• NASA’s Successor to the James Webb Telescope – The Search for Habitable Planets
  • Unwanted home surveillance?
  • That didn’t take long – ChatGPT used to make a legal decision in court

Dear Reader,

Hair spray.

It’s not something that any of us would think of as a dangerous substance.

But between 1966 and 1973, hair spray products used vinyl chloride as a propellant to get the hair spray out of the can. It worked great. But there was one major problem. Vinyl chloride, when inhaled at high enough concentrations, can cause forms of cancer.

Once this was discovered, vinyl chloride was removed from the market as a propellant for spray products.

Sadly, unbeknownst to most, 100,000 gallons of vinyl chloride are now being burned in East Palestine, Ohio. The “controlled burn” comes after the axle of one of the rail cars carrying vinyl chloride had a mechanical problem, causing a derailment.

To make matters worse, the derailed train also carried four other chemicals:

  • Ethylene glycol monobutyl ether – affects the central nervous system, blood, kidneys, and liver.

  • Ethylhexyl acrylate – bad for gastrointestinal tract with a potential link to colorectal cancer.

  • Isobutylene – causes headaches, dizziness, and can be very dangerous at high concentrations.

  • Butyl acrylate – causes redness, tearing, irritation of the eyes, and difficulty breathing.

The problem, however, was that after the derailment, the vinyl chloride contained in five rail cars was unstable. There was the risk of explosion that would have resulted in shrapnel and toxic fumes.

So, the decision was to perform a “controlled burn” to avoid the explosion, but the spread of toxic fumes was unavoidable. Surrounding areas had to be evacuated as Governor Mike DeWine stated “anyone who remains in the red-affected area is facing grave danger of death. Anyone who remains in the yellow impacted area is at high risk of severe injury, including skin burns and serious lung damage.”

Here’s what it looked like:

This is potentially one of the worst environmental disasters in decades. Yet very few have heard about it. For the first four or five days, there appeared to be a media blackout. The Federal Railroad Administration, which is part of the U.S. Department of Transportation, is nowhere to be found. Neither is the Environmental Protection Agency.

Perhaps even more astonishing is a complete absence of any environmental groups. None of it makes any sense.

And yet, the environmental and human toll is growing by the day. While residents of the area have been told that it’s “safe” to return home, many are complaining of headaches and nausea. 

Animals have died within a couple days of exposure to the toxic air, and fish have turned belly up in the surrounding rivers and streams. I can’t imagine how frightening it must be for residents. After all, if fish, chickens, and other animals are dying from exposure, it’s natural to be concerned about short- and long-term damage to the human body. After all, it took years for cancers to develop from those that used hair spray containing vinyl chloride as a propellant.

One hazardous materials specialist said of the incident “We basically nuked a town with chemicals so we could get a railroad open.” 

While train derailments are uncommon, they do happen from time to time. But this latest catastrophe comes at an inconvenient time, just weeks after the U.S. Congress passed a law that forced a labor agreement between freight railroad companies and rail labor unions that denied them paid sick leave.

The labor unions’ case maintained that, in the absence of paid sick leave, workers would still show up to work ill to get paid. Perfectly understandable… I would have done the same… But when it involves heavy moving equipment, some of which carry toxic chemicals, this can potentially create problems where none needed to exist.

There is no time for politics at a time like this. This is an environmental disaster with risk and damage that will last far beyond a couple of weeks of a “controlled burn.” The coordinated shadow ban or media blackout that was clearly issued needs to be lifted, and the EPA, Department of Transportation, and/or any other part of the government needs to drop what they’re doing to reduce the environmental and human impact of this toxic mess.

The James Webb Space Telescope is a catalyst for something bigger…

As regular readers know, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has been producing some incredible images since it reached its home at LaGrange Point 2 (L2). But as amazing as these images are, the JWST is just a precursor to something even bigger…

For the sake of new readers, the JWST is the most complex telescope ever constructed. It operates entirely in the infrared spectrum, which allows it to capture some stunning images of objects in space.

As for its location – L2 is about one million miles away from Earth. And it’s on the opposite side of Earth from the Sun. This provides an advantageous location for capturing images of space. Here’s a visual:

Source: NASA

The JWST has already had a profound impact on astronomy and astrophysics. And its success is enabling NASA to go even farther…

At the American Astronomical Society meeting in January, NASA announced plans to deploy what it’s calling the Habitable Worlds Observatory (HWO). This is a next-generation observatory that will be deployed at LaGrange Point 2 – just like the JWST.

The HWO will focus on observing those exoplanets that the JWST has identified as being most likely to harbor life. And the HWO will be loaded with infrared, optical, and ultraviolet sensors so that it can capture even more stunning images.

Here’s an artist’s rendering of the HWO:

Source: NASA

Here we can see the HWO on the left and what’s called a coronagraph on the right. It’s an internal starlight blocker that ensures optimal lighting.

And here’s the best part – once the observatory reaches its location at L2, it will have a long lifespan. That’s because L2 is far enough away from the Earth and the Sun that it isn’t influenced much by gravity.

The key here is that very little fuel will be needed to keep the HWO in position. For comparison, it takes a lot of fuel to maintain observatories in Earth’s orbit. And once they burn through their fuel, in the absence of refueling, they have to be decommissioned.

So the HWO will be the most robust otherworldly observatory deployed to date. And it’s going to focus entirely on exoplanets capable of hosting life. That’s what makes this so exciting.

The only downside is that NASA’s plan is conservative right now. It’s talking about deploying the HWO sometime in the early 2040’s.

That’s too far away. We’ve got the JWST doing great work at L2 already. The potential is incredible, and the pace of technological development in the aerospace industry is faster than it has ever been. It no longer takes a decade to build a new rocket or satellite. This kind of development can now happen in a fraction of the time.

After all, we now know there are all kinds of exoplanets that could be home to extraterrestrial life. And if Elon Musk is right, our population must eventually evolve to become a multiplanetary species. There is no reason to stay in our own solar system.

The work performed today will be the foundation for future generations to come.

Wi-Fi routers that can see through walls…

Some interesting research out of Carnegie Mellon University caught my eye and may be cause for concern. A team there developed a method that uses everyday Wi-Fi routers to see through walls.

No kidding – this approach can detect humans and movement through walls. All using just the radiofrequency waves transmitted by a Wi-Fi router.

The team based this work on early artificial intelligence (AI) research from Facebook (Meta). They built upon it and created a neural network that can map the phase and amplitude of Wi-Fi signals sent and received by routers. Measuring the change in phase and amplitude is what enables the AI to effectively see through walls.

This image below shows us how it works:

Source: DensePose

On the left side we can see images captured using standard video equipment. On the right side we see the neural network’s Wi-Fi map detecting the presence of humans in the room.

What’s amazing here is just how detailed the Wi-Fi mapping is. We can see the exact position each person is in.

This looks like something out of a spy movie. And it’s easy to imagine how this technology could be used.

For starters, it’s fairly easy to hack into standard Wi-Fi routers. Most people never even change the network name and password that the routers come preinstalled with.

So it’s a good bet that any intelligence agency could hack into most Wi-Fi networks with ease. And with this technology, agents could immediately see how many people are in a house… and exactly where they are…

Obviously, this would be an incredibly useful tool in something like a hostage situation. Law enforcement wouldn’t have to guess about how many people were in the building… They would see it for themselves. And then they could develop a plan accordingly.

On the flip side, this technology also poses a privacy threat to all.

We’ve talked quite a bit before about how companies like Google and Meta capture as much data about us as they can. They use our data to create a dossier about our behaviors and preferences. Then they sell that information to advertisers at great profit.

Well, this is a tool that could be used for advanced data surveillance. It can be used to determine exactly what we’re doing in our home and when we’re doing it. It’s easy to envision router companies collecting data on our location and movements inside the home to sell to data aggregators, who then eventually sell access to that data to advertisers.

In fact, the eero router immediately comes to mind. Eero makes a fantastic product. It’s one of the best mass market Wi-Fi systems on the market. It’s affordable, simple to use, and has great performance.

However, Amazon acquired eero for $97 million back in 2019. And if we look at Amazon’s financials, it has become one of the largest advertising companies in the world over the last 36 months.

If we go back to 2018, Amazon had nearly zero advertising revenue. Today, advertising accounts for 7% of the company’s overall revenue. Last year, that equated to $37 billion in ad revenue.

What’s more, Amazon now produces almost as much free cash flow from ads as it does from its cloud services offering.

My point is, Amazon is now clearly interested in playing the same game Google and Facebook are playing

That being the case, it would not surprise me at all if Amazon begins collecting Wi-Fi mapping data from its eero routers. Understanding who is in the house and what they do would be very useful for ad purposes.

So here we have incredible technology that also poses major privacy concerns for consumers. This speaks to something I touch on frequently – technology is neutral. It can be used for good or ill… and it’s up to use to ensure that we use our technology mostly for good.

The challenge is, we don’t have many safeguards in place for this kind of Wi-Fi mapping.

The best we can do for now is go into our router settings and change the name and password to something much more secure. This will make our home networks more difficult to hack.

For help with how to adjust the settings, we should refer to our router’s instruction booklet. And if we didn’t save the physical copy, each instruction manual can be found online.

And Wi-Fi routers are just like our smartphones or computers. They run on software that’s frequently updated with security patches throughout the year. It’s highly recommended that we monitor those routers and ensure that they’re running the latest version of software with the latest security features.

ChatGPT on the bench…

OpenAI’s ChatGPT just assisted in making a court decision. This is the first time in history that an AI has been involved in a court ruling.

As a reminder, ChatGPT is an incredibly powerful generative AI and chatbot. It was trained on essentially the entire open internet, which contains the accumulated store of human knowledge. That gives the AI a remarkable repository of information to draw from when interacting with humans.

And in this case, the judge leaned on ChatGPT specifically for its historical knowledge of law and legal precedent.

The court case took place in Cartagena, Colombia, and revolved around a dispute with a health insurance company over whether an autistic child should receive coverage for medical treatment.

To assist with his decision, the judge asked ChatGPT two specific questions. They were:

  • Is an autistic minor exonerated from paying fees for their therapies?

  • Has the jurisprudence of the constitutional court made favorable decisions in similar cases?

The judge was very upfront about this. He made it clear that he would lean on the AI. And his logic was simple…

Without ChatGPT’s assistance, the judge himself would need to spend days conducting his own research. But why do that if ChatGPT could synthesize and provide a summary of the relevant case law in a matter of seconds?

So the judge took the AI’s analysis and decision and used them in formulating his own final decision. We can think of this as an AI-augmented case study. The AI provided assistance… but the judge made the final call.

To me, something like this was inevitable.

We talked just a few weeks ago about how generative AI could be used to assist lawyers… or even to act as lawyers autonomously. Well, here we go. It didn’t take long to see it happen.

And I believe the floodgates have just opened.

Going forward, we’ll see AIs designed specifically to support judges and court cases like this. The AIs will be trained on a very specific legal dataset. And that will make them even more adept at supporting legal cases, ideally without any biases.

In most countries it can take months, if not more than a year to have a case heard by a judge. This can cause undue stress and financial duress to those affected parties. Something that could help clear the backlog of court cases like this could be transformational in that sense.

We’ll need to be mentally prepared for when AI augmentation rapidly becomes ubiquitous in our society.

I know that may be concerning on some levels. But at the same time, it will drive incredible efficiencies, improve service, and of course present us with a wealth of investment opportunities over the years to come.

Stay tuned…


Jeff Brown
Editor, The Bleeding Edge