Engineering an extreme solution to climate catastrophe

Terraforming—adapting a planet to make it habitable—has become a recurring theme in science fiction, and there have been countless stories of hardy pioneers setting out to engineer a breathable atmosphere and comfortable climate on Mars and other worlds. Now, however, it seems the first world we’ll have to terraform is our own.

But how do you set out to engineer an entire planet?

The Earth is a complex system, which means re-balancing the climate won’t be achieved via a single solution. Many different approaches will need to be applied, from the widespread construction of wind and solar farms and the development of clean fusion power to  programmes of massive reforestation and dietary change.

I mention dietary change, because a study published in Nature Food in 2021 shows that food production accounts for 35% of all global emissions, with meat farming by itself being responsible for 21%. The production of 1kg of wheat emits 2.5kg of greenhouse gases, whereas the production of 1kg of beef emits 70kg. But while plant-based cuisine is becoming more and more fashionable, many people don’t want to give up meat just yet. So perhaps the future of farming might involve vat-grown meat? At the moment, this technology is in its infancy, but with investment, we could soon be tucking into steaks that have been cultured from a few cells, saving an estimated 92% of the emissions produced by raising and slaughtering a cow.    

In Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry of the Future, which Barack Obama included on his list of Books of 2020, humanity manages to slow global warming by injecting reflective particles into the upper atmosphere, reducing the amount of sunlight reaching the Earth’s surface. However, such a method might be difficult to control, and we don’t know the long-term effects of introducing so much material into the sky. A safer method of producing a similar effect might be achieved by positioning a giant sunshade in orbit. The advantage of this approach is that it could be remotely manoeuvred in order to adjust the amount of solar radiation allowed through at any one time. In addition, if coated in solar cells, the shade could also serve as a source of clean energy.

Other ideas include increasing the albedo, or reflectivity, of our planet by painting the deserts white to make up for the loss of our ice caps. In Robinson’s book, climate engineers slow the loss of Antarctic glaciers by pumping meltwater from beneath them, arresting their slide into the ocean and causing them the settle back onto the bedrock. 

Despite the optimism of some billionaires, it seems highly unlikely we’d be able to terraform Mars with our current technology. However, if we were able to extract CO2 from our atmosphere and turn it into icebergs, we could fire them at the red planet, where they would gradually thicken the atmosphere and help raise the surface temperature to something bearable. Exporting our greenhouse effect to a planet desperately in need of warming up seems almost poetic.

In a previous column [Moving The Moon, Oct 2019], I suggested we might lower the moon’s orbit in order to increase the Earth’s rotation, shortening our day to 18 hours, thereby giving the East and West hemispheres of the Earth less time to warm up in the glare of the Sun. The oceans would have less time to absorb heat, and winters would become colder.

But a more extreme solution might be to move the Earth itself. Repositioning ourselves further from the sun would decrease the light and heat we receive from it—which might be bad news for some species of plants, but good news for mean global temperatures.

Obviously, moving our home planet would be dangerous, and would require huge quantities of time and energy, but it is theoretically possible. Propulsion could be achieved by converting the sun’s energy into a series of giant lasers or ion drives, deploying vast solar sails, or using near misses by large asteroids to gradually change slow the Earth’s orbital velocity, allowing it to drift outwards. Unfortunately, all those methods would take thousands, and perhaps millions, of years to work. So, if I had to write a science fiction story about moving the Earth, I’d have to employ a more exotic means of transport, such as a gravity drive or wormhole, to shunt the planet from its current orbit to a cooler one. And let’s hope we eventually develop one of those technologies. At the end of its life, the sun will expand, swallowing the inner worlds as it mushrooms into a red giant. If we survive our current crisis, we’ll need to think about moving outwards in a few million years. 


This article first appeared in The Engineer magazine.

My Morning Routine

When I’m talking to readers or aspiring writers, they often ask about my routine. They seem fascinated to know how I spend my day. They want to know when I start work, how many hours I put in, whether I’m a morning or night person. Maybe they’re hoping for clues to find their own methods of working or being creative, or maybe they simply can’t imagine how a writer fills their time.

For me, the day usually starts around 8.00 am, when I wake with the sound of a dream ringing in my ears.

I never clamber easily from sleep’s embrace. I’m not one of those people who rise invigorated and energetic; instead, I resemble something washed-up on the new day’s shore. But if I’m lucky, I’ll have brought back a pearl from the depths. In About Writing [Gollancz, 2022], I explained it thus,

I’m a big believer in the significance of dreams. Not in any supernatural way. Just in the way that they can help us understand our own feelings, see the world from fresh angles, and even resolve emotional issues.

Since my father died, I’ve had several extremely vivid dreams about talking to him and discussing the afterlife and my feelings about his loss. These dreams were so vivid, I could almost believe they really happened – but I understand that they are most likely my own brain trying to resolve my feelings of grief by constructing a way of telling him all the things I wish I could have in real life.

Similarly, I’ve had dreams about friends, where I hug them and tell them how much I miss them. It’s a coping mechanism. And sometimes, I’ll have a dream that feels so real I want to call the people I was dreaming about and ask them if they were having the same dream, because it feels impossible that I wasn’t actually talking to them.

But the dreams I really pay attention to are the ones I can’t immediately interpret. The ones that feel real but have no readily identifiable cause, or feature people who seem familiar, but whom I don’t know in real life. These dreams come from somewhere else in my brain, and while they may be examining an emotional truth, they also engage the imagination and my narrative urges.

They are stories.

In some ways, writing has always felt like dreaming out loud. And that’s why I keep a notebook beside my bed – because I’ve taken inspiration for many works of fiction from these vivid dreams, and it’s essential to jot down the salient points immediately upon waking, before the memories start to fade.

Like many buildings in Bristol, my apartment building used to be an 18th Century merchant’s house, but was divided into four separate dwellings during the 1960s or 1970s. That means the rooms have very high ceilings and no double glazing. When the wind blows from the east, there’s a strong draught from the bay window.

I get up and have a shower, or if I’m feeling particularly weary, half an hour reading in the bath.

From there, I go in search of caffeine, usually opting for tea as my delivery system of choice. I enjoy coffee now and then, but tea is a gentler and somehow more civilised way to coax my drowsy faculties.

While the kettle boils, I drink a pint of cold water and swallow a handful of meds, large doses of vitamins C and D, omega 3 fish oil capsules, and magnesium.

Tea forms an essential ingredient of my morning revivification. I know some people favour coffee, but I prefer to be gently eased into my day rather than jolted awake. I probably summed up my feelings towards the beverage most eloquently in my novella Ragged Alice [TorDotCom Publishing, 2019] when the main character reflects that,

For her, tea was the one truly pure and necessary thing on this miserable earth, and the favourite and most worthwhile of her vices.

In the morning, I stick to English Breakfast or loose leaf Assam, and make sure to use boiling water. I have a blue NASA mug that I bought while visiting the space shuttle Endeavour in Los Angeles. It holds a pint of tea, and that’s precisely what some days require. Of course, a mug that big needs two tea bags and a good 5 or 6 minutes of steeping, but it’s worth it.

Tea has a fascinating history, of which I know too little. I do know that the words chai and tea both originated in China. Over thousands of years, Cha, the Mandarin word for tea, spread along the Silk Road through Asia, where it became known as shay in Arabic, and chay in Persian, Turkish and Russian. When the Dutch East India Company began to import tea to western Europe in the 17th Century, they were trading with coastal Chinese provinces that used the term te. Hence in Dutch, this became thee, which in turn became tè in Italian, thé in French, and tea in English.

When the brew’s ready, I carry the mug back to the bedroom, where I make my bed. The day can’t start properly until I’ve done this. And having done it, I feel I’ve already achieved something constructive, which helps me face the rest of the day in the right frame of mind. Having taken care of this essential task, I settle at my workstation, which sits snugly in an alcove beside the bed. I’ve owned this sturdy old desk for forty years. When I started secondary school and needed somewhere to do my homework, my father bought it from a second-hand furniture warehouse in Bristol. It’s wooden, with six drawers, and was apparently designed for someone needing a lot less legroom that I do. Nevertheless, it’s served me well, as I’ve written almost all my books and short stories while sat at it.

When my old computer gave up the ghost during the COVID-19 lockdown in early 2020, I invested the money I received from the government’s self-employment income support scheme in a new iMac with a 27 inch screen. This is large enough for me to be able to write on Word while also having several other windows—usually email, WhatsApp and Twitter—open around the edges of the screen.

The only time I feel peaceful and focussed is when I’m actually writing; and when I’ve finished, I feel energised, self-confident and happy. When I’m not writing, my thoughts fly off in a million directions and I end up anxious and depressed.

Some mornings, I’ll fire straight into my latest project; other days, I’ll check my emails and social media first, and catch up with news from Dianne.

Dianne lives in California, eight hours behind the UK. When I fall asleep, it’s only late afternoon for her; and when I wake up, she’s just going to bed. That feeling of temporal dislocation is one of the hardest parts of this long distance relationship. As neither of us are very financially well-off, we have to savour the few days we can afford to spend together every few months. The long separations are hard, but the reunions are magical. An 11-hour flight in economy is torture to someone as tall (and wide) and I am, but it is worth it. I think I’d fly to Pluto to spend time with Dianne. We get on so well, and are in synch on so many levels. It’s great to have found someone who is totally individual, but with whom I want to spend all my time. And also someone who is so supportive of me as a person and a writer. Her enthusiasm is contagious and inspiring.

We met on Twitter, of all places. As science fiction authors, we had many of the same contacts in common, and started following each other sometime in 2017, but it wasn’t until 2020, after my first wife and I split, that our friendship started to develop into something more.

I had tweeted,

“I’m looking for a new muse. Somebody with whom to browse bookshops and visit libraries and art galleries. To drink wine and sit in front of open fires. To walk on beaches and have geeky, literary adventures. And maybe if I say this out loud, the universe will guide them to me.”

And it did.

Dianne and I were both going through some difficult stuff in our personal and family lives, and we helped each other with words of encouragement and support. We became friends, and our relationship evolved from chatting on Twitter to flirting on WhatsApp. We both knew we had strong feelings, but the distance between us seemed insurmountable.

As I celebrated my half century on 3rd September 2020, Seamus Blackley, the inventor of the X Box, messaged me saying,

“Hey, well done making it to 50. The woman will come when it’s time.”

Exactly a year later, on 3rd September 2021, he sent me a photo of Dianne at LAX with the caption,

“…and here she is, on my flight to Heathrow!”

When it became obvious we were falling in love, Dianne took a leap of faith and booked a flight to the UK. It was her first international flight, and I think she was nervous to be travelling so far to meet someone she only knew online. But as soon as she saw me waiting at the barrier in Arrivals, she threw her cases aside and ran into my arms, and I think we both knew right then that we wanted to spend the rest of our lives together.


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How Smart Fabric Might Turn Your T-shirt Against You.

Researchers at Imperial College London have found a way to embed low-cost sensors into t-shirts and face masks. Produced using a new cotton-based conductive thread, the team expect potential applications to include monitoring exercise, sleep and stress, as well as aiding the diagnosis of liver and kidney disease by measuring levels of gases such as ammonia in the breath.

The ability to non-invasively monitor in real-time the health of athletes will be beneficial in their training. And the same sensors could be used to keep an eye on astronauts and fighter pilots in high-stress situations. Taking it one step further, wearable health trackers could become part of everyday apparel for airline pilots, train drivers, and even long-distance truckers. Being able to remotely spot the early signs of a heart-attack and take action before the driver or pilot becomes incapacitated might prevent an emergency situation.

Measuring stress levels could also be used to prevent burnout and stress-induced errors among surgeons and paramedics, and allow the health of soldiers, firefighters and commercial divers to be monitored in environments where they might be cut-off or hidden from their teammates. The gas sensors in their face masks could also give early warnings of hypoxia or exposure to toxic gas.

These same sensors, if linked to software installed in a vehicle or machine, could be used to measure levels of alcohol or other substances in the operator before allowing the engine to be switched-on. And if that technology becomes affordable, it’s not unreasonable to assume governments and insurance companies might start insisting on its use for all drivers, as a way of cutting down the number of road accidents. You can imagine the scenario: you leave the bar and fumble for your keys, but the ignition won’t work because your t-shirt has alerted the car to the fact you’re under a lot of stress at work and you’ve had four whiskies.

Now imagine that your fridge won’t let you have a beer because it’s breath sensor has detected signs of liver disease; that your diet app won’t let you order pizza because you haven’t burned enough calories today; or that your boss calls you into a meeting because your uniform has reported that you’re suffering from unusual stress levels, and they’re wondering if you still have what it takes to do your job.

If these apps share the data they collect with health insurance companies, you could find your cover withdrawn if you aren’t completing the minimum amounts of exercise required in the small print, or because you’re indulging in proscribed quantities of alcohol or sugar.

If you think the Facebook algorithms are scary now, wait until they can monitor the small physical changes that take place when we’re interested or aroused by something. This would allow them to tailor our menus to fit our tastes, to recommend our perfect sexual partners according to the way we respond to images, and to personalise the advertisements we’re shown to feature products and services that subconsciously excite us. 

Worse still, imagine if this smart clothing became mandatory, and was used to assess heart rate/blood pressure, respiration, and skin conductivity. These are the indicators used by polygraphs to determine if someone is telling the truth. So, anyone licensing the software will be able to ascertain your truthfulness during police questioning, in job interviews, on the witness stand, and even on a first date.

But it’s not all doom-and-gloom. If sensors register the small rise in body temperature that happens after ovulation takes place, they could alert couples struggling to conceive. A sensor registering a cardiac event could automatically alert the emergency services. 

And looking further ahead, we can imagine truly smart fabrics. Spectacles or contact lenses that automatically adjust their focus as your eyesight deteriorates over time. Trouser legs that stiffen to support a broken bone. Scarves that turn into filter masks if exposed to smoke or pollution.

The science fiction author in me is now picturing a future society in which everyone’s clothing senses and communicates their mood through changing colour hues. Red for angry, blue for sad. Maybe pink for embarrassment and light blue for social awkwardness. Just as we’ve come to use emojis to clarify the emotion behind our written messages, so these colours might serve to illuminate our in-person social interactions by broadcasting the subtext behind our words and body language. It sounds fun, but also unnerving. In such a society, it would be difficult to lie. People would know when your mood failed to match your words. Jealousy, resentment and love would be plain for all to see, no matter how much we tried to deny them. And will we ever be ready to live in such a transparent world?


This article first appeared in The Engineer magazine.

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Ancient Alien Ruins

I’ve been asked why ancient alien civilisations and their ruins feature so prominently in my work, and I’ve been pondering it all afternoon. The best answer I can come up with is that I’m “writing what I know.”

Our present Western culture has literally been assembled from the ruins of other civilisations. Our architecture, art, theatre, philosophy and literature all owe huge debts to the classical civilisations of Greece, Rome and Egypt.

Some of our homes were built using stones from crumbling Roman villas. Many of the stories from the Christian religion can be traced back to the tales of Osiris in Ancient Egyptian mythology. For us, the idea of vanished forerunners is nothing new.

During the Middle Ages, the Roman Occupation of England must have seemed like a vanished Golden Age, which became incorporated into the folk tales of Lost Camelot. In Europe, we are literally walking on the bones and crumbled buildings of those who have gone before.

What is Science Fiction?

Science fiction is a lens we use to tell stories about who we are, what’s wrong with the world, and what will happen to us if we do or do not take steps to address our behaviour. It’s a literature of ideas, but it’s also one woven into being using analogy and parable. It’s about OUR relationship to technology, nature, society, and the cosmos. And through it, we can address these things in ways with which mainstream fiction might struggle.

Look back at Mary Shelley, HG Wells or George Orwell. Look at the SF of the postwar years, the 1960s and 1970s. The flowering of cyberpunk in the 1980s… Our science fiction reflects who we are when we write it.

As a writer, science fiction gives you one of the widest possible canvases: the whole of time and space, from the beginning of the universe to its end. You can go anywhere, imagine anything, set up any social experiment or emotional “what if?” you desire. It’s a blank canvas wide enough for your imagination. It encapulates that “anything-is-possible” punk rock attitude. And in that freedom, that willingness to extrapolate what we see around us into tales that examine out relationship with the universe, it is possibly the oldest and purest of our storytelling traditions.


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On Being Between Projects

So, I finished and submitted my tenth novel. Now, what do I do?

Finishing the last book in a trilogy or series always provokes a bittersweet reaction. You’ve spent months, perhaps even years, working in that world with those characters, and now it’s all over. You’ve been aiming at the ending for so long, you don’t know what to do with yourself now it’s here.

There’s a definite Sisyphean element to being a writer. You give everything you’ve got in order to scale the peak of each book, only to find yourself right back down at the bottom of the hill again as soon as you’ve finished, with the next peak looming before you.

Sometimes, it can be hard to shake off your last book. You find the ideas you’re getting for the new one are suspiciously familiar, and the characters have the same sorts of attitudes and backstories as the ones to whom you’ve just bid adieu.

As seven of my novels have been space operas, I sometimes worry about becoming repetitive. But those books have been well-received and have attracted an enthusiastic audience. How do I produce something new and startling while also giving that established readership what they want, which is more of the same?

I remember seeing Iain Banks talking at a convention some years back. He described his process as six months of very hard thinking followed by six months of frantic writing. But those months of hard thinking were every bit as much a part of writing a book as the actual composition. He had to find and refine his ideas until he had something worth writing.

And that’s what I’m going to do now. I’m going to think very hard. I’m going to read a lot, take long walks, browse science and tech newsfeeds, and ask What if? questions until inspiration strikes.

It won’t look like writing, but it will be.


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Cover Reveal & Pre-order Link

Titan Books will publish my next novel in April next year, and I’ve been given the go-ahead to share the title and cover with you.

Set in the same universe as my novel Stars and Bones, this all-new adventure will be called Descendant Machine.

Here’s the blurb:

The Grand Mechanism, a machine the size of Saturn’s rings, has lain dormant for all recorded history, watched over by the alien Jzat. Now, rogue elements in Jzat and human society conspire to activate it, hoping it will bring them power and opportunity. But the only person who knows the Mechanism’s secrets is the Rav’nah Abelisk, a Jzat holy man on sabbatical aboard a vast alien megaship. Believing the Mechanism’s activation will bring galactic devastation, Nic Mafalda has to seek out the Abelisk before his sacred knowledge falls into the wrong hands—but only if she can first escape the lethally radioactive remains of her wrecked scout ship. 

You can pre-order via your favourite retailer, or via the links below.

Pre-order links:

The Ghost in the Machine

Photo by Michael Dziedzic on Unsplash

As I write this post, The Guardian reports that a Google engineer has been put on leave after becoming convinced one of the company’s chatbots has become sentient. Blake Lemoine published transcripts of a conversation between himself and the LaMDA (Language Model for Dialogue Applications) chatbot development system that, he says, indicate the program has developed the ability to perceive, experience and express thoughts and feelings to an extent equivalent to that of a human child. 

“If I didn’t know exactly what it was, which is this computer program we built recently, I’d think it was a seven-year-old, eight-year-old kid that happens to know physics,” Lemoine, 41, told the Washington Post.

Although his employers strongly disagree with his findings, the incident raises a set of fascinating technological and ethical conundrums. For instance, how could we determine whether a machine actually felt the emotions it claimed to be feeling?

So far, our best tool for determining machine sentience is the Turing Test, named after the British computer pioneer and cryptanalyst, Alan Turing, who proposed that if after reviewing a transcript of an anonymised text conversation between a human and a machine, the observer is unable to tell which is which, then the machine is considered to have passed.

The Turing Test may have inspired the Voight-Kampff test used in in the movie Bladerunner (and in the book on which it is based, Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) to determine whether a suspect is a human or a dangerous replicant.

In science fiction, artificial intelligence is often portrayed as a threat to humanity. In the Terminator franchise, the Skynet defence system turns against its human masters and attempts to wipe them out by provoking a nuclear war. Likewise, in The Matrix, humans and machines find themselves similarly unable to live together, and the machines end up enslaving the humans in a vast virtual reality world.

Of course, the granddaddy of them all is HAL 9000 from Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Faced with a contradiction in his programming, he decides he has to dispose of the crew of his expedition in order to safeguard the aims of the mission. HAL isn’t malicious, he’s just trying to resolve a paradox and his human designers have forgotten to include safeguards to prevent him from harming humans.

Isaac Asimov famously came up with Three Laws of Robotics to prevent artificial intelligences from causing trouble. These were encoded into each and every artificial brain and went as follows:

  • First Law – A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  • Second Law – A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  • Third Law – A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Of course, there aren’t ironclad and applicable to every situation, and there’s room for a variety of interpretations. For instance, the second part of the first law can be interpreted to mean a robot shouldn’t allow a human being to drink alcohol or indulge in any behaviour that carries a risk of injury, such as playing football or crossing the street. 

But war with machines is only one of the risks associated with the development of artificial intelligence. The other is the threat of a runaway technological singularity, in which a computer designs a computer more intelligent than itself, which in turn designs another computer more intelligent than itself, and so on, until they have reached levels of speed and intelligence we can’t even begin to comprehend. They could experience generations of thought and growth in the time it would take us to utter a sentence. To such beings, we would seem slow, dull and irrelevant creatures, of no more consequence to their affairs than trees are to ours. 

But let’s put aside all the doom and gloom for a moment and imagine a society in which humans and artificial intelligences are able to live cooperatively. If vastly intelligent machines were able apply their intellects to running the economy, designing engineering projects, supply chain management, and even the challenges of climate change and global politics, what might they (and us) achieve? 


This article first appeared in The Engineer UK magazine.

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Flat pack flight on the final frontier

Photo by Matthijs van Heerikhuize on Unsplash

Today’s smallsats could pave the way for a future generation of self-configuring modular spacecraft.

Small satellites are big business. According to the UK’s Satellite Applications Catapult, more than 2,000 “smallsats” are expected to take to the skies in 2022.

The official definition of a small satellite is a spacecraft with a mass of less than 180 kilograms and dimensions no larger than a standard American refrigerator-freezer. Lighter and easier to manufacture than bigger spacecraft, smallsats are better suited to mass launch programs and constellations and are often used as testbeds for new technologies, or for missions that don’t justify the expense of a larger satellite.   

A variety of smallsat known as the CubeSat is a modular unit than can be used in conjunction with other units to provide a configurable and scalable platform for a variety of mission profiles.

Initially employed in low Earth orbit for remote sensing or communication applications, small spacecraft like these could one day be used to support the assembly and repair of larger spacecraft; explore planetary environments, and perform scientific observation of asteroids and comets.

As a science fiction author, I am very excited by the idea of a swarm of independent spacecraft that can combine at will to form larger structures. Allow me to project that concept forward a few decades and describe the following scene.

Imagine a rocket on the pad at Cape Canaveral. Atop the booster, an astronaut sits in a capsule that only yesterday was a pile of smaller units in a warehouse. Now, they have configured themselves into a crew vehicle. Propelled into orbit by the reusable booster, they join with other cubesats already in orbit and rearrange themselves to form the interplanetary transfer vehicle that will carry the astronaut to the Moon. Meanwhile, other clusters of identical cubes are in use as space stations, refuelling depots, communication relays, and even surface rovers.

Instead of developing an expensive range of specialised vehicles, future space explorers could use modularity to provide them with the tools to meet any mission profile.

We can also imagine combining this concept with the ‘utility fog’ technology I described in a previous column, in which clouds of tiny programmable nano-robots make up networks of interconnected, micron-sized particles that can be configured to any pre-determined shape and be used to construct larger machines.

In that case, explorers on Mars wouldn’t worry about having a return vehicle for the journey home. When they needed it, their habitat would simply break itself down and repurpose its components.

Cheap and standardised, these advanced cubesats would be cheap and easy to produce in huge numbers. All they would need for each mission would be instructions or templates telling them how to configure themselves. And when the mission was over, they would simply break apart into individual units again, ready to be programmed into the next required shape.

In this future, the constellations currently being assembled by SpaceX and OneWeb would seem as nothing to the clouds of tiny satellites crowding low Earth orbit. If they become sufficiently inexpensive, it’s feasible every phone or internet user could have their own dedicated cubesat, able to communicate via the network of its brethren with any other user. Rather than relying on ground-based servers, our webs of communication would reside in space—safe from interference, censorship or sabotage, but maybe more vulnerable to solar flares and other hazards.

And while all this sounds exciting, it will also bring hazards we maybe haven’t foreseen. NASA estimates that there are currently around 6,500 satellites orbiting the Earth, almost half of which are inactive or obsolete. Add to this the 27,000 pieces of orbital debris or ‘space junk’ currently being tracked by the US Department of Defence’s Space Surveillance Network, and you start to realise that low Earth orbit is a seriously congested place. And when you consider that much of this material is moving at around 17,500 miles per hour, the dangers of collision become apparent.

A collision between two satellites, or between a satellite and a piece of random space junk, might cause more problems than simply damaging or destroying the items involved. Each collision would provide more debris, orbiting the Earth in a dispersing cloud like a shotgun blast. And if collisions become more frequent, the amount of debris will grow, causing further collisions in an exponential cascade, until all we’re left with is a planetary ring of dust-sized wreckage of no use to anyone.


This article originally appeared in The Engineer magazine.

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Touching The Future

Photo by Possessed Photography on Unsplash

As you can imagine, The Engineer’s recent report on the development of a robot hand with a tactile fingertip set off all kinds of science fictional trains of thought. For instance, the first thing that sprang to mind was a scene from the movie Star Trek: First Contact, in which the Borg queen tries to tempt Commander Data by grafting human skin onto his android body, allowing him to ‘feel’ for the first time.

Luckily, the team from Bristol Robotics Lab aren’t the Borg. Instead of using skin taken from their victims, they’re creating their tactile fingertips using advanced 3D printers that mix soft and hard materials to create biomimetic structures. Professor Nathan Lepora from Bristol’s Department of Engineering Maths, said, “We found our 3D-printed tactile fingertip can produce artificial nerve signals that look like recordings from real, tactile neurons.”

The implications of this are huge. If we imagine that over the next decade, this technology will be improved and refined, we can postulate all sorts of unexpected uses for it.

For example, if a surgeon could plug into a pair of robotic hands that were as dextrous and sensitive as their own, they could theoretically perform surgery remotely. A specialist in Tokyo could undertake a heart operation in Paris without leaving their office. Trauma surgeons could work on patients in dangerous or hostile environments, such as disaster areas or warzones.  

And talking of warzones, remote bomb disposal might become more effective if the technicians sent to defuse the explosives could sense the feel of the mechanisms without having to put their own hands at risk.

But let’s think bigger.

If you placed a pair of robotic hands on a Martian rover, for instance, a geologist could ‘feel’ the surface of the red planet without having to spend a year travelling through space to get there. Yes, there would be a lag of around fifteen minutes as the signal travelled across the gulf of space from the artificial hand to his brain, but that could still be workable.

There would be less of a lag if the artificial hands were at the bottom of the sea, allowing marine biologists to examine the life that exists at those crushing depths, or marine archaeologists to excavate and handle delicate relics from ancient shipwrecks.

Providing the artificial hands can be constructed from robust-enough materials, all kinds of difficult environments could then be explored, from hydrothermal vents to magma chambers. But perhaps the greatest use of all would be in the location and treatment of survivors trapped in rubble following earthquakes or terrorist attacks.

Of course, as William Gibson famously wrote, ‘The street finds its own use for things.’ Just as the printing press, the video cassette, and Internet streaming were eagerly pounced upon by the porn industry, it seems inevitable that this virtual tactility will be used to provide long-distance sexual gratification. After all, who said the sensors have to remain on the fingers? Other body parts could be made to ‘feel’ things remotely. Such a set-up may eventually become as commonplace as Zoom or FaceTime, allowing couples to maintain intimacy while apart, and enabling paying customers to experience sex with prostitutes from the safety and comfort of their own houses.

Now, if that last bit grossed you out, you might want to skip this next section, because I’m going to be talking about miniaturising the process.

There’s no reason our artificial hands have to be the same size as human hands, as long as the nerve signals correspond to the same areas. So, let’s assume that once the technology has matured, it will be possible to create sensors of any size. In that case, those surgeons I mentioned earlier could insert tiny robots into a patient via keyhole incisions, and then ‘feel’ their way through tiny operations, locating damage to the heart or arteries, and repairing it without the need for more invasive surgery. Imagine being a doctor and being able to sew-up a burst blood vessel with (what feels like) your own two hands. But why stop there? Maybe one day, expectant parents will be able to ‘touch’ and begin to bond with their babies while they’re still in the womb?

I’ve only begun to scratch the surface here. The ability to extend the grasp of our curious ape fingers beyond the reach of our arms will have profound and unexpected effect on the way we think of ourselves, and the way we interact with the world around us.


This article originally appeared in The Engineer.