They become analog computations instead of digital

Thursday, August 1st, 2019

University of Michigan engineers are claiming the first memristor-based programmable computer for AI that can work on all its own.

“Memory is really the bottleneck,” says University of Michigan professor Wei Lu. “Machine learning models are getting larger and larger, and we don’t have enough on-chip memory to store the weights.” Going off-chip for data, to DRAM, say, can take 100 times as much computing time and energy. Even if you do have everything you need stored in on-chip memory, moving it back and forth to the computing core also takes too much time and energy, he says. “Instead, you do the computing in the memory.”

His lab has been working with memristors (also called resistive RAM, or RRAM), which store data as resistance, for more than a decade and has demonstrated the mechanics of their potential to efficiently perform AI computations such as the multiply-and-accumulate operations at the heart of deep learning. Arrays of memristors can do these tasks efficiently because they become analog computations instead of digital.

The new chip combines an array of 5,832 memristors with an OpenRISC processor, 486 specially-designed digital-to-analog converters, 162 analog-to-digital converters, and two mixed-signal interfaces act as translators between the memristors’ analog computations and the main processor.

Scientists created the first memristor 11 years ago and foresaw their use in neural nets.

The porous nature of the wafer increases the total surface area of the battery by up to 70 times

Tuesday, July 30th, 2019

The key difference between a conventional Lithium-ion battery and an XNRGI Powerchip battery is that conventional Lithium-ion batteries use a graphite slurry on a two-dimensional conductor as a building material, while the XNRGI battery uses lithium metal in a three-dimensional porous silicon wafer:

The best part is that XNRGI batteries are made with older, thicker wafers that are no longer in demand. Worldwide infrastructure already exists to manufacture these wafers cheaply, and in great quantity.

The advantage of using silicon wafers to build a battery depends on another well-established semiconductor process. The XNRGI design uses perforated wafers to create a waffle-like surface. Each 12-inch silicon disc can carry up to 160 million microscopic pores. Then the wafers are coated with a non-conductive surface on one side. The other side of the wafer is coated with a conductive metal to carry the electrical current.

“The metal coatings we use are taken from the chip industry,” D’Couto said, “and the insulating coatings are taken from the chip industry and used here. We are not inventing anything on the process side.”

The porous nature of the wafer increases the total surface area of the battery by up to 70 times compared to a two-dimensional surface. Each pore is physically separated from its neighbors, which helps eliminate internal short-circuits and helps the battery resist degradation over time and use.

“Each of these little holes is effectively a very tiny battery,” D’Couto observed. “When any of those individually fail, the failure doesn’t propagate. This architecture makes the battery completely safe by preventing thermal runaway and explosions.”

XNRGI’s wafer technology is designed to go on the anode side of a battery. When a battery is fully charged, the anode is like a bucket of electrons. As the battery discharges, the electrons flow through the circuit to the cathode side of the battery. When the battery is recharged, the anode bucket refills.

“Today when you talk about a Lithium-ion battery, it’s made of lithium intercalated with graphite,” D’Couto explained. “Since the inception of lithium-ion batteries, graphite has been used on the anode side to provide a parking spot for the lithium ions to land and take off.”

One huge advantage of the porous silicon wafer design is that the XNRGI anode has 70 times more surface area than a graphite anode and uses pure lithium metal, giving the Powerchip’s anode about 10 times the energy density of existing lithium-ion battery anodes.

“We get more energy density because of the three-dimensional increase in surface area,” D’Couto stated.

One reason that rechargeable batteries degrade over time is that as the anode goes through repeated discharge and charge cycles, it gets a chemical buildup on the anode surface. This buildup is called a “dendrite” and it looks like a limestone stalactite. Dendrites can eventually pierce the physical separator between the anode and the cathode and short out the battery.

“When the dendrite punches through the separator, you get a rapid failure of the battery,” D’Couto explained.

Lithium ions also carry other materials that build up like plaque on the separator between the anode and cathode sides of the battery, essentially clogging up the battery and reducing performance. The XNRGI anode resists dendrite formation and extends battery life because of the non-conductive coating on the silicon wafer. The elements carried along with the lithium ions don’t stick to that surface and so cannot easily form dendrites or build up plaque.

D’Couto estimates that an XNRGI Powerchip batter will offer three to five times longer service life than a Lithium-ion battery can achieve today.

The increased surface area inside a Powerchip means the battery can discharge and recharge much more quickly than conventional Lithium-ion cells. That means more power is available when you’re driving. More importantly, it means quicker recharging.

According to D’Couto, the Powerchip anode is capable of achieving an 80% recharge from empty in 15 minutes. The more common 10% to 90% recharge is also targeted at 15 minutes. In addition to fast charging, XNRGI estimates that Powerchip batteries will increase EV range up to 280% compared to a conventional Lithium-ion battery pack of the same weight. For reference, that means a current EV with 250 miles of range (as many have) would have a 700-mile range.

The XNRGI battery is also much lighter than today’s cells. Automakers could choose to make lighter and more efficient EVs, or put more batteries into the car for even longer range at the existing weight.

Zoltan believed he could still turn his ancient missiles into lethal weapons

Thursday, July 25th, 2019

The Serbian battery commander whose missiles downed an American F-16 and F-117 in 1999 retired as a colonel a few years later and revealed how he did it:

Zoltan had about 200 troops under his command. He got to know them well, trained hard and made sure everyone could do what was expected of them. This level of quality leadership was essential, for Zoltan’s achievements were a group effort.

Zoltan used a lot of effective techniques that American air defense experts expected, but did not expect to encounter because of poor leadership by the enemy. For example, Zoltan knew that his major foe was HARM (anti-radar) missiles and electronic detection systems used by the Americans, as well as smart bombs from aircraft who had spotted him. To get around this, he used landlines for all his communications (no cell phones or radio). This was more of a hassle, often requiring him to use messengers on foot or in cars. But it meant the American intel people overhead were never sure where he was.

His radars and missile launchers were moved frequently, meaning that some of his people were always busy looking for new sites to set up in, or setting up or taking down the equipment. His battery traveled over 100,000 kilometers during the 78 day NATO bombing campaign, just to avoid getting hit. They did, and his troops knew all that effort was worth the effort.

The Serbs had spies outside the Italian airbase most of the bombers operated from. When the bombers took off, the information on what aircraft they, and how many, quickly made it to Zoltan and the other battery commanders.

Zoltan studied all the information he could get on American stealth technology, and the F-117. There was a lot of unclassified data, and speculation, out there. He developed some ideas on how to beat stealth, based on the fact that the technology didn’t make the F-117 invisible to radar, just very to get, and keep, a good idea of exactly where the aircraft was. Zoltan figured out how to tweak his radars to get a better lock on stealth type targets. This has not been discussed openly.

The Serbs also set up a system of human observers, who would report on sightings of bombers entering Serbia, and track their progress.

The spies and observers enabled Zoltan to keep his radars on for a minimal amount of time. This made it difficult for the American SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses) to use their HARM missiles (that homed in on radar transmissions.) Zoltan never lost a radar to a HARM missile.

Zoltan used the human spotters and brief use of radar, with short range shots at American bombers. The SA-3 was guided from the ground, so you had to use surprise to get an accurate shot in before the target used jamming and evasive maneuvers to make the missile miss. The F-117 he shot down was only 13 kilometers away.

Zoltan got some help from his enemies. The NATO commanders often sent their bombers in along the same routes, and didn’t make a big effort to find out if hotshots like Zoltan were down there, and do something about it. Never underestimate your enemy.

(Hat tip to Alrenous, who mentioned this recently. Frankly, I thought I’d posted about it long ago…)

Rekognition misidentified darker-skinned women as men 31 percent of the time

Wednesday, July 24th, 2019

Amazon’s Rekognition face-recognition software doesn’t always work that well, particularly on people of color:

An MIT study released earlier this year found that Rekognition misidentified darker-skinned women as men 31 percent of the time, yet made no mistakes for lighter-skinned men.

It is the safest force option available

Friday, July 19th, 2019

Rick Smith, CEO of Taser (now Axon Enterprises), does an ask-me-anything on Reddit and surprises the crowd by answering their questions:

Can you please explain why Taser sues medical examiners who cite tasers as a cause of death? And why they push junk science “excited delirium” (a once-obscure medically-unsupported cause of death that, though it predates Taser, has been heavily pushed by the company) explanations rather than the obvious (being electrocuted to death)?

Great question.

First, there is a misperception that TASER sued medical examiners personally—that somehow we’d get monetary damages from them. This could not be further from the truth. The case you are referring to happened in Ohio, where a medical examiner listed the TASER as a cause of death in two different cases. As a result of that ruling, several officers were charged criminally, and many were sued in civil court.

Here’s the problem: there was no supporting evidence that the TASER caused these deaths, and there was ample evidence of other causes of death. In Ohio, the procedure for challenging a medical opinion is to file a challenge in the court—which is exactly what we did. Far from being a spurious claim, we prevailed in court. The judge ruled that the medical examiner had no scientific evidence to support their findings, and the court ordered the TASER be stricken from the cause of death.

I want to be crystal clear: there was never any risk of that medical examiner, or any other, having to pay us a dime. What we wanted was a court to assess the truth of their findings—and that’s what happened. Medical examiners are public officials, and as with any public official, medical examiners have to be able to support their findings with scientific evidence, not personal or political beliefs. We stood up to help defend the officers involved in those incidents and to ensure that medical findings are accurate and supported by science.

Regarding your assertion that electrocution via a TASER is “obvious,” this is not accurate. Electrocution refers to when an electric current passes across the heart and causes it to go into ventricular fibrillation. This is an immediate phenomenon, and the person will lose consciousness within a few seconds. In most cases where there is a death in custody, electrocution can be ruled out by two facts: first, the electrical pathway would need to have the darts in the chest with a current pathway across the heart, and second, the collapse would be immediate. In the vast majority of cases, electrocution can be ruled out because these factors are not present.

We then need to look at other factors involved in these cases. Each year, over 325,000 people die of sudden cardiac death in the U.S. (the #1 cause of death), and another 70,000 people die of drug overdoses. A top trigger for sudden cardiac death is physical exertion and stress (one reason why you see cardiac defibrillators in health clubs). It is hard to imagine a more extreme physical stress and exertion than fighting with the police—and in many cases, people are also under the stress of toxic doses of stimulants like methamphetamines, PCP, or cocaine.

Of course, we continue to do extensive research into how to maximize both the safety and effectiveness of TASER devices. But we also will challenge unsupported claims to ensure the public record is based upon solid science.

Is it really reasonable to suggest that in all 33 wrongful death cases, the person still would have died if they hadn’t been tased?

Yes, there have been cases where the effects of the TASER directly caused a death. There have been a number of fatal injuries related to falls (approximately 15-20) and a number of cases where the energy from a TASER discharge caused combustion of a flammable fluid (approximately 5 cases). So, I do not dispute that TASER weapons have caused deaths.

That said, much of the speculation about direct cardiac risks are not accurate. Our intuitions tend to make us believe that electricity is dangerous. So it’s very difficult to believe that a TASER weapon didn’t cause a death when it happens in an incident where one was used.

However, if you look at the timeline and fact patterns in cases where a subject dies in police custody and there was no TASER used, they tend to follow a similar pattern to the ones in which TASERs are used. In most cases, the fact patterns can rule out a direct cardiac stimulation of VF (see my other answer for details). We then need to look at how much the stress of the TASER contributed to the overall physiologic stress on the individual. We have done several studies in this space, measuring stress either by cortisol levels or by measuring the generation of lactic acid in the bloodstream.

In both cases, the level of physiologic stress caused by a TASER exposure was similar to or less than the pain and stress from pepper spray or physical exertion (such as running or wrestling). It is simply not possible to say that the TASER weapon had no impact, or that the situation would have ended differently if the TASER had not been used. But we can say that, based upon every measure of stress or injury I have seen to date, the risks associated with TASER weapon use are lower than just about every other use-of-force option available today.

I have been hit with a TASER seven times myself, and millions of police officers have been exposed to TASER hits in training with only limited reports of injuries, mostly related to falls. So, while I cannot assure that the TASER weapon is 100 percent safe, I can say I believe it is the safest force option available. And, if the police are ever called to an incident involving one of my family members who becomes violent, I hope they would use the TASER rather than any other force option (once force becomes necessary).

Have you tested the effects of Tasers on people with cardiac abnormalities or other health issues, which may magnify the effects of being hit by a Taser?

Not in people… but in various animal models.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16904553
http://www.aele.org/uk_taser_eval_2006.pdf

It was great, except it neatly sidestepped being shocked as a contributor to cardiovascular stress. Fighting with police and pcp will contribute but I’d imagine every muscle in your body seizing uncontrollably isn’t exactly a non factor.

https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/236947.pdf
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19019594

“Conducted electrical weapons were not more activating of the human stress response than other uses of force.”

Net: they do cause stress, but the studies so far suggest the level of stress is similar or lower than other force options such as physical force

Any comment on a recent NPR study that says the police find the taser less effective than the company claims?

https://www.npr.org/2019/06/27/729922975/despite-widespread-use-police-rate-tasers-as-less-effective-than-believed

Thanks for the question. I think the point of my book “The End of Killing” is, in some ways, this exact point: TASER weapons are not yet as reliable as firearms. That’s the moonshot for the next 10 years. However, today they are already the most effective and reliable non/less-lethal weapons available.

I believe we are very transparent about their effectiveness and limitations. We have entire segments of our training focused on what can go wrong and how to reduce ineffective uses. That said, I want to address your question specifically, and for simplicity and speed, I am going to do something we never get to do: publish exactly what we sent to NPR in our response to their questions. Unfortunately, I don’t think most of this made it into the final story, but without further ado:

The “effectiveness” of TASER® Conducted Energy Weapons (CEWs) cannot be discussed without first defining relative parameters. When reviewing the “effectiveness” of TASER CEWs at a particular agency, one must ask how the agency is defining effectiveness, how the agency is tracking CEW use, whether the agency is including subject compliance with no deployment (display, LASER or arc only), and in probe deployments, whether the agency is documenting the reason why the deployment is classified as ineffective (missed probe, no completed circuit, etc.). Unfortunately, the answers to these questions vary from agency to agency, as does tracking of CEW deployments, resulting in varying and inaccurate “effectiveness” rates.

At the very least, effectiveness should be defined in a manner that encompasses all possible uses of a TASER CEW: probe deployments, drive stuns and display only (to include LASER and arc display). For example, full neuro-muscular incapacitation (NMI) would not apply if a CEW is only displayed and not deployed. A broader definition which accounts for the intended purpose of CEWs in any mode – to gain the subject’s compliance or control – is more appropriate.

The use of CEWs must also be consistently reported to produce reliable results. For example, very few U.S. agencies consider the mere display of a CEW to be a “use of force” even though that display may result in the subject’s compliance. As a result, those display only CEW uses are not reported and are not included in an agency’s CEW effectiveness numbers. Agencies in other countries, on the other hand, often do include “display only” CEW uses in their use of force reports and report very high compliance rates for those uses. As one example, England and Wales reported that between April 2017 and March 2018, 85% of CEWs uses were “display only” and did not require probe deployment or drive stun.

CEW reporting should also take into account the conditions that must be met for probe deployments to have the potential to cause NMI. These required conditions include a completed circuit and sufficient muscle mass (probe spread). If there is no completed circuit (one or two missed probes), there is no potential for NMI without taking additional steps. All users are trained on these required conditions as well as potential causes of not achieving NMI. By including the reasons a deployment did not achieve NMI, an agency can determine if it was caused by environmental or situational factors versus a weapon error, which can guide what action is needed to increase the chance of obtaining NMI (additional officer training or weapon service).

TASER 7, X2 and X26P CEWs

TASER CEWs are the most studied less lethal tool on an officer’s belt with more than 800 reports, abstracts and studies on the safety and effectiveness of TASER weapons. These studies, along with nearly 4 million field deployments over 25 years, establish they are the most safe and effective less-lethal use of force tool available to law enforcement. In fact, it is estimated that TASER CEWs have saved more than 200,000 lives. This figure is derived from Dr. Alexander Eastman’s 2008 research wherein he concluded that 5.4% of the CEW deployments included in his study clearly prevented the use of lethal force, as well as the known number of TASER deployments over the course of the company’s history.

Notwithstanding this wealth of research confirming the safety and effectiveness of TASER CEWs, Axon remains committed to continuous product development that keeps the needs of our customers and the communities they serve top-of-mind. Through extensive voice-of-customer sessions, including police ride-alongs to experience the realities of their jobs firsthand, Axon employees gain insight into customer needs, as well as opportunities for improvement and pain points. Axon engineers are also constantly striving to improve our products with new inventions and developments that may not have been possible just a few years ago. As technology improves, so do our products.

The TASER 7 is the result of Axon’s commitment to develop new, innovative products and improve its existing products. Some of those developments sought to address common reasons why a CEW may not cause NMI, including missed probes, clothing disconnects and insufficient probe spreads. The TASER 7 provides significant changes to range deployments by offering two re-designed cartridge options: the Close Quarters Cartridge with a 12-degree probe spread is optimized to be deployed at a distance of 4 to 12 feet, and the Standoff Cartridge with an 3.5-degree probe spread is optimized to be deployed between 11.5 and 22 feet. The redesigned cartridge also has an improved probe design and increased kinetic energy to provide better connection to the target at angles and through thick clothing.

Assuming all conditions are met, a TASER CEW’s ability to cause NMI in probe mode is determined by its waveform, which is described using three main parameters: pulses per second, pulse duration and charge. All three parameters contribute to a CEW’s ability to cause NMI, and must be considered together. Generally speaking, increasing the pulses per second and charge, and decreasing pulse duration, increases the ability to cause NMI.

When testing its CEWs for effectiveness, Axon uses the human motivation protocol which is published and peer-reviewed. That testing includes a panel of law enforcement and medical experts evaluating whether and to what extent the volunteer experiences NMI, which helps the company determine the effectiveness of a particular CEW model or waveform. All testing completed by Axon indicates the X2 and X26P reliably produce NMI when all conditions are met and, in fact, provide increased effectiveness through charge metering. The X2 also increases the potential for achieving NMI by providing a second shot in the event the first deployment is unsuccessful.

Have you ever felt that police over-use their Taser specifically because it is non-lethal?

This is certainly a concern. It’s one of the reasons we built a recording device called the “dataport” into the original TASER M26 in 1999 and every model since then. The dataport records every trigger pull, so we can determine how many times an officer used a TASER weapon and allow agencies to monitor for overuse. It’s also why we developed the TASERCam (a camera mounted on the TASER), and ultimately why we developed body cameras.

Because a TASER weapon causes far less injury than a firearm, it is certainly more likely to be used. In most cases, this is a good thing, because the risk of injury from a TASER is about 3 injuries per 1,000 uses—which is far less than for other force options such as batons (about 780 injuries per 1,000 uses). So, generally speaking, if officers are using a TASER instead of a firearm, baton, punch, or other physical force, it’s a move in the right direction because it reduces risk of injuries.

The risk is that officers use the TASER instead of patience and verbal skills. This is a phenomenon some call “TASER dependence,” where officers over-rely on the TASER weapon and escalate to use force when they shouldn’t. I believe this is where body cameras can play a huge role in ensuring that agencies can review the specifics of every TASER weapon use and deter overuse. It’s also why we’re using VR technology to build trainings specifically designed to help officers de-escalate tough situations.

Nothing is truly “non-lethal”. At best it’s “less-lethal”.

This one’s worth diving into, and again, forgive the length. Usually I bore my family with these discussions, so it’s actually a treat to nerd out about it at length on Reddit.

Here’s what I think: the terms “non-lethal,” “less-lethal,” and “less-than-lethal” are all terms for the exact same thing—weapons that are designed to deter or stop a threat without killing the target. Sometimes people think these terms describe varying levels of danger, when they don’t—as if a less-lethal weapon was a more dangerous category than a non-lethal weapon. This is a false dichotomy.

These terms are fundamentally synonyms used to describe one concept: weapons that are designed to achieve their effects without causing fatalities as an intended effect. Less-lethal is the term used in policing. I often use non-lethal in writing and in public, since it is the simplest, most widespread label. It remains the term of choice in both academia and the military. The term “non-lethal” describes the intent of weapons that are designed to achieve their effects with a low probability of death or serious damage. However, given the very nature of weaponry and the context in which it’s being used, this risk can never become zero.

As non-lethal weapons became widely adopted by law enforcement, the language used to describe them came under much more intensive legal scrutiny, especially in cases in which police departments were sued for the alleged misuse of those weapons. While the phrase “non-lethal” might get the point across in plain English, it can be a troubling term in a court of law. If one interprets “non-lethal weapon” to mean a weapon that will never cause death, it sets a very high bar. That led to the adoption of different terminology, such as “less-lethal” or “less-than-lethal.”

But as I just noted at the beginning, these terms don’t correspond to any meaningful differences between weapons. In this case, I believe that the clearest distinction is also the most meaningful: the one between lethal weapons (those specifically designed to kill as an intended effect) and non-lethal weapons (those designed to avoid killing, which nevertheless carry some level of risk). That’s the distinction I use, and I find it’s the simplest one.

What’s your opinion about police using tasers as compliance weapons? I’m not talking about drive stun — I’m talking about repeated discharging of the weapon on someone who was already tasered once. I’ve seen quite a few videos where police say, “Roll over (or do X) or else you’re gonna get it again!” after the suspect has been shot once and is already on the ground.

I understand that for a rural officer dealing with an armed man, this is probably warranted and preferable to shooting him. But so many times, I see people who are unarmed and are merely non-compliant (for example, they’re already on the ground but just not rolling over). Taser is meant to incapacitate, and the suspects are already incapacitated — and yet the officer applies it again and again as a compliance tool. Is this how taser should be used? Is this how officers are trained?

This one is, indeed, complicated, as it depends a lot on the circumstances and level of threat perceived. In general, we train that officers should move quickly to rapidly disarm and restrain the subject and to minimize the number of TASER applications. Each subsequent application of a TASER discharge is its own use of force and needs to be justifiable based on the facts and circumstances of each case at the moment the decision was made to apply another discharge. There certainly have been cases where the first TASER discharge was found justifiable, but continued discharges were found unjustifiable.

I’m a current LEO and our department is the only one in the county (on top of being the largest in the county) who dont carry and use tasers. We usually hear the same talk of them being too expensive, too aggressive looking, and them possibly being abused if we got them. I think the town manager is currently for them, but our chief seems to be very much against them. I think we might get body cameras before we actually get tasers.

What are some things we could say to change their minds?

Here are some stats that might help you make your case: https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/232215.pdf. But sometimes stories are more powerful than statistics. Here’s a true story, which, full disclosure, I’m cribbing from my book (hence the italics), but which I think could help:

A highway patrolman is cruising on the interstate when an urgent call comes over his car radio: there’s a disturbance at a residence involving a woman who’s belligerent, possibly intoxicated, and armed. The address is a five-minute drive away, so the officer radios back that he’s en route. He puts on his sirens and speeds to the destination.

When he arrives, two other officers are already at the scene, a darkened, one-story house. The other officers are posted at either side of the screen door, their handguns drawn at their sides. The highway patrolman draws his handgun, edges up to a safe distance, and tries to communicate with the woman through the screen. From the radio dispatcher, the two officers already on the scene, and his communication with the woman, he’s able to piece together the story: she’s recently had two children removed from her care by the Florida Department of Children and Families, she’s deeply distraught, and she’s talking about hurting herself.

In the moment, the cop makes a judgment. He looks at the house, hears the grief in the woman’s voice, and realizes that she isn’t homicidal—she’s suicidal. She is attempting what is known as suicide by cop. She would leave the police no choice but to shoot her. Sensing this, the patrolman holsters his handgun and reaches for his TASER instead.

Seconds later, the woman kicks open the screen door, brandishing butcher knives in each hand. The patrolman fires his TASER device, hitting the woman in the chest and rendering her immobile on the ground. He and the two other officers are able to remove the knives from her clenched hands and to handcuff her without resistance. As they walked her to a waiting police car, one of the officers hears her mumble, “I’m sorry.”

Soon after, the woman’s family members arrive on the scene. Seeing the police cars with their lights flashing and an ambulance that has been called to perform a medical evaluation, they think that the woman has been shot dead. In statements given to the police, they confirm that the woman had discussed her plans to provoke a police officer into shooting her. They aren’t surprised that she has gone through with it; they are surprised that she is still alive.

The story has a postscript, and it takes place several years later. The patrolman who fired the TASER weapon is eating at a local restaurant, when he recognizes one of the servers: it is the woman whose attempt at suicide by cop had failed on that April night, because one of the responding officers was equipped with a non-lethal weapon. The woman recognizes the patrolman, too. She points him out to another employee and says, “See that guy? He saved my life.”

The story of a patrolman who avoided suicide by cop is real. It happened and the police officer shared it with me. Suicide by cop (SBC) is a real phenomenon—and it illustrates just how perverse incentives and behaviors can become when police officers have the ability to take a life. The term goes back to the 1950s, and by one estimate, almost 10 percent of the police shootings that happen every year are attempts at suicide by cop. Dr. Laurence Miller, a clinical and police psychologist, notes that while some incidents evolve in the moment into suicide by cop shootings, many are planned: “While some SBC incidents arise spontaneously out of the anger and panic of these situations, a good number of them appear to be planned, as shown by the fact that in nearly a third of SBC cases investigators find a suicide note that apologizes to the police for deliberately drawing their fire.”

I’ve read some opinions/studies that claim less than lethal weapons increase escalation and police use it instead of de-escalating with words or physical force and not instead of using their gun. Since a taser, or most less lethal weapons, can kill this is obviously not a good thing.

I for one am quite glad the police here don’t carry tasers and most if not all less lethal weapons are illegal for the general public. But on the other hand we don’t have the same issue with gun violence that the US has.

What’s your view of this?

While there is some risk that having less dangerous weapons might lead to more frequent usage, this argument taken to the extreme would conclude that we should only give police officers guns and nothing else. But we give police pepper spray and batons, because even if they are more likely to be used, we believe that they are preferable to firing a gun. We want police to have options—not just to depend on the firearm as their instrument of first and only resort.

Even compared to traditional force tactics like punches, baton strikes, etc., the TASER weapon has a far lower injury rate. (See this study from the Department of Justice. https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/232215.pdf.) If your local police do not have the TASER weapon as an option, the risk of them injuring someone is significantly higher. That’s one reason that every constabulary in the United Kingdom now uses TASER weapons—and the UK is probably at the far end of the spectrum in terms of gun violence compared to the U.S.

Didn’t Axon Enterprises created facial recognition software for use by the police? Did the project really stop, or is it on pause for the moment? Would greater transparency around the process help the public understand the dangers to law enforcement’s use of such technology, particularly given its various constraints and its racist applications? Could you speak to the use of FRT (facial rec technology) by police and why Axon started created the software to be deployed in things like body-worn cameras in the first place? Did no one at Axon notice that they were potentially creating a mass surveillance system?

I really appreciate the question. We specifically have not developed facial recognition software to run on a body camera.

Simply put, the accuracy of the technology—particularly disparities in accuracy across different ethnicities—is highly questionable today. Ultimately, I think the bias problems will be solved, at which point in time we will need to think hard about the appropriateness and constitutionality of using facial recognition on body cameras. We’ll need to decide as a society whether the benefits outweigh the costs. Today, my view is that the benefits do not outweigh the costs.

That said, we are continuing to monitor developments in the facial recognition space, because there’s real potential there to help improve public safety. We’re also working together with an AI ethics advisory board we created before deploying any solutions in this space. Happy to say more if have follow-up questions, but if you want to learn more about all that, you can go here: https://www.axon.com/company/news/responsible-ai. And for something more recent, here: https://www.axon.com/company/news/ai-ethics-board-report.

I appreciate tasers in principle as less-lethal options but I worry about head injuries when I see tasered subjects fall. Has there been any research done in that area?

That’s a meaningful question as injuries from falls are likely the greatest risk. I currently estimate the risk on the order of about 1 fatal fall injury per 200,000 uses (i.e., 20 cases in 4 million field uses). The primary way to reduce the risk is through training—to avoid using a TASER weapon on people at elevated risk from falls. This includes people running, people who are at elevated heights, or who are operating a vehicle of some type. Unfortunately, the act of incapacitation itself does carry the risk of an uncontrolled fall, and while we try to mitigate that risk as best we can, it’s something we can reduce but not eliminate entirely.

Rick, I have read that tasers made for Police use have a setting called drive stun, which is designed to inflict pain in order to Force compliance. this sounds an awful lot like a torture device to me, what sorts of precautions are you considering to keep this from being abused?

From Wikipedia: A Las Vegas police document says “The Drive Stun causes significant localized pain in the area touched by the Taser, but does not have a significant effect on the central nervous system. The Drive Stun does not incapacitate a subject but may assist in taking a subject into custody.”[22] The UCLA Taser incident[23] and the University of Florida Taser incident[24] involved university police officers using their Taser’s “Drive Stun” capability (referred to as a “contact tase” in the University of Florida Offense Report).

Great question. One of the key limitations of today’s TASER weapons is that they only have 1 or 2 shots. So, if the officer deploys the weapon and misses the target and the subject attacks the officer, the officer can press the front of the weapon directly against the body of the subject and it will deliver an electric jolt from the front of the device. This is called a “Drive Stun” as the user must physically push the front of the weapon against the subject.

When we originally designed the device, this was a fall-back defensive measure. However, some agencies had policies where they would remove the cartridge from the front of the weapon and only use the front of the device to deliver a “drive stun.” Because it did not involve firing the darts, some agencies felt this was a lower use-of-force than firing the darts.

What we have seen in the field is that the use of the weapon in drive stun does not cause incapacitation, but rather only pain. So, most agencies have moved away from using the drive stun as a stand-alone capability. In our training guidelines, we recommend against using the drive stun as a primary use case because it is less effective than using the darts.

One powerful positive aspect of the drive stun: our newer weapons (X2 and TASER 7) allow the operator to display a warning arc across the front of the weapon without unloading the cartridges. In the UK, agencies have seen over 80% of situations resolved only by showing the arc display—which means they avoided the need to fire the darts or use any force other than the display of the electric arc.

Much of our training now focuses on how to de-escalate any situation, either through verbal skills or through the display of the arc in attempts to attain cooperation without deploying force. We have also recently deployed VR based training to teach officers better empathy for persons suffering from mental health issues such as autism or schizophrenia. (To see more about this, check out: https://abcnews.go.com/GMA/News/virtual-reality-training-tech-takes-cops-directly-minds/story?id=63125741)

On the topic of avoiding abuse, this was the primary driver for us to create body cameras—to record how police officers were using TASER weapons precisely to deter abuse, and hold officers accountable for their use. I’ll say more about that shortly!

What’s your view on Tranq darts as they seem to be your prime competitor?

Okay, I have to go long on this, because it’s a subject I’ve spent a lot of time on. So my TLDR response, for those who don’t want all the shop talk: I haven’t seen tranquilizer darts deployed by police or military anywhere in the world to date. They get a lot of play in Hollywood movies, but in the real world, I have only seen them used on animals.

The longer answer: If you want to stop someone without requiring physical injury, the best way to do it is to interfere with their command and control system—their nervous system. For all its complexity, the motor nervous system functions via two general mechanisms: electrical and chemical.

On the chemical front, we can think of nerve cells a bit like biological transistors. They switch on and off, passing information around the body. Where two nerve cells meet, the junction is called a synapse. At the synapse, chemicals are released from one nerve cell, and those chemicals stimulate the nerve cell on the other side. We can influence the nervous system through various chemicals, such as anesthetics or paralytic agents. If you have ever had surgery, you have experienced a chemical influence that shut down consciousness across your central nervous system.

There are a wide number of chemical agents we could use to impair someone’s nervous system, but there are only a few ways you could deploy them: primarily through injection or inhalation (or perhaps through skin contact or ingestion). For injection, we have tranquilizer darts, as you asked about, and they are used frequently for subduing wild animals, or large animals in zoos. Darts can inject a tranquilizing drug into the subject, usually using an intra-muscular pathway. But injecting a drug into the muscles is a slower pathway to effectiveness than injecting it directly into the veins — because it takes some time to absorb, which is why if you’ve seen lions on a nature documentary get hit with a dart, they can keep running around for a while before they collapsed. Of course, it’s essentially impossible to hit a moving target in their vein, meaning that instant incapacitation is out. It’s also difficult to control the dosage relative to body size and to predict allergic and other reactions. In fact, in conversations with animal control specialists, we have heard anecdotally that tranquilizer darts have a reasonably high fatality rate, on the order of 10%-20%.

For inhalation, there are nerve agents like nerve gases. Some can be combined with chemical formulations that may allow them to transmit transdermally (through the skin). Most nerve agents that have been created as weapons have been intended for lethal use. Nerve agents typically disrupt the motor nerves at the synapses by preventing the nerve cells from functioning properly. In theory, inhalants could be developed for the intended use of delivering a non-lethal effect. In 2002, Russian special forces tried this. They actually attempted to rescue 850 hostages from 40-50 armed Chechen rebels who had seized control of a Moscow theater in 2002. On the fourth day of the siege, Russian special forces pumped an aerosol anesthetic into the theater. The effects were neither immediate nor entirely safe. It killed a number of hostages and failed to incapacitate many terrorist fighters (apparently some had gas masks). In all, about 200 people died in the raid. (https://www.nytimes.com/2002/10/29/world/hostage-drama-in-moscow-the-toxic-agent-us-suspects-opiate-in-gas-in-russia-raid.html)

So where does that leave us? Well, it brings us back to electricity. As I said, nerve cells are like transistors. While chemistry rules the day at the connections between nerve cells, it is electricity that transmits the signals along nerve fibers. We can impair the command and control systems of the human body by electrical means that stimulate motor nerves using the same mechanism of their normal function. And electricity has some real advantages. Its effects are immediate—there is no waiting for it to take effect. Dosing can be controlled electronically, allowing precise measurement and adjustment. Electricity also has a very large safety margin. The difference between the effective dose and a potentially lethal dose is more than 10-fold, meaning that we should be able to design a weapon that has enough electrical charge to be highly effective while maintaining a significant margin of safety to avoid dangerous unintended effects.

So for those reasons, I’m not particularly worried about tranquilizer darts, and I’m much more sanguine on electricity as the backbone of nonlethal weapons. Forgive the length, but this is something I’ve thought about a lot!

How would you go about transitioning away from lethal weapons for domestic law enforcement when criminals have access to similar weapons but don’t adhere to any principles?

The only way this will happen is if the non-lethal weapons reach a point where they are more effective at stopping the threat than a police pistol. At first, this might sound crazy: “What could be more effective than making somebody dead?” But the truth is that pistols don’t stop people immediately, every time. A bullet from a handgun causes traumatic tissue damage, and 30-50% of the time eventual death. However, an FBI analysis found that a lethal shot directly to the heart may not even stop someone from firing back for up to 14 seconds (the period of time it takes for the brain to shut down from lack of blood flow). During the adrenaline surge of a life-and-death fight, many people don’t even realize they have been shot until it’s over. The only way a bullet from a pistol causes and immediate incapacitation is a hit to the brain or upper spinal cord, which is pretty hard to do under stress.

An upside of electrical weapons is that they can provide a higher degree of incapacitation even if the hit is to a remote portion of the body. The downside is that, today, the ability to put two electrified darts onto the target and through the clothing is less reliable than using a traditional bullet from a police pistol that gives you 17 shots. But these are engineering problems—and I believe we can engineer solutions. Electric effects are more profound and immediate than bullet wounds outside of the central nervous system. We just need to meet or exceed the reliability levels of getting the effect delivered to the target.

Let me say one more thing about this: police officers don’t sign up to become police officers in order to take lives, and you’d be surprised at the negative after-effects of a shooting death on a police officer. There’s an assumption that just because they’re trained to use a firearm professionally that somehow the pain and trauma of taking a life disappears. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Most officers involved in a lethal force incident eventually leave policing, citing the lethal force incident as one of the key reasons–if not the key reason–why they left.

We need better nonlethal weapons, period. Even police were skeptical of our weapons in the early days—based, at least in part, on the principle behind your question–but now they tell us they want the best non-lethal options they can get. If they can deal with a situation without taking someone’s life, that’s the best-case scenario for everyone involved.

As an entrepreneur in the weapons industry, how hard did you have to search to get funding for your ideas? Or did you just fund it entirely yourself?

I’m running into this challenge myself, it seems there’s no clear path to find funding for a product when it involves weapons or firearms. Crowdfunding seems like the obvious answer in my mind but firearms and weapons products are banned on every major crowdfunding platform. I’ve dumped a lot of my own money into my own R&D but taking the product to market is the big leap I can’t afford.

We had to fund TASER entirely via friends and family. Venture capital was allergic to this space, partially because it didn’t easily fit into existing focus areas (such as the internet or health care), and partially because it is inherently controversial.

I believe this is a real problem, and why I challenge the tech industry to rethink their ban on supporting work or even advertising in this space. If we are going to solve the hardest problems facing our society, we need our brightest minds working on these problems, and investors supporting that work. It was a brutal process in creating TASER, and we drove my parents to the brink of financial ruin before turning the corner in 1999. The first outside capital we ever raised was in an IPO in 2001 – after we had already proven the business a success. I wish I had a better answer for you, but raising money in this space is insanely hard. Your best bet is to find angels who believe in your mission.

What are the plans for extending distance and accuracy for future models?

One of the ideas for long-range is to use drones to carry a TASER payload. See https://www.flipsnack.com/endofkillingcomic/the-end-of-killing/full-view.html for an online graphic novel depicting some of those scenarios. To be clear, the drone idea is still a concept, not a product. I put it in the book to get feedback about the idea, the risks, and the possible use cases. Would love your thoughts!

It’s a pretty well-known fact that the taser is named after the book Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle, which featured — at least, according to Wikipedia — Jack Cover’s ‘childhood hero’ Tom Swift.

Be honest: were you and the other early developers all on board with that as a name? Or did you think it was a bit of a strange choice to name it after a children’s book? How did that pitch go?

The name TASER was selected in the late 1960s. I was born in 1970, so the name was set well before I had any input. I would say, though, that when I first started to research the non-lethal weapons space, I thought the name TASER was an amazing brand name. It is powerful in connoting what the device is and does, and honestly, I was surprised when I learned it was an acronym.

Let me also add: Tom Swift was a huge inspiration for a lot of innovators and futurists, including, among others, Ray Kurzweil.

As much as I love it, what concerns me about the product is its high rate of failure. From memory I believe my force cites a 43% success rate upon firing.

43% sounds really low to me. I just saw statics out of the UK showing the success rate of the X2 is 96% when both darts make skin contact with a spread of 30 cm or greater. That number drops to 50% if one dart is in clothing only and the spread is less than 23 cm. So, it’s all about penetrating the clothing and getting good spread conditions. The new TASER 7 is in review for approval in the UK, and we believe it will significantly improve both accuracy and clothing penetration.

Has anyone ever tried to calculate how many lives have been spared already because tasers were used instead of bullets? What’s the next big leap in non-lethal alternatives to guns?

Our estimates put it at over 218,000 instances where TASER weapon was used when police were legally justified to use lethal force. This is based on a study out of Dallas that found in about 5.4% of TASER deployments, police were legally justified to use lethal force. We then multiply that rate by the estimated number of TASER uses in the field (now over 4 million) to get to an estimate.

O course, there is no way of knowing how many of those people would have been shot and either killed or seriously injured, but it’s a pretty good rough-order-of-magnitude estimate of the number of very high-risk situations resolved with a TASER weapon. (For more details on the estimates and the studies: https://www.axon.com/how-safe-are-taser-weapons)

Our Chief recently made the statement in a training that “if it’s not on camera, it didn’t happen.” Cameras can be very helpful in some cases but I feel that they also contribute to an erosion of public trust. No video can show the full picture of an incident and it allows for “armchair quarterbacking.” Graham v Conor specifically states that “a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight.” How do you feel about body cameras being used in direct conflict of that principle?

From my perspective, I think body cameras are really helping rebuild the public trust in police. Without them, all we would have are videos from third-party observers, who only tend to record the end of a confrontation without all of the context leading up to it.

Consider, for instance, the anger and emotion around the Michael Brown incident in Ferguson, Missouri. People formed very strong opinions very quickly, and many people assumed the cop executed an innocent man. The subsequent investigation largely supported the officers’ testimony that he was in the midst of a violent assault. (See this story for the details: https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/post-partisan/wp/2015/03/16/lesson-learned-from-the-shooting-of-michael-brown/?utm_term=.8df35a2aaffd)

If Officer Wilson had been wearing a body camera, I think the facts of the case would have come to light much more quickly, and perhaps we would have seen less anger and distrust toward police. While a body camera cannot capture the exact perceptions happening in the mind of a police officer under stress, the impartial events captured on the camera can help us all get to the truth of the situation faster.

As an aside, I have experienced that most officers don’t want to wear a body camera when it is first proposed. After about 90 days in the field, most refuse to go on patrol without it—because they have already captured an incident that will protect them from a potential complaint.

Is there some level of electricity that would even bring a really strong/big crazy person on a ton of drugs down? Or would it have to be so high it would most likely kill most other people that are smaller or not on such drugs?

Thanks for the question! One advantage of electricity is that it has a large margin between the level we need for an effective dose and a potentially lethal dose. I believe that the output of the TASER 7 is optimized for maximum effect with maximum safety. Namely, we have looked at whether it would make sense to have multiple settings for the electrical output, and the answer is “no.” It would add one more level of confusion for the operator, and I don’t believe it would improve safety.

When TASER weapons fail to subdue a subject, it is almost always due to some circumstance such as a missed probe, a clothing disconnect that breaks the circuit, or a close spread of the darts that does not stimulate enough body mass. We are focusing on improving performance against these areas to ensure an even higher degree of effectiveness in the field.

I have seen many videos where a good TASER weapon connection incapacitates even the most violent offenders, whether they are on drugs or not. Here’s one example of a violent subject on meth: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VVKLulFG5hg

So, the real challenge is solving for effective reliable connection to the target more so than giving the user the ability to adjust electrical output.

Taser does offer a few civilian models: the tiny Pulse, the not-so-gun-like Bolt, and the much larger X26P Professional Series. This is the key point:

All other stun guns only induce pain and do not incapacitate muscle or knock down an attacker. Only a TASER weapon is equipped with neuromuscular incapacitation which will immobilize an attacker.

Hospitals are sonic hellscapes

Wednesday, July 17th, 2019

Hospitals are some of the least restful places imaginable:

Hospitals today can be sonic hellscapes, which studies have shown regularly exceed levels set by the World Health Organization: droning IV pumps, ding-donging nurse call buttons, voices crackling on loudspeakers, ringing telephones, beeping elevators, buzzing ID scanners, clattering carts, coughing, screaming, vomiting.

Then there are the alarms. A single patient might trigger hundreds each day, challenging caregivers to figure out which machine is beeping, and what is wrong with the patient, if anything. (Studies have shown that as many as 99 percent of alarms are false.)

The proliferation of pinging and bleeping can contribute to patient delirium and staff burnout. And because caregivers know that many devices are crying wolf, they might be less responsive or apathetic, a potentially fatal safety issue known as alarm fatigue.

From 2005 to 2008, more than 500 patients in the United States had adverse outcomes, mostly death, because an alarm was ignored, or a device was silenced or mismanaged in some way, according to the Food and Drug Administration, which tracks adverse events involving medical devices.

[...]

Dr. Ozcan, who has had practice translating vast quantities of data into audio cues for the European Space Agency’s mission control dashboards, said her group at the lab was developing devices to hush the intensive care unit, which can be louder than a vacuum cleaner, and challenging conventional device design, possibly even making alarms “beautiful,” she said.

One of her group’s projects, called CareTunes, is a speculative, even quixotic, melodic design.

The device transcribes a patient’s physiological condition into songs that sound a bit like chill electronic dance music. (Ms. Sen was an artistic adviser to the project.)

The melody is derived from a patient’s vital signs: drums for the heartbeat, guitar for oxygen saturation and piano for blood pressure. When a patient is stable, the tune is harmonious, but it becomes dissonant when a patient’s status changes for the worse, ideally grabbing a caregiver’s attention.

You won’t be at the table

Monday, July 15th, 2019

Saleforce.com has announced a ban on its customers selling “military-style rifles,” and this leads Eric S. Raymond to discuss the dangerous folly of “Software as a Service”:

It’s 2019 and I feel like I shouldn’t have to restate the obvious, but if you want to keep control of your business the software you rely on needs to be open-source. All of it. All of it. And you can’t afford it to be tethered to a service provider even if the software itself is nominally open source.

Otherwise, how do you know some political fanatic isn’t going to decide your product is unclean and chop you off at the knees? It’s rifles today, it’ll be anything that can be tagged “hateful” tomorrow — and you won’t be at the table when the victim-studies majors are defining “hate”. Even if you think you’re their ally, you can’t count on escaping the next turn of the purity spiral.

And that’s disregarding all the more mundane risks that come from the fact that your vendor’s business objectives aren’t the same as yours.

Front-seat belts have pretensioners and load limiters

Saturday, July 13th, 2019

Seat belt technology has improved over the years — but only in the front seats, which are now safer than the back seats:

For the sake of comfort, modern seat belts give a little as occupants move. But if a passenger suddenly pitches forward, a mechanism called an inertia-lock retractor will prevent the belt from completely unspooling. This device is used in both front- and rear-seat belts.

“It doesn’t get any tighter,” Mr. Zuby said. “It just stops where it is.”

Front seat belts, though, have two safety features that typically aren’t found in back: a pretensioner and a load limiter.

The pretensioner reels in a seat belt when a vehicle rapidly decelerates, pulling occupants firmly against the seat to prevent them from smashing into the steering wheel or glove compartment. The load limiter causes the belt to loosen slightly if the tension of a passenger launching forward against an unyielding belt reaches a dangerous threshold.

“The idea of a seat belt is twofold,” Mr. Zuby said. “Pretensioners take out slack before the occupant pushes into the belt. Load limiters allow the belt to pay out to make sure the forces that keep you with the car don’t get high enough to injure you, in particular your chest.”

To see what happens in frontal crashes—when seat belts offer the most protection—the Insurance Institute examined injuries to 117 belted rear-seat passengers in collisions that occurred from 2004 through 2015. The occupants in the study, which was published in April, were age 6 or older. The vehicles were model year 2000 or later and were no more than 10 years old at the time of the crash.

Thirty-six of the rear-seat passengers were seriously injured and 81 were killed. More than half were more seriously injured than front-seat passengers in the same crash.

[...]

Since then, a 2013 study by NHTSA has found that front-seat occupants of passenger vehicles wearing seat belts with pretensioners and load limiters had a 12.8% lower fatality risk than occupants restrained by front-seat belts without these technologies.

How to fight a war in space (and get away with it)

Thursday, July 11th, 2019

We depend on satellites, so knocking them out is becoming a military priority:

Today, much more civilian infrastructure relies on GPS and satellite communications, so attacks on them could lead to chaos. The military leans more heavily on satellites too: data and video feeds for armed UAVs, such as the Reaper drones that the US military has flying over Afghanistan and Iraq, are sent via satellite to their human operators. Intelligence and images are also collected by satellites and beamed to operations centers around the world. In the assessment of Chinese analysts, space is used for up to 90% of the US military’s intelligence.

[...]

Non-state actors, as well as more minor powers like North Korea and Iran, are also gaining access to weapons that can bloody the noses of much larger nations in space.

That doesn’t necessarily mean blowing up satellites. Less aggressive methods typically involve cyberattacks to interfere with the data flows between satellites and the ground stations. Some hackers are thought to have done this already.

For example, in 2008, a cyberattack on a ground station in Norway let someone cause 12 minutes of interference with NASA’s Landsat satellites. Later that year, hackers gained access to NASA’s Terra Earth observation satellite and did everything but issue commands.

[...]

There are strong suspicions that Russia has been jamming GPS signals during NATO exercises in Norway and Finland, and using similar tactics in other conflicts. “Russia is absolutely attacking space systems using jammers throughout the Ukraine,” says Weeden. Jamming is hard to distinguish from unintentional interference, making attribution difficult (the US military regularly jams its own communications satellites by accident). A recent report from the US Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) claims that China is now developing jammers that can target a wide range of frequencies, including military communication bands. North Korea is believed to have bought jammers from Russia, and insurgent groups in Iraq and Afghanistan have been known to use them too.

Spoofing, meanwhile, puts out a fake signal that tricks GPS or other satellite receivers on the ground. Again, it’s surprisingly easy. In the summer of 2013, some students at the University of Texas used a briefcase-sized device to spoof a GPS signal and cause an $80 million private yacht to veer hundreds of meters off course in the Mediterranean. Their exploit wasn’t detected (they later announced it themselves).

[...]

There’s no evidence that anyone has yet used lasers to destroy targets in space, though aircraft-borne lasers have been tested against missiles within the atmosphere. The DIA report suggests that China will have a ground-based laser that can destroy a satellite’s optical sensors in low Earth orbit as early as next year (and that will, by the mid-2020s, be capable of damaging the structure of the satellite). Generally, the intention with lasers is not to blast a satellite out of the sky but to overwhelm its image sensor so it can’t photograph sensitive locations. The damage can be temporary, unless the laser is powerful enough to make it permanent.

Lasers need to be aimed very precisely, and to work well they require complex adaptive optics to make up for atmospheric disturbances, much as some large ground-based telescopes do. Yet there is some evidence, all unconfirmed and eminently deniable, that they are already being used. In 2006, US officials claimed that China was aiming lasers at US imaging satellites passing over Chinese territory.

[...]

In November 2016, the Commercial Spaceflight Center at AGI, an aerospace firm, noticed something strange. Shortly after it was launched, a Chinese satellite, supposedly designed to test high-performance solar cells and new propellants, began approaching a number of other Chinese communications satellites, staying in orbit near them before moving on. It got within a few miles of one—dangerously close in space terms. It paid visits to others in 2017 and 2018. Another Chinese satellite, launched last December, released a second object once it reached geostationary orbit that seemed to be under independent control.

The suspicion is that China is practicing for something known as a co-orbital attack, in which an object is sent into orbit near a target satellite, maneuvers itself into position, and then waits for an order. Such exercises could have less aggressive purposes—inspecting other satellites or repairing or disposing of them, perhaps. But co-orbiting might also be used to jam or snoop on enemy satellites’ data, or even to attack them physically.

Russia, too, has been playing about in geostationary orbit. One of its satellites, Olymp-K, began moving about regularly, at one point getting in between two Intelsat commercial satellites. Another time, it got so close to a French-Italian military satellite that the French government called it an act of “espionage.” The US, similarly, has tested a number of small satellites that can maneuver around in space.

We’ve displaced our fears of nuclear weapons onto nuclear power plants

Sunday, June 23rd, 2019

Michael Shellenberger explains (in Forbeswhat HBO’s Chernobyl got wrong:

In interviews around the release of HBO’s “Chernobyl,” screenwriter and show creator Mazin insisted that his mini-series would stick to the facts. “I defer to the less dramatic version of things,” Mazin said, adding, “you don’t want to cross a line into the sensational.”

In truth, “Chernobyl” runs across the line into sensational in the first episode and never looks back.

In one episode, three characters dramatically volunteer to sacrifice their lives to drain radioactive water, but no such event occurred.

“The three men were members of the plant staff with responsibility for that part of the power station and on shift at the time the operation began,” notes Adam Higginbotham, author of, Midnight in Chernobyl, a well-researched new history. “They simply received orders by telephone from the reactor shop manager to open the valves.”

Nor did radiation from the melted reactor crash a helicopter that flew too close, as is suggested in “Chernobyl.” There was a helicopter crash but it took place six months later and had nothing to do with radiation. One of the helicopter’s blades hit a chain dangling from a construction crane.

The most egregious of “Chernobyl” sensationalism is the depiction of radiation as contagious, like a virus. The scientist-hero played by Emily Watson physically drags away the pregnant wife of a Chernobyl firefighter dying from Acute Radiation Syndrome (ARS).

“Get out! Get out of here!” Watson screams, as though every second the woman is with her husband she is poisoning her baby.

But radiation is not contagious. Once someone has removed their clothes and been washed, as the firefighters were in real life, and in “Chernobyl,” the radioactivity is internalized and not contagious.

Why, then, do hospitals isolate radiation victims behind plastic screens? Because their immune systems have been weakened and they are at risk of being exposed to something they can’t handle. In other words, the contamination threat is the opposite of that depicted in “Chernobyl.”

The baby dies. Watson says, “The radiation would have killed the mother, but the baby absorbed it instead.” Mazin and HBO apparently believe such an event actually occurred.

HBO tries to clean-up some of the sensationalism with captions at the very end of the series. None note that claiming a baby died by “absorbing” radiation from its father is total and utter pseudoscience.

There is no good evidence that Chernobyl radiation killed a baby nor that it caused any increase in birth defects.

“We’ve now had a chance to observe all the children that have been born close to Chernobyl,” reported UCLA physician Robert Gale in 1987, and “none of them, at birth, at least, has had any detectable abnormalities.”

Indeed, the only public health impact beyond the deaths of the first responders was 20,000 documented cases of thyroid cancer in those aged under 18 at the time of the accident.

The United Nations in 2017 concluded that only 25%, 5,000, can be attributed to Chernobyl radiation (paragraphs A-C). In earlier studies, the UN estimated there could be up to 16,000 cases attributable to Chernobyl radiation.

Since thyroid cancer has a mortality rate of just one percent, that means the expected deaths from thyroid cancers caused by Chernobyl will be 50 to 160 over an 80-year lifespan.

At the end of the show, HBO claims there was “a dramatic spike in cancer rates across Ukraine and Belarus,” but this too is wrong.

Residents of those two countries were “exposed to doses slightly above natural background radiation levels,” according to the World Health Organization. If there are additional cancer deaths they will be “about 0.6% of the cancer deaths expected in this population due to other causes.”

Radiation is not the superpotent toxin “Chernobyl” depicts. In episode one, high doses of radiation make workers bleed, and in episode two, a nurse who merely touches a firefighter sees her hand turn bright red, as though burned. Neither thing occurred or is possible.

“Chernobyl” ominously depicts people gathered on a bridge watching the Chernobyl fire. At the end of the series, HBO claims, “it has been reported that none survived. It is now known as the “Bridge of Death.”

But the “Bridge of Death” is a sensational urban legend and there is no good evidence to support it.

“Chernobyl” is as misleading for what it leaves out. It gives the impression that all Chernobyl first responders who suffered Acute Radiation Syndrome (ARS) died. In reality, 80 percent of those with ARS survived.

It’s clear that even highly educated and informed viewers, including journalists, mistook much of “Chernobyl” fiction for fact.

The New Yorker repeated the claim that a woman’s baby “absorbed radiation” and died. The New Republic described radiation as “supernaturally persistent” and contagious (a “zombie logic, by which anyone who is poisoned becomes poisonous themselves”). The Economist, People, and others repeated the “bridge of death” urban legend.

There is a human cost to these misrepresentations. The notion that people exposed to radiation are contagious was used to terrify, stigmatize, and isolate people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, Chernobyl, and again in Fukushima.

Women in the areas that received low levels of radiation from Chernobyl terminated 100,000 to 200,000 pregnancies in a panic, and those who were exposed to Chernobyl radiation were four times more likely to report anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

[...]

In the end, HBO’s “Chernobyl” gets nuclear wrong for the same reason humankind as a whole has been getting it wrong for over 60 years, which is that we’ve displaced our fears of nuclear weapons onto nuclear power plants.

In reality, Chernobyl proves why nuclear is the safest way to make electricity. In the worst nuclear power accidents, relatively small amounts of particulate matter escape, harming only a handful of people.

They would be able to salvage the reputation of their physics community

Thursday, June 20th, 2019

In Captain America: The First Avenger, the quasi-Nazi villain Red Skull wields a cosmic cube, and I must admit that’s what came to mind when I read about the two-inch uranium cubes at the center of Nazi Germany’s nuclear program:

Several German physicists were involved in that research program; perhaps the most widely recognized was Werner Heisenberg.

Rather than working together under central leadership the way the Manhattan Project scientists eventually would, the German nuclear researchers were divided into three groups that each ran a separate series of experiments. Each was code-named after the city in which the experiments took place: Berlin (B), Gottow (G), and Leipzig (L). Although the Germans began their work nearly two years before serious US efforts began, their progress toward creating a sustained nuclear reactor was extremely slow. The reasons for the delay were varied and complex and included fierce competition over finite resources, bitter interpersonal rivalries, and ineffectual scientific management.

In the winter of 1944, as the Allies began their invasion of Germany, the German nuclear researchers were trying desperately to build a reactor that could achieve criticality. Unaware of the immense progress the Manhattan Project had made, the Germans hoped that though they were almost certainly going to lose the war, they would be able to salvage the reputation of their physics community by being the first to achieve a self-sustaining nuclear reactor.

In holding out that hope, officials moved the Berlin reactor experiments headed by Heisenberg south ahead of the Allied invasion. They eventually landed in a cave underneath a castle, shown in figure 1, in the small town of Haigerloch in southwest Germany.

B-VIII reactor entrance at castle in Haigerloch, Germany

In that cave laboratory Heisenberg’s team built their last experiment: B-VIII, the eighth experiment of the Berlin-based group. Heisenberg described the setup of the reactor in his 1953 book Nuclear Physics. The experimental nuclear reactor comprised 664 uranium cubes, each weighing about five pounds. Aircraft cable was used to string the cubes together in long chains hanging from a lid, as shown in figure 2. The ominous uranium chandelier was submerged in a tank of heavy water surrounded by an annular wall of graphite. That configuration was the best design the German program had achieved thus far, but it was not sufficient to achieve a self-sustaining, critical reactor.

B-VIII reactor, 664 uranium cubes

In 1944, as Allied forces began moving into German-occupied territory, Leslie Groves, commander of the Manhattan Project, ordered a covert mission code-named Alsos (Greek word for “groves”) to take a small number of military personnel and scientists to the front lines in Europe to gather information on the state of the German scientific program. The mission broadly aimed to gather information and potentially capture data and instrumentation from all scientific disciplines from microscopy to aeronautics. The most pressing task was to learn how far German physicists had gotten in their study of nuclear reactions. The initial leg of the Alsos mission began in Italy and moved to Germany as the Allied military forces swept south.6 Among the men involved in the mission was Samuel Goudsmit. After the war, he went on to be the American Physical Society’s first editor-in-chief and the founder of Physical Review Letters.

As the Allies closed in on southern Germany, Heisenberg’s scientists quickly disassembled B-VIII. The uranium cubes were buried in a nearby field, the heavy water was hidden in barrels, and some of the more significant documentation was hidden in a latrine. (Goudsmit had the dubious honor of retrieving those documents.) When the Alsos team arrived in Haigerloch in late April 1945, the scientists working on the experiment were arrested and interrogated to reveal the location of the reactor materials. Heisenberg had escaped earlier by absconding east on a bicycle under cover of night with uranium cubes in his backpack.

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Many scholars have long thought that the German scientists could not have possibly created a working nuclear reactor because they did not have enough uranium to make the B-VIII reactor work. In Heisenberg’s own words, “The apparatus was still a little too small to sustain a fission reaction independently, but a slight increase in its size would have been sufficient to start off the process of energy production.” That statement was recently confirmed using Monte Carlo N-particle modeling of the B-VIII reactor core. The model showed that the rough analyses completed by the Germans in 1945 were correct: The reactor core as designed would not have been able to achieve a self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction given the amount of uranium and its configuration. But the design might have worked if the Germans had put 50% more uranium cubes in the core.

Hermann Oberth had originally intended to build a working rocket for use in the film

Saturday, June 15th, 2019

One of the first serious science fiction movies was Fritz Lang’s Frau im Mond, or Woman in the Moon, which was released in the US as By Rocket to the Moon:

Lang, who also made Metropolis, had a personal interest in science fiction. When returning to Germany in the late 1950s he sold his extensive collection of Astounding Science Fiction, Weird Tales, and Galaxy magazines. Several prescient technical or operational features are presented during the film’s 1920′s launch sequence, which subsequently came into common operational use during America’s postwar space race:

  • The rocket ship Friede is fully built in a tall building and moved to the launch pad
  • As launch approaches, the launch team counts down the seconds from ten to zero (“now” was used for zero), and Woman in the Moon is often cited as the first occurrence of the “countdown to zero” before a rocket launch
  • The rocket ship blasts off from a pool of water; water is commonly used today on launch pads to absorb and dissipate the extreme heat and to damp the noise generated by the rocket exhaust
  • In space, the rocket ejects its first stage and fires its second stage rocket, predicting the development of modern multistage orbital rockets
  • The crew recline on horizontal beds to cope with the G-forces experienced during lift-off and pre-orbital acceleration
  • Floor foot straps are used to restrain the crew during zero gravity (Velcro is used today).
  • These items and the overall design of the rocket led to the film being banned in Germany from 1933-1945 during World War II by the Nazis, due to similarities to their secret V-2 project.

Rocket scientist Hermann Oberth worked as an advisor on this movie. He had originally intended to build a working rocket for use in the film, but time and technology prevented this from happening. The film was popular among the rocket scientists in Wernher von Braun’s circle at the Verein für Raumschiffahrt (VfR). The first successfully launched V-2 rocket at the rocket-development facility in Peenemünde had the Frau im Mond logo painted on its base. Noted post-war science writer Willy Ley also served as a consultant on the film. Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, which deals with the V-2 rockets, refers to the movie, along with several other classic German silent films.

Ambiguous, longed for and desolate

Friday, June 14th, 2019

Science fiction illuminates the dreams of the new moon-rushers:

Take the origins of Pence’s reference to the “lunar strategic high ground”. In one of the first moon novels written after the second world war, Robert Heinlein’s Rocket Ship Galileo (1947), an atomic scientist and his teenage crew discover, on what they believe to be the first mission to the moon, a base from which the Third Reich’s rump intends to rain nuclear vengeance on to Earth. Heinlein, an aeronautical engineer who was one of the first American science fiction writers to gain a mainstream audience, had seen the V-2 and the Manhattan Project make real the rocket ships and superweaponry that had been his prewar stock in trade. Such authors were highly exercised by the strategic implications. In the same month that Heinlein’s book was published, John W Campbell, the preeminent American science fiction editor of the age, published an essay by his and Heinlein’s friend L Ron Hubbard on the strategic necessity of America being the first nation to build such a moonbase for its missiles. A year later Colliers, a mass market magazine, was warning of a “Rocket Blitz from the Moon”.

The idea rode high for a decade. “He who controls the moon, controls the Earth,” General Homer A Boushey told the American press in 1958. The US air force investigated the possibility of demonstrating that control, and adding to the moon’s craters, by conducting a nuclear test on its surface, one that would be ominously and spectacularly visible to most of the world below (Carl Sagan, later to be prominent in the fight for nuclear disarmament, was one of those who worked on the project).

It did not happen. Though the Apollo programme was a crucial piece of cold war strategy, its goal was not to occupy the moon or use it as a missile base. Rather, it was to show the world the remarkable resources the US was willing to invest in advancing its technological power; the means, not the end, were the message. But Hubbard’s megalomaniacal dreams of an Earth controlled from the moon still lurks in that idea of the “strategic high ground”.

Rocket Ship Galileo used the moon not only as a way of thinking about the prospect of nuclear war, it also made it a way of understanding the aftermath. (“The moon people … ruined themselves. They had one atomic war too many.”)

These visions of existential dread led Arthur C Clarke to argue in Prelude to Space (1947), a novel about the preparations for a moon mission, that “atomic power makes interplanetary travel not just possible but imperative. As long as it was confined to Earth, humanity had too many eggs in one rather fragile basket.” That feeling informs dreams of space travel today. Musk, in particular, talks of war, pandemics, rebel AIs and asteroid Armageddons all making it vital for humans to become a multiplanetary species. A more junior Silicon Valley space mogul told me he wants to help build a moonbase for the same reason that, before cloud computing, he would back up his files to a second hard disk: something might happen. (Of course, such plutocratic panic feels dangerously close to the idea of a bolthole for the select.)

As active proponents of the new space age, Clarke and Heinlein realised that linking the moon only with nuclear catastrophe would be a poor sales pitch. To get the public on board, a more fertile idea was the dream of building human settlements on the moon, which could somehow be portrayed as both wonderful and mundane. In Heinlein’s short story “Space Jockey”, the problem facing the astronaut protagonist is not Ming the Merciless or a swarm of comets but the amount of time he has to spend away from home; the resolution is his decision to take a desk job in comfortably domestic Luna City, built under the surface of the moon. A teenager whines that “nothing ever happens on the moon”. This dualism of the familiar and the fantastic is epitomised in the motif of Earth playing the same role in the moon’s sky as the moon does in Earth’s, lighting the landscape’s darkness.

It is not a new insight; Galileo realised that nights on the nearside of the moon would be earthlit, just as earthly nights are moonlit. All early lunar fiction draws the reader’s attention to Earth waxing and waning in the alien sky as the clearest possible indication of the revolutionary Copernican insight. Twentieth-century heirs made a similar use of the image of worlds reversed. Earthlight (1955), Clarke’s first moon-set novel, opens with the accountant Bertram Sadler, new to the moon, looking out of his train window at the “cold glory of this ancient, empty land” illuminated by “a light tinged with blues and greens; an arctic radiance that gave no atom of heat. And that, thought Sadler, was surely a paradox, for it came from a world of light and warmth.”

Clarke’s paradox was made plain to see in the famous image Earthrise captured by Apollo 8: a world of warmth and light rising above the cold glory of ancient emptiness. The contrast was strong enough – the blasted basalts below unworldly and unappealing enough – that the colonised, normalised moon which Clarke and Heinlein had imagined fell back into the realm of fancy, if not that of the absurd.

So why does returning to the moon now seem plausible again? For one thing, China, or any other country, can put a man or woman on the moon with far less effort than it took the US in the 1960s: as a way to claim parity with a fading superpower, that relatively modest effort has obvious attractions. And as the effort involved has been reduced the resources in the hands of private individuals have increased: Bezos may choose, in the near-term, to yoke his dreams of expansion into space – unlocking untold wealth – to the more parochial ambitions of the US government. But that is convenience, not necessity. Being the richest person on the planet brings with it its own superempowerment.

Science fiction, too, has cast space travel in economic, rather than political, terms. Once again it is hard to avoid Heinlein, this time his novella The Man Who Sold the Moon (1950). Its main character is DD Harriman, a tycoon who, having made his fortune from other technologies, persuades and cons investors of all sorts to provide the further resources he needs to realise his true dream, the founding of a moon colony. After the sheer Soviet Union-surpassing, 2.5%-of-GDP scale of the Apollo effort became manifest in the 1960s, the story seemed quaint. Moon missions were the work of nations, not cigar-puffing wheeler dealers. Now it seems oddly prescient.

If strategic rivalry, existential fear and plutocratic caprice were the only narratives science fiction had lent the moon, one might feel justified in taking a dim view of the whole affair. But there is more. A lifeless world may again provide new insights into a living one, as it did with Earthrise. It is in such changed perspectives on worlds and their peoples that the true promise of science fiction surely lives. Heinlein’s most successful lunar novel, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (1967), is driven by a thrilling plot. But the reason it continues to be loved by many, especially in Silicon Valley, is the strange, contradictory, savage but cosy, polyamorous, Malthusian, libertarian, utopian and carceral society it conjures as its cyborg setting. Similarly, the most striking recent novel about the moon, John Kessel’s The Moon and the Other (2017) sets itself in the “Society of Cousins”, a matriarchy inspiring and troubling, idealistic, indulgent and somewhat stifling. It is, to borrow the subtitle of Ursula K Le Guin’s The Dispossessed (1974), an ambiguous utopia.

Which is as much as you can hope for. The moon, as it becomes a target for politicians, billionaires and enthusiasts inspired by science fictions past, should remain ambiguous, longed for and desolate, always the same and yet shockingly new, a strangeness sitting in the sky for all to see.

A human nervous system is necessary to operate a Hieronymus Machine

Thursday, June 13th, 2019

I was listening to the free preview of the audiobook edition of Atomic Adventures when the narrator mentioned the Hieronymus effect, which piqued my interest — and had nothing to do with Hieronymus Bosch or his macabre and nightmarish depictions of hell:

A Hieronymus machine is any of the patented radionics devices invented by electrical engineer Thomas Galen Hieronymus (21 November 1895–1988). Hieronymus received a U.S. Patent for his invention in 1949, which was described in the patent application title as a device for “detection of emanations from materials and measurement of the volumes thereof.”

The original “Radiation Analyzer” consisted of a chamber to hold a sample of material, a glass prism to refract the eloptic emanations coming from it, and a copper wire probe on a rotating armature to adjust the angle formed by the prism and the probe. Supposedly, eloptic emanations are refracted by the prism at different angles depending on the material. The detected eloptic signals were fed to a three-stage vacuum tube RF amplifier and conducted to a flat touch plate surrounded by a copper wire bifilar coil. By stroking the touch plate an operator could supposedly feel a sensation of “tingling” or “stickiness” when the eloptic energy was detected. As such, a human nervous system is considered to be necessary to operate a Hieronymus Machine.

Hieronymus subsequently designed solid-state versions of his Analyzers, substituting germanium transistors for crystal prisms and tunable capacitors for the rotating armature. He also designed and built various specialized devices designed for specific functions, including analysis of living organisms and production of homeopathic remedies. The most well-known Hieronymus Machine is the Eloptic Medical Analyzer, which supposedly analyzes and transmits eloptic energy to diagnose and treat medical conditions in plants and animals.

The theory of operation on which Hieronymus Machines are based is that all matter emits a kind of “radiation” that is not electromagnetic, but exhibits some of the characteristics of both light and electricity. The quality of this emanation is unique to every kind of matter, and therefore can be utilized for detection and analysis. Hieronymus coined the term “eloptic energy” to describe this radiation (from the words “electrical” and “optical”.) All of his machines were designed to detect and manipulate this eloptic energy. Eloptic emanations have never been detected by instruments designed to measure electromagnetic energies, no other evidence of their existence have been produced, and there is no mathematical theory of an eloptic field, so the theory is considered pseudoscientific and is not accepted by science.

The inventions of Hieronymus were championed by Astounding Science Fiction editor John W. Campbell in late 1950s and early 1960s editorials. A series of correspondences between the two men show that while Hieronymus was sure that someday his theories of eloptic energy would be proven and accepted by physical scientists, Campbell was convinced that the machines were based on psionics, related to the user’s paranormal or ESP powers.

As an example, Campbell believed one could create an eloptic receiver or similar device with the prisms and amplifiers represented by their cardboard or even schematic representations. Through the use of mental powers, such a machine would function as well as its “real” equivalent. In his autobiography, Hieronymus wrote, “I appreciated Mr. Campbell’s interest in my work, but over the years since then, I have concluded that he set back the acceptance of my work at least a hundred years by his continual emphasis on what he termed the supernatural or ‘magic’ aspects of a mind-controlled device he built by drawing the schematic of my patented instrument with India ink. The energy flowed over the lines of this drawing because India ink is conducting, but it isn’t worth a tinker’s damn for serious research or actual treating.”

The company’s polygenic test for “mental disability” is more controversial

Saturday, May 11th, 2019

Genomic Prediction is the first company to offer polygenic risk scores for embryos rather than adults:

The firm is mainly promoting its tests as a way of screening out embryos at high risk of certain medical conditions. But the company’s polygenic test for “mental disability” is more controversial. It isn’t accurate enough to predict IQ for each embryo, but it can indicate which ones are genetic outliers, giving prospective parents the option of avoiding embryos with a high chance of an IQ 25 points below average, says Hsu.

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Information from the same test could be used to go one step further and select whichever embryo is most likely to have a high IQ. “What that corresponds to is way-above-average intellectual potential,” says Hsu.

Naturally, this has been deemed highly unethical.