This AI Is the Breakthrough Space Exploration Has Been Waiting For

Wednesday, 15 November 2017 - 11:33AM
Artificial Intelligence
Wednesday, 15 November 2017 - 11:33AM
This AI Is the Breakthrough Space Exploration Has Been Waiting For
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Image credit: YouTube
Space is so vast, how can we ever explore all of it? We may finally have an answer—artificial intelligence. 

The biggest problem with observing the universe through a giant telescope is that everything you see is absolutely awesome.

Too awesome, in fact—with so much amazing stuff going on, it's hard to sift through thousands of photographs and data points to find exactly what you're looking for.

Or, in the words of astronomer Carlo Enrico Petrillo:

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"Looking at images of galaxies is the most romantic part of our job. The problem is staying focused."
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In order to fix this problem, Petrillo has developed a new robotic partner; an AI program that studies and analyses photos of the universe a lot faster than a human being ever could.

Petrillo's team are looking for a very specific space anomaly called a gravitational lens. This occurs when a particularly heavy object, like a black hole or even an entire galaxy, eclipses our view of stars that are further away.

This might sound like an annoyance, but with such a heavy object between us and the stars, the weight of these celestial bodies causes light to warp, trapping it in orbit, and preserving a snapshot of what the universe looked like long, long ago.

The problem with finding these things is that they're very rare, and often lost among piles and piles of data.

Thankfully, if there's one job that AIs excel at, it's single-mindedly scanning through data to find specific pieces of information.

Similar AI programs have used deep learning techniques for a wide variety of practical uses, from learning to play board games better than any human, to far more relevant and important jobs like accurately predicting whether or not a hospital patient is developing cancer.

These AI programs look at thousands of images or videos, spotting trends and commonalities between these data sources that have been proven to show what they're looking for, in order to help them learn how to accurately recognize what's going on in any new photo. When playing AlphaGo, an AI will be able to spot a game strategy from an opponent thanks to its memory bank of previously observed games, while when dealing with potentially malignant tumors, the AI can recognize key signs that indicate whether or not a lump is going to turn cancerous in the near future.

This same technique is now being used to hunt gravitational lenses. The AI has been shown all existing pictures of lenses throughout the universe, and therefore has a base point from which to try and identify more, wherever they might be. Because the AI can't be distracted from its task, it doesn't matter how many other cool stuff shows up while it's sorting through data, and as such, it's helping to speed up the process of spotting gravitational lenses.

Of course, it's worth pointing out that this technology is still far from perfect. Recently, a benevolent hacking group proved just how easy it is to confuse image identification software, making it assume that it's looking at a gun instead of a turtle. Nobody's going to be hacking this stargazing AI any time soon, but it's still possible that should a gravitational lens demonstrate an unusual appearance, the AI won't be able to recognize it. This is to say nothing of all the other interesting stuff that the AI is breezing past in its narrow quest to find lenses.

The AI does provide a quick and easy way to scan the skies to find a series of difficult to spot anomalies, and that's fantastic. For the moment, though, there's still an awful lot of cool stuff out there that requires a human eye to appreciate just how awesome the universe really is.
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