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Technology review

Mars may not have been the warm, wet planet we thought it was

Mars today is a cold, dry wasteland—but things were likely much different billions of years ago. Since we started launching robotic missions to Mars in the 1970s, scientists have collected evidence that points to a warmer, wetter past for the Red Planet, where the surface was teeming with lakes and oceans that could have been home to life of some kind. It’s part of the reason NASA built and launched a new rover that launched last week to look for signs of ancient aliens.

But there’s no complete consensus on what Mars really looked like in the past. “The argument over the climate of early Mars is an old one” going back 40 years, says Anna Grau Galofre of Arizona State University. She’s the lead author of a new study published in Nature Geoscience that upends those dreams of a watery Mars, presenting new findings that suggest the planet’s ancient landscape looked closer to Antarctica than the tropics. Many of the geological features thought to have been carved out by flowing rivers and waterways replenished by frequent rainfall, the research suggests, may have actually resulted from massive glaciers and ice sheets that melted over time. 

The new study focuses on the history of valleys located in the southern highlands of Mars. “Past work has pointed at rivers as the origin of the Martian valley networks,” says Grau Galofre, but her study identifies for the first time a fraction of systems with characteristics “typical of subglacial channels.” That is, it was melting ice, not flowing water, that dug out these valleys nearly 3.8 billion years ago. 

Going with the flow

The research team examined 10,276 individual valleys found in 66 valley networks on Mars, using custom-built algorithms to group them and infer what kind of erosion processes formed them. This was then compared to terrestrial valleys that were shaped by subglacial channels in the Canadian Arctic. 

The major difference between networks formed from rivers and ones formed by melted ice is a result of how water flows. Rivers can only carve out valleys if the water is running downhill. But subglacial channels are pressurized, so the melted water is able to flow uphill too. The researchers’ models can spot and identify tell-tale signs of water direction and assess what the likely cause was. 

The researchers found that 22 of the valley networks seemed to have been carved out by subglacial meltwater, 14 by river water, and the rest formed through other erosion processes. If the authors are correct, “it would suggest that Mars was primarily cold early in its history,” says Jay Dickson, a planetary scientist at Caltech who was not involved with the study. Some climate models have come to the same conclusion, he says, counter to the prevailing image of ancient Mars as a planet covered in oceans and lakes.

The new findings don’t mean Mars was one giant ball of ice in the past, however. Joe Levy, a geologist at Colgate University who wasn’t involved with the study, thinks the glacier research is thought provoking, but does point out it “struggles to pin down a single process that is responsible for forming each valley.” 

“That smeariness in the data could be because there isn’t a single process that resulted in the carving of each Martian valley,” he says. “When you’ve got a few billion years to work with, it’s very possible that each valley experienced everything from glacial erosion to lava flows to surging floods under silver skies. Each of those processes changes the shape of the valley network, and leaves a series of overprinted features behind.” 

The good news

Thankfully, a cool Mars doesn’t spell bad news for the possibility of ancient Martian life. “The subglacial environment could have provided a stable setting—with readily available water, a temperature without large oscillations, and protection from solar energetic particles and radiation without need for a magnetic field,” says Grau Galofre. 

We already know life can survive cold environments like this, as evidenced by the organisms that live under Antarctica’s ice sheet in a place like Lake Vostok. The same may have been possible on Mars, even in these subglacial channels. 

Dickson thinks the new findings will prompt researchers to look at other parts of Mars to compare. “Mars has hundreds of very large dried-up lakes that date from this era and hosted large volumes of meltwater from these valley networks,” he says. 

This includes the landing site for the NASA Perseverance rover arriving next February at the Jezero Crater, and that mission could possibly make some room to look for this sort of evidence. 

“It’s an exciting challenge for the entire Mars science community,” says Dickson.

Mars may not have been the warm, wet planet we thought it was 2020/08/07 20:19

Software that monitors students during tests perpetuates inequality and violates their privacy

The coronavirus pandemic has been a boon for the test proctoring industry. About half a dozen companies in the US claim their software can accurately detect and prevent cheating in online tests. Examity, HonorLock, Proctorio, ProctorU, Respondus and others have rapidly grown since colleges and universities switched to remote classes.

While there’s no official tally, it’s reasonable to say that millions of algorithmically proctored tests are happening every month around the world. Proctorio told the New York Times in May that business had increased by 900% during the first few months of the pandemic, to the point where the company proctored 2.5 million tests worldwide in April alone.

I’m a university librarian and I’ve seen the impacts of these systems up close. My own employer, the University of Colorado Denver, has a contract with Proctorio.

It’s become clear to me that algorithmic proctoring is a modern surveillance technology that reinforces white supremacy, sexism, ableism, and transphobia. The use of these tools is an invasion of students’ privacy and, often, a civil rights violation.

If you’re a student taking an algorithmically proctored test, here’s how it works: When you begin, the software starts recording your computer’s camera, audio, and the websites you visit. It measures your body and watches you for the duration of the exam, tracking your movements to identify what it considers cheating behaviors. If you do anything that the software deems suspicious, it will alert your professor to view the recording and provide them a color-coded probability of your academic misconduct.

Depending on which company made the software, it will use some combination of machine learning, AI, and biometrics (including facial recognition, facial detection, or eye tracking) to do all of this. The problem is that facial recognition and detection have proven to be racist, sexist, and transphobic over, and over, and over again.

In general, technology has a pattern of reinforcing structural oppression like racism and sexism. Now these same biases are showing up in test proctoring software that disproportionately hurts marginalized students.

A Black woman at my university once told me that whenever she used Proctorio’s test proctoring software, it always prompted her to shine more light on her face. The software couldn’t validate her identity and she was denied access to tests so often that she had to go to her professor to make other arrangements. Her white peers never had this problem.

Similar kinds of discrimination can happen if a student is trans or non-binary. But if you’re a white cis man (like most of the developers who make facial recognition software), you’ll probably be fine.

Students with children are also penalized by these systems. If you’ve ever tried to answer emails while caring for kids, you know how impossible it can be to get even a few uninterrupted minutes in front of the computer. But several proctoring programs will flag noises in the room or anyone who leaves the camera’s view as nefarious. That means students with medical conditions who must use the bathroom or administer medication frequently would be considered similarly suspect.

Beyond all the ways that proctoring software can discriminate against students, algorithmic proctoring is also a significant invasion of privacy. These products film students in their homes and often require them to complete “room scans,” which involve using their camera to show their surroundings. In many cases, professors can access the recordings of their students at any time, and even download these recordings to their personal machines. They can also see each student’s location based on their IP address.

Privacy is paramount to librarians like me because patrons trust us with their data. After 9/11, when the Patriot Act authorized the US Department of Homeland Security to access library patron records in their search for terrorists, many librarians started using software that deleted a patron’s record once a book was returned. Products that violate people’s privacy and discriminate against them go against my professional ethos, and it’s deeply concerning to see such products eagerly adopted by institutions of higher education.

This zealousness would be slightly more understandable if there was any evidence that these programs actually did what they claim. To my knowledge, there isn’t a single peer-reviewed or controlled study that shows proctoring software effectively detects or prevents cheating. Given that universities pride themselves on making evidence-based decisions, this is a glaring oversight.

Fortunately, there are movements underway to ban proctoring software and ban face recognition technologies on campuses, as well as congressional bills to ban the US federal government from using face recognition. But even if face recognition technology were banned, proctoring software could still exist as a program that tracks the movements of students’ eyes and bodies. While that might be less racist, it would still discriminate against people with disabilities, breastfeeding parents, and people who are neuroatypical. These products can’t be reformed; they should be abandoned.

Cheating is not the threat to society that test proctoring companies would have you believe. It doesn’t dilute the value of degrees or degrade institutional reputations, and student’s aren’t trying to cheat their way into being your surgeon. Technology didn’t invent the conditions for cheating and it won’t be what stops it. The best thing we in higher education can do is to start with the radical idea of trusting students. Let’s choose compassion over surveillance.

Shea Swauger is an academic librarian and researcher at the University of Colorado Denver.

Software that monitors students during tests perpetuates inequality and violates their privacy 2020/08/07 13:00

“Am I going crazy or am I being stalked?” Inside the disturbing online world of gangstalking

Jenny’s story is not linear, the way that we like stories to be. She was born in Baltimore in 1975 and had a happy, healthy childhood—her younger brother Danny fondly recalls the treasure hunts she would orchestrate and the elaborate plays she would write and perform with her siblings. In her late teens, she developed anorexia and depression and was hospitalized for a month. Despite her struggles, she graduated high school and was accepted into a prestigious liberal arts college.

There, things went downhill again. Among other issues, chronic fatigue led her to drop out. Over the next several years, she moved across the country sporadically and spontaneously—she began bouncing from Florida, where Danny lives, to Baltimore to see her grandmother, to Virginia, to Washington, DC, sometimes living in her car. When she was 25 she flipped that car on Florida’s Sunshine Skyway Bridge in an apparent suicide attempt. At 30, after experiencing delusions that she was pregnant, she was diagnosed with schizophrenia. She was hospitalized for half a year and began treatment, regularly receiving shots of an antipsychotic drug. “It was like having my older sister back again,” Danny says.

For the next five or six years, Jenny led a remarkable and productive life. She worked for the National Association of Mental Illness, was on the board for the National Organisation for Women, volunteered regularly, tutored college kids, and wrote a book. Her friend Lauren describes her as “a beautiful, smart, funny person who deserved a much easier life than the one she had.”

conceptual illustration

On July 17, 2017, Jenny jumped from the tenth floor of a parking garage at Tampa International Airport. Looking in his sister’s purse after her death, Danny discovered that she had purchased a ticket to Chicago but never boarded the plane. In the years prior to her death, Jenny’s mental health had deteriorated and her delusions had returned—she had begun threatening Danny and his young son, leading him to take out a restraining order against his sister. The judge who granted the order told Jenny she had to get a psychological evaluation within a year. She was dead within two months.

After her death, Jenny’s family searched her hotel room and her apartment, but the 42-year-old didn’t leave a note. “We wanted to find a reason for why she did this,” Danny says. And so, a week after his sister’s death, Danny—a certified ethical hacker, who runs his own small technology business—decided to look for answers on Jenny’s computer.

Right now, on Facebook pages, forums, blogs, YouTube channels, and subreddits across the internet, thousands of people are sharing their belief that they are being “gangstalked.” These self-described “targeted individuals” say they are being monitored, harassed, and stalked 24/7 by governments and other organizations. Targeted individuals claim that seemingly ordinary people are in fact trained operatives tasked with watching or harassing them—delivery men, neighbors, colleagues, roommates, teachers, even dogs. And though small compared with the most popular online forums, gangstalking communities are growing quickly; one estimate from 2016 suggested that there might be 10,000 people in such groups across the internet. Today, just one subreddit and one Facebook group adds up to over 22,000—and there are hundreds more groups scattered across different platforms.

The only academic study on gangstalking, a 2015 research article published in The Journal of Forensic Psychiatry & Psychology, involved a questionnaire of 128 gangstalking victims undertaken by forensic psychologist Lorraine Sheridan and stalking expert David James. Sheridan and James found that—compared to people who experienced stalking from an individual—people who believed they were being gangstalked scored more highly on depressive and post-traumatic symptoms, and “had a clear need for psychiatric support.” The authors concluded that gangstalking is “delusional in basis,” with those surveyed making improbable claims about hostile gangstalkers in their children’s schools, traffic lights being manipulated to always turn red, mind-controlled family and friends, and the invasion of their dreams.

Every day, the internet legitimizes these beliefs. A post entitled “confessions from a gangstalker” has been copied-and-pasted widely, while people share their own stories of being targeted by strangers or incapacitated by technology in their homes. Often, people log on looking for help—“Am I going crazy or am i being stalked?” reads a post on a gangstalking subreddit shared at the beginning of 2020 by a teen who claimed to have a schizophrenia diagnosis—and leave with what they believe are the answers. (Editor’s note: we have decided not to link to any of the gangstalking-related posts or forums mentioned in this article.)

As he combed through Jenny’s computer, Danny found his sister subscribed under a series of aliases to what he describes as hundreds of gangstalking groups across Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit. His discovery sparked memories from the months before Jenny’s death, when she had first mentioned the term “gangstalking.” He had registered it as nonsense at the time. Her illness sometimes manifested as elaborate fictions where Jenny was the victim of some shadowy conspiracy—though she had once attempted to join the Church of Scientology, she also believed the organization was monitoring her and using technology of some sort to torture her in her apartment. She thought her family were gangstalkers and she was going to be forced to become a “breeder.”

“It blew my mind to see there was a giant group of people basically reinforcing this,” Danny says of finding the online groups. “Something like that was probably the worst thing she could have seen. If this was 20 or 30 years ago, there wasn’t the internet. If you went up to somebody and said ‘People are gangstalking me,’ they would think you were crazy. But if you’re on the internet, alone in your apartment, you can get a reply of ‘Oh yeah, me too’.”

Let’s be clear: The internet didn’t kill Jenny—suicide has many, often mysterious causes, and those suffering from psychosis are at particular risk. But Danny believes it played a role. According to Danny, Jenny sometimes struggled with her medication. She built up tolerance to her antipsychotics, he says, and her mental health would often deteriorate when she switched medication.

There is plenty of evidence that the online forums Jenny frequented and digital circles she ran in can be damaging. In a Reddit post from two years ago, a user explains how he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and initially attempted to resist the diagnosis due to his belief in gangstalking. He describes his relief upon taking antipsychotics and finding the stalking stopped. “They got you,” another user wrote back; another still said, “I think that you are wrong to say that you have an illness.” Across the subreddit, many posters encourage a distrust of medical professionals and discourage the use of antipsychotics—“They will make your situation infinitely more worse,” reads a post from the beginning of the year. Some claim that gangstalkers are trying to drive their victims mad in order to delegitimize them.

He describes his relief upon taking antipsychotics and finding the stalking stopped. “They got you,” another user wrote back; another still said, “I think that you are wrong to say that you have an illness.”

Harry is a 23-year-old from Texas who began experiencing delusions when he started college (his name has been changed to retain his anonymity). After witnessing a rape at a fraternity, he began losing sleep; his situation was exacerbated by a breakup and school-related stress. Harry came to believe he was being stalked, filmed, and whispered about—on multiple occasions, he screamed at strangers to stop following him. Eventually, he was institutionalized for a month and diagnosed as bipolar.

Online spaces didn’t exacerbate Harry’s delusions—he only found a gangstalking subreddit after he had been treated. Still, the forum made him angry. “If anyone had acted like they believed me or gone along with my delusions, that probably would’ve added another month to breaking out of it,” he says now. “It’s hard enough to break out of it when nobody believes you … but if you have a community of people that are willing to agree with you that the entire world’s against you, it’s bad, bad trouble.”

Harry decided to post on the subreddit to show people “a way out” of their way of thinking. Commenters labelled his diagnosis “irrelevant” and a correlation between mental illness and a belief in gangstalking was immediately dismissed.

While working as a psychiatrist in a New York City hospital just over 15 years ago, Joel Gold encountered five separate people who believed they were the star of their own reality TV program that was broadcast around the world. Everybody else, Gold’s patients believed, were actors employed in the farce. If these beliefs sound familiar, that’s because they borrow heavily from the plot of 1998’s The Truman Show, a dark comedy about a man watched by the world since birth. Gold christened their beliefs “the Truman Show delusion.”

still from The Truman Show
In 1998, The Truman Show offered a mind-bending take on the idea that we’re each the star of our own movie.

In 2014, Gold—now a professor of psychiatry at New York University School of Medicine—co-authored a book with his brother, Suspicious Minds: How Culture Shapes Madness. In it they argue that delusions are shaped by society, and that the world around us influences the form psychosis takes. “As technology has evolved, people with delusions have absorbed the technology of the day,” Gold says. He argues that it’s natural that people feel they’re under surveillance—thanks to social media and the rise of CCTV cameras, we often are. “So it’s a double hit, if you will,” he says. “There’s an underlying delusion that many people might have come to anyway, and then there are the seeds of reality that people use to build their delusion upon.”

Many who share stories of gangstalking online write of televisions that talk back, hacked computers, microwave weapons, and “voice to skull” technology that allows a harasser to transmit messages directly into the mind of the harassed. Gold says many of his patients with the Truman Show delusion only came to believe they were a TV star after they had watched the movie, with many of them explicitly referencing the film as a moment of enlightenment.  It’s possible that some people stumble upon gangstalking sites and these sites influence the form their delusions take.

Gold notes it is obviously “not necessary to be on these chat rooms” in order to develop gangstalking delusions, but from a treatment perspective, he says gangstalking sites “complicate matters.” “If I was seeing someone who believed they were being gangstalked and I gingerly explained why I thought they were suffering from mental illness, they could very simply and confidently point to these chat sites and say, ‘Are we all crazy?’ It becomes much more challenging.”

book cover for Suspicious Minds

Then again, he says, these sites could have benefits for some people who believe in gangstalking—it could be soothing for an individual to learn they are not alone. There’s evidence that this happens, or at least that some people are trying to connect in a positive way through these forums. Many posters who do not believe in gangstalking come to offer help to those who believe they’re being stalked, including by sometimes challenging those beliefs. In the Reddit post where the user described antipsychotics stopping his delusions, there were also supportive comments alongside the negative ones. “Congrats! You are speaking very clearly now with such a positive view,” read the most-upvoted comment, in which a user asked questions about medication.

Harry, the young man who tried to offer a voice of dissent on a gangstalking subreddit, says that despite receiving negative comments, a handful of people messaged him privately for help. “A lot of time the people that were posting there had no one to help them, no one to talk to,” Harry says. “Even though there are resources out there, they need help to figure out what those resources are. I thought I could use my experience as a way to help.”

For many experiencing mental illness, the internet can be a lifeline—a resource that allows people to talk freely in a world that still heavily stigmatizes their suffering. Therapy remains unaffordable and inaccessible for many in the US—the National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that the average delay between onset of mental illness symptoms and treatment is 11 years, while 60% of US counties do not have a practicing psychiatrist. “I would just really like to talk—about anything,” wrote one user on a gangstalking subreddit in May, asking users to chat with him about Netflix, the weather, and birds. A couple of users offered to strike up friendship, and it seems the original poster achieved his desire to find, “people who understand you, believe you, just know what it’s like.” In a Facebook group for people who believe themselves to be victims of gangstalking, which has nearly 8,000 members, users discourage suicide, pray for one another, and encourage each other to “stay strong.”

"Not what yall say" on right side view of Remington rifle
Aaron Alexis scrawled “Not what y’all say!” into the shotgun he used to kill 12 people at the Washington Navy Yard in 2013.

Others argue that any benefits that may come from such sites are outweighed by the real-world harm that could result from stoking belief in gangstalking. Robert Bartholomew is a sociologist and author of A Colorful History of Popular Delusions (in this context, “delusions” refers to social delusions—false beliefs and panics shared by a society, such as the Salem Witch Trials, or the Red Scare—not psychotic delusions).

A few years ago, he joined the mailing list of a man who believed he was a targeted individual. The man’s newsletter went out to over 800 people, and he became increasingly erratic over time. In May 2019, he sent an email using threatening language before claiming he could “could easily break Alexis’ record.” Aaron Alexis was a 34-year-old US Navy contractor who shot and killed twelve people in the Washington Navy Yard in September 2013. He left behind a note on his computer in which he claimed he was being controlled by low frequency electromagnetic waves. When Bartholomew received the newsletter from the man who threatened to imitate Alexis, he (and others) contacted the man’s local police department—he is now in prison.

In a separate instance in 2014, a lawyer in New Mexico filmed a video about his experiences being gangstalked by the government before shooting and injuring three people.

Some on gangstalking forums encourage one another to act on their delusions. In one Reddit post, a user shares tips on how to “fuck with” stalkers (who they call “perps”): cut them off in traffic, bump into them, provoke them to anger. In another, someone threatens to shoot at drones. Bartholomew believes online gangstalking spaces are a “public health issue” but also says, “the genie is out of the bottle and there is no going back.”

There is another genie that has emerged from its bottle over the last decade, one that touches almost everyone who uses the internet: the dangerous impact of online misinformation. According to a March survey by Pew Research Center, 48% of American adults reported seeing made-up news about the Covid-19 virus. In light of the pandemic, social networks have increased their efforts to tackle false news, with Twitter now labelling misinformation and Facebook directing its users to the World Health Organisation’s website.

How can someone distinguish delusions from conspiracies fed by misinformation? In the UK, dozens of phone masts were burned or vandalized in April after misinformation spread on social media that 5G damages people’s health, with some blaming the technology for the coronavirus. Celebrities such as actor Woody Harrelson and boxer Amir Khan have spread the conspiracy, while broadband engineers have been attacked and threatened. In a Facebook group for people who believe they are the targets of gangstalking, an April post read, “Burn all 5g towers down,” to which commenters added, “NO! Burn those who created them!” and “Destroy them or they will destroy us.”

London anti-5G protestors on May 2, 2020

There is a murky overlap between these two worlds, but Bartholomew argues—as the 2015 research paper demonstrated—that most gangstalking beliefs are based on clinically delusional tendencies. “Your run of the mill conspiracy theory believer is not psychotic,” he says. Not everyone who frequents gangstalking forums is clinically paranoid or experiencing persecutory delusions, of course, just as everyone who visits 5G conspiracy forums cannot be declared free of psychosis. Yet both phenomena highlight how the internet can legitimize and spread fringe beliefs.

While Google, Twitter, Facebook, and others have taken steps to combat many sources of misinformation and dangerous content online—Reddit banned the pro-Trump subreddit r/The_Donald in late June for violating several of the site’s policies—activity and discussion around gangstalking continues to fly beneath the radar. If you Google “5G coronavirus,” for example, the first result is a promoted link from WHO “busting myths,” and the first page of results is full of words like “conspiracy theory” and “false.” Searches for “gangstalking” also include news articles questioning the veracity of the phenomenon—but at the time of writing, a worrisome Facebook post from 2013 is still among the top ten results. The 3,000-word screed claims that gangstalking is real, arguing, “If we don’t want to be overpowered, we need to take appropriate measure as soon as possible.”

Danny is legally not allowed access to Jenny’s medical records and therefore doesn’t know if she stopped taking her medication, or a medication change prompted her death. But he believes gangstalking forums played at least some part in his sister’s decline. “From the amount she was reading and subscribed to, it was taking up a really large space in her life,” he says. He estimates that she logged on to at least one gangstalking forum every day.

Danny reported the gangstalking groups he found on Jenny’s computer to Facebook and Reddit, but he never received any response. He remains “pissed off” by the fact these spaces are permitted, and firmly believes they are dangerous. The subreddit’s own sidebar rules say giving specific medical advice is banned. Reddit itself bans subreddits that explicitly encourage or incite violence, but gangstalking subs do not violate any of its current policies. A Facebook company spokesperson said: “We always want people to feel welcome and safe on our platforms which is why we have a set of community standards which set out the limits for acceptable behaviour and content. We will take action against any content which violates our policies, and encourage people to use our reporting tools for any posts they are concerned about.”

Jenny was six years older than her little brother Danny, which means she often babysat him when she was a teen. With fondness, he recalls that she invented a “Sunny Day School” to occupy her younger siblings in the summer holidays—there were lesson plans, costumes, badges, classes, even an anthem. When Danny became a teenager himself and life got tougher, Jenny would drive him to the bookstore or to a movie or to Taco Bell—“literally just driving, the longer the better.” Sometimes, the siblings simply sat in a parking lot and spoke for hours at a time. “She had all of that big sister wisdom,” Danny says. “That’s what I use the most from her now.”

When asked what he thinks about the fact that people like his sister can still participate in gangstalking forums today, he doesn’t mince words. “I think about my sister in her more lucid moments, when she was medicated, when she volunteered to help people who were mentally ill—if she saw what I saw, she would be on the internet every day trying to shut it down .”

“Am I going crazy or am I being stalked?” Inside the disturbing online world of gangstalking 2020/08/07 12:00

How falling solar costs have renewed clean hydrogen hopes

The world is increasingly banking on green hydrogen fuel to fill some of the critical missing pieces in the clean-energy puzzle.

US presidential candidate Joe Biden’s climate plan calls for a research program to produce a clean form of the gas that’s cheap enough to fuel power plants within a decade. Likewise, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, and the European Union have all published hydrogen roadmaps that rely on it to accelerate greenhouse gas reductions in the power, transportation, or industrial sectors. Meanwhile, a growing number of companies around the world are building ever larger green hydrogen plants, or exploring its potential to produce steel, create carbon-neutral aviation fuel, or provide a backup power source for server farms.

The attraction is obvious: hydrogen, the most abundant element in the universe, could fuel our vehicles, power our electricity plants, and provide a way to store renewable energy without pumping out the carbon dioxide driving climate change or other pollutants (its only byproduct from cars and trucks is water). But while researchers have trumpeted the promise of a “hydrogen economy” for decades, it’s barely made a dent in fossil fuel demand, and nearly all of it is still produced through a carbon polluting process involving natural gas.

The grand vision of the hydrogen economy has been held back by the high costs of creating a clean version, the massive investments into vehicles, machines and pipes that could be required to put it to use, and progress in competing energy storage alternatives like batteries.

So what’s driving the renewed interest?

For one thing, the economics are rapidly changing. We can produce hydrogen directly by simply splitting water, in a process known as electrolysis, but it’s been prohibitively expensive in large part because it requires a lot of electricity. As the price of solar and wind power continues to rapidly decline, however, it will begin to look far more feasible.

At the same time, as more nations do the hard math on how to achieve their aggressive emissions targets in the coming decades, a green form of hydrogen increasingly seems crucial, says Joan Ogden, director of the sustainable transportation energy pathway program at the University of California, Davis. It’s a flexible tool that could help to clean up an array of sectors where we still don’t have affordable and ready solutions, like aviation, shipping, fertilizer production, and long-duration energy storage for the electricity grid.

Falling renewables costs

For now, however, clean hydrogen is far too expensive in most situations. A recent paper found that relying on solar power to run the electrolyzers that split water can run six times higher than the natural gas process, known as steam methane reforming. 

There are plenty of energy experts who maintain that the added costs and complexities of producing, storing and using a clean version means it will never really take off beyond marginal use cases.

But the good news is that electricity itself makes up a huge share of the cost—upwards of 60% or more—and, again, the costs of renewables are falling fast. Meanwhile, the costs of electrolyzers themselves are projected to decline steeply as manufacturers scale up production, and various research groups develop advanced versions of the technology.

A Nature Energy paper early last year found that if market trends continue, green hydrogen could be economically competitive on an industrial scale within a decade. Similarly, the International Energy Agency projects that the cost of clean hydrogen will fall 30% by 2030.

Voestalpine's H2H2FUTURE green hydrogen plant in Linz, Austria.
Voestalpine’s H2FUTURE green hydrogen plant in Linz, Austria.

Green hydrogen may already be nearly affordable in some places where periods of excess renewable generation drive down the costs of electricity to nearly zero. In a research note last month, Morgan Stanley analysts wrote that locating green hydrogen facilities next to major wind farms in the US Midwest and Texas could make the fuel cost competitive within two years.

A June study from the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory found it may be closer to the middle of the century before hydrogen is the most affordable technology for long duration storage on the grid. But as fluctuating renewables like solar and wind become the dominant source of electricity, utilities will need to store up enough energy to keep the grid reliably working not just for a few hours, but for days and even weeks during certain months when those resources flag.

Hydrogen shines in that scenario compared to other storage technologies, because adding capacity is relatively cheap, says Joshua Eichman, a senior research engineer at the lab and co-author of the study. To increase the length of time that batteries can reliably provide electricity, you need to stack up more and more of them, multiplying the cost of every pricey component within them. With hydrogen, you just need to build a bigger tank, or use a deeper underground cavern, he says.

Putting hydrogen to use

For hydrogen to fully replace carbon-emitting fuels, we’d need to overhaul our infrastructure to distribute, store, and use it. We’d have to produce vehicles and ships with fuel cells that convert hydrogen into electricity, as well as fueling stations along ports and roads. And we’d need to stack up fuel cells or build or retrofit power plants to use the fuel to power the grid directly.

All of which will take a lot of time and money.

But there’s another scenario that sidesteps, or delays, much of this infrastructure overhaul. Once you have hydrogen, it’s relatively simple to combine it with carbon monoxide to produce synthetic versions of the fuels that already power our cars, trucks, ships, and planes. The industrial process to do so is a century old and has been used at various times by petroleum-strapped nations to make fuels from coal or natural gas.

Direct Air Capture pilot plant
Carbon Engineering’s pilot plant in Squamish, British Columbia.

Carbon Engineering, based in Squamish, British Columbia, is developing facilities that capture carbon dioxide from the air. The company plans to combine it with carbon-free hydrogen to make synthetic fuels. The idea is that the fuel will be carbon neutral, emitting no more carbon dioxide than was removed or produced in the process.

In a presentation at a Codex conference late last year, Carbon Engineering founder and Harvard professor David Keith said that falling solar prices should enable them to bring “air-to-fuels” to market for about $1 a liter (around $4 per gallon) in the mid-2020s–and that the price will continue to fall from there.

“The big news here is that this could be done with commodity hardware starting soon,” he said. “You could get to something like a million barrels a day of air-to-fuels synthetic hydrocarbon capacity, I think, soon after 2030, and after that there’s no obvious scaling limit.”

In effect, the process provides a way to convert fleeting, fluctuating solar power into permanently storable fuels that can fill the tanks of any of our machines. “This is about an energy pathway to … deal with the intermittency problem and deal with it in a way that allows you to power high-energy density needs around the world; allows you to fly airplanes across the North Atlantic,” Keith said.

How falling solar costs have renewed clean hydrogen hopes 2020/08/07 11:00

The pandemic has changed how criminals hide their cash—and AI tools are trying to sniff it out

When economies across the world shut down earlier this year, it wasn’t only business owners and consumers who had to adapt. Criminals suddenly had a problem on their hands. How to move their money?

Profits from organized crime are typically passed through legitimate businesses, often exchanging hands several times and crossing borders, until there is no clear trail back to its source—a process known as money laundering.

But with many businesses closed, or seeing smaller revenue streams than usual, hiding money in plain sight by mimicking everyday financial activity became harder. “The money is still coming in but there’s nowhere to put it,” says Isabella Chase, who works on financial crime at RUSI, a UK-based defense and security think tank.

The pandemic has forced criminal gangs to come up with new ways to move money around. In turn, this has upped the stakes for anti-money laundering (AML) teams tasked with detecting suspicious financial transactions and following them back to their source.

Key to their strategies are new AI tools. While some larger, older financial institutions have been slower to adapt their rule-based legacy systems, smaller, newer firms are using machine learning to look out for anomalous activity, whatever it might be.

It is hard to assess the exact scale of the problem. But according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, between 2% and 5% of global GDP—between $800 billion and $2 trillion at current figures—is laundered every year. Most goes undetected. Estimates suggest that only around 1% of profits earned by criminals is seized.

And that was before covid-19 hit. Fraud is up, with fears around covid-19 creating a lucrative market for counterfeit protective gear or medication. More people spending time online also creates a bigger pool for phishing attacks and other scams. And, of course, drugs are still being bought and sold.

Lockdown made it harder to hide the proceeds—at least to begin with. The problem for criminals is that many of the best businesses for laundering money were also those hit hardest by the pandemic. Small shops, restaurants, bars, and clubs are favored because they are cash-heavy, which makes it easier to mix up ill-gotten gains with legal income.

With bank branches closed, it has been harder to make large cash deposits. Wire transfer services like Western Union—which usually allow anyone to walk in off the street and send money overseas—shut their premises, too.

But criminals are nothing if not opportunistic. As the normal channels for money laundering closed, new ones opened up. Vast sums of money have started flowing into small businesses again thanks to government bailouts. This creates a flurry of financial activity that provides cover for money laundering.

Breaking the rules

The upshot is that there are more demands being placed on AML tech. Older systems rely on hand-crafted rules, such as that transactions over a certain amount should raise an alert. But these rules lead to many false flags and real criminal transactions get lost in the noise. More recently, machine-learning based approaches try to identify patterns of normal activity and raise flags only when outliers are detected. These are then assessed by humans, who reject or approve the alert.

This feedback can be used to tweak the AI model so that it adjusts itself over time. Some firms, including Featurespace, a firm based in the US and UK that uses machine learning to detect suspicious financial activity, and Napier, another firm that builds machine learning tools for AML, are developing hybrid approaches in which correct alerts generated by an AI can be turned into new rules that shape the overall model.  

The rapid shifts in behavior in recent months have made the advantages of more adaptable systems clear. Financial regulators around the world have released new guidance on what sort of activity AML teams should look out for but for many it was too late, says Araliya Sammé, head of financial crime at Featurespace. “When something like covid happens, where everybody’s payment patterns change suddenly, you don’t have time to put new rules in place.”

You need tech that can catch it as it is happening, she says: “Otherwise by the time you’ve detected something and alerted the people who need to know, the money is gone.” 

For Dave Burns, chief revenue officer for Napier, covid-19 caused long-simmering problems to boil over. “This pandemic was the tipping point in many ways,” he says. “It’s a bit of a wake-up call that we really need to think differently.” And, he adds, “some of the larger players in the industry have been caught flat-footed.”

But that doesn’t simply mean adopting the latest tech. “You can’t just do AI for AI’s sake because that will spew out garbage,” says Burns. What’s needed, he says, is a bespoke approach for each bank or payment provider.

AML technology still has a long way to go. The pandemic has revealed cracks in existing systems that have people worried, says Burns. And that means that things could change faster than they were going to. “We’re seeing a greater degree of urgency,” he says. “What is traditionally very long, bureaucratic decision-making is being accelerated dramatically.”

The pandemic has changed how criminals hide their cash—and AI tools are trying to sniff it out 2020/08/06 17:57

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