Two Pizzas, Two Pending Launches, and an Ebola Vaccine Test | Vol. 2 / No. 5

"Two pizzas sitting on top of a stove oven" / Photo: Google/Oriol Vinyals, Alexander Toshev, Samy Bengio, and Dumitru Erhan
“Two pizzas sitting on top of a stove oven” / Photo: Google/Oriol Vinyals, Alexander Toshev, Samy Bengio, and Dumitru Erhan

Two Pizzas

Okay, so maybe it looks more like pieces of three pizzas to you, but the fact of the matter is that this is one of the bigger stories of the year. Why? Because that caption was written by a computer. Technically, two computers. In a blog post over at the Google Research Blog (and in an paper detailing the processes), Google research scientists Oriol Vinyals, Alexander Toshev, Samy Bengio, and Dumitru Erhan have announced a major breakthrough in, ultimately, the drive toward AI and computers that can interact with the real world. Precisely speaking, they’ve made a computer that can look at a photo and tell you what it’s a photo of. Just so that we’re clear, this is a deceptively challenging task. In 1966 at MIT they thought it would take a summer to crack, and well, it’s 2014. The way the Google researchers have done it is to hook up a vision-solving convolutional neural network (CNN) to a language-producing recurrent neural network (RNN). It’s not perfect, but the mistakes it makes are often those a two year old would make — calling a pink vespa a red motorcycle, calling a cyclist on a half-pipe a skateboarder on a ramp — and my guess is it’ll keep learning. They’re at about 50% accuracy right now, but expect great things. Here’s an io9 post on it, the Google research blog post, and the paper for the details.

Somewhere above the rockets of this Delta IV Heavy is NASA's first new passenger craft in decades / Photo: NASA
Somewhere above the rockets of this Delta IV Heavy is NASA’s first new passenger craft in decades / Photo: NASA

Orion Ready

On December 4 at 7:04am EST (if all goes according to plan) NASA will launch its first new passenger craft since the space shuttle Enterprise’s approach and landing tests in 1977. Though the Orion bears more in common with the Apollo command module than the space shuttle, it marks the first return of the American space program to building its own crewed vehicles since the shuttle program ended with no heir apparent in July of 2011. The command module (known as the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle or MPCV) undergoing uncrewed testing this week, is only half of the story. ESA has recently signed a €390million contract with Airbus Space and Defense to design and construct a disposable laboratory designed to append itself to the MPCV, known as the Orion Service Module. If all goes according to plan (and these things rarely do) the MPCV and the OSM will fly together in 2018 on the uncrewed Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1), in advance of the first crewed mission (EM-2) some time around 2021. Coverage of this week’s launch begins Thursday December 4 at 4:30am on

X marks the spot for SpaceX's new floating landing pad / Photo: Elon Musk / Spacex
X marks the spot for SpaceX’s new floating landing pad / Photo: Elon Musk / Spacex

Landing (Floating) Pad

This week Elon Musk set Twitterers twittering with the above photo of the new autonomous landing barge for the reusable Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket — possibly for use as soon as the company’s December ISS resupply mission, CRS-5. After a great deal of testing — starting with the Grasshopper tests and culminating in two apparently successful splashdown tests in July and September of this year (test flights 3 and 4) — we’re all looking forward to seeing if SpaceX can be the first company to land the first stage of a rocket (that’s sent actual cargo to actual space!) with a controlled burn on a solid surface. If they can master this technology reliably, it’ll be a great step forward in the reusability of rockets, and drop the price of launches by an order of magnitude. The launch is tentatively scheduled for December 16.

Ebola Vaccine Tested

A phase one clinical trial of a new Ebola vaccine was tested this week in Maryland in another move toward fighting the outbreak that has killed an approximated 5700 people in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Mali. The new vaccine, developed by GlaxoSmithKline and the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases was tested for negative side effects and dosage rates in 20 healthy volunteers. Researchers reported a dose-dependent response and minor side effects (two developed a mild fever), but promisingly, all participants generated anti-Ebola antibodies. Check out the NIAID/GSK press release at the US National Institutes for Health for more.

Topaz Goes Live

Nine and a half square miles of California desert have just begun to produce an estimated 550 Megawatts of clean solar energy as the Topaz Solar Farm went live this week. Engadget is reporting that it won’t be the biggest solar farm for long — First Solar’s Desert Sunlight Solar Farm is expected to generate the same amount starting in 2015, and MidAmerica/SunPower’s Solar Star plant will generate 578 Megawatts when it gets up to full capacity next year as well. Add this to the fact that the New York Times is reporting that in some markets renewables are finally outpricing pollution-heavy gas and coal, and you get, at the very least, a happy blogger like me. This kind of news always brings a smile to my face.

Next Stop: Europa?

The Planetary Society is reporting this week that the appointment of Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) to the House Commerce, Justice, and Science appropriations subcommittee is a definite positive step toward a possible future Europa mission. Culberson has apparently been a major supporter of the Europa project in the past, so with any luck NASA will be able to stop leaving the proposals off the table in an era of seemingly permanent austerity. We’re not holding our breaths just yet, but it’s good to know that someone’s still working toward it.

Best of the Rest

As always, more happened this week than I could report, but here’s some highlights: rock band and all-around interesting people OK Go have announced plans to release an album encoded in DNA; researchers have found a new compound to help fight H. Pylori, the bacteria responsible for (among other things) that ulcer that you thought was caused by watching the morning news; DARPA’s moving forward with its all-lasers-all-the-time plan, now trying to get them airborne; scientists have found an “invisible shield” that protects us from space radiation; and if you get bored of reading those, you can always check out everything Darwin ever wrote, now available online through the Darwin Manuscripts Project.

That’s all for today. Have a great week.