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Location: UFOUpDatesList.Com > 1998 > Jun > Jun 16

Re: Search For Life On Mars With Your Computer

From: Stig Agermose <wanderer@post8.tele.dk>
Date: Tue, 16 Jun 1998 05:33:05 +0200
Fwd Date: Tue, 16 Jun 1998 09:56:05 -0400
Subject: Re: Search For Life On Mars With Your Computer

A more comprehensive coverage than BBC's is given by
Florida Today. URL:

http://www.flatoday.com:80/space/explore/stories/1998/
061398a.htm


Stig


*******


FLORIDA TODAY Space Online

"Planet Earth's best source for online space news"

For June 13, 1998


Shape of life: How does a computer 'know' when it sees
it?


A NASA/Marshall Space Flight Center Space Science news
release


Looks may not be everything, but they may indicate
whether something was alive - here, or on Mars. To
find out if looks and shape can be a signature of
life, Dr. David Noever at NASA's Marshall Space Flight
Center plans to conduct what may be one of the world's
largest computations.

Noever is developing "Book of Life" technology to
identify and classify the tiniest life forms found on
Earth and in samples from Mars. The project recently
started under a grant from NASA's Advanced Concepts
Office in Washington.

Noever has also been recognized for his inventive use
of artificial intelligence to develop new drugs in
response to the medical challenges posed by leukemia,
E. Coli and HIV, among other important diseases.
Discover magazine's July issue, in its annual Discover
Awards for innovative technology, selected Noever's In
Virtuo program as the top computer software product.
"Artificial intelligence is the main link between
these projects," said Noever, a research scientist
specializing in biotechnology in the Space Sciences
Laboratory at NASA/Marshall. "The computer is the
engine that solves problems depending on what kind of
fuel - that is, what kind of questions - that you put
into it."



Remembering the morph man


The idea of recognizing life when you see it may seem
obvious, but its scientific grounding only dates back
to Professor D'Arcy Thompson of the University of St.
Andrews in Scotland and his 1917 book On Growth and
Form. "He's the original morph man," said Noever,
referring to Thompson and the image morphing process
used to create special effects in movies like
"Terminator 2" and "The Mask."

Now recognized as the world's first biomathematician,
Thompson applied the concepts of mathematics to the
differences of form he observed in various living
things. He introduced the idea of systematically
studying organisms by their geometric shape and found
that changes of shape between species could be
visualized by altering mathematical functions. In the
days before computer imaging technology, though,
Thompson could only draw figures by hand like the ones
here.

"Biological shape now ranks as one of at least four
principal criteria in analyzing the origin of
astrobiological samples," Noever said, citing the
importance of Thompson's contribution to astrobiology.



The unusual suspects


Noever plans to use shape to identify life forms just
as a detective uses fingerprints to identify suspects.
But sifting through the lineup of possible forms is an
unprecedented task, even for computers. In fact,
Noever expects it will take the largest computation
ever.

"Looking for life forms in Mars rocks means analyzing
microfossils - like potential nanometer-size bacteria
- so small that 50,000 could fit across the width of a
single strand of human hair," Noever explained.

>From the 12 known meteorites believed to have made
their way to Earth from Mars, Noever figures that
about 20 kg (44 lbs. - as much as three mid-size
bowling balls) of material are suitable for searching.
Examining these "small" samples of Mars rocks by
microscope would be like scouring a desert on foot in
search of an occasional dry bone.

Making the task more challenging, many things that are
not life forms appear lifelike, while many true life
forms appear to be non-life.

Buying or creating a single computer to conduct the
search is out of the question since at least 100
million images will have to be stored digitally and
scanned, and classifying these images will require
10,000 times the computing power it took to produce
the animated feature film "Toy Story", one of the
current standards in supercomputing.

Instead, Noever - working together with Dr. Subbiah
Baskaran, a visiting scientist from the University of
Vienna Institute for Molecular Biotechnology, and
Helen Matsos of NASA/Marshall - plans to borrow a few
thousand computers to build what might be called the
first D'Arcy Machine, a computer dedicated to
classifying images for tell-tale biological shapes.

Before considering extraterrestrial sources of life,
however, the technology must be in place for an
extensive classification of the only life forms we
know - life on Earth.



With a little help from my friends


Named after the original morph man, the D'Arcy Machine
will borrow processing power from volunteer computers
connected to the Internet around the world to perform
the giant task.

"We hope to get young scientists from elementary
school through college to help us with the search by
linking their computers to the D'Arcy Machine," said
Noever.

Noever and his colleagues plan to develop the "Book of
Life" technology using neural networks and evolvable
hardware - rewriteable computer chips capable of
learning multiple patterns or images as they process
information. Testing the system's image recognition
ability and cataloging life forms from Earth will be
the first of three project phases.

One of the Allan Hills meteorites after section was
cut off for examination. Studying large specimens at
high magnifications will be like scouring a desert by
hand in search of fossil fragments.

"In Phase One, we will construct image-based family
trees of living forms as distinct from inorganic shape
features," said Noever, who plans to feed the new
machine at least 100,000 images to get it started. The
goal for this phase is peer-reviewed publication and
presentation at the 1998 conference "On Growth and
Form" highlighting scientific progress in the 50 years
since D'Arcy Thompson's death.

In the second phase, the D'Arcy Machine will use
trained neural networks from Phase One while being
re-trained to simultaneously acquire and classify new,
often ambiguous images. Noever and his colleagues will
also throw the machine some curve balls with
artificial data to test its performance.

The goal of the third phase is for the D'Arcy machine
to automatically acquire and classify images with
minimal human supervision. At this stage, the machine
will be equipped for future search scenarios,
including the examination of meteorites found on Earth
and lunar or interplanetary samples retrieved from new
space missions.



A lab assistant that doesn't get tired


"The most exciting aspect of artificial intelligence
is the way it can be applied to so many different
problems," Noever said, such as his work on the In
Virtuo program which Discover magazine has selected as
the top computer software innovation the year. This
software grew from earlier work funded by NASA's
biotechnology research program to investigate the
structures of proteins.

Whereas traditional methods of searching for drugs, or
searching for life on Mars for that matter, require
scientists to labor through a lengthy process of trial
and error, artificial intelligence software evolves as
it searches.

Noever likes to compare it to solving Rubik's Cube. A
supercomputer randomly working all possible solutions
would take about a billion years to get the right
answer. In 1983, a Los Angeles high school student set
the world's record at just under 23 seconds. If a
random search takes too long, then teaching a computer
to see patterns like a human might interpret them
becomes the challenge to AI researchers: How to
empower a software program with some kind of
autonomous learning?

AI software starts with a few mediocre solutions to
problems, and then develops several variations on
these solutions based on the outcome of initial
calculations. The process repeats itself again and
again until a workable number of refined solutions are
found for human review.

Like evolution, Noever's AI technology finds the
fittest candidates. "Before putting the engineer's
precision to the final candidate, we first let the
computer go to work for us" said Noever.

But computers aren't doing all the work. Noever is
conducting innovative research in space flight
experiments to make improved forms of Aerogel, a
superinsulation with broad applications, and other
areas.


This World Wide Web site is copyright =A9 1998 FLORIDA
TODAY.



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