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Here’s what China wants from its next space station

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Here’s what China wants from its next space station


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.”

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The hunter-gatherer groups at the heart of a microbiome gold rush

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The hunter-gatherer groups at the heart of a microbiome gold rush


The first step to finding out is to catalogue what microbes we might have lost. To get as close to ancient microbiomes as possible, microbiologists have begun studying multiple Indigenous groups. Two have received the most attention: the Yanomami of the Amazon rainforest and the Hadza, in northern Tanzania. 

Researchers have made some startling discoveries already. A study by Sonnenburg and his colleagues, published in July, found that the gut microbiomes of the Hadza appear to include bugs that aren’t seen elsewhere—around 20% of the microbe genomes identified had not been recorded in a global catalogue of over 200,000 such genomes. The researchers found 8.4 million protein families in the guts of the 167 Hadza people they studied. Over half of them had not previously been identified in the human gut.

Plenty of other studies published in the last decade or so have helped build a picture of how the diets and lifestyles of hunter-gatherer societies influence the microbiome, and scientists have speculated on what this means for those living in more industrialized societies. But these revelations have come at a price.

A changing way of life

The Hadza people hunt wild animals and forage for fruit and honey. “We still live the ancient way of life, with arrows and old knives,” says Mangola, who works with the Olanakwe Community Fund to support education and economic projects for the Hadza. Hunters seek out food in the bush, which might include baboons, vervet monkeys, guinea fowl, kudu, porcupines, or dik-dik. Gatherers collect fruits, vegetables, and honey.

Mangola, who has met with multiple scientists over the years and participated in many research projects, has witnessed firsthand the impact of such research on his community. Much of it has been positive. But not all researchers act thoughtfully and ethically, he says, and some have exploited or harmed the community.

One enduring problem, says Mangola, is that scientists have tended to come and study the Hadza without properly explaining their research or their results. They arrive from Europe or the US, accompanied by guides, and collect feces, blood, hair, and other biological samples. Often, the people giving up these samples don’t know what they will be used for, says Mangola. Scientists get their results and publish them without returning to share them. “You tell the world [what you’ve discovered]—why can’t you come back to Tanzania to tell the Hadza?” asks Mangola. “It would bring meaning and excitement to the community,” he says.

Some scientists have talked about the Hadza as if they were living fossils, says Alyssa Crittenden, a nutritional anthropologist and biologist at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, who has been studying and working with the Hadza for the last two decades.

The Hadza have been described as being “locked in time,” she adds, but characterizations like that don’t reflect reality. She has made many trips to Tanzania and seen for herself how life has changed. Tourists flock to the region. Roads have been built. Charities have helped the Hadza secure land rights. Mangola went abroad for his education: he has a law degree and a master’s from the Indigenous Peoples Law and Policy program at the University of Arizona.

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The Download: a microbiome gold rush, and Eric Schmidt’s election misinformation plan

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The Download: a microbiome gold rush, and Eric Schmidt’s election misinformation plan


Over the last couple of decades, scientists have come to realize just how important the microbes that crawl all over us are to our health. But some believe our microbiomes are in crisis—casualties of an increasingly sanitized way of life. Disturbances in the collections of microbes we host have been associated with a whole host of diseases, ranging from arthritis to Alzheimer’s.

Some might not be completely gone, though. Scientists believe many might still be hiding inside the intestines of people who don’t live in the polluted, processed environment that most of the rest of us share. They’ve been studying the feces of people like the Yanomami, an Indigenous group in the Amazon, who appear to still have some of the microbes that other people have lost. 

But there is a major catch: we don’t know whether those in hunter-gatherer societies really do have “healthier” microbiomes—and if they do, whether the benefits could be shared with others. At the same time, members of the communities being studied are concerned about the risk of what’s called biopiracy—taking natural resources from poorer countries for the benefit of wealthier ones. Read the full story.

—Jessica Hamzelou

Eric Schmidt has a 6-point plan for fighting election misinformation

—by Eric Schmidt, formerly the CEO of Google, and current cofounder of philanthropic initiative Schmidt Futures

The coming year will be one of seismic political shifts. Over 4 billion people will head to the polls in countries including the United States, Taiwan, India, and Indonesia, making 2024 the biggest election year in history.

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Navigating a shifting customer-engagement landscape with generative AI

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Navigating a shifting customer-engagement landscape with generative AI


A strategic imperative

Generative AI’s ability to harness customer data in a highly sophisticated manner means enterprises are accelerating plans to invest in and leverage the technology’s capabilities. In a study titled “The Future of Enterprise Data & AI,” Corinium Intelligence and WNS Triange surveyed 100 global C-suite leaders and decision-makers specializing in AI, analytics, and data. Seventy-six percent of the respondents said that their organizations are already using or planning to use generative AI.

According to McKinsey, while generative AI will affect most business functions, “four of them will likely account for 75% of the total annual value it can deliver.” Among these are marketing and sales and customer operations. Yet, despite the technology’s benefits, many leaders are unsure about the right approach to take and mindful of the risks associated with large investments.

Mapping out a generative AI pathway

One of the first challenges organizations need to overcome is senior leadership alignment. “You need the necessary strategy; you need the ability to have the necessary buy-in of people,” says Ayer. “You need to make sure that you’ve got the right use case and business case for each one of them.” In other words, a clearly defined roadmap and precise business objectives are as crucial as understanding whether a process is amenable to the use of generative AI.

The implementation of a generative AI strategy can take time. According to Ayer, business leaders should maintain a realistic perspective on the duration required for formulating a strategy, conduct necessary training across various teams and functions, and identify the areas of value addition. And for any generative AI deployment to work seamlessly, the right data ecosystems must be in place.

Ayer cites WNS Triange’s collaboration with an insurer to create a claims process by leveraging generative AI. Thanks to the new technology, the insurer can immediately assess the severity of a vehicle’s damage from an accident and make a claims recommendation based on the unstructured data provided by the client. “Because this can be immediately assessed by a surveyor and they can reach a recommendation quickly, this instantly improves the insurer’s ability to satisfy their policyholders and reduce the claims processing time,” Ayer explains.

All that, however, would not be possible without data on past claims history, repair costs, transaction data, and other necessary data sets to extract clear value from generative AI analysis. “Be very clear about data sufficiency. Don’t jump into a program where eventually you realize you don’t have the necessary data,” Ayer says.

The benefits of third-party experience

Enterprises are increasingly aware that they must embrace generative AI, but knowing where to begin is another thing. “You start off wanting to make sure you don’t repeat mistakes other people have made,” says Ayer. An external provider can help organizations avoid those mistakes and leverage best practices and frameworks for testing and defining explainability and benchmarks for return on investment (ROI).

Using pre-built solutions by external partners can expedite time to market and increase a generative AI program’s value. These solutions can harness pre-built industry-specific generative AI platforms to accelerate deployment. “Generative AI programs can be extremely complicated,” Ayer points out. “There are a lot of infrastructure requirements, touch points with customers, and internal regulations. Organizations will also have to consider using pre-built solutions to accelerate speed to value. Third-party service providers bring the expertise of having an integrated approach to all these elements.”

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