A team led by Jeff Bezos’ space company Blue Origin won a coveted NASA contract to build a spacecraft that will send astronauts to and from the moon‘s surface, NASA’s chief announced on Friday, capping a high-stakes contest.
NASA’s decision will give the agency a second ride to the moon under its Artemis program, after it awarded Elon Musk‘s SpaceX $3 billion (nearly Rs. 24,850 crore) in 2021 to land astronauts on the moon for the first time since the final Apollo mission in 1972.
Those initial missions using SpaceX’s Starship system are slated for later this decade.
The Blue Origin contract is valued roughly $3.4 billion (nearly Rs. 28,150 crore), NASA’s exploration chief Jim Free said, with Blue Origin privately contributing “well north” of that amount, Blue Origin’s lunar lander head John Couluris said.
“Honored to be on this journey with @NASA to land astronauts on the Moon — this time to stay,” Amazon.com billionaire founder Bezos said in a tweet after the announcement.
Blue Origin plans to build its 52-foot (16-meter) tall Blue Moon lander in a partnership with Lockheed Martin, Boeing, spacecraft software firm Draper, and robotics firm Astrobotic.
SpaceX’s Starship lander is poised to conduct the first two astronaut moon landings under NASA’s Artemis program, sending a pair of astronauts to the lunar surface for each mission. The Blue Moon landing, planned for 2029, is also expected to ferry two astronauts to the surface.
“Our partnership will only add to this golden age of human spaceflight,” NASA administrator Bill Nelson said. He added that having a second moon lander for the agency’s Artemis mission promotes commercial competition, echoing a trend in recent years that reduces costs for NASA.
Friday’s announcement in Washington was a long-awaited outcome for Blue Origin, which had unsuccessfully had competed for past contracts. The space company overcame a rival bid from Leidos-owned defense contractor Dynetics Inc, the head of a partnership with Northrop Grumman.
Those companies lost out to SpaceX for the 2021 contract, part of an initial moon lander procurement program. NASA under that program said it could pick up to two companies, but blamed budget constraints for only going with SpaceX.
This new contract is a boost for Bezos, who since founding Blue Origin in 2000 has invested billions into the company to compete for high-profile commercial and government space contracts with SpaceX, a dominant force in satellite launches and human spaceflight.
After losing in 2021, Blue Origin unsuccessfully fought to overturn NASA’s decision to ignore its Blue Moon lander, first with a watchdog agency and then in court.
Blue Origin and lawmakers had pressured NASA to award a second lunar lander contract to promote commercial competition and ensure the agency has a backup ride to the moon. NASA in early 2022 announced the program for a second lander contract.
Couluris, who will lead Blue Origin’s development of the moon lander, said Friday’s award was hard fought outcome.
“We’ve been working for some time, and we’re still ready to go,” he said.
© Thomson Reuters 2023
Elon Musk’s Neuralink Valued at $5 Billion Based on Private Stock Trades
Elon Musk‘s brain implant startup Neuralink, which was valued at close to $2 billion (roughly Rs. 16,500 crore) in a private fundraising round two years ago, is now worth around $5 billion (roughly Rs. 41,300 crore) based on privately executed stock trades described to Reuters by five sources with knowledge of the matter.
Some purchases by bullish investors boosted the valuation in recent months, ahead of Neuralink’s May 25 announcement that U.S. regulators had approved a human trial on its brain chip, the sources said.
Experts have said it could take several years for Neuralink to secure commercial use clearance. Kip Ludwig, former program director for neural engineering at the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), said he “optimistically” expected Neuralink to take at least 10 more years to commercialize its brain implant. The company also faces other challenges that include federal probes into its handling of animal research.
Following the trial’s approval, however, Neuralink shares were marketed privately to investors in recent days at a $7 billion (roughly Rs. 57,900 crore) valuation, equivalent to $55 (roughly Rs. 4,500) per share, according to an email seen by Reuters. Reuters could not establish whether the seller found buyers for that price. The email cited the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) approval of the clinical trial as grounds for the deal being “sweeter.”
Neuralink executives and Musk did not respond to requests for comment.
Musk has expressed grand ambitions for Neuralink, saying its chip would allow healthy and disabled people alike to pop into neighbourhood facilities for speedy surgical insertions of devices to treat obesity, autism, depression and schizophrenia. He even sees them being used for web-surfing and telepathy. A Neuralink executive recently gave more modest short-term objectives, such as helping paralyzed patients communicate through computerized text without typing.
The stock transactions at a valuation of around $5 billion (roughly Rs. 41,300 crore) have been carried out by shareholders such as employees and the company’s early backers, rather than Neuralink selling new shares to investors. Such so-called secondary trades are an imperfect gauge of a company’s value; their volume is thin and they lack the wider market consensus of a fundraising round or initial public offering (IPO).
Neuralink’s valuation jump in secondary trades is in sharp contrast to other startups. About 85percent of pre-IPO companies are currently valued in secondary trades at an average discount of 47 percent to their last funding round, according to data provider Caplight.
In Neuralink’s last known fundraising in 2021, it raised $205 million (roughly Rs. 1,700 crore) at an approximately $2 billion (roughly Rs. 16,500 crore) valuation, according to data provider Pitchbook.
Many of the recent stock sales have been to relatively small investors, who typically focus more on getting a slice of a company owned by Musk than scrutinizing its valuation. The maximum amount sought for the Neuralink shares marketed for sale at a $7 billion (roughly Rs. 57,900 crore) valuation was just $500,000, according to the email seen by Reuters.
Sim Desai, chief executive of Hiive, an online platform where the shares are traded, said demand for Neuralink stock has been “tremendous.” He pegged the valuation that buyers are willing to pay at around $4.5 billion (roughly Rs. 37,200 crore).
Some biomedical experts are skeptical. Arun Sridhar, a scientist and entrepreneur who specializes in neuromodulation, called Neuralink’s valuation “bonkers” based on how early the brain implant is in its clinical development.
“A study to assess safety and tolerability is in no shape or form valid to justify a $5 billion (roughly Rs. 41,300 crore) valuation,” said Sridhar, who helped launch Galvani Bioelectronics, a developer of implants backed by GSK Plc and Alphabet Inc’s Verily Life Sciences. Galvani is not a competitor of Neuralink because its implants under development will be installed in an artery to the spleen to help treat rheumatoid arthritis, rather than the brain.
The FDA initially rejected Neuralink’s request for a human trial last year, citing safety reasons, Reuters has reported. Even after securing approval, the company faces several challenges.
Neuralink has come under scrutiny from U.S. lawmakers after Reuters reported in May that its animal-research board may have violated conflict-of-interest regulations. Neuralink employees who sat on that board, which oversees the welfare of the animals that were being tested, also stood to benefit from the implant’s quick development. Neuralink stock that some of the employees hold has jumped around 150 percent in value in just two years, based on the secondary trades.
The law enforcement arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture has been investigating Neuralink for potential animal-welfare violations. Neuralink staff told Reuters last year that the company was rushing and botching surgeries on monkeys, pigs and sheep, resulting in far more animal deaths than necessary, as Musk pressured staff to receive FDA approval.
The Department of Transportation is separately probing whether Neuralink illegally transported dangerous pathogens on chips removed from monkey brains without proper containment measures.
Neither Musk nor Neuralink have responded to multiple requests for comment on the probes or the Reuters reports.
© Thomson Reuters 2023
(This story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)
Why Human Trials for Elon Musk’s Neuralink Will Change Everything
Elon Musk’s Neuralink received approval last week from the US Food and Drug Administration to conduct human clinical trials, which one former FDA official called “really a big deal.” I do not disagree, but I am skeptical that this technology will “change everything.” Not every profound technological advance has broad social and economic implications.
With Neuralink’s device, a robot surgically inserts a device into the brain that can then decode some brain activity and connect the brain signals to computers and other machines. A person paralyzed from the neck down, for example, could use the interface to manipulate her physical environment, as well as to write and communicate.
This would indeed be a breakthrough — for people with paralysis or traumatic brain injuries. For others, I am not so sure. For purposes of argument, as there are many companies working in this space, assume this technology works as advertised. Who exactly will want to use it?
One fear is that the brain-machine connections will be expensive and that only the wealthy will be able to afford them. These people will become a new class of “super-thinkers,” lording over us with their superior intellects.
I do not think that this scenario is likely. If I were offered $100 million for a permanent brain-computer connection, I would not accept it, if only because of fear of side effects and possible neurological damage. And I would want to know for sure that the nexus of control goes from me to the computer, not vice versa.
Besides, there are other ways of augmenting my intelligence with computers, most notably the recent AI innovations. It is true that I can think faster than I can speak or type, but — I’m just not in that much of a hurry. I would rather learn how to type on my phone as fast as a teenager does.
A related vision of direct brain-computer interface is that computers will be able to rapidly inject useful knowledge into our brains. Imagine going to bed, turning on your brain device, and waking up knowing Chinese. Sounds amazing — yet if that were possible, so would all sorts of other scenarios, not all of them benign, where a computer can alter or control our brains.
I also view this scenario as remote — unlike using your brain to manipulate objects, it seems true science fiction. Current technologies read brain signals but do not control them.
Another vision for this technology is that the owners of computers will want to “rent out” the powers of human brains, much the way companies rent out space today in the cloud. Software programs are not good at some skills, such as identifying unacceptable speech or images. In this scenario, the connected brains come largely from low-wage laborers, just as both social media companies and OpenAI have used low-wage labor in Kenya to grade the quality of output or to help make content decisions.
Those investments may be good for raising the wages of those people. Many observers may object, however, that a new and more insidious class distinction will have been created — between those who have to hook up to machines to make a living, and those who do not.
Might there be scenarios where higher-wage workers wish to be hooked up to the machine? Wouldn’t it be helpful for a spy or a corporate negotiator to receive computer intelligence in real-time while making decisions? Would professional sports allow such brain-computer interfaces? They might be useful in telling a baseball player when to swing and when not to.
The more I ponder these options, the more skeptical I become about large-scale uses of brain-computer interfaces for the non-disabled. Artificial intelligence has been progressing at an amazing pace, and it doesn’t require any intrusion into our bodies, much less our brains. There are always earplugs and some future version of Google Glass.
The main advantage of the direct brain-computer interface seems to be speed. But extreme speed is important in only a limited class of circumstances, many of them competitions and zero-sum endeavors, such as sports and games.
Of course, companies such as Neuralink may prove me wrong. But for the moment I am keeping my bets on artificial intelligence and large language models, which sit a comfortable few inches away from me as I write this.
© 2023 Bloomberg LP
NASA Panel to Hold First Public Meeting on UFO Study; Report Expected Soon
A NASA panel formed last year to study what the government calls “unidentified aerial phenomena,” commonly termed UFOs, was due to hold its first public meeting on Wednesday, ahead of a report expected in coming weeks.
The 16-member body, assembling experts from fields ranging from physics to astrobiology, was formed last June to examine unclassified UFO sightings and other data collected from civilian government and commercial sectors.
The focus of Wednesday’s four-hour public session “is to hold final deliberations before the agency’s independent study team publishes a report this summer,” NASA said in announcing the meeting.
The panel represents the first such inquiry ever conducted under the auspices of the US space agency for a subject the government once consigned to the exclusive and secretive purview of military and national security officials.
The NASA study is separate from a newly formalised Pentagon-based investigation of unidentified aerial phenomena, or UAPs, documented in recent years by military aviators and analysed by US defense and intelligence officials.
The parallel NASA and Pentagon efforts — both undertaken with some semblance of public scrutiny — highlight a turning point for the government after decades spent deflecting, debunking and discrediting sightings of unidentified flying objects, or UFOs, dating back to the 1940s.
The term UFOs, long associated with notions of flying saucers and aliens, has been replaced in government parlance by “UAP.”
While NASA’s science mission was seen by some as promising a more open-minded approach to a topic long treated as taboo by the defense establishment, the US space agency made it known from the start that it was hardly leaping to any conclusions.
“There is no evidence UAPs are extraterrestrial in origin,” NASA said in announcing the panel’s formation last June.
In its more recent statements, the agency presented a new potential wrinkle to the UAP acronym itself, referring to it as an abbreviation for “unidentified anomalous phenomena.” This suggested that sightings other than those that appeared airborne may be included.
Still, NASA in announcing Wednesday’s meeting, said the space agency defines UAPs “as observations of events in the sky that cannot be identified as aircraft or known natural phenomena from a scientific perspective.”
US defense officials have said the Pentagon’s recent push to investigate such sightings has led to hundreds of new reports that are under examination, though most remain categorized as unexplained.
The head of the Pentagon’s newly formed All-domain Anomaly Resolution Office (AARO) has said the existence of intelligent alien life has not been ruled out but that no sighting had produced evidence of extraterrestrial origins.
© Thomson Reuters 2023
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