Yuri Milner

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Somehow missed the Atlantic interview from a couple weeks ago that Ross Andersen conducted with Russian billionaire Yuri Milner, who’s dedicated $100 million to speed tiny probes to Alpha Centauri in just 20 years time. This article is better and deeper by far than anything else I’ve read on the subject, revealing how and why the entrepreneur, named for Gagarin and raised on Asimov, believes he can accomplish his mission and explaining the smaller details (e.g., ground-based laser beams vs. space-based). 

An excerpt about the desert power station that is planned to propel the crafts:

Milner told me that a ground-based laser could run off a giant power plant devoted solely to the mission. It could be a solar array in the Atacama desert, given how much sunlight pours onto its stark landscape. To make it work, the array would have to stretch for tens of miles, and it would need a battery large enough to store fodder for the daily firing of the world’s most powerful laser cannon.

The laser team would need to time its daily blast carefully, to avoid destroying the satellites and planes that pass overhead. When fired, the beam would shoot up through the atmosphere, and slam into the disc-like probe, sending it hurtling toward the edge of the solar system. After only a few minutes, the probe would be traveling at a significant fraction of the speed of light. It would pass Mars in less than an hour. The next day, it would streak by Pluto. (New Horizons took 9 years to achieve this feat.) As the probe headed deeper into the Kuiper belt’s recesses, another one would pop out from the mothership, and float into the laser’s line of sight.

“If you have a reasonable sized battery, and a reasonable sized array, and a reasonable sized power station, you probably can do one shot a day,” Milner told me. “And then you recharge and shoot again. You can launch one per day for a year and then you have hundreds on the way.”

By sending a whole stream of probes, you get more data, and also redundancy. Any encounter with interstellar dust would be fatal for a thin, flimsy disc traveling at cosmic speeds. A few hundred probes would probably be enough to guarantee that one slipped through—although it’s not a certainty.

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Earlier today, I posted a piece about Russian entrepreneur Yuri Milner, who’s bankrolling an attempt at an unpeopled reconnaissance mission to Alpha Centauri. A techno-optimist the way most high flyers in Silicon Valley are, Milner believes our increasing connectedness, including the Internet of Things, will bring about a more prosperous world–even a “global brain,” which will unite us all and serve as a “global central nervous system.” That new wealth may be distributed very unevenly, but the wholesale connectivity will likely arrive sooner than later. It will be both boon and bane.

From a Reuters report Chrystia Freeland filed in 2001, just twelve days after the 9/11 attacks:

Milner almost perfectly represents a global technology elite whose frame of reference is planet Earth. He mostly lives in Moscow, but has recently purchased a palatial home in Silicon Valley. He addressed the Ukrainian conference by video link from Singapore.

From that vantage point, the most pressing issue in the world today isn’t recession and political paralysis in the West, or even the rapid development and political transformation in emerging markets, it is the technology revolution, which, in Mr. Milner’s view, is only getting started. Here are the changes he thinks are most significant:

• The Internet revolution is the fastest economic change humans have experienced, and it is accelerating. Mr. Milner said two billion people are online today. Over the next decade, he predicts that that number will more than double.

• The Internet is not just about connecting people, it is also about connecting machines, a phenomenon Mr. Milner dubbed “the Internet of things.” Mr. Milner said that five billion devices are connected today. By 2020, he thinks more than 20 billion will be.

• More information is being created than ever before. Mr. Milner asserted that as much information was created every 48 hours in 2010 as was created between the dawn of time and 2003. By 2020, that same volume of information will be generated every 60 minutes.

• People are sharing information ever more frequently. The pieces of content shared on Facebook have increased from 140 million in 2009 to 4 billion in 2011. We are even sending more e-mails: 50 billion were sent in 2006, versus 300 billion in 2010.

• The result, according to Mr. Milner, is the dominance of Internet platforms relative to traditional media. “The largest newspaper in the United States is only reaching 1 percent of the population.” he said. “That compares to Internet media, which is used by 25 percent of the population daily and growing.”

• Internet businesses are much more efficient than brick-and-mortar companies. This was one of Mr. Milner’s most striking observations, and a clue to the paradox of how we find ourselves simultaneously living in a time of what Mr. Milner views as unprecedented technological innovation but also high unemployment in the developed West. As Mr. Milner said, “Big Internet companies on average are capable of generating revenue of $1 million per employee, and that compares to 10 to 20 percent of that which is normally generated by traditional offline businesses of comparable size.” As an illustration, Mr. Milner cited Facebook, where, he said, each single engineer supports one million users.

• Artificial intelligence is part of our daily lives, and its power is growing. Mr. Milner cited everyday examples like Amazon.com’s recommendation of books based on ones we have already read and Google’s constantly improving search algorithm.

• Finally — and Mr. Milner admitted this was “a bit of a futuristic picture” — he predicted “the emergence of the global brain, which consists of all the humans connected to each other and to the machine and interacting in a very unique and profound way, creating an intelligence that does not belong to any single human being or computer.”

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At the beginning of 2015, the great fiction writer Ken Kalfus suggested we take a deep breath before attempting to colonize Mars and instead send a human-less probe to Alpha Centauri. It would be a gift to our descendants, and in the meanwhile we could take a more sober approach to relocating humans into space.

Kalfus’ vision might be realized thanks to the largesse of Yuri Milner, one of those modern Russian entrepreneurs so awash in wealth and next-level technology that they can dream the biggest dreams when tiring of mansions and yachts, ones formerly only possible for states, like creating “global brains” and exploring space. 

In a New York Times article, the excellent Dennis Overbye writes of the proposed mission, in which Milner is partnering with Stephen Hawking, among others. The opening:

Can you fly an iPhone to the stars?

In an attempt to leapfrog the planets and vault into the interstellar age, a bevy of scientists and other luminaries from Silicon Valley and beyond, led by Yuri Milner, a Russian philanthropist and Internet entrepreneur, announced a plan on Tuesday to send a fleet of robot spacecraft no bigger than iPhones to Alpha Centauri, the nearest star system, 4.37 light-years away.

If it all worked out — a cosmically big “if” that would occur decades and perhaps $10 billion from now — a rocket would deliver a “mother ship” carrying a thousand or so small probes to space. Once in orbit, the probes would unfold thin sails and then, propelled by powerful laser beams from Earth, set off one by one like a flock of migrating butterflies across the universe.

Within two minutes, the probes would be more than 600,000 miles from home — as far as the lasers could maintain a tight beam — and moving at a fifth of the speed of light. But it would still take 20 years for them to get to Alpha Centauri. Those that survived would zip past the star system, making measurements and beaming pictures back to Earth.

Much of this plan is probably half a lifetime away.•

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