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The next Venus missions will tell us about habitable worlds elsewhere



The next Venus missions will tell us about habitable worlds elsewhere

As our exoplanet discoveries continue to pile up (and we’ve spotted over 11,000 possible exoplanets so far) we need to learn whether an Earth-sized planet is more likely to look like Earth, or more likely to look like Venus. “We don’t know which of those outcomes is the expected or likely one,” says Paul Byrne, a planetary scientist at North Carolina State University. And to find that out we need to understand Venus a lot better.

Most scientists would agree that any habitable exoplanets would need to have water.

With surface temperatures of 471 °C and surface pressures 89 times worse than Earth’s, it seems impossible that water might have once existed on Venus. But Venus and Earth are about the same size, same ages, and our best guess is they are made of comparable materials and were born with very similar starting conditions. Venus is 30% closer to the sun than Earth, which is significant, but not overwhelmingly so. And yet after 4.5 billion years, these two planets have fared very differently.

In fact, there’s mounting evidence that Venus might have been home to water long ago. The Pioneer Venus missions launched in 1978 made some tantalizing measurements of the deuterium-hydrogen ratio in the atmosphere, suggesting Venus had lost a ton of water over time. But we’ve never had a proper mission that could study this history of water on Venus, look for ancient water flow features on the surface, or understand whether it possessed the kind of geological and climatological conditions that are essential for water and for habitable conditions.

“There may have been two habitable worlds side by side for an unknown amount of time in our solar system,” says Giada Arney, the deputy principal investigator for DAVINCI+. Although Venus is uninhabitable today, the fact that it may have been habitable at one point means it wasn’t always destined for such a hellish fate if circumstances broke a little more favorably. 

And that’s good news for how we evaluate distant exoplanets. “Looking beyond the solar system, this might also suggest habitable planets are more common than we previously anticipated,” says Arney.

There are two leading theories for what happened to Venus—and they both have implications for what we might expect on other exoplanets. The first, consistent with our current-yet-limited observations, is that Venus started off as a hot mess from the get-go and never relented. See, the closer a planet orbits its host star, the more likely it is to rotate slowly (or even tidally locked where one side permanently faces the star, like the moon is around Earth). 

Slow rotators like Venus generally have a harder time maintaining a global climate that is cool and comfortable—and for a while it was assumed this is probably what drove Venus to become hot and unbearable. The sun’s rays bombarded the planet with heat, and a steam-rich atmosphere never condensed into liquid water on the surface. Meanwhile, the carbon dioxide, water, and sulfur dioxide gases in the air worked as greenhouse gases that only served to trap all that heat. And it stayed that way for 4 billion years, give or take. 

Then there’s a new theory that’s been recently developed by Michael Way and others at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. That model shows that if you make a few small tweaks in these planets’ climates, they can develop hemisphere-long cloud forms that consistently face against the host star, reflecting a lot of stellar heat. As a result, a planet like Venus stays temperate and the atmospheric steam condenses into liquid oceans on the surface. Way’s work shows that once you reach this point, the planet can self-regulate its temperature as long as other Earth-like processes like plate tectonics (which helps remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere) can mitigate greenhouse gas buildup. 

It’s a complicated hypothesis, full of caveats. And if Venus is evidence that slow rotators can develop more habitable conditions, it’s also evidence that these conditions are fragile and potentially fleeting. People who buy into Way’s model think what probably happened on Venus is that a massive amount of volcanic activity overwhelmed the planet with carbon and turned the atmosphere 96% carbon dioxide, overriding whatever relief plate tectonics could provide. 

And yet, it’s a hypothesis worth testing through DAVINCI+ and VERITAS, because as Arney points out, many of the potentially habitable exoplanets we’ve discovered are slow rotators that orbit low-mass stars. Because these stars are dimmer, planets must usually orbit them close by in order to receive enough heat to allow for liquid water formation. If they form hemisphere-long clouds, they might be able to preserve habitable climates. The only way we can currently probe whether this hypothesis makes sense is to first see whether it may have happened on Venus. 

But before we can apply Way’s model to other exoplanets, we need to determine whether it explains Venus. DAVINCI+ will descend into Venus and directly probe the atmosphere’s chemistry and composition, as well as image the surface on its way down. It should be able to collect the type of data that helps tell us whether Venus really was wet earlier in its life, and also flesh out more of its climate history and whether a hemisphere-long cloud could have really formed. 

The VERITAS orbiter will interrogate the geology of the planet, taking high-resolution imagery through radar observations that might be able to detect evidence of terrain or landforms created by water flows or past tectonics. The most exciting target might be the tessera: heavily deformed highland regions that are thought to be the oldest geologic features on the planet. If VERITAS spots evidence of ancient oceans—or at the very least, of the kind of geological activity that could have kept the planet more temperate long ago— it will support the notion that other slow-rotating exoplanets could achieve the same conditions.

“To think about them going together really makes it sort of a complementary mega-mission,” says Lauren Jozwiak, a planetary scientist at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory who’s working on the VERITAS mission. “This idea that you’d want to both do geologic mapping and atmospheric probing has been at the heart of how you’d want to investigate Venus,” says Jozwiak.

Ultimately, if Venus was always uninhabitable, then the reason probably has to do with its proximity to the sun. So any exoplanet of similar size that’s proportionally close to its own star is probably going to be like Venus. And we’d be better off focusing more investigations on exoplanets that are farther out from their stars. 

On the other hand, if Venus had a period of cool before it turned into a permanent oven, it means we should take “Venus-zone” exoplanets seriously, since they may yet still be habitable. It also suggests factors like plate tectonics and volcanism play a critical role in mediating habitable conditions, and we need to find ways of investigating these things on distant worlds as well. 

The more we ponder what DAVINCI+ and VERITAS could achieve, the more it seems as if we’re actually underestimating how excited we should be. These next missions will “completely change how we think about both Venus and planetary formation in general,” says Jozwiak. “It’s an exciting time to figure out if Venus is the ‘once and future Earth.’”


The Download: Amazon’s home-guarding robot, and covid’s violent legacy




This is today’s edition of The Download, our weekday newsletter that provides a daily dose of what’s going on in the world of technology.

Amazon has a new plan for its home robot Astro: to guard your life

The news: Amazon announced yesterday that its home robot, Astro, will be getting a slew of major updates aimed at further embedding it in homes—and in our daily lives.

The details: The new features offer more home monitoring. Astro will be able to watch pets and send a video feed of their activities to users, for example. But the robot will also be able to wander around the house to keep an eye on rooms and entry points. Amazon also announced a new collaboration between Astro and the Ring home security camera system designed to protect areas outside the home from possible break-ins. 

Why it matters: Ring’s approach to surveillance hasn’t been without controversy. It’s reasonable to ask whether combining Astro’s ability to roam around a house with Ring’s established surveillance system might create even more problems than either product did in their previous iterations. Read the full story.

—Tanya Basu

The pandemic created a “perfect storm” for Black women at risk of domestic violence

Starr Davis was smitten when she met a handsome stranger with flawless skin and a wide smile in March 2020. He was charming and persistent; but their whirlwind romance took a major turn when she fell pregnant. His aggressive behavior started to make her uncomfortable, but he was the father of her child.

He became physically abusive a few weeks after she moved in with him. He forbade her from setting foot outside, saying it was to protect her and their unborn child from covid. With no friends or close family nearby for support, she suffered in silence.

Covid seems to have made things worse for many women experiencing violence at home. Anti-domestic-violence advocates point to dramatic increases in calls to shelters and support groups, and many care workers say this increase in domestic violence seems to have disproportionately affected Black women like Davis. Read the full story.

—Chandra Thomas Whitfield

Podcast: AI births digital humans

In the latest episode of our podcast, In Machines We Trust, we dig into the world of digital twins: AI-powered replicas designed to capture the physical look and expressions of real humans. But although the entertainment industry is embracing them, they raise familiar, thorny questions about ownership and digital rights. Listen to it on Apple Podcasts, or wherever else you usually listen.

The must-reads

I’ve combed the internet to find you today’s most fun/important/scary/fascinating stories about technology.

1 Sweden has found a new leak in the Nord Stream pipeline
Russia is still denying any responsibility for attacking the gas pipeline, as the number of known leaks reaches four. (BBC)
+ Finding someone to blame is easier said than done. (Wired $)
+ The methane leak is likely to be the biggest ever, by far. (AP News)
+ The country’s tech imports have collapsed under sanctions. (Insider $)
+ Russia hasn’t been honest about the state of the pipeline for quite some time. (Slate $)

2 A bionic pancreas could solve one of the biggest challenges of diabetes
An algorithm takes over the arduous job of counting carbohydrates. (MIT Technology Review)

3 Crypto is still in crisis
Senior executives are still departing major firms, and investors are still wary. (Bloomberg $)
+ Do Kwon, the missing Terraform boss, has called the case against him ‘unfair.’ (Bloomberg $)
+ Crypto is weathering a bitter storm. Some still hold on for dear life. (MIT Technology Review)

4 A teenager died after a telehealth provider prescribed him antidepressants 
The company failed to obtain consent from the minor’s parents. (WSJ $)

5 China’s chipmakers are being investigated
Which is dealing the industry’s dreams of self-sufficiency a heavy blow. (FT $)
+ Corruption is sending shock waves through China’s chipmaking industry. (MIT Technology Review)
+ There are no chip reserves. (Vox)

6 What it’s like being trapped in a driverless car
The vehicles work pretty well—until they don’t. (NYT $)
+ The big new idea for making self-driving cars that can go anywhere. (MIT Technology Review)

7 How good bacteria can fight malnutrition
Food that rebalances malnourished microbiomes can help children to grow. (Economist $)
+ Choanoflagellates are tiny creatures that also harbor bacteria communities. (The Atlantic $)

8 Tech startups are helping to rebuild Bosnia
Its up-and-coming businesses want to reverse the war-scarred nation’s brain drain. (Rest of World)

9 TikTok is making it harder for record execs to discover new musicians
There’s plenty of chaff to separate from the wheat. (The Guardian)
+ A car-renting couple have been tracking their customers on the platform. (Motherboard)
+ Investors are growing tired of chasing TikTok-style social apps. (The Information $)

10 The CIA is investing in tech to resurrect mammoths 🦣
It uses CRISPR gene editing to create optimized genetic code. (Intercept)

Quote of the day

“Everything is possible if you’re brave.”

—Katherin Bestandig, a regular at the Bam Bam Beach Bitcoin Bar in Lagos, Portugal, describes her bold approach to investing in volatile cryptocurrency to the New York Times.

The big story

Why the balance of power in tech is shifting toward workers

February 2022

Something has changed for tech giants. Even as they continue to hold tremendous influence in our daily lives, a growing accountability movement has begun to check their power. Led in large part by tech workers themselves, a movement seeking reform of how these companies do business has taken on unprecedented momentum, particularly in the past year.

Concerns and anger over tech companies’ impact in the world is nothing new, of course. What’s changed is that workers are increasingly getting organized. Read the full story.

—Jane Lytvynenko

We can still have nice things

A place for comfort, fun and distraction in these weird times. (Got any ideas? Drop me a line or tweet ’em at me.)

+ Ever feel like you’re being watched?
+ It’s up to you, New York!
+ Forget the gym, all the coolest cats are bouldering these days.
+ Lizzo visiting the Library of Congress to play a priceless flute is the serotonin boost I needed today.
+ A helpful reminder that all on LinkedIn is not as it seems (thanks Beth!)

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Meta’s new AI can turn text prompts into videos



Meta’s new AI can turn text prompts into videos

Although the effect is rather crude, the system offers an early glimpse of what’s coming next for generative artificial intelligence, and it is the next obvious step from the text-to-image AI systems that have caused huge excitement this year. 

Meta’s announcement of Make-A-Video, which is not yet being made available to the public, will likely prompt other AI labs to release their own versions. It also raises some big ethical questions. 

In the last month alone, AI lab OpenAI has made its latest text-to-image AI system DALL-E available to everyone, and AI startup Stability.AI launched Stable Diffusion, an open-source text-to-image system.

But text-to-video AI comes with some even greater challenges. For one, these models need a vast amount of computing power. They are an even bigger computational lift than large text-to-image AI models, which use millions of images to train, because putting together just one short video requires hundreds of images. That means it’s really only large tech companies that can afford to build these systems for the foreseeable future. They’re also trickier to train, because there aren’t large-scale data sets of high-quality videos paired with text. 

To work around this, Meta combined data from three open-source image and video data sets to train its model. Standard text-image data sets of labeled still images helped the AI learn what objects are called and what they look like. And a database of videos helped it learn how those objects are supposed to move in the world. The combination of the two approaches helped Make-A-Video, which is described in a non-peer-reviewed paper published today, generate videos from text at scale.

Tanmay Gupta, a computer vision research scientist at the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, says Meta’s results are promising. The videos it’s shared show that the model can capture 3D shapes as the camera rotates. The model also has some notion of depth and understanding of lighting. Gupta says some details and movements are decently done and convincing. 

However, “there’s plenty of room for the research community to improve on, especially if these systems are to be used for video editing and professional content creation,” he adds. In particular, it’s still tough to model complex interactions between objects. 

In the video generated by the prompt “An artist’s brush painting on a canvas,” the brush moves over the canvas, but strokes on the canvas aren’t realistic. “I would love to see these models succeed at generating a sequence of interactions, such as ‘The man picks up a book from the shelf, puts on his glasses, and sits down to read it while drinking a cup of coffee,’” Gupta says. 

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How AI is helping birth digital humans that look and sound just like us



How AI is helping birth digital humans that look and sound just like us

Jennifer: And the team has also been exploring how these digital twins can be useful beyond the 2D world of a video conference. 

Greg Cross: I guess the.. the big, you know, shift that’s coming right at the moment is the move from the 2D world of the internet, into the 3D world of the metaverse. So, I mean, and that, and that’s something we’ve always thought about and we’ve always been preparing for, I mean, Jack exists in full 3D, um, You know, Jack exists as a full body. So I mean, Jack can, you know, today we have, you know, we’re building augmented reality, prototypes of Jack walking around on a golf course. And, you know, we can go and ask Jack, how, how should we play this hole? Um, so these are some of the things that we are starting to imagine in terms of the way in which digital people, the way in which digital celebrities. Interact with us as we move into the 3D world.

Jennifer: And he thinks this technology can go a lot further.

Greg Cross: Healthcare and education are two amazing applications of this type of technology. And it’s amazing because we don’t have enough real people to deliver healthcare and education in the real world. So, I mean, so you can, you know, you can imagine how you can use a digital workforce to augment. And, and extend the skills and capability, not replace, but extend the skills and, and capabilities of real people. 

Jennifer: This episode was produced by Anthony Green with help from Emma Cillekens. It was edited by me and Mat Honan, mixed by Garret Lang… with original music from Jacob Gorski.   

If you have an idea for a story or something you’d like to hear, please drop a note to podcasts at technology review dot com.

Thanks for listening… I’m Jennifer Strong.

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