Should Elon Musk own outer space?
Ingenuism Weekly 32
“Without reflection, we go blindly on our way, creating more unintended consequences, and failing to achieve anything useful.” –Margaret J. Wheatley
Viral: The Origin of Covid-19 -- Matt Ridley and Yaron Brook
In this video, Yaron Brook and author Matt Ridley discuss the origins of the Covid-19 virus. What are the implications of the Lab Leak Theory? What is the probability the virus came directly from nature? What are the implications for progress and human wellbeing?
Ridley is the co-author, along with Alina Chan, of Viral: The Search For the Origins of Covid-19.
Unintended Consequences – Silicon Valley Examined 21
In this episode of the Silicon Valley Examined podcast, Robert Hendershott and Don Watkins discuss the role of unintended consequences in human progress. Along the way they cover issues like the problem space junk, the tragedy of the commons, and the risks of optimism.
Should Elon Musk own outer space?
Don Watkins and Robert Hendershott
Space junk is an increasing problem. In November, for example, the International Space Station had to dodge debris from a 2007 antisatellite weapons test by China. And that same month, Russia compounded the problem with its own antisatellite test.
The earth’s orbit is becoming hazardous. According to NASA:
More than 27,000 pieces of orbital debris, or “space junk,” are tracked by the Department of Defense’s global Space Surveillance Network (SSN) sensors. Much more debris -- too small to be tracked, but large enough to threaten human spaceflight and robotic missions -- exists in the near-Earth space environment. Since both the debris and spacecraft are traveling at extremely high speeds (approximately 15,700 mph in low Earth orbit), an impact of even a tiny piece of orbital debris with a spacecraft could create big problems.
So…that’s not good.
There are some technological solutions on the horizon that can help with this problem. One company built a satellite, MEV-1, that can grab, repair, and move other satellites in orbit.
Under the contract, MEV-1 is to extend the lifetime of Intelsat 901 by five years. MEV-1 will then push it to a higher orbit known as the graveyard, where it will be decommissioned and not in danger of colliding with other satellites. Designed to last 15 years, MEV-1 will then undock and can be sent to help another satellite.
Other startups are exploring alternative strategies for cost-effectively reducing space junk.
But we’re a long way from dealing with the thousands of other pieces of debris orbiting the earth. So what’s the solution?
Well, it starts by getting clear on the problem. The space junk challenge is an example of the tragedy of the commons. In standard economic analysis, if a group of people can, say, all use a certain area of grassland for grazing, then each person has an incentive to let their animals chow down on as much of the grass as possible. Meanwhile, none of them has an incentive to plant new grass, since the benefits will probably go to their neighbors. What you get is…well, a tragedy.
And that’s basically what’s happening with space junk. Anyone can put pretty much anything they want into orbit and so there’s nothing preventing us from making it so crowded and dangerous that it becomes effectively useless.
The traditional solution to the tragedy of the commons is to get rid of the commons—that is, to establish private property rights. If my animals graze on my land, I have an incentive to use my land intelligently, to plant new grass, all that good stuff.
But how would that apply to space? Does everyone alive today get ownership over a slice of space? Do we just say, “First one to make it to Mars owns space”? It seems like that has some serious downsides.
Or we could treat space like we do Antarctica and basically just prohibit everything. But that’s the kind of cure that’s worse than the illness.
We think the most promising approach is to look at how we try to deal with the tragedy of the commons in the earth’s atmosphere, where pollution effectively acts as “space junk.”
One way to deal with air pollution is for regulators to simply dictate what kinds of technologies we can use or issue a one-size-fits-all cap on pollutants.
But some places have in effect created property rights for emissions of pollutants such as nitrogen oxide and sulphur oxide. These are cap and trade schemes where there’s an overall limit on emissions, but where companies can buy and sell the right to emit so that we can keep air safe while ensuring that we can continue to conduct crucial productive activities like energy generation.
You could image a similar cap and trade scheme for the earth’s orbit, with extra credits going to anyone who removes space junk.
We’re not saying this is the definitive solution. Above all, it doesn’t take into account that we’re not dealing with a single government defining and enforcing rights, which raises a whole bunch of difficulties. See, for instance, the challenges involved in securing maritime rights.
But as space becomes a more and more important frontier in human progress, we need to start thinking about property rights in space now—before the failure to define property rights creates major problems. If we don’t, it will be a tragedy.
Get back and move forward
I’m not a huge Beatles fan, but I was absolutely riveted by the 3-part documentary Get Back. What was fascinating was how similar their songwriting process was to innovation more generally. Four creative, connected minds engaging in a process of exploration and discovery leading them to write Let It Be in a couple weeks.
Not the song. The entire freaking album.
But the other super-cool thing is how much ingenuity went into making the documentary. The video quality was so good it looked like the thing had been filmed last week. What made that possible? Artificial intelligence.
No one could deny that Michael's original footage was in desperate need of a clean up. The original film was shot on 16 mm cameras and then put on to 35 mm film – do you know what that equals? Film grain on more film grain! After being carefully restored using A.I. as well as manual quality checks, the new footage feels genuinely modern, and will put anyone watching it right in the moment!
I can’t wait to see this applied to other film projects.
From impossible to inevitable
Nuclear fusion is still a highly speculative energy source, but more and more people are betting it will become a reality. The latest news: a fusion startup, Commonwealth Fusion, just raised $1.8 billion from investors.
Nuclear fusion has long been the holy grail of the energy world. Fusion is the process of generating energy by melding atoms. Current nuclear power plants create energy through nuclear fission, or splitting atoms. Fusion has the potential to create nearly limitless energy using common elements such as hydrogen, and has the added benefit of generating little to no long-lived nuclear waste.
But despite decades of research, no one to date has been able to produce net energy through fusion—or more energy than it takes to create a fusion reaction. Private firms are vying to be the first not only to create net-energy machines, but to commercialize them by delivering electricity to the grid on the scale of a power plant.
“Everything is science fiction until someone does it and then all of a sudden it goes from impossible to inevitable,” said Bob Mumgaard, chief executive of Commonwealth Fusion, which was spun out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2018.
Zooming out, Nature makes the case for fusion energy. So much of our energy conversation focuses on what kinds of energy to ban. It’s encouraging that some people are asking how we can make energy far more abundant.
What’s the ethical basis of progress studies?
That’s the question raised by this Twitter thread. Some interesting thoughts from Jason Crawford and Patrick Collison. The consensus seems to be that there is no ethical consensus, which sounds about right.
I think there is, however, a broad agreement on humanism and the desire to see people flourish, which is sufficient for most progress-related issues. Ingenuity is the foundational source for people flourishing and it is an ethical imperative that nothing get in the way of people being able to apply and benefit from their ingenuity.
Why Netflix doesn’t crash
When you think about what makes products and services amazing, it’s natural to focus on the features. Trying to choose between streaming services? Who has the best content at the lowest price?
But a lot of what goes into the overall experience of a product isn’t so obvious. Example: have you ever noticed that Netflix is way less frustrating to use than other streaming services?
Open Connect is Netflix’s in-house content distribution network specifically built to deliver its TV shows and movies. Started in 2012, the program involves Netflix giving internet service providers physical appliances that allow them to localize traffic. These appliances store copies of Netflix content to create less strain on networks by eliminating the number of channels that content has to pass through to reach the user trying to play it.
Most major streaming services rely on third-party content delivery networks (CDNs) to pass along their videos, which is why Netflix’s server network is so unique. Without a system like Open Connect or a third-party CDN in place, a request for content by an ISP has to “go through a peering point and maybe transit four or five other networks until it gets to the origin, or the place that holds the content,” Will Law, chief architect of media engineering at Akamai, a major content delivery network, tells The Verge. Not only does that slow down delivery, but it’s expensive since ISPs may have to pay to access that content.
It's incredible how much brain power goes into solving problems that we never hear about—and don’t appreciate—because they have been solved.
The most timely news story of all time
Literally five minutes ago I found out I have a flat tire on my car, so I’ve never been more thrilled to learn that we might be on the verge of puncture-proof airless car tires.
Michelin believes airless tires will improve everyone’s lives. With tires less susceptible to wear from the roads, maintenance costs for company’s vehicle fleets will be less expensive, while inexperienced car owners won’t accidentally ruin their rubbers by driving them while they are over- or under-inflated.
No current price has been suggested, and even though they’ve been in development since 2005, they aren’t likely to be available for another 24-36 months. In another 30 years, Michelin hope to manufacture only airless tires, with 100% recycled material.
Until next time,
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