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The Curiosity Mars rover. Photo: NASA/JPL-CALTECH/MSSS/HANDOUT/Anadolu Agency/Getty

From Earth, you want to pick something up from the surface of the moon. Using a joystick, you control a grabber — but you keep missing. It's the delay: It takes light nearly three seconds to get to the Moon and back, and the control signal even longer.

The big picture: This is a fundamental, insurmountable hurdle to moving stuff around in space if you're not there. The farther you are from Earth, the longer the communications delay — nothing, after all, moves faster than light.

  • One workaround is to just move really slowly. Fine if you're picking up a rock; not that great if you're trying to build a structure or repair something from afar.
  • A more powerful approach is to build as much autonomy as possible into the robot doing the job. That means that instead of telling it to move the grabber forward two inches, down four inches, and grab, you can just tell it to pick up the rock.

What's happening: Several startups, as well as NASA, are trying to find the right combination of human control and autonomy that would allow robots to do complex tasks in space. Full autonomy isn't an option for now — today's artificial intelligence isn't up to the job yet.

  • NASA wants to refuel or fix up orbiting satellites that weren't designed to be serviced. So it's developing robots that autonomously find and clamp onto satellites, at which point technicians on the ground use joysticks to carefully remove a covering and a valve, and start pumping gas.
  • SE4, a startup in Tokyo, has a system that blends human control and autonomy. An operator wears a VR headset and manipulates a digital scene from a robot's-eye-view. Then, the robot does the same thing — but not too precisely.

How it works: The SE4 system, which is being demonstrated today at the SIGGRAPH conference in Los Angeles, abstracts away some of the small details of the operator's actions, focusing instead largely on the intention.

  • Imagine someone demonstrating how to build an IKEA dresser. They won't try to tell you how many degrees to move your elbow before tightening your fingers.
  • Instead, they'll call out bigger-picture actions, like "align these two parts" and "now screw this in." That's what the robot does, too, having pre-learned basic actions like aligning and screwing in.

"We want human minds to ride these robots into remote locations and learn things," says Lochlainn Wilson, CEO of SE4. "We could have them going outside and doing operations without endangering human lives, yet humans will be gaining knowledge and experience."

What's next: By 2022, SE4 wants to remotely build a lunar base — somewhere on Earth. It'll be a proof of concept for its eventual aspirations to do construction on the actual Moon.

Go deeper

Scoop: Gina Haspel threatened to resign over plan to install Kash Patel as CIA deputy

CIA Director Gina Haspel. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

CIA Director Gina Haspel threatened to resign in early December after President Trump cooked up a hasty plan to install loyalist Kash Patel, a former aide to Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), as her deputy, according to three senior administration officials with direct knowledge of the matter.

Why it matters: The revelation stunned national security officials and almost blew up the leadership of the world's most powerful spy agency. Only a series of coincidences — and last minute interventions from Vice President Mike Pence and White House counsel Pat Cipollone — stopped it.

Updated 6 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

  1. Health: Coronavirus deaths reach 4,000 per day as hospitals remain in crisis mode — CDC warns highly transmissible coronavirus variant could become dominant in U.S. in March.
  2. Politics: Biden says, "We will manage the hell out of" vaccine distribution — Biden taps ex-FDA chief to lead Operation Warp Speed amid rollout of COVID plan — Widow of GOP congressman-elect who died of COVID-19 will run to fill his seat.
  3. Vaccine: Battling Black mistrust of the vaccines"Pharmacy deserts" could become vaccine deserts — Instacart to give $25 to shoppers who get vaccine.
  4. Economy: Unemployment filings explode againFed chair: No interest rate hike coming any time soon —  Inflation rose more than expected in December.
  5. World: WHO team arrives in China to investigate pandemic origins.

John Weaver, Lincoln Project co-founder, acknowledges “inappropriate” messages

John Weaver aboard John McCain's campaign plane in February 2000. Photo: Robert Schmidt/AFP via Getty Images)

John Weaver, a veteran Republican operative who co-founded the Lincoln Project, declared in a statement to Axios on Friday that he sent “inappropriate,” sexually charged messages to multiple men.

  • “To the men I made uncomfortable through my messages that I viewed as consensual mutual conversations at the time: I am truly sorry. They were inappropriate and it was because of my failings that this discomfort was brought on you,” Weaver said.
  • “The truth is that I'm gay,” he added. “And that I have a wife and two kids who I love. My inability to reconcile those two truths has led to this agonizing place.”

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