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white pill #14 // insane week for news in space, ai, engineering, energy, and computing
Reader, I’m fired up — we’ve got a White Pill with some very powerful energy for you this week. Dare I say that it’s the best one ever, by a long shot? I dare.
First, as always, we lead with a section of Excellent News, which is — perhaps counterintuitively — about the whitest paint ever invented. Then, in our Space section, we write about the James Webb Space Telescope’s first birthday and a few Mars rover items, and give you a look at the Artemis crew modules currently in development at KSC, plus more.
The Energy, Engineering, Computing section is the centerpiece of this week’s White Pill, with what feels like a few months’ worth of news packed into a single week. We cover: the Twitter Spaces where xAI — Elon’s new AI venture — discussed its intent to create a “maximally curious and truth-seeking” AGI, details on a handheld device that can harvest over a cup of water a day from thin air, a cuneiform tablet AI translator, pics of Tesla’s lil “Cybertruck-inspired electric quad bike,” and more.
In our Medicine section, among other items, Japanese researchers apparently figured out how to grow teeth and are starting human trials soon. And our Fun Stuff section includes a to-do list for science from the father of chemistry, written in the 1660s. How many of them do you think humanity has achieved so far? (Read to find out.)
And as always, don’t forget to check out the White Pill Investment Index for this week, where we track funding and deals involving companies doing stuff that will make you be proud to be a member of the human species.
First, some most excellent news…
Very white paint. Engineers at Purdue developed a paint so white it reflects 98 percent of sunlight and thereby cools the surfaces it coats by 8°F during the day, and 19°F at night, which means it has the potential to cut air conditioning needs by NEARLY HALF when painted onto rooftops. And what if this paint covered one to two percent of Earth’s surface, or half the Sahara desert, you might (quite naturally) ask? “The planet would no longer absorb more heat than it was emitting, and global temperatures would stop rising.” Climate activists, hi, hello, are you there? Is this thing on??
The paint isn’t a visual hazard, either: instead of merely reflecting light and being blinding, it scatters light, and looks much like any garden variety white paint. The paint is about a year away from commercial viability, and the team at Purdue has already entered an agreement with a private company.
Excellent news. (NYT)
“It’s over-performed in almost every way”: Hbd, James Webb Space Telescope. To commemorate the first full year of operation for its James Webb Space Telescope, NASA released a stunning image (above) of the Rho Ophiuchi cloud complex, which is the region of space closest to Earth in which stars are actively forming. Since it started gathering data, the JWST has given us unprecedented glimpses into the early universe: “Before JWST, astronomers knew of only a small handful of candidate galaxies that existed in the first billion years after the Big Bang. Within the past year, hundreds of them — bigger and brighter than expected, packed with forming stars swirling around supermassive black holes — have been confirmed.” Next year’s observation schedule is already set, with a slate of even more ambitious projects devoted to advancing humanity’s knowledge of planetary formation, the intergalactic medium, supermassive black holes, and the large-scale structure of the universe. (NYT) (NASA)
NASA to test its most powerful solar electric propulsion thrusters ever. The thrusters, which NASA says will “change the in-space propulsion game,” are over twice as powerful as any in-space propulsion system in space right now, and will maneuver Gateway, the human-tended, moon-orbiting space station slated for launch in 2025. “‘This testing campaign is a big deal,’ said Rohit Shastry, the lead AEPS engineer. ‘It’s kind of the final leg before we test the thrusters that will actually fly on Gateway.’” Per NASA, high power electric propulsion “will be key in helping NASA explore more of deep space beyond the Moon.” (Interesting Engineering) (NASA)
Molecule found in very low-oxygen environments on Earth, also found on Venus (again). A new study has again found phosphine, a molecule typically produced by certain types of bacteria on Earth, in Venus’s atmosphere, prompting a fresh round of speculation as to whether it’s indicative of life or merely the product of abiotic processes — a result of a ‘non-living’ process of the unique Venusian environment (900°F, 450 mph hurricanes in the upper atmosphere, surface pressure 92x greater than Earth’s) — that we don’t yet understand. In 2020, a team of scientists excitedly announced they’d detected phosphine in clouds on Venus, but follow-up studies repeatedly failed to replicate the finding — until now. Cool. (space.com)
‘Diverse organic matter’ discovered in Mars crater. NASA’s Perseverance rover has detected “several species of aromatic organic molecules in the Máaz and Séítah formations” of Mars’ Jezero crater. While there are several existing theories for abiotic origins of such molecules, the paper states plainly that “a biotic origin has not been excluded.” (Nature)
Check out the wear and tear to date on the NASA Mars Curiosity Rover’s wheels (top left) — “in a worst-case scenario, [it] can actually strip off the damaged parts and drive on the rims”; also see top right, a rock that NASA’s Perserverance Mars Rover dusted off with compressed nitrogen which it brought from Earth, then abraded (bottom left)
The Meteosat Third Generation Lightning Imager satellite released mesmerizing, globe-scale imagery of lightning over Europe, Africa, and South America; the data will be useful for weather prediction (NYT)
Friday morning, the Indian Space Research Organization launched its Chandrayaan-3 lunar south pole lander, which will touch down on the moon’s surface next month (image above, bottom right) — watch awesome footage of the launch here (Reuters)
Take a look (below) at “the crew modules for #Artemis II, III and IV,” which “are in different production phases at Kennedy Space Center, in preparation for bringing astronauts back to the Moon” (@LMSpace)
Check out our very special Episode 5 of the Pirate Wires Podcast, with special guests Kmele Foster of The Fifth Column and Ben Smith of Semafor
And please don’t forget to subscribe to Pirate Wires on YouTube.
Energy, engineering, computing
Elon Musk’s xAI announces formal launch, express intent to create Artificial General Intelligence (AGI). In a Twitter Spaces yesterday with the team — which includes alum from DeepMind, OpenAI, Google, Microsoft, and Tesla — Elon said xAI’s mission is to “build a maximally curious and truth seeking, good AGI with the overarching purpose of trying to understand the universe.” For the AI-uninitiated, AGI — a type of artificial intelligence that has the capacity to understand, learn, adapt, and apply knowledge across a broad range of tasks at a level equal to or beyond human capability — is either the holy grail, chimera, or eschaton of AI technology. “There's so much we don't understand,” Elon said in the Spaces, “dark matter, dark energy, the Fermi Paradox, the theory of gravity, the standard model.”
It remains to be seen whether xAI truly can produce a “general purpose problem solving machine to help humanity overcome some of the hardest problems, augment ourselves, and help anyone,” as one of the company’s engineers put it, but suffice to say, the company has a leader with a decent track record (to put it mildly). We’ll keep you updated. (xAI)
Relevant Pirate Wires AI coverage:
Hallucinations in AI, by Founder’s Fund’s John Luttig, is a thoughtful primer on some of the bogus narratives currently driving AI discourse
BASE REALITY, by chief Mike Solana, is an in-depth, cerebral interview with Grimes about how AI will change the future of art, creativity, and entertainment
Against Safetyism, by Tobias Huber and Byrne Hobart, explains why a safetyist approach to emerging tech like AI does more harm than the harm safetyists are trying to protect against
Hand-held water generation. This solar-powered, hand-held water harvester recently developed by UC Berkeley researchers converts atmospheric water vapor into liquid water, and was able to generate over 10 oz. of water per day in the highly arid climate of Death Valley in a recent test. In addition to practical applications to water scarcity issues, this tech could eventually be adopted widely in a system of “household-based… water harvesters, and community-scale water harvesters, [which] could be in kitchens or even next to air conditioners to supply homes with clean water for cooking and cleaning.” Once again… lfg!!! (TechXplore) (Nature Water)
AI deepens our understanding of the past by “instantly” translating ancient cuneiform tablets that would have otherwise taken years to translate. Imagine “combining Google Translate with a time machine,” and you’re close to a decent idea of what a team of Israeli researchers has recently achieved — an AI-powered, high-quality translator of ancient Akkadian clay tablets which will potentially help us tap deeper into this reservoir of historical insight. For context, up until now, we’ve unearthed over a million cuneiform tablets from ancient civilizations, but many remain untranslated because only a few hundred people on the planet are qualified to do the extremely time consuming work of translating them. (Big Think) (PNAS Nexus)
“Living digital camera” captures and stores retrievable images in DNA. Bioengineers have long been intrigued by the possibility of using DNA as a medium for data storage. Now, researchers have developed a technique to capture 2D light patterns — such as a 96-bit smiley face — in living bacterial cells, which can then be retrieved with nearly perfect accuracy using next-gen DNA sequencing. (Motherboard) (Nature)
Porsche is developing an electric speedboat (bottom left) with Austrian yacht maker Frauscher. Specs: Lithium-ion battery with a 100 KWh capacity, price of $655,000 and set for delivery in 2024, top speed TBD (Bloomberg)
French startup Beyond the Sea is testing 270-square-foot kite sails hooked to an automated traction system (bottom right above) that use AI to change sail position in accordance with wind patterns, with the goal of scaling the tech up for use on fishing trawlers and container ships (TechXplore)
Engineers at the University of British Columbia developed a flexible, color-changing display that suggests a future of, for example, wearable medical patches that track vital health metrics in real time; check out the video (TechXplore) (ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces)
A new fusion trade association report highlights $1.4b of new investments in the industry, in the last 12 months, including 27 companies that received seed or series A funding; 13 new fusion companies; around a thousand new fusion industry jobs; and 19 companies that expect to start delivering power to the grid by 2035. F*** yeah fusion. (FIA)
The White Pill Investment Index tracks investments in companies developing interesting, exciting, forward-thinking products. For last week’s deals, check out last week’s White Pill.
Leveraging AI for life sciences research — Causaly, developer of a biomedical platform that “[leverages] the power of AI to expedite the journey from bench research and laboratory insights to the launch of life-changing therapies” meant to ultimately accelerate life sciences research, raises a $60m Series B in a deal led by Index Ventures and others
Other notable investments and deals
Fission — the Sam Altman-backed small-scale nuclear fission startup Oklo will go public, which is expected to generate up to $500m in gross capital for the company, which will help accelerate a business plan that includes up to 50 fast fission power plants
AI firefighting — Pano AI, a company developing an AI- and satellite-based wildfire detection system, raises $17m through a combination of debt and Series A Prime venture funding in a deal led by Valor Equity Partners
Ocean mapping — Bedrock, a company “committed to providing the world with a free, publicly available map of our world’s oceans, over 50x more detailed than the current best public map available,” raises a $25.5m Series A in a deal led by Primary Venture Partners and Northzone Ventures
AI legal assistant — Casetext, developer of an AI legal assistant that does “document review, legal research memos, deposition preparation, and contract analysis” is acquired by Thomson Reuters for $650m
AI company documentation — Dashworks, a company developing what amounts to a sort of AI-powered, query-based company wiki that accesses every communication and data product used by the company, raises an $8m seed from Point72 Ventures among others
Try-on augmented reality — Geenee, a company developing augmented reality technology to enable AR-based commerce (e.g. you use it to ‘try on’ clothes you might buy), raises $2.4m in venture funding
Tooth-growing drug set for clinical trials in Japan next year. In 2021 a team of Japanese researchers reported success in stimulating the growth of teeth in both mice and ferrets with a drug that blocks a growth-inhibiting protein called USAG-1. Now, the group is set to begin small-scale human trials next July. (Gizmodo)
Fascinating: UPenn scientists capture highest-ever resolution images of live human embryo (Nature)
From a study in Nature, a Klotho protein injection boosted working memory in elderly primates, marking the first test of non-human primates; a single shot of the longevity-linked protein conferred enhanced memory for more than two weeks (Freethink) (Nature)
Read Robert Boyle’s 360-year-old list of scientific ambitions. In the 1660s, the natural philosopher and inventor Robert Boyle, today considered the first modern chemist, drew up a list of breakthroughs he hoped humanity could achieve with the help of the then-still-nascent scientific method. Many items on the list (pictured above), we’ve definitively checked off, e.g. “A perpetuall Light,” “The Art of Flying,” “The Prolongation of Life.” Some are in the pipeline as we speak, like “The recovery of youth, or at least some marks of it, [like] new teeth” (remember that item about tooth regrowth above)? Check out Boyle’s full to-do for science on Royal Society.
Advanced chemical imaging of ancient Egyptian tomb paintings allows us to identify alterations made over time. Example: “On the second painting, analysis uncovered numerous adjustments to the crown and other royal items depicted on a portrait of Ramesses II, a series of changes that most likely relate to some change in symbolic meaning over time.” (Eurekalert) (PLOS One)
Fun read — the past, present, and future of molecular manufacturing. Contrary’s Anna-Sofia Lesiv takes you on a mind-bending tour through the cutting edge of nanotechnology, taking stock of its formidable technical challenges while making the case that “the era of replicators and matter compilers may not be too far off.” Meaning: nanorobots for targeted drug delivery, high-performance batteries with enhanced energy density, massive improvements in quantum computing — your standard White Pill fare. Read it. (Contrary)
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-Brandon Gorrell and Nick Russo