But the space industry is surging, in no small part because there’s a demand for increased access to space. And that means the use of technologies that are less expensive and more accessible, including software.
Even for bigger groups like NASA, where money’s not an issue, the open-source approach may end up leading to stronger software. “Flight software right now, I would say, is pretty mediocre in space,” says Dylan Taylor, the chairman and CEO of Voyager Space Holdings. (Case in point: Boeing’s Starliner test flight failure in 2019, which was due to software glitches.) If it’s open-source, the smartest scientists can still leverage a larger community’s expertise and feedback if it runs into problems, just as amateur developers do.
Basically, if it’s good enough for NASA, it should presumably be good enough for anyone else trying to operate a robot off this planet. With an ever-increasing number of new companies and new national agencies around the world seeking to launch their own satellites and probes into space while keeping costs down, cheaper robotics software that can confidently handle something as risky as a space mission is a huge boon.
Open-source software can also help make getting to space cheaper because it leads to standards everyone can adopt and work with. You can eliminate the high costs associated with specialized coding. Open-source frameworks are usually something new engineers have already worked with, too. “If we can just leverage that and increase this pipeline from what they’ve learned in school to what they use in flight missions, that shortens the learning curve,” says Terry Fong, director of the Intelligent Robotics Group at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, and deputy lead for the VIPER mission. “It makes things faster for us to take advances from the research world and put it into flight.”
NASA has been using open-source software in many R&D projects for about 10 to 15 years now—the agency keeps a very extensive catalogue of the open-source code it has used. But this technology’s role in actual robots sent to space is still nascent. One system the agency has trialed is the Robot Operating System, a collection of open-source software frameworks maintained and updated by the nonprofit Open Robotics, also headquartered in Mountain View. ROS is already used in Robonaut 2, the humanoid robot that has helped with research on the International Space Station, as well as the autonomous Astrobee robots buzzing around the ISS to help astronauts run day-to-day tasks.
ROS will be running and facilitating tasks critical to something called “ground flight control.” VIPER is going to be driven around by NASA personnel who will be operating things from Earth. Ground flight control will take data collected by VIPER to build real-time maps and renderings of the environment on the moon that the rover’s drivers can use to navigate safely. Other parts of the rover’s software have open-source roots as well: basic functions like telemetry and memory management are handled onboard by a program called core Flight System (cFS), developed by NASA itself and available for free on GitHub. VIPER’s mission operations outside of the rover itself are handled by Open MCT, also created by NASA.
Compared with Mars, the lunar environment is very difficult to physically emulate on Earth, which means testing out a rover’s hardware and software components isn’t easy. For this mission, says Fong, it made more sense to lean on digital simulations that could test many of the rover’s components—and that included the open-source software.
Another reason the mission lends itself to use of open-source software is that the moon is close enough for near-real-time control of the rover, which means some of the software doesn’t need to be on the rover itself and can run on Earth instead.
“We decided to have the robot’s brains split between the moon and Earth,” says Fong. “And as soon as we did that, it opened up the possibility that we can use software that’s not limited by radiation, hard flight, computing—but instead, we can just use off-the-shelf commodity commercial desktops. So we can make use of things like ROS on the ground, something used by so many people so regularly. We don’t have to just rely on custom software.”
VIPER isn’t running on 100% open-source software—its onboard flight system, for instance, uses extremely reliable proprietary software. But it’s easy to see future missions adopting and expanding on what VIPER will run. “I suspect that maybe the next rover from NASA will run Linux,” says Fong.
It will never be possible to use open-source software in all cases. Security concerns could be an issue, and might cause some parties to stick to proprietary tech entirely (although one plus to open-source platforms is that developers are often very public about finding flaws and proposing patches). And Fong also emphasizes that some missions will always be too specialized or advanced to rely heavily on open-source technology.
Still, it’s not just NASA that is turning to the open-source community. Blue Origin recently announced a partnership with several NASA groups to “code robotic intelligence and autonomy” built from open-source frameworks (the company declined to provide details). Smaller initiatives like the Libre Space Foundation based in Greece, which provides open-source hardware and software for small satellite activities, are bound to gain more attention as spaceflight continues to get cheaper. “There’s a domino effect there,” says Brian Gerkey, the CEO of Open Robotics. “Once you have a large organization like NASA saying publicly, ‘We’re depending on this software,’ then other organizations are willing to take a chance and dig in and do the work that’s necessary to make it work for them.”
The Blue Technology Barometer 2022/23
The overall rankings tab shows the performance of the examined
economies relative to each other and aggregates scores generated
across the following four pillars: ocean environment, marine activity,
technology innovation, and policy and regulation.
This pillar ranks each country according to its levels of
marine water contamination, its plastic recycling efforts, the
CO2 emissions of its marine activities (relative to the size
of its economy), and the recent change of total emissions.
This pillar ranks each country on the sustainability of its
marine activities, including shipping, fishing, and protected
This pillar ranks each country on its contribution to ocean
sustainable technology research and development, including
expenditure, patents, and startups.
This pillar ranks each country on its stance on ocean
sustainability-related policy and regulation, including
national-level policies, taxes, fees, and subsidies, and the
implementation of international marine law.
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MIT Technology Review Insights would like to thank the following
individuals for their time, perspective, and insights:
- Valérie Amant, Director of Communications, The SeaCleaners
- Charlotte de Fontaubert, Global Lead for the Blue Economy, World Bank Group
- Ian Falconer, Founder, Fishy Filaments
- Ben Fitzgerald, Managing Director, CoreMarine
- Melissa Garvey, Global Director of Ocean Protection, The Nature Conservancy
Michael Hadfield, Emeritus Professor, Principal Investigator, Kewalo Marine Laboratory, University of Hawaii
- Takeshi Kawano, Executive Director, Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology
- Kathryn Matthews, Chief Scientist, Oceana
- Alex Rogers, Science Director, REV Ocean
- Ovais Sarmad, Deputy Executive Secretary, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change
- Thierry Senechal, Managing Director, Finance for Impact
- Jyotika Virmani, Executive Director, Schmidt Ocean Institute
- Lucy Woodall, Associate Professor of Marine Biology, University of Oxford, and Principal Scientist at Nekton
Methodology: The Blue Technology Barometer 2022/23
Now in its second year, the Blue Technology Barometer assesses and ranks how each of the world’s largest
maritime economies promotes and develops blue (marine-centered) technologies that help reverse the impact of
climate change on ocean ecosystems, and how they leverage ocean-based resources to reduce greenhouse gases and
other effects of climate change.
To build the index, MIT Technology Review Insights compiled 20 quantitative and qualitative data indicators
for 66 countries and territories with coastlines and maritime economies. This included analysis of select
datasets and primary research interviews with global blue technology innovators, policymakers, and
international ocean sustainability organizations. Through trend analysis, research, and a consultative
peer-review process with several subject matter experts, weighting assumptions were assigned to determine the
relative importance of each indicator’s influence on a country’s blue technology leadership.
These indicators measure how each country or territory’s economic and maritime industries have affected its
marine environment and how quickly they have developed and deployed technologies that help improve ocean
health outcomes. Policy and regulatory adherence factors were considered, particularly the observance of
international treaties on fishing and marine protection laws.
The indicators are organized into four pillars, which evaluate metrics around a sustainability theme. Each
indicator is scored from 1 to 10 (10 being the best performance) and is weighted for its contribution to its
respective pillar. Each pillar is weighted to determine its importance in the overall score. As these research
efforts center on countries developing blue technology to promote ocean health, the technology pillar is
ranked highest, at 50% of the overall score.
The four pillars of the Blue Technology Barometer are:
Carbon emissions resulting from maritime activities and their relative growth. Metrics in this pillar also
assess each country’s efforts to mitigate ocean pollution and enhance ocean ecosystem health.
Efforts to promote sustainable fishing activities and increase and maintain marine protected areas.
Progress in fostering the development of sustainable ocean technologies across several relevant fields:
- Clean innovation scores from MIT Technology Review Insights’ Green Future Index 2022.
- A tally of maritime-relevant patents and technology startups.
- An assessment of each economy’s use of technologies and tech-enabled processes that facilitate ocean
Commitment to signing and enforcing international treaties to promote ocean sustainability and enforce
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What Shanghai protesters want and fear
You may have seen that nearly three years after the pandemic started, protests have erupted across the country. In Beijing, Shanghai, Urumqi, Guangzhou, Wuhan, Chengdu, and more cities and towns, hundreds of people have taken to the streets to mourn the lives lost in an apartment fire in Urumqi and to demand that the government roll back its strict pandemic policies, which many blame for trapping those who died.
It’s remarkable. It’s likely the largest grassroots protest in China in decades, and it’s happening at a time when the Chinese government is better than ever at monitoring and suppressing dissent.
Videos of these protests have been shared in real time on social media—on both Chinese and American platforms, even though the latter are technically blocked in the country—and they have quickly become international front-page news. However, discussions among foreigners have too often reduced the protests to the most sensational clips, particularly ones in which protesters directly criticize President Xi Jinping or the ruling party.
The reality is more complicated. As in any spontaneous protest, different people want different things. Some only want to abolish the zero-covid policies, while others have made direct calls for freedom of speech or a change of leadership.
I talked to two Shanghai residents who attended the protests to understand what they experienced firsthand, why they went, and what’s making them anxious about the thought of going again. Both have requested we use only their surnames, to avoid political retribution.
Zhang, who went to the first protest in Shanghai after midnight on Saturday, told me he was motivated by a desire to let people know his discontent. “Not everyone can silently suffer from your actions,” he told me, referring to government officials. “No. People’s lives have been really rough, and you should reflect on yourself.”
In the hour that he was there, Zhang said, protesters were mostly chanting slogans that stayed close to opposing zero-covid policies—like the now-famous line “Say no to covid tests, yes to food. No to lockdowns, yes to freedom,” which came from a protest by one Chinese citizen, Peng Lifa, right before China’s heavily guarded party congress meeting last month.
While Peng hasn’t been seen in public since, his slogans have been heard and seen everywhere in China over the past week. Relaxing China’s strict pandemic control measures, which often don’t reflect a scientific understanding of the virus, is the most essential—and most agreed-upon—demand.
Biotech labs are using AI inspired by DALL-E to invent new drugs
Today, two labs separately announced programs that use diffusion models to generate designs for novel proteins with more precision than ever before. Generate Biomedicines, a Boston-based startup, revealed a program called Chroma, which the company describes as the “DALL-E 2 of biology.”
At the same time, a team at the University of Washington led by biologist David Baker has built a similar program called RoseTTAFold Diffusion. In a preprint paper posted online today, Baker and his colleagues show that their model can generate precise designs for novel proteins that can then be brought to life in the lab. “We’re generating proteins with really no similarity to existing ones,” says Brian Trippe, one of the co-developers of RoseTTAFold.
These protein generators can be directed to produce designs for proteins with specific properties, such as shape or size or function. In effect, this makes it possible to come up with new proteins to do particular jobs on demand. Researchers hope that this will eventually lead to the development of new and more effective drugs. “We can discover in minutes what took evolution millions of years,” says Gevorg Grigoryan, CEO of Generate Biomedicines.
“What is notable about this work is the generation of proteins according to desired constraints,” says Ava Amini, a biophysicist at Microsoft Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Proteins are the fundamental building blocks of living systems. In animals, they digest food, contract muscles, detect light, drive the immune system, and so much more. When people get sick, proteins play a part.
Proteins are thus prime targets for drugs. And many of today’s newest drugs are protein based themselves. “Nature uses proteins for essentially everything,” says Grigoryan. “The promise that offers for therapeutic interventions is really immense.”
But drug designers currently have to draw on an ingredient list made up of natural proteins. The goal of protein generation is to extend that list with a nearly infinite pool of computer-designed ones.
Computational techniques for designing proteins are not new. But previous approaches have been slow and not great at designing large proteins or protein complexes—molecular machines made up of multiple proteins coupled together. And such proteins are often crucial for treating diseases.