
All this is neat, but as Cornell University’s Lincoln Hines points out, the station’s true goal seems to be prestige—to position China as part of an exclusive club of space powers that operate a permanent outpost in orbit, boosting nationalist support within its borders. “I’ve no doubt there are people in China’s scientific community that are genuinely excited about what they could do through the CSS,” says Hines. “But from the perspective of the central government to support this grand, ambitious project, it’s a really strong symbol that lets China tell its population, ‘We’re technologically powerful and can compete with the United States.’”
And it also puts China closer to competing with the US in “soft power.” The US is the primary funder of the ISS, an extraordinarily costly public good that benefits the rest of the world. It helps accomplish some interesting science and tech experiments, but the station’s biggest impact has arguably come from its status as a beacon of international cooperation.
We can expect the CSS to provide the same kind of diplomatic benefit for China by helping strengthen the country’s ties with other nations—especially at a time when the country is facing pretty fierce scrutiny for human rights abuses against Uyghurs, political dissidents, and activists in Hong Kong’s democracy movement.
“China’s effort is new and vibrant,” says Goswami, while the future of the ISS is murky. “It signals to the world that China is openly contesting the US for space leadership across the board, and that it is a capable partner.”
Even if these potential benefits are never realized, it may not make much of a difference to China. Unlike US public officials, the Chinese Communist Party doesn’t have to justify its expense sheet to its citizens.
“From my perspective, the Chinese government’s number one goal is its own survival,” says Hines. “And so these projects are very much aligned with those domestic interests, even if they don’t make a ton of sense in broader geopolitical considerations or have much in the way of scientific contributions.”
Human creators stand to benefit as AI rewrites the rules of content creation
A game-changer for content creation
Among the AI-related technologies to have emerged in the past several years is generative AI—deep-learning algorithms that allow computers to generate original content, such as text, images, video, audio, and code. And demand for such content will likely jump in the coming years—Gartner predicts that by 2025, generative AI will account for 10% of all data created, compared with 1% in 2022.
“Théâtre D’opéra Spatial” is an example of AI-generated content (AIGC), created with the Midjourney text-to-art generator program. Several other AI-driven art-generating programs have also emerged in 2022, capable of creating paintings from single-line text prompts. The diversity of technologies reflects a wide range of artistic styles and different user demands. DALL-E 2 and Stable Diffusion, for instance, are focused mainly on western-style artwork, while Baidu’s ERNIE-ViLG and Wenxin Yige produce images influenced by Chinese aesthetics. At Baidu’s deep learning developer conference Wave Summit+ 2022, the company announced that Wenxin Yige has been updated with new features, including turning photos into AI-generated art, image editing, and one-click video production.
Meanwhile, AIGC can also include articles, videos, and various other media offerings such as voice synthesis. A technology that generates audible speech indistinguishable from the voice of the original speaker, voice synthesis can be applied in many scenarios, including voice navigation for digital maps. Baidu Maps, for example, allows users to customize its voice navigation to their own voice just by recording nine sentences.
Recent advances in AI technologies have also created generative language models that can fluently compose texts with just one click. They can be used for generating marketing copy, processing documents, extracting summaries, and other text tasks, unlocking creativity that other technologies such as voice synthesis have failed to tap. One of the leading generative language models is Baidu’s ERNIE 3.0, which has been widely applied in various industries such as health care, education, technology, and entertainment.
“In the past year, artificial intelligence has made a great leap and changed its technological direction,” says Robin Li, CEO of Baidu. “Artificial intelligence has gone from understanding pictures and text to generating content.” Going one step further, Baidu App, a popular search and newsfeed app with over 600 million monthly users, including five million content creators, recently released a video editing feature that can produce a short video accompanied by a voiceover created from data provided in an article.
Improving efficiency and growth
As AIGC becomes increasingly common, it could make content creation more efficient by getting rid of repetitive, time-intensive tasks for creators such as sorting out source assets and voice recordings and rendering images. Aspiring filmmakers, for instance, have long had to pay their dues by spending countless hours mastering the complex and tedious process of video editing. AIGC may soon make that unnecessary.
Besides boosting efficiency, AIGC could also increase business growth in content creation amid rising demand for personalized digital content that users can interact with dynamically. InsightSLICE forecasts that the global digital creation market will on average grow 12% annually between 2020 and 2030 and hit $38.2 billion. With content consumption fast outpacing production, traditional development methods will likely struggle to meet such increasing demand, creating a gap that could be filled by AIGC. “AI has the potential to meet this massive demand for content at a tenth of the cost and a hundred times or thousands of times faster in the next decade,” Li says.
AI with humanity as its foundation
AIGC can also serve as an educational tool by helping children develop their creativity. StoryDrawer, for instance, is an AI-driven program designed to boost children’s creative thinking, which often declines as the focus in their education shifts to rote learning.
The Download: the West’s AI myth, and Musk v Apple
While the US and the EU may differ on how to regulate tech, their lawmakers seem to agree on one thing: the West needs to ban AI-powered social scoring.
As they understand it, social scoring is a practice in which authoritarian governments—specifically China—rank people’s trustworthiness and punish them for undesirable behaviors, such as stealing or not paying back loans. Essentially, it’s seen as a dystopian superscore assigned to each citizen.
The reality? While there have been some contentious local experiments with social credit scores in China, there is no countrywide, all-seeing social credit system with algorithms that rank people.
The irony is that while US and European politicians try to ban systems that don’t really exist, systems that do rank and penalize people are already in place in the West—and are denying people housing and jobs in the process. Read the full story.
Melissa’s story is from The Algorithm, her weekly AI newsletter covering all of the industry’s most interesting developments. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Monday.
I’ve combed the internet to find you today’s most fun/important/scary/fascinating stories about technology.
1 Apple has reportedly threatened to pull Twitter from the App Store
According to Elon Musk. (NYT $)
+ Musk has threatened to “go to war” with the company after it decided to stop advertising on Twitter. (WP $)
+ Apple’s reluctance to advertise on Twitter right now isn’t exactly unique. (Motherboard)
+ Twitter’s child protection team in Asia has been gutted. (Wired $)
2 Another crypto firm has collapsed
Lender BlockFi has filed for bankruptcy, and is (partly) blaming FTX. (WSJ $)
+ The company is suing FTX founder Sam Bankman-Fried. (FT $)
+ It looks like the much-feared “crypto contagion” is spreading. (NYT $)
3 AI is rapidly becoming more powerful—and dangerous
That’s particularly worrying when its growth is too much for safety teams to handle. (Vox)
+ Do AI systems need to come with safety warnings? (MIT Technology Review)
+ This AI chat-room game is gaining a legion of fans. (The Guardian)
4 A Pegasus spyware investigation is in danger of being compromised
It’s the target of a disinformation campaign, security experts have warned. (The Guardian)
+ Cyber insurance won’t protect you from theft of your data. (The Guardian)
5 Google gave the FBI geofence data for its January 6 investigation
Google identified more than 5,000 devices near the US Capitol during the riot. (Wired $)
6 Monkeypox isn’t going anywhere
But it’s not on the rise, either. (The Atlantic $)
+ The World Health Organization says it will now be known as mpox. (BBC)
+ Everything you need to know about the monkeypox vaccines. (MIT Technology Review)
7 What it’s like to be the unwitting face of a romance scam
James Scott Geras’ pictures have been used to catfish countless women. (Motherboard)
What’s next in cybersecurity
One of the reasons cyber hasn’t played a bigger role in the war, according to Carhart, is because “in the whole conflict, we saw Russia being underprepared for things and not having a good game plan. So it’s not really surprising that we see that as well in the cyber domain.”
Moreover, Ukraine, under the leadership of Zhora and his cybersecurity agency, has been working on its cyber defenses for years, and it has received support from the international community since the war started, according to experts. Finally, an interesting twist in the conflict on the internet between Russia and Ukraine was the rise of the decentralized, international cyber coalition known as the IT Army, which scored some significant hacks, showing that war in the future can also be fought by hacktivists.
Ransomware runs rampant again
This year, other than the usual corporations, hospitals, and schools, government agencies in Costa Rica, Montenegro, and Albania all suffered damaging ransomware attacks too. In Costa Rica, the government declared a national emergency, a first after a ransomware attack. And in Albania, the government expelled Iranian diplomats from the country—a first in the history of cybersecurity—following a destructive cyberattack.
These types of attacks were at an all-time high in 2022, a trend that will likely continue next year, according to Allan Liska, a researcher who focuses on ransomware at cybersecurity firm Recorded Future.
“[Ransomware is] not just a technical problem like an information stealer or other commodity malware. There are real-world, geopolitical implications,” he says. In the past, for example, a North Korean ransomware called WannaCry caused severe disruption to the UK’s National Health System and hit an estimated 230,000 computers worldwide.
Luckily, it’s not all bad news on the ransomware front. According to Liska, there are some early signs that point to “the death of the ransomware-as-a-service model,” in which ransomware gangs lease out hacking tools. The main reason, he said, is that whenever a gang gets too big, “something bad happens to them.”
For example, the ransomware groups REvil and DarkSide/BlackMatter were hit by governments; Conti, a Russian ransomware gang, unraveled internally when a Ukrainian researcher appalled by Conti’s public support of the war leaked internal chats; and the LockBit crew also suffered the leak of its code.
“We are seeing a lot of the affiliates deciding that maybe I don’t want to be part of a big ransomware group, because they all have targets on their back, which means that I might have a target on my back, and I just want to carry out my cybercrime,” Liska says.