Thursday, December 07, 2006

Space, Moon, Mars, Artificial Intelligence! Brains! And using SF to help kids.

I was invited by Astronaut Nicholas Patrick to attend his coming shuttle launch... one of the rare night takeoffs. I am sure I will kick myself for decades for turning down this spectacular opportunity to watch one of the greatest sights or/off Earth! But my Google trip, plus other matters, just made it hard to drop everything and go.

Nick is carrying draft copies of some of my chapters and stories into orbit with him, though. So I will be along for the ride.

(Another astronaut, Mike Foale, once left a manuscript of mine in the abandoned Spektr capsule on Mir, on the day a cargo ship collided with the station, and there it languished for a decade before burning up. A couple of days later, Mike’s wife asked me to fedex a replacement, to be sent up with a new toothbrush and sleeping bag. To this day, I am the only author to have his work sent into space as “emergency cargo.”)

In any event, to Nick and his comrades, Godspeed and much success! Return home safely. You are the slender grasp that we still have upon our dreams.

===  ===  ===

Other related news. Yesterday, NASA released photographs that reveal bright new deposits in two gullies on Mars, suggesting water has flowed in brief spurts on Mars within the last seven years. The Planetary Society congratulates the Mars Global Surveyor team for yet another significant scientific discovery. The fact that Mars Global Surveyor lasted so far beyond its projected lifetime has allowed this type of discovery that requires observing the same area over and over again. If this discovery holds, it is very significant. Only a few years ago, the common belief was that liquid water last flowed on Mars over a billion years ago. Now, we see evidence that liquid water may be flowing today and may currently exist in the subsurface. Glimmers of possibility.

Then there is the plan to “return to the moon” by 2020, only fifty or so years after we left. I once worked for James Arnold, who predicted that there would be ice in the lunar south pole crater, where they are now thinking of planting the base. I heartily approve.

And I wish we could add one month’s Iraq War budget to this endeavor, in order to make other fine dreams come true.

And another months worth for energy research. And another to study climate change. And another vs our kids’ mounting debt. And another to rebuild the reserves. And another for readiness. All the things we have neglected in favor of the war game of a pack of nasty little boys.

Heck. At $20 million a day, let’s take ONE DAY’s worth of Iraq wastage and just give a million dollars to twenty americans. It would do more good.

But no, let’s get back to science....

===  ===  ===

When Vernor Vinge and I had dinner with investment guru John Mauldin and his son back in July, we discussed my opinion that -- even as raw hardware -- the brain is radically underestimated. I feel, for example, that Artificial Intelligence (AI) zealots like Ray Kurzweil steeply underestimate the difficulty of matching our brain computational power, and therefore the difficulty we face in matching it.

For one thing, the main estimates for “computer break-even” are based upon the assumption that our brains compute only at synapses. These flashy junctures between axons and dendrites are said to play a role somewhat analogous to the on-off nature of binary switches, in a computer. And so, extrapolating according to Moore’s Law, AI optimists estimate that a supercomputer will have the same number of “switches” as a human brain has synapses, around the year 2025 or so.

Ahem, well for one thing, that won’t make a bit of difference if advances in SOFTWARE don’t rapidly catch up. (My Google visit had something to do with hopeful ways to accomplish that.)

And yet, even if software advances are prodigious... and assuming that a lot of our brain power is redundant or “wasted... even so, I am a bit dubious. This skepticism is based upon my own crackpot notion that synapses aren’t everything.

Yes, they can reconfigure and re-wire and strengthen or weaken and do many non-linear things that binary switches cannot. Another reason to expect to need MORE binary switches than we have synapses. Maybe many more.

But even that isn’t my chief reason.

The way I see it, this model neglects to consider the neuron itself, as a -- well -- cellular automaton... or independent calculating entity... that follows its own complex set of rules in reacting to environmental stimuli. STimuli that include the state and actions of its neighbors, but also chemical washes in the surrounding substrate and so on. There may be hundreds of complex rule sets, each of them interacting with each other non-linearly and mediated/moderated by INTRACELLULAR structures that we, even now, know very little about.

If I am right about this, each neuron could have thousands of potential inner conditions!

Moreover, it makes some sense that, while synapses may be important -- firing a “standing wave” of consciousness and rapid calculation -- memory itself (at least the long term kind) has no business being stored in transitory flashes.

A much more likely place for long term memory to be stored would be within the neurons themselves. (Consider, people who receive powerful electric shocks probably experience disruption of vast numbers of neuron firings. Yet many of them recover without severe long term memory loss, even if short term losses are severe.)

Vernor responded to my hypothesis with skepticism. And yet, always honest and openminded, he wrote to me recently that ”... I ran across researcher(s) who figure that even a single neuron might have the computational competence of a supercomputer.” Here is the reference:

Rasmussen, S. _et al._, "Computational Connectionism within Neurons: a Model of Cytoskeletal Automata Subserving Neural Networks", in _Emergent Computation_, Stephanie Forrest, ed., pp428-449, MIT Press, 1991.

Yipes. I never claimed exactly supercomputer status for neurons. Nevertheless, I have long believed that the available neuronal response set is not JUST in the 1-to-1,000 synapses that they link to. Those synapses don't change position all that often. And they don't add up to enough variability to explain the depth and richness of human memory... at least, not by my figuring.

Reiterating: what could possibly switch very rapidly is the internal rules followed by each neuron itself. There needn't be that many of these variable rule sets. Say, a hundred, for the combined flexibility of response to be tremendous. Maybe on the scale of an old hand calculator. Per cell. If so, zowee.

And it means that calculations showing digital computers reaching our level of computational power by 2025 are way off -- maybe by maybe a century!


(Dang, that coulda made a good commentary column in a journal like WIRED and I’d’a got paid for it. Some folks deliver less than that. I hope you guys are appreciative.)

----- Science Fiction and Education ----

From time to time, the topic of Education comes up. And people sure have strong opinions!

One of my own endeavors has been to help promote SCIENCE FICTION as a resource and helper in stimulating agile thinking in today’s students.

Are any of you at all interested in this?

The latest effort can be viewed at the AboutSF site, where a variety of lesson plans and other resources are now gathered in a convenient place.

One example curriculum site that was developed for The Postman is way cool. (For the sake of safe archiving, would anyone care to file away a source code backup of this entire site? Just asking. I think the creator is retiring. Would be a pity if it vanished.)

I confess I helped to fund and establish AboutSF. Look especially at the Speculative Speakers portion, that can get great authors to speak at your local (or national) events.

(Of course, if it is a BIG event, that can afford a top-rated national speaker.....)

Back to education and science fiction.... hey we could really use skilled volunteers. (Especially teachers!) Those who are interested in getting active in this effort are invited to visit the “Reading For The Future” web site.

See also a collection of articles on my website related to teaching Science Fiction and Using Science Fiction to Teach Science.


Anonymous said...

I use science fiction to try to hook kids into science. I'll try to dig out some stuff for you, especially the stuff I put together using Earth.

A few years ago I worked with the head of English to bring Robert Sawyer into school as a speaker. He's got a good manner with kids, and some of them were still talking about it years later. The idea that science had a story, rather than being merely a collection of boring facts to memorize[1], was an eye opener to some kids!

[1] Sadly, this is the prevailing attitude of textbook writers and far too many of my colleagues.

Anonymous said...

"And it means that calculations showing digital computers reaching our level of computational power by 2025 are way off -- maybe by maybe a century!"

It seems unlikely that the entire potential computational capacity of the brain will be needed to successfully mimic the human mind. Just because the the human mind is the only example of intelligence we have, doesn't mean a more efficient means for intelligence won't emerge.

Still, a hundred years to make ourselves obsolete is pretty quick!

Anonymous said...

"One example curriculum site that was developed for The Postman is way cool. (For the sake of safe archiving, would anyone care to file away a source code backup of this entire site?"

It hasn't even been indexed at, so there's a real risk that it will soon be lost.

Anonymous said...

I could follow our host's example and give away my thoughts on computational power and AI for free. . . but instead I think I'll keep them in my novel where they belong, and keep looking for a publisher daft enough to put it on bookshelves.

In a Pynchonian coincidence, I was just ranting about neurons earlier today, in a Pharyngula comment thread.

David Brin said...

Alert. Speaking of future literacy, drop by:

gist: by 2025 few college grads will be literate and the author contends that it's a good thing.

I am reminded of the Sci Fi novel MOCKINGBIRD, by Tevis, showing a hi tech future in which our robot servants take care of us and literacy has vanished, as even college students use fancy visual media to study arty basket-weaving type courses. One bright kid rediscovers reading ...

Actually, this scenario is silly on many levels, since the ability of human beings to scvan-decode vast amounts of encoded information by flicking the gaze across a page or screen is simply miraculous. A world in which people have given up such a skill will be a world without ambitious people, who want to learn skills, empathize with diverse lives, and wreak changes in their world.

This does not mean that reading can't be improved. George Bernard Shaw gave a prize for a new script/alphabet for the English language that takes up half the room. Chinese takes up even less room, in ideogram form.

Also missing is any awareness of actual trends. In fact, more books are being bought today, per capita, than ever. Todays youths read more words and write more than any generation ever (though I will admit that 99% of the statements - especially online - are total crap). True, science fiction, the highest form of literature is in partial decline, but that is more about spreading anti-future attitudes than about lack of skill.

In Sumerian times, the very brightest boys were trained to a high and revered skill that is matched today by 95% of seven year olds. That's amazing.

If reading goes away, it will only be because it is replaced by something better... or because our masters want us dumbed down.

Anonymous said...

So the rumors of a downturn in book purchases is false then?

I truly hope so... seeing I want to be published myself! (Just have to find an agent...)

What form do you see a lunar base taking, Dr. Brin? What purpose would we have for it? And would we burrow into the moon for our bases, or boldly build on top of the surface and risk the hazards that come with being exposed to the emptiness of the void? (Or a combination of the two for that matter...)

Rob Howard, Tangents Reviews

Anonymous said...

Just yesterday I read another theory of long-term memory here:
He believes memory is stored in extracellular tissue in the brain.

As for AI, I view it from a practical, not a 'computing power' perspective. I believe AI will overtake humans fairly soon using task-based criteria (what they can do). This is because specialized components can be created separately and joined together. There are many things computers can do astronomically better than humans. If we improve computers to a point that they can do most tasks almost as well as humans, when we put it all together we get something that can do a lot more than a human.

Computers can also make use of different forms of hardware (normal computers, neural net) whereas humans are stuck with just neurons.

Maybe this doesn't address the issue of 'when,' but superior AI seems possible even using less "switches" than the brain has. I think it is more of a software issue.

Anonymous said...

A question for Dr. Brin:

Actually, I hate to bring it up, but since you mentioned it, what is your opinion of what we should do now in Iraq? I've read your essays on what the new Democratic Congress will do and am still mulling them over (for example, I'm generally one of those "looney leftists" who wonders whether impeaching Bush and Cheney is necessary to save our country at this point, but I digress) and I didn't see this discussed.

Though I opposed this war from the get go, I understand that we have to do *something* with the current situation. For most of the recent past, I've been of the "We're just making things worse by staying there, let's fully pull out now" school; however, today San Jose State University hosted a lecture and Q&A session with the Iraqi Representitive to the U.N. and his views can (I think) be summed up as:

1. Iraq (and the Middle east in general) are a huge, complex series of issues with no easy answers.

2. He and his family fled Saddam's reign; despite all of the problems, he thinks that the Iraqis are better off now.

3. In his opinion, the number one issue (out of many) is having the Iraqi Army disarm the militias/death squads targeting the civilians, and that the Iraqi army have a "monopoly of force. (If I remember what he said correctly.)

4. If there is a full pullout of Multi National Forces (mostly U.S.) the result will be much, much worse. A partial withdrawal may be in order, if the Iraqi military estimates that it can assert more control, but he thinks that timetables are a bad idea.

I've been thinking over his talk, his views, and his info, and I'm not sure what I think at this point. What do you think?

David Brin said...

Aric, excellent post. Yes, infinite combination of components, plus vastly better software... ah, but there's the rub. Software badly lags.

jon, it may not surprise you that I have a plan for Iraq. We should pull back to within 50 miles of Kurdistan, where we are actually liked and wanted.

Those 50 miles would be a tractable piece of Sunni territory than we can manage to control well and finally finish fixing all the infrastructure.

The Sunnis would then face a stark choice. Keep shooting at us or stop. Um. Let's see. In the southern part of Sunni-land, they will face rising intimidation from the Shias. In the north, safety and wealth with the Kurds and Americans.

Watch how fast they will hand over the Al Quaedists in their midst and demand that the 50 miles be made 100.

Yes, this would leave most of Iraq a shia theocracy, and in effect an Iranian sattrappy. So? Dig it. Suddenly the Iranians will be the ones with a tiger by the tail, getting blamed for everything, pouring vast treasure into the sands, gradually being hated by the southerners who, while they are shias, are also arabs!

Also, watch how soon the Saudis would get nervous, with a triumphant Shia entity just across the border from their own oil rich shia territories.

Mind you, I think the whol Shia-Sunni conflict smells of gross exaggeration. Despite bloodshed at the street level, there are far fewer signs of antipathy at high levels. After all, who were the big winners of the Bushite "strategy"? Two nations on either side of Iraq.

My strategy does have a kink. Turkey won't like it. But Turkey can learn to live with it. No fundamental interests need be harmed.

Rob Perkins said...

Without meaning to sound mystical, are we at all sure that it is computation which occurs in the brain?

Probably so. But I know in my own thinking I arrive at right answers without going through all the steps quite often. I can *retrace* the steps and enumerate them, but a direct add-and-carry type of computation isn't immediately obvious.

I was also entranced a little by a speaker I heard once, who made some comments about similarities between the neuron patterns around the heart and those in the brain. He then went off to describe various autonomic responses in the nervous system etc etc, and then made the claim that that neural matter in those outer areas of the nervous system might participate in thought process.

I've wondered since whether or not that was an unsubstantiated crock, but he made it sound good.

As far as neurons being supercomputers go, it would certainly push back the singularity by a bit if they were, wouldn't it? :-)

Genius said...

I am always 'under-impressed' by the poer of my own brain. It doesn't record all that information, it doesnt processs that much and it does it slowly. I can't think of much really astounding that it does, and when others see such things I just see wishful thinking, or them playing tricks on themselves.

BUT I dont know if upgrading the power of neurons changes much since I see the future with combining humans(pl) and computers(pl) as opposed to just computers.

A super brain is probably possible already, all you have to do is allow a series of computers and a series of infants to all have a internal method of communicating complex signals (ie drop a reciever/transmitter into their brains). In time they would be able to work together and divide up tasks etc.

Now that combination could do some astounding things.

Anonymous said...

Very much a layman's opinion here, but I came to the conclusion a while ago that AI is never going to come close to modelling human thought using binary (yes/no) logic or even fuzzy (yes/no/maybe) logic. When confronted with a question, the human mind throws up a lot more than yes, no, and maybe. It is just as likely to add 42, purple, strawberry, triangle, and penguin. And the right answer is likely to involve 42 purple penguins. (Think Kekule and his snakes.) I have my doubts that computers can ever model this in any way.

Tony Fisk said...

It wouldn't surprise me if the switching power of the neuron was grossly underestimated, if for no other reason than that we have a long history of overstating our level of understanding of the human body.


1. while DNA sequencers claim to have mapped the entire human genome and know what protein gets generated where, they haven't touched on the equally abundant polysaccharride structures, which appear to have a role in shaping those proteins (and protein shape is often everything).

2. some gross oversights in the field of human anatomy. You'd think that by now, we'd have the large structures nailed. Yet, in the last few years it's been found that:
- we have a previously undescribed jaw muscle.
- what we think of as the clitoris is (ahem!) just the tip of the iceberg.

Rob Perkins said:
Without meaning to sound mystical, are we at all sure that it is computation which occurs in the brain?
Have you read 'The Dreaming Dragons' by Damien Broderick?

Don Quijote said...

jon, it may not surprise you that I have a plan for Iraq. We should pull back to within 50 miles of Kurdistan, where we are actually liked and wanted.

I have a sneaking suspicion that we are not particularly liked, just tolerated in that the Kurds think that we can protect them from the Turks. We can't.

Those 50 miles would be a tractable piece of Sunni territory than we can manage to control well and finally finish fixing all the infrastructure.

And how do you expect to get your supplies there since the Turks will not let you cross their territories, neither will the Iranians nor the Syrians? Oh, yeah you'll have to cross the Iraq Shiites Territory, that should be fun to watch.

The Sunnis would then face a stark choice. Keep shooting at us or stop. Um. Let's see. In the southern part of Sunni-land, they will face rising intimidation from the Shias. In the north, safety and wealth with the Kurds and Americans.

They'll keep shooting, cause we are invaders, torturers and murderers and infidels to boot.

Watch how fast they will hand over the Al Quaedists in their midst and demand that the 50 miles be made 100.

That will never happen, in that anyone who turns an insurgent in to the US would be a traitor and once identified would be shot.

The best shot at peace in the Middle East would be the Creation of an EU like structure joining Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Palestine, possibly Saudi Arabia and Egypt creating a large internal market that can pursue an industrialization policy on it's own terms. (I don't expect it anytime in the near future)

Anonymous said...

Not even going to touch the Iraq thing. Although I do kind of like the "miss us when we're gone" idea. Remember, a lot of people are currently romanticizing Saddam the same way Russians began to romanticize the Soviet Union (at least we ate)! In rough times, a lot of people inherently pull back.

Anyways, NASA! Yes, they are having a damned good week. So cool that Mars appears to be pretty nice and wet - Blue Mars, here we come :) And besides which, we get to have fun speculating about life again for a little while if there are large subterranean pools anywhere.

For the moon base, I really hope that we do end up partnering with the Russians. If nothing else than to get ahold of their $20 mil a shot rockets for cargo runs. Combining this with the ISS COTS program would really change the economic picture for NASA, I believe. Open up that market and may the best engineers survive!

And AI-wise ... I really think that by the time we get an AI up and running (even a primitive one), we will have learned so much about our own brains that we will be able to increase their own abilities. By increase I mean to adapt from their original, natural purpose (get long, pointy stick into tasty zebra) to the more modern purposes (rapid invention, understanding symbolics and super-complexity).

Further, unless an AI is built like a brain, rather than a computer, it is likely that the two will continue to have varying places to be used. Computers are very good at housing our formal forms of logic (including symbolic mathematics), but not nearly so good at the induction, analogy or pattern re-combination that are the bases of our creativity.

Again, if we start making computers like our brains, we'll learn a lot about ourselves in the process.

And, I would not mind learning how to cut my kids' education times in half (back to the original plan). Rather than institutional learning from 6 to 30 (geez, that thesis is looking longer and longer as I go), get back to something more like 6 to 18.

Of course, then someone will go to the super-program from 6 to 21, and we get back on the treadmill of progress again :)

Anonymous said...

I don't buy the "century" figure. If a neuron and its synapses are 2^16 times as complex as supposed, that pushes back the singularity by ... 16 years. :)

Anonymous said...

As a librarian, I can honestly say that I 'push' books... and almost all books have some value. I know a number of Civil War 'buffs' who got thier start reading trash westerns set in the 1870's... the trash novels made references to 'what happened earlier', and I would encourage the kids would go look up the Civil War to find out. Science Fiction to science is kind of obvious, but how about modern mystery stories to science? How many mysteries make refernces to forensics (biology), ballistics (physics), and I really with I could think of a third. Heck, even Dr. Suess' "Hop on Pop" can be turned into a lesson on physics (Yes, I've done it.).

Pulling back into Kurdish Territory (plus a buffer zone), setting up a 'Marshall Plan' to rebuild the infrastructure there *should* work... and as for other countries blocking the 'supplies', we wouldn't ship through Syria or Iran, and would the government of Turkey DARE to stop it? "Block our supplies, and we'll cut off your military aid... you know, the stuff that keeps your people in line so you stay in power." Turkey made a big deal out of 'not allowing the Americans in'... but only because they cut a deal with the Americans that let them get away with it. Meanwhile, Jordon also borders Iraq, we could easily ship through there... Lack of roads? Make the first project building a road!
(One of the big problems in American diplomacy is how we are so CLUMSY at it. We treat with kid gloves the ones we should threaten with a club, and club the ones we should treat with kid gloves...)

Don Quijote said...

Pulling back into Kurdish Territory (plus a buffer zone), setting up a 'Marshall Plan' to rebuild the infrastructure there *should* work... and as for other countries blocking the 'supplies', we wouldn't ship through Syria or Iran, and would the government of Turkey DARE to stop it?

Absolutely, and they wouldn't think about it twice. They had no problems killing tens of thousands of Kurds in the 90's.

"Block our supplies, and we'll cut off your military aid... you know, the stuff that keeps your people in line so you stay in power."

Turkey is a relatively stable state, the party in power does not need our weapons to stay in Power.

Turkey made a big deal out of 'not allowing the Americans in'... but only because they cut a deal with the Americans that let them get away with it.

Because the Turkish people were against this war.

Meanwhile, Jordon also borders Iraq, we could easily ship through there... Lack of roads? Make the first project building a road!

Assuming that Jordan is foolish enough to let us cross their territory.

Have you looked at a Map? Jordan has one port on the Red sea, it should be fairly easy to close it...

And once you cross Jordan, you get the pleasure of Crossing Al Anbar province, that should be a loads of fun... Crossing a desert on one of the handfuls of roads that can be used in a country in which every man , woman and child will be figuring out how to ambush you..

Or you could always use the Israeli ports to get your supplies in, that should go over well with the locals...

Anonymous said...

The problem with creating a "buffer" in Iraq and building up the infrastructure and all that is that we have no way of identifying the insurgents from the innocents. They will enter into the region together. They will hold some of the innocents family as hostages to force their good behavior and cooperation. And then they will bring violence into the rebuilt region and destroy everything we worked hard to restore.

They will have to. To not do so would be to concede defeat... and more is an insult to their nature. They want to prove America is weak. If we rebuild, they must destroy. If we bring peace, they must bring war. And it does not matter if their leaders say "Enough! Let us have peace!" because it has gone beyond that. It is now groups of individuals striking out blindly at each other, trying for revenge for decades (and the past few years) of hate, terror, and hopelessness.

The violence would move north into the Kurdish territories and end up tearing that region apart as well. The one small positive note of what we've tried to do in Iraq would thus be gone.

Iraq is suffering from a disease of madness. Its citizens are succumbing to this overwhelming hate and fear and lashing out against each other, and each new strike infects more and more Iraqis with this mental plague. It even affects the Americans over there; how many American soldiers are going to return home (hopefully, eventually) damaged and traumatized by what they witnessed?

There is only two cures. First, to purge everyone with the disease. And this is impossible. We cannot tell those who have succumbed and those who have not. The second is to draw back and let this social disease run its course, tear this nation apart, until finally there is no strength to fight. At that point we can return as part of a global coalition and heal those who remain, repair the damage that was wrought, and restore this nation to a place where people can live.

Rob H.

Anonymous said...

Well, Don, you do a fairly good job at poking holes... do you have any SOLUTIONS to the problems other than "Let them kill each other off and let Allah sort it out"? Or do you think that things will magically get better if we just pull out? (Pulling out is an option. But it won't make things better, it'll just get our guys out of the line of fire while it continues to get worse.)

Catfish 'n Cod said...

Dear Dr. Brin:

You don't have to resort to weird theories about quantum computation in microtubules to believe that the processing power of neurons extends to within a synapse. My research is on amyloid and prion proteins. This particular paper isn't my work but one of my advisors participated:
Si K, Lindquist S, Kandel ER. A neuronal isoform of the aplysia CPEB has prion-like properties. Cell. 2003 Dec 26;115(7):879-91.

The prion-like protein CPEB resides at the synapse end of a large axon in the Aplysia sea slug. Frequent stimulation of this neuron causes the prion to switch between an aggregated and a non-aggregated form. Since CPEB is part of the neurotransmitter release pathway, the setting of that switch has an effect on the later potentiation of the synapse.

In other words, the protein acts like a bit, a one-unit memory storage, with input and output capability. And its status (1 or 0, aggregated or not) is dependent on the status of various folding-related proteins in the cell, which might encourage or discourage the bit to flip.

You don't have to look far to think that a neuron might have more processing power than is apparent under the microscope. What if there are five or ten such proteins, and twenty or more regulators of them? You could have an entire little molecular circuit board at the end of every synapse....

As for the rest, I concur with OdinsEye2k. We already have learned a TREMENDOUS amount about our own brains by our repeated failures to emulate simple tasks like vision processing, face recognition, emotion generation, speech recognition... it turns out we have a huge amount of pre-loaded software we didn't even know about. Emulating that will never be effective until we know what we are emulating... which will teach us even more about who we are.

By the time we build an AI, it will resemble in architecture the human brain. The problem occurs when we start getting *close* to human capabilities without actually being there...

Don Quijote said...

Well, Don, you do a fairly good job at poking holes...
Why thank you.

do you have any SOLUTIONS to the problems other than "Let them kill each other off and let Allah sort it out"?
NO and neither does the Iraqi Study Group.

Or do you think that things will magically get better if we just pull out?

Are you willing to go there or send your kids there to attempt to stop the bloodbath?

(Pulling out is an option. But it won't make things better, it'll just get our guys out of the line of fire while it continues to get worse.)

Should have thought of that prior to invading...

or better yet should not have elected a complete psychopath to the White House twice.

David Brin said...

Ah, how refreshing to chide DQ for not going far enough.
A complete psychopath? You mean just one?

What saddens me is the Dem lineup for prexy nom in 08. They are mostly senators... which is an utter kiss of death. JFK was the last one to win outright... and barely.

Moreover, while Hillary is a fairly solid person overall, just by being who she is, she would guarantee endless Culture War during her time in the White House. Besides, do we REALLY want our series of presidential terms to read:


Argh! Has anybody even remotely (yet) pointed out how embarassing that would be, for a nation founded on anti-aristocratism? And with Jeb Bush waiting on the wings? What next? Chelsea and then the twins?

Mark Warner looked great. I wonder what blackmail made him withdraw, alas. (We need a more open and forgiving world.)

Any Dem guvs who look good to you folks out there?

Anonymous said...

At least your're honest.
And don't blame me, I never voted for him. Ever. The last time I voted for a Republican was 1996, for a San Diego City Councilman. He's been indicted since then, so at least my bad judgement has been erased by the courts.
As for sending my kids, it's not my choice, it's thiers. Maybe the last free choice that any kid gets to make. And since they're not desperate enough to call the likes of me back up (as a retiree with only 20 years of service, I'm subject to recall 'in cases of national emergency' until 2014). And I oppose a draft, too, so.

And just pulling out is an option that I think should be considered, along with Dr. Brin's reasonable suggestion, the "go big" concept of Senator McCain, and a dozen other possibilities. But I fear that what we'll do is "muddle along" until 2008/09, and then have the Liberal Media smear the Democrats for "Losing Iraq" when they had no control over the matter.

Dr. Brin: I'm not sure what the Democratic Party is thinking with all the Senators; it's hard to win from Congress. Governers is the way to go, as the last 4 of the last 5 presidents were governors (with Bush the Greater coming as a VP... along with Nixon and LBJ). Personally, I'm hoping for a relative unknown (who? Idunno) like B. Clinton and J. Carter were before thier run. But the media wants *DRAMA*, and it wants it NOW, so it wants Hilary, and McCain, and Barak Obama, because the media wants filler material for the next year until the campaign really starts.

Anonymous said...

So, Dr. Brin... considering the launch of the Space Shuttle has been pushed back, are you going to go and see it when it does launch?

Though I'm unsure if the next launch window would be another night launch or not... I think NASA is smarter than to stick with a specific time just to appear dramatic and all that.

Besides, it's better to be safe than sorry. Sure, twice there've been no sizeable chunks seen. But that's no reason to relax one's guard...

Rob H.

zorknapp said...

I've always thought that the Moon has been kind of unfairly ignored recently in good SF stories. Perhaps this new NASA thrust to go back will inspire some new stories.

Thanks for having a public forum like this for your thoughts.

David Brin said...

I was skeptical that it would be worthwhile going to the Moon instead of Mars. But the South Pole base has many attractive features. 70% sunshine for power, instead of 50%. Plus the possibility of access to water ice, only recently discovered (likely) where my thesis committee member predicted. Yes, the pole is harder to reach, but it is clearly the most valuable real estate there.

If a moon base can be a PROPER test facility for mining and refining water on another world then it will truly be a good test and training ground for Mars, and not another frivolous diversion.

Anonymous said...

I think DB nailed it. A moonbase is PRACTICE for further missions and settlements.

Absolutists like Zubrin want to sprint before we've learned to trot.

I'm just barely old enough to remember the "practice" Apollo missions. Some circled the Earth, others the moon. Apollo 10, as I recall, went TO the moon WITH A LANDER, which did everything but land!

Mars poses challenges of its own, but 90% of what we learn on the Moon will be applicable on Mars.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting . . . a map of the U.S. showing where servicemen and women killed in Iraq were from:

Not what you'd expect, huh?

Genius said...

In iraq, and future wars (hopefully there will not be any - but just in case), you need to redefine the objective.

Any objective should be simple like 'we will capture hill X' not 'we will turn country Y into a model country'. the former might lead to the latter in a round-about way but you can't make the latter the obvious measuring stick on whether you win or loose the war. If you do then you are daring the other side to deny you it, and they will do so because it is very much easier to destroy than to create.

Either make some other objective the lightning rod or change the objective to somthing achievable, achieve it, and declare victory.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Jones
As a retired serviceman, I can tell you I'm NOT surprised. Most people in the country come from cities, and so do most military members. The map has clumps about where I would expect: The NorthEast corridor, Chicago, Los Angeles-San Diego... I'll admit the one around San Fransisco surprised me, but then Oakland, Sacramento and Fresno are right there also.

Anonymous said...

Wow, it's only the beginning of 2007 and already people are talking about the Presidential race. Then again, with the current monkeys in place, I guess we can only look forward.

So, look forward we shall!

I was really hoping Sen. Russ Feingold would run (he has already declined in fora for supporters), since he seems to have the maturity and steadiness of hand that is going to be needed for the next few years. The only Senator to vote against the PATRIOT Act the first time, also a major Iraq war opponent, and keeps himself an excellent CITOKATE machine up and running back in Wisconsin.

Oh, well. Hillary is a nightmare for the party. She has the simultaneous capability to motivate our adversary's base while depressing our own. That's really quite a talent. Luckily, a lot of the netroot types have her in the crosshairs for the primary. And First Lady Hillary is dead and gone, a victim of major corporate outlays in the field of health care, and major Culture War pandering on things like violent video games.

The rumblings of a passionate, consultant-free Al Gore have been bouncing around the various whispering circles for some time, and Gore has nothing to gain by declaring early. If the Gore of An Inconvenient Truth - caring, articulate and able to explain a very complex issue and demonstrate its vital importance in a relatively short time - decides to run, he could be very formidable indeed.

The Democratic moderates (and the moderates I see here are more of the corporatist type) are likely not what this country needs at the moment. Maybe if they provide cover for the Congress to pull back to the left, it may be okay, but we need to recreate true center, not the "center" that is a compromise between the middle and the right-wing.

In the category of the bland moderates, I would place Vilsack and Bayh. Warner was a moderate too, but I think he had some respect for populism, which is good on him.

Kerry's toast. He was given the nomination for "electability," and has certainly proven that he lacks that.

There is also the populist John Edwards, who has been spending a lot of time of dealing with poverty at home and abroad, and would be worth a second look.

Finally, another strong candidate would be Wesley Clark, especially after the election of a man in a similar mold, Senator Jim Webb. He would very likely be an economic populist and problem-solver in the mold of Eisenhower, which would be just dandy by me.

So, there you go. That's my humble review of the current class.

Anonymous said...

I've always thought that the Moon has been kind of unfairly ignored recently in good SF stories. Perhaps this new NASA thrust to go back will inspire some new stories.

I put one together several outlines that I could never quite get to close. One of the predictions was that large energy companies launched a scare campaign against "traditional" deuterium fusion based on its high neutron radiation output. This necessitated the use of a "clean" power source (helium-3 fusion) for fusion. Thus, the moon became the new Saudi Arabia, and subject to all of the posturing and power plays that this implies.

Rob Perkins said...

Apparantly, Senator Gordon Smith, Republican of Oregon, had some things to say about Iraq yesterday.

Rob Perkins said...

Well, usually when a Republican announces his opposition to Iraq policy around here, people have something to say.

I guess not this time. :-)

Anonymous said...

What is there to say?

We've come a long way since pundits condemned ABC as partisan for broadcasting a list of soldiers who died over there.

Iraq is total f*$%#@%ing nightmare, and anyone who denies it is delusional or trying to sell you something or trying to save their asses.

Smith realized that the benefits of denying that the emperor lacked clothes was less than the cost.

I have no idea what to do about Iraq.

David Brin said...

We can take solace from today's report that Bush's popularity has plummetted from 34% to the almost unheard-of level of 27%.

Only half of REPUBLICANS now approve of him or his war.

We saw this before, in Nixon's waning days, when Watergate similarly tore the country apart. At the time, many worried what an increasingly desperate and unhinged president might do. Signals were given, by certain reassuring men, that let the nation know that no "button" would be pushed... or obeyed if it did get pressed by a sweaty hand.

These are the days when the Officer Corps is needed, more than ever, in its true maturity, to protect us from our worst enemy - madness at the top. It must be done delicately. Legally. Courageously.

Fie on those who blame the military for this mess, or treat badly any of its men and women. For they have been the main _victims of a cabal of nasty fratboys and crazy, snotty fanatics. They have suffered more than we have. And they remain the main group standing between us and a very cold wind.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Brin: Congratulations on Startide Rising being one of the featured books celebrating the Science Fiction Book Club’s 50th anniversary!

Rob Perkins wrote, Without meaning to sound mystical, are we at all sure that it is computation which occurs in the brain? I wonder if what we call supernatural is simply each of us individually and collectively grappling with the next levels of understanding? A positive spin to belief in the supernatural (putting aside how it can be misused) is that it’s a beacon challenging our current understandings, and a reminder that those understandings are subject to what we’ve internalized so far. In other words, I think it’s perfectly fine to ascribe some of our mind’s working to a soul or spirit while understanding those terms are as much intellectual placeholders as they are affirmations of belief. That belief can be in a creator and in our ability to push the boundaries of knowledge farther in the future. Or both.

Regarding the power of individual neurons: One of the great things about computer technology is that it’s giving a wider circle of individuals effective models that they can apply to understand human thought. Consider an operational that’s easy for us: identifying a song by the first note or two. I might not have heard the song in years, yet I can recognize it in under a second.

The most powerful database engines I’ve worked with are Oracle and SQL Server. If I have a database consisting of tables containing terabytes or petabytes of information, how long do you think it would take to find a specific song based on a specific note? I don’t care of I’ve followed every rule in Cobb’s list, it’s going to take more than a second.

Contrast that even to Google. It can return millions of potential matches in a second. Yet, even that pales because my brain because it can sort through those millions of matches and give me the correct answer.

The musical note has properties -- a certain tone, duration, and position within the song to name a few. The closest technology to represent this would be an object-orientated database, and they’re years behind relational systems in terms of performance.

In other words, I think we’ll see that current understanding of human thought is far too simple a model, and we’ll need to find something different. For now, I’m saying that “something” is soul. Who knows where that line between known and unknown will be in 20 years?

Candidates for the Democratic party? I think it’s time we stir things up a bit. Senator Barack Obama impresses me for his passion and vision. He summed up opposition to abstinence-only education nicely -- if someone falls of that particular bandwagon, the consequence could be death by HIV. So, doesn’t it make sense to couple a call for abstinence with an honest education on the alternatives? He said this at a church gathering. I like that kind of honesty and courage. And I’m a registered Republican!

Anonymous said...

Re: Republicans against the war.

I agree, there's not much to say about it. Although there is something very delicious about Rupert Murdoch's NY Post calling James Baker a "Surrender Monkey." James Baker! Staunch Republican, never saw an oil baron he didn't like. In fact, one of his suggestions of backing away from the Iraqi Shia smells a little, how do we say ... Saudi? Of course, the neo-cons wanted to destroy OPEC - the "realists" like Baker enjoy the notion of an off-line Iraq ... it makes them that much wealthier.

When we have a thousand boxes of flip-flops sent to Sen. Smith, we will have officially gone through the looking glass.

Finally, to paraphrase Sen. Feingold, it is very interesting that the Study Group did not consult anyone *who had the good sense to forsee this disaster in the first place!* I think we need to introduce him to the concept of Dr. Brin's predictions registry. I would be very curious to see Democratic v. Republican scores...

To Dr. Brin's number of military victims of chickenhawkery, I would add many of the Iraqi people. They are the ones that suffered the social experiments and piss-poor social engineering of the College Republicans that were sent over to manage things. In the cronyist pattern of this administration, kids with no credentials or training (other than setting up "fund-raisers" to tell black kids and women they were unworthy of getting into college) were sent to build stock markets, implement flat taxes, fight for intellectual property, sell off all state industries and all these great structures they wanted to impose on America. Number one problem - none of these policies actually help people that are struggling! Bah! I said I wouldn't get started on all this...

Anyways, back to our hopes for the future. I like Obama so far (of course, he hasn't really done anything on the national scene, so there's nothing to be bothered about), but he strikes me as rather green for a Presidential run. But if there is someone that can whack some sense into the evangelical contingent, that would be a very good thing. As much as I hate the religious litmus test that seems to be imposed lately (channeling Sam Harris - we wouldn't applaud a man that made sacrifices to Poseidon before crossing the sea, we would institutionalize him), you go to the polls with the country you have, not the one you wish you had. Culture War should be fought on other fronts.

But in an Obama, I would look for someone like a JFK, where youth combined with idealism and a demand for progress. If he could pass that test, he would be a good one.

Rob Perkins said...


Iraq is total f*$%#@%ing nightmare, and anyone who denies it is delusional or trying to sell you something or trying to save their asses.

I have nothing to sell you, and my welfare is not at stake. And I'm deeply annoyed by the deployment of a friend of mine, who at the age of 55 is doing street patrol work which requires the energy of a 20 year old...

But still, I will not go so far as to say that Iraq is "total f*$%#@%ing nightmare", because those I know personally who have returned from there not only do not claim it, but they also claim we're not getting the whole story from our own press.

Re the President, Rassmussen has him at 38%, a number similar to Newsweek and other pollers:

What's your source, David?

Anonymous said...

I have no idea what to do in Iraq. I think at this point Bush and his cabal have pissed away all the chances of anything even approaching good coming out of it. Iraq's in a civil war, if we stay we're in the middle and just giving another justification, and we're not really stopping it, and the insurgents can show how they can attack the mighty American military. If we go, it'll break out even worse, and Republicans will break out the Vietnam-era "Stab in the Back" theory, and the insurgents of all stripes can claim they kicked us out, right before they turn on each other.

There's no good options left. There's only least bad options, and all the least bad options are pretty bad. And the effects on our military in terms of equipment, effectiveness, manpower, trained soldiers, etc, etc are already horrible and will just get worse, and take at least a decade to fix, no matter what.

And that's why I don't have any solutions for Iraq, because there's NOT any good solutions, no matter what we do. And the "solutions" to "end the war" like carpet bombing the whole of Iraq, are even worse.

Anonymous said...

Offtopic, but interesting. Chris Clarke has a post up asking for positive visions of a future where the stuff we complain about has subsided. He's saying a lot of things which sound like you'd appreciate them.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad that Dr. Brin posted his ideas on Iraq. Personally, I'm feeling very uncertain just like the rest of you. After checking out the Iraqi Ambassador's views I went to listen to a talk by Scott Ritter, former Marine and U.N. weapons inspector about what he believes are the administrations plans for war with Iran (he has a book out called "Target Iran" which I want to check out from the library.)

One of his arguments is that 80% of the fighting in Iraq is caused by the U.S.'s presence although I have no idea how such a figure is acheived.

As for your ideas, Dr. Brin, I have no idea how to evaluate their chances for success. I don't like the idea of pulling back and leaving a ton of innocent civilians to the tender mercies of Iran/Shia militia's/death Squads etc. but I don't think that we're helping much. I really need to finish "Every War Must End" by Fred Charles Ikle.

Last bit, I suggest that people here check out the Michael Franti Movie, "I know I'm not alone." He visited Iraq, Israel, and the West Bank and Gaza strip and interviewed soldiers, peace activists, farmers, cab drivers, musicians, and everyone in between. Long on solidarity, short on answers, but necessary at a time like this.

Peace Out

David Brin said...

Chris Clarke has an honest stab at asking the right question. He waves vaguely at the personality problems and rifts that divid the Progressive Movement, and, indeed, are wider chasms than separate us from the right. His demand for positive vision is a step in the right direction.

Indeed, one of the key challenges in my "Questionaire on Ideology" is to insist people say what their ideal (achievable) world would look like.

ANd yet, Clarke is far too timid. He does not contemplate WHY so many on the left refuse to look at past successes and see in them reason to encourage (rather than constantly berate) the masses. An addiction to indignant superiority over the hoi polloi is the central hypocrisy that only make many of them deeply sour and unpleasant, but also has profoundly HELPED Karl Rove wage his infamous and dastardly culture war.

Indeed, as I have said, this dispeptic snarling and habitual chiding has turned the left into the New Puritans, easily as moralistically judgmental as their personality cousins on the far-Christian right.

Above all, they CANNOT posit that civilization is poised and ready for truly bold ventures. That we might resume the march of liberalism by aggressively solving problems and, yes, using evry tool to do so. Including science and bold technology. Including both state and private sectors. (Keeping with the first "liberal" Adam Smith.)

It is not enough to defeat the New Feudalists who would enslave the world. We must offer something better that is POSITIVE-sum game ... ways to have our cake and eat it WHILE watching the cake grow AND aggressively sharing pieces with the poor.

This zeroes in on the reason why Clarke's plaint and plea will not be heeded. Why no truly visionary model will arise from the left... as we see nothing inspiring from the right.

Again, it is a matter of personality. The dour indignation junkies of right and left insist upon a zero-sum... or even a negative-sum... world. And if they are the ones in charge, that is exactly what we'll get.

Anonymous said...

By the way, this article at truthout:

sounds like the beginning of the paper trail of Waxman-led hearings that we all look forward to.

Rob Perkins said...

Regarding Iraq, of all the ideas left to us in that place, I agree with the people who say that leaving altogether, whether or not on a timetable, merely sets the date of our own surrender; our enemies there are not so ignorant and stupid that they won't decide, many of them, to simply bide their time and then come roaring into the gaps we leave behind.

David's notions *seem* the most appropriate. Remove our people from being in the places where all they get is attacked, perhaps to strike from hardened bunkers located in areas of stability.

The fact remains, though, that none of us has all the data needed to recommend much of anything.

Anonymous said...

Most non-Kurdish Iraqis seem to want us out within a year.

I don't think talking in terms of "our surrender" or making it all about us does any good at this point. If we were worried about how we'd look if we fucked it up, we should have thought of that before we went in. At this point, we should be thinking about trying to figure out what's the best thing to do help the Iraqis who live there. But damned if I know what to do about it. Like I said, it sure seems like most of the good options are gone.

ERic said...

One more without an Iraq answer here. But I do have a suggestion as to where we might look. I seem to recall that there were quite a few people before all this started that predicted a high likelihood of civil war and regional war, sucking in Turkey and possibly Syria and Iran.

In particular, there was a NY Times article that I recall. But, of course, I have no clue what expert they were citing.

So, time to find those folks that got it right and actually give them a larger voice.

I do find it sadly predictable that the talking heads that were arguing for this fiasco are now pulling out what someone over on Daily Kos has called A New Domino Theory.

With that in mind, I guess I do have a suggestion. Pull out as soon and as safely as we can. Assume that, as with Vietnam, once we get out, things will work their way back to a level of stability.

It may not be Iraq as we knew it. The map I've seen floated around of a Kurdistan, expanded Iran and other border shifts would take an ugly few years to settle out. We've broken it, but other than an outright economy-breaking draft-requiring invasion, we're not going to fix it.

Time to pick an achievable goal: leaving.

David Brin said...

I agree with ERic that there are several levels here.

We need to remind the neocons (and their supporters) that they were wrong on every conceivable level about Vietnam -- from the Domino Theory onward -- and that letting Iraqis work things out for themselves may be wisest, even if the result is not democracy as we know it.

Remember, there is serious potential for the OPPOSITE of a "domino theory" to take place. The Saudis, Iranians and Turks are all formidable regional powers without a common border but with a common problem, Iraq. Each of them has a component inside Iraq that they fear and loathe... but also clients and interests there to protect. Yes, they might respond to this by supporting surrogate war...

...or they may be realistic enough to see that their clients and interests will be better protected through accommodation.

Ponder this. Iran's influence is highest right now and they will sway the Shia led government. But if we pull back and that government has to take full responsibility for world-watched attacks on the Sunni minority, well, is that kind of violent purge really something that Iran wants to be seen supporting?

Moreover, when we are gone, and Iran is throwing its weight around, we may see hackles rise among Shia Iraqis who are, after all, Arabs -- more similar to their Sunni countrymen than they were allowed to realize, during the Baathist-Saddam era. Those similarities may rise higher if both groups see themselves as dominated by Farsi-speaking Persians.

Likewise, would Iran really want to incite jihad mentalities among the Sunni oil kingdoms? Let's put aside my more extreme conspiracy hypotheses. If those kingdoms start feeling threatened by Shia Rising, might they finally start reining in Al Qaeda and the Islamic Banking System and anti-American propaganda, if they see a sudden need for _protection by the US?

My notion of pulling back to Kurdistan Plus (protecting the top tier of Sunni land, as well) would offer Sunnis a choice of
(1) continuing to fight hopelessly against the Shia Government and searching for (harder-to-reach) Americans to kill,
(2) coming to some kind of understanding with the government,
(3) seeking protection in the Northern Zone, where Kurds have already proved quite capable of helping the US keep order.

The Sunnis and Shias might prove highly motivated to get things straightened out quickly, if the alternative prospect looks like an EXPANDED autonomous Kurdistan-Plus. Turkey, also, would be motivated to offer its good offices to come up with a regional deal. (Harsher reactions from Turkey might be kept in check by worries about pleasing the EU.)

And in the limited zone we now retain, we could fiercely and competently repair infrastructure, reinforcing the contrast between "our" zone and the places we were driven out of.

Indeed, let's be driven out. Let's reduce our casualties and admit our limitations. Resume paying attention to our military's main job, readiness. And try to limit the trauma to something less than the mammoth scale of Vietnam.

Finally, there is the matter of PREDICTIONS.

Once again, (never heeded), I call for some rich foundation to fund the establishment of registries that would actually track and score PEOPLE WHO MAKE FORECASTS THAT LATER PROVE TO BE RIGHT.

I can think of no other single endeavor that would more likely transform civilization, as very low cost.

Anonymous said...

Paul Krugman has a column up in the NY Times, which you can't read without their stupid Times Select subscription thing. But today's is about some of the people who were right about Iraq. So here's some quotes, via Brad DeLong

"As Sen. Feingold has pointed out, it's striking that not one member of the Iraq Study Group spoke out against the war before it happened, or even raised doubts in public. One of the truly amazing things about the political and media scene today is this: not only are people who cheered on this grotesque mistake still taken seriously, there seems to be an unwritten rule that ONLY people who supported the war get to make pronouncements on national security. Somehow, the likes of John McCain, who has been wrong every step of the way, are considered more credible on this issue than people like Howard Dean, who has been right at every point."

And the (very) partial list:

Former President George H. W. Bush and Brent Scowcroft.... "Had we gone the invasion route, the United States could conceivably still be an occupying power in a bitterly hostile land."...

Al Gore.... "I am deeply concerned that the course of action ... with respect to Iraq has the potential to seriously damage our ability to win the war against terrorism and to weaken our ability to lead the world in this new century."

Barack Obama.... "I don't oppose all wars. What I am opposed to is a dumb war. What I am opposed to is a rash war. What I am opposed to is the cynical attempt by Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz and other armchair, weekend warriors in this administration to shove their own ideological agendas down our throats, irrespective of the costs in lives lost and in hardships borne."

Representative John Spratt.... "The outcome after the conflict is actually going to be the hardest part, and it is far less certain."

Representative Nancy Pelosi.... "When we go in, the occupation, which is now being called the liberation, could be interminable and the amount of money it costs could be unlimited."

Senator Russ Feingold.... "I am increasingly troubled by the seemingly shifting justifications for an invasion... When the administration moves back and forth from one argument to another, I think it undercuts the credibility of the case and the belief in its urgency. I believe that this practice of shifting justifications has much to do with the troubling phenomenon of many Americans questioning the administration's motives."

Howard Dean.... "I firmly believe that the president is focusing our diplomats, our military, our intelligence agencies, and even our people on the wrong war, at the wrong time.... Iraq is a divided country, with Sunni, Shia and Kurdish factions that share both bitter rivalries and access to large quantities of arms."

There's a lot of others not mentioned. Including Scott Ritter, Wes Clark, a big chunk of the "scary Left", and millions of regular Americans.

Adrian Cotter said...

Your note about the shuttle reminded me of this photo

Ross said...

The strange thing is that the site appears on the wayback machine when you include the date, as in the link given by n80, but doesn't appear when you just ask for all pages on site. Very weird.

pedro velasquez said...

Artificial intelligence (AI) being used at the European Space Operationssportsbook Centre is giving a powerful boost to ESA's Mars Express as it searches for signs of past or present life on the Red Planet.Since January 2005, Mars Express has been using its sophisticated instruments to study the atmosphere,bet nfl surface and subsurface of Mars, confirming the presence of water and looking for other signatures of life on and below the Red Planet's rocky terrain.