Real-time maps made by tiny satellites will change open-source data forever | Hard Reset Podcast #10
- There's a level of surveillance state here that starts to become scary when you think about it. - For this information to be this accessible and this accurate, that feels like a hard reset on our relationship with the planet. - The resolution is one meter, and I don't wanna say your grandma is so fat, but- - That is the nerdiest "Yo mama" joke I've ever heard. - This is "Hard Reset," a series about rebuilding our world from scratch. Hello, and welcome to the "Hard Reset Podcast."
I'm Nicholas Tucker. I'm here with Taylor Hamilton. - Hello. - We are the co-creators of "Hard Reset." We're joined today by Rob Chapman-Smith.
- Hi, I'm the editor-in-chief of Freethink, - And Toby Muresianu. - Hey, I'm community editor at Freethink. - Today, we're gonna talk about Planet Labs. What they're doing is taking really small satellite technology, and they're putting it up into space en masse so that they can photograph the entire Earth multiple times per day.
And this is unlocking a capability for the human race to actually study and quantify what's happening on the Earth in real-time. If you haven't seen the original episode, please check it out. There should be a link in the description below. - I mean, that was just like the most nerdy way of explaining this topic area that I could have thought of like- - Taylor, you've met me, right? - I co-directed this episode with you, and you were saying those words, I was like, "I have no idea what he's talking about right now."
- So what's the cooler version of how to describe it? - Yeah, give us a cooler description of what this is. - It's a photo of the entire world every day. - Multiple times a day, actually. - Multiple times every day. - Yeah. - But not just one, like many, many.
- Like a lot, but like you know, if you got all of them together, like that's really what it comes down to. And so if you're able to do this multiple times a day all around the world, every day, it's really about also the trends that happen there- and that's the fascinating part of this to me. - Yeah, absolutely. - How fine is the resolution? - It's really, really high-res. I think, I wanna say it's one-meter resolution might be as much as, it might be three-meter resolution on some of their data, but of course, it's less about the resolution than it is about the amount of spectrum they're covering.
They're not just doing RGB, they're also doing infrared and ultraviolet, and they're covering just all sorts of different aspects of how you look at the Earth from space. So all that data allows them to really look and evaluate the health of plants, crops, forests; allows them to monitor activity in places like the rainforest to see whether or not people are logging. And so it's fairly high-resolution data, but it's just this incredible, it's more about the resolution in time than the resolution in space, where otherwise we might have to wait weeks or months for an area of the Earth to be photographed again as a satellite passed over it, now we can literally take a photo every day or multiple times a day, as things like fires are raging, as, you know, wars are unfolding.
This sort of data gives us almost real-time access to what's happening around the world. - I think the other aspect of the resolution question is that they're constantly launching new satellites- - Right. - Into orbit, and so every time that they're doing that, I mean, it's like any other consumer electronic where every next generation is that much better in terms of pixels and battery life and all the rest of it, and so it's just, you know, we're on Moore's Law, and it's all getting better. - Yeah, and that's a function of the fact that they're making smaller, cheaper, almost, not disposable, they are disposable, because they do degrade in orbit and eventually burn up, but by switching to a faster generation rate, those upgrades happen instead of every 10 years, they happen every 10 months. - Right. - And that's just
a massive amount of upgrading and improvement that we haven't seen before in this space. - So why would y'all consider this a 'hard reset,' or why did you wanna make this an episode for "Hard Reset"? - Well, we colloquially called this episode "Maps," right? So it's a hard reset on a map. And so we've had cartographers for, you know, hundreds, thousands of years right? That are trying to draw what this land looks like. And so originally, when you were out there, and Lewis and Clark, and you're just kind of like looking at this map and trying to draw some new things into it, right? You're guessing from a very human perspective what this thing looks like. Obviously, over time, people have gotten better at approximating what all this looks like, but there's still human bias there, right? Most of the maps that you see of the entire world make Africa the continent look pretty small relative to what it actually is, right? So there's human bias here, but even if you eliminate all that human bias, it's like a static map, right? The globe that you have in your parents' house, for example, like it looks the same as it did decades ago, and the fact is that our world is changing every second every day, and so if we want to be able to use all of the data that's happening, you have to have like a better picture, literally, of the world. - Yeah, and to your point, like I remember we bought the "National Geographic Atlas" when I was a kid, and it was this huge blue book, it had beautiful maps, and I think it was like two weeks later the Berlin wall fell and suddenly, all of the borders on this map became obsolete for the next couple years, where it's like the USSR fell apart, and it wasn't this one giant country, it was all these different countries that started to emerge, and so that giant, beautiful book was obsolete.
And that's not really an issue when you have the ability to constantly be updating and looking at the world in different ways. - Well, I think the other thing that I find really interesting about this is that most of the maps that we as just citizens look at most of the time have lines on them, right? There are lines that outline the states, there are lines that outline the countries, and guess what? Like when you go up and you're looking at the Earth, they don't have these lines, right? - Right. There is this perspective that Planet shows of the world where it's just, here's what it all looks like and here's what the lands and the oceans and everything else really looks like, and for the challenges that we are facing as a world, that seems like a really important perspective to put constantly into people's consciousness. - Yeah. - I would also say it's a hard reset on satellites and how we deal with them. I mean, the video opens with saying, "What if we could launch a cell phone into space?" - What happens if you throw a cell phone into space? Well, that's what this guy did.
- No, you can't just throw the phone into space, even though we did throw a phone into space. It's a little bit more complicated than that. - Think about how polar opposite of an approach that is to what traditionally we've done with satellites, which is extremely large, extremely expensive, launched every couple decades by big governments who have enormous resources and keep that data private, mostly. It really just flips the paradigm of how we think about, you know, the access to these global maps that, you know, going from, you know, a little ivory tower to, you know, the people, or at least that would be the hope, but you know, there's some nuance there.
- Yeah, for sure. What I found really charming about this is it does literally start with these folks throwing a phone into space. They launched essentially a modified mobile device with one of their first projects, because they were starting to realize how much the technology you needed for a satellite was becoming democratized. And I think it's really interesting how they took the step of using that, you know, that technology cost curve to democratize access to this whole other area of technology that we otherwise wouldn't have.
- One of the things about this that I find really interesting is that, you know, we were talking about the static nature of maps. When I was watching the episode again to sort of refamiliarize myself with it, part of me was wondering, it's like well, "When can this be like a dashboard that like that is the default map, it's just the globe?" Right, like, actually the picture's like, "This is what the planet looks like today," and like you can go to the Amazon and see what's happening there. You can go to different places. Like when is that gonna be somebody's first introduction to like, this is the planet? - Right. - And what effect does that have when it like actually looks like the thing that you see when you walk outside, versus like there's no really relationship to us looking at a map or a globe- that doesn't feel like a real physical thing. - Right.
- But for this information to be this accessible and this accurate and this up to date, you do wonder if there's like a little bit of the like Overview perspective creeping in to just like your everyday life, which is probably a good thing for humans to encounter. So I do wonder about that, and that feels like a hard reset on our relationship with the planet in itself, or at least potentially, future generations who like get used to that as a thing. 'Cause Google Maps certainly changed my perspective- - Oh yeah. - Of what it was like to even situate myself in space when I'm going somewhere. - Right.
- Like use the street view, I understand the landmarks now, like I understand what to look for, other than just a street name or something like that. So it's a really interesting technology, and it's a really interesting time for it to be sort of proliferated right now. - Yeah, I mean, a lot of their data is behind a paywall, right? - Right. - But a fair amount of it is also just publicly available, and so if you go onto their website, you can just go see what's happening kind of in your neck of the woods, or somewhere else around the planet. So for example, in California, we had a lot of rain earlier this year. You're like, "It sure is raining a lot, and like looking out on that mountain that I've never seen snow on has a lot of snow on it suddenly," like well, what does that actually look like? - Right.
- And all this stuff that you could read in a, you know, newspaper about just like, "We've gotten this many inches of rain and this much snow pack," and you're like, "I don't even know what that means," right? But you see a picture of it, you're like, "Oh wow, that is a tremendous amount." - Right, and I think the other aspect of this that is really important about what they're doing is they aren't just taking the photos, but they're using all that information and using AI to break it down and identify what all the discrete objects are, and indexing it in the same way that Google indexes the internet. - Right. - And allows you
to search through and query it, and that is tremendously powerful when it starts to come online. And they're actually starting now to demo that technology, and they have a Queryable California, which is like a small-scale demo of this, and it's super exciting, and it's amazing to see what they're up to. - When we first heard about this story through one of our former colleagues actually, you know, the idea of like these small, little satellites, and we go film them and show how the hardware works, that was really exciting to us, right? But then when we went and were asking our questions to, you know, the people that work there, they're like, "Yeah, satellite's cool, whatever."
They're clearly not super-focused on the hardware side of this. It's really easy to understand, it definitely looks cool. They don't want you to film pretty much any of their technology. They don't want it to be stolen by anybody.
But the thing that they're really interested in here is the software side of it. - Yeah. - Right? When you can actually index through AI what is happening with any given photo, and how many of whatever is in that photo, right? And then how that all kind of maps to larger trends and whatnot. And so this is why in the episode we made the big comparison with Google and Yahoo and what they were doing for the early days of the internet where it's like, "Yeah, there's a bunch of URLs out there, but how do you find a website?" - Right. - Without Google.
- Right. - So they're trying to be that middle layer there in saying, "All right, we're going to index all this stuff. We're gonna take all these photos, we're gonna index it all, and then we'll see."
- Right. - Right? And the we'll see part of it is people all around the world trying to figure out what you can do with that information and how that can create businesses or policy changes or whatever. - Right. - I just got solar put on my roof, and one of the things that they do when you are thinking about getting solar is that someone, while you're on the phone with them, pulls up your address on Google Maps, and they look at your roof, and they're like, "Okay, we can put about 20 panels on your roof," right? That was what would you have done 20 years ago? - Right. - Right? It's like you would've had to have someone go out there and look at your roof, and kind of examine it, and da da da da, but it's now like I'm doing this in an instant on the phone, and that changes the speed at which you could put something like solar on your house. - Yeah, and not only that, you know exactly the orientation of the roof, you have some indication of what kind of sunlight that person's gonna get, all ready for you, all ready to go with these mapping algorithms, it's kind of amazing.
- Right. - And I feel like what people can start to do that is explore the world in a way that they've never been able to explore, or you can start to explore through queries and questions and figuring out, well, "Where are these things happening? Or what does the, you know, the surface temperature of this area, how has it changed over time?" And be able to ask those questions with a specificity we've never been able to before, and that's really exciting, especially as we see more and more AI interfaces come online. - Yeah, it's actually interesting thinking about like we mentioned AI in the episode, and they're using artificial intelligence, and that's like a very broad term for like a wide set of tools. I am curious to see how they are going to be implementing this with the new advances that have come out. Like one of the best things about the large language models is their ability to like just take data sets and then break them down and realize patterns and all this other type of stuff.
So it'll be interesting to see how far they take this indexing and this pattern recognition, and like essentially, it'll be kind of strange, but you could probably have like an LLM that ends up talking to you or you talk to, it's like, "Hey, how's the Earth doing today?" And it could actually spit back like, "We've had this many incidents of fire, or there was this many like movement in this certain area." That could be pretty powerful, and also kind of scary in some respect. - Yeah, I definitely feel that.
I mean, this is like the technology that is in some ways, out of all the episodes we've done, the most exciting and the most terrifying. - Right. - I think exciting from the way of, it does feel like a new version of the internet, right? The internet is totally something else, but like an indexable world is a really cool idea. You're just like, "Man, what could this lead to?" Like that feels like the dawn of something.
I think the terrifying thing for me is twofold. One is seeing how climate change is affecting our planet. - Yeah. - On a really visceral, really precise way, it's just devastating, right? - Yeah. - To see like, you like hear about the ice caps melting, and then you're like, "Okay, that's kind of happening," and then you're seeing it as much as you want.
It's bad, usually, so that's a little depressing. And I think the second side of this is that, you know, they've been very clear about being, for lack of a better term, Switzerland here, right? That whoever wants the data can use the data, right? And that they're not going to play like politics with regards to it, and so part of that could be good, right? In terms of everyone having access to the same thing, and so there's some level of governance. - Right. - On governments, and everybody else that is happening as a result of it, but the other side of it is like, what is the bad actor question, right? So if you're talking about a war, for example, and you're able to get satellite data that is tracking anything and everything, and you're not actually part of that army, you're not actually part of that government, what does that allow you to do? Or this is like the jealous ex thing that can like track where your car is? - That came up in the comments. It might've been you in the comments. - I don't want her to know where I live! So yeah, what happens when kind of anybody can see what's happening all over the world? I mean, there's like a level of surveillance state here that starts to become scary when you think about it.
- Well, and outside human affairs, if you are a whaling company and you Google where are all the whales right now, and you query it and say, "Where have this species of whale been migrating? Where do you see them moving mostly now?" That's kind of terrifying too, because it opens up the doorway for very, very nefarious actors to do things that we may not want. - Right. - But that's been true of every technology. Certainly the internet has enabled all sorts of horrible, horrible s***. And you know, I'm curious if we feel like we'll see proportionately more or less now that we bring in this new capability. - I mean, the thing that internet comparison is a valid one, and I think everybody that is conscious should be questioning whether the internet has holistically been a good thing, right? So there's that side of it, but I think the other side of it is that when the internet was first becoming like widely released and known in like the mid '90s, you know, technology was moving relatively slowly, whereas now, technology's moving so quickly that what is the ability for policy to like come in tandem with everything that this technology is going to bring about? - Yeah, and at the same time, when we first were introduced to the internet, there was a very Pollyanna kind of vision towards what it was gonna be.
It's gonna unite everyone, it's gonna- - Well, they thought it was gonna bring down China. - Right, it's gonna be this panacea for our access to information. - Yeah. - And so we went into it with a bunch of starry-eyed kind of naive perceptions about what it was gonna be, but we don't have that anymore, right? We've seen how that can go wrong, and how it can get twisted into something pretty dark, and so hopefully, we're less naive going in to these new changes that we are starting to see occur. - Yeah, I think one of the biggest lessons from the computer boom that we saw in the late '90s and into this part of the century is that technology is very malleable, and how you shape it, it really depends on what your interests are, and so like the internet being this free and open thing, and then all of a sudden, you have the Great Firewall of China, and it's like, "Oh nope, you can have the internet, and you have all of these censorship regimes."
You have a similar thing in Iran going on there, and so it's like with any new technology, I think it's good that Planet is like, "Nope, we're just giving away the data. Everybody has access to it. We are not gonna impose anything on it," because at least you're gonna have the checks of other people looking at everybody else. And I think you get this a little bit with what we saw with the war in Ukraine, 'cause you know, Planet was, probably had some data with that, but the big one that came out was Maxar.
- Right. - When the Russian troops started moving towards Ukraine, there was a whole OSINT community, open-source intelligence community that was noticing the tanks were moving, and they were like, "Nope, they're gonna invade now. Like screw all your guessing, screw all your like geopolitics. They are going to invade," and lo and behold they did.
And so, like that aspect of it, that the fact that there is a sort of watchdog on the entire world and you can't do anything in secret anymore if you're a big nation state, that's like kind of comforting to some extent. It's not gonna stop anybody, like but knowing that we can observe sort of like these big sort of titanic shifts from big players in the world like the United States or Russia or China, that is helpful to know that there is a, we can observe those things before they happen. - At its core, technology's just better and better and more and more powerful tools, right? And humans can use tools for good or bad. Tools can be used to exploit our vulnerabilities, or to empower us to do good things, you know? So no tool is going to be universally, I think, good or bad, just 'cause humans aren't universally good or bad. I think this technology will probably enable some bad people to do bad things, you know? I mean like, you know, we're in a world where, you know, only the real superpowers had this kind of real-time satellite access, you know? The U.S. or Russia or China or something like that. Now if, you know, there's a small country that has an insurgency and maybe the insurgency is good, maybe it's bad, maybe the government's good, maybe it's bad, maybe it's more complicated than that, they're going to be able to apply the same sorts of tools that have been historically the provenance of these superpowers.
- Right. - So, and you know, it'll be an equal playing field, because the people there rebelling or whatever, you know, in theory, could have access to it too. So I mean, it's scary, but it's also tricky because it's like we can recognize it's scary, but we have to be humble about our ability to like regulate it and predict how we can improve that through policy or through our own predictions of how it could be misused, because historically, because technology moves so fast, it's just been very hard to make those rules effectively and in a way that withstood the test of time. - Yeah, and who are those people, and who has the right to do that? Are they working for the company, is there something else? To your point, like yes, technology's not inherently good or bad. I think our ability to understand technology and reconcile with what the implications are going to be and get some level of alignment and agreement between, I don't know, 8 billion people, is like, like that's the part that freaks me out.
- The thing that freaks me out the most about this is that because it levels the playing field in this one very narrow aspect of our life without narrowing, you know, who does and doesn't have nuclear weapons- - Right. - It offsets some things, and I think that could trigger bad actions by bad actors. If you are a country that is engaged in horrendous human rights violations, building nuclear silos and putting people in prison camps, for example, or invading other countries, and you don't like the fact that some guy in Silicon Valley can just take photos of that all day long, you have a lot of opportunities to retaliate either on Earth or in orbit, and the potential for disaster there is is huge. - Right. - If you were to flood low Earth orbit with a bunch of fast-moving particles, it could decimate our ability to communicate with each other to do these sorts of technologies, just get into orbit.
And so if these sorts of technologies become too much of a threat too quickly to nuclear powers or to powers that have access to intercontinental ballistic missiles or any way of putting weapons into space, there could be all sorts of very tricky situations that arise out of it. So to me, because it's moving and democratizing access to this fairly powerful information very quickly in a way that sort of unbalances the status quo for people who are very heavily armed and dangerous, that's a little worrisome. So I do think there's some caution that needs to be, you know, used in how we maneuver into this new world. - Yeah, I would say it is scary, but on the other side, like I do agree with what he says at the end of the video, which is just like, "We have big problems to solve in terms of like climate change and all the rest of it, and how are we gonna do that without any data," right? Like what is really the plan there? And I also feel like a lot of the challenges that we are trying to solve go into what's called abstract thinking, so it's not something that you can necessarily see and touch by yourself. - Yeah. - Right? It's just like abstract thought about someone or something on the other side of the planet that like I've never seen before, and I have to like internalize what that is, right? The climate change debate is one of those things where you're just like, "Wait, what's happening? The ozone, and if this goes up, and methane?" It's like it's really hard to wrap your head around that.
But I think that what Planet does is that it makes it very real. You can see these pictures, you can really start to understand like the gravity of these problems and potentially, solutions towards them, so hopefully, hopefully it all works out. - I mean, I think that's a good point, and we have to be willing to take some of these risks, you know, in order to solve big things. I think about like, you know, one of the technologies that's talked about for climate change is like geoengineering or just dumping a bunch of like iron filaments into the water to, you know, create a algae bloom that sucks in a lot of carbon, and you know, it's controversial and blah, blah, blah- but it's interesting to think that if that was done in a world where we have real-time information, it wouldn't just be like, "Oh, we have to trust some company's word about what's going on." You could see the scale of it, you could see, you know, how it was changing the environment, and everyone could see it, you know? It wasn't something that could be done like in secret, you know? - Yeah. - Well, I mean, probably one
of the biggest things about the internet in general is that even though people are lying on the internet all the time, it also made lies harder to like to hold up to standards, right? And so it's like it's much easier for something to be debunked. I think we've overdone it now, and there's a little bit more conspiracy thinking than there should be at this moment, but like I think narratives are harder to withstand if it's something that you're manufacturing. And what something like Planet is doing is it makes it really, really hard for certain types of narratives to be coming from like government officials, or even companies to some extent, 'cause it's like, "No, we can go look at that source of that picture where you said that there wasn't a spill, but there is actually a spill." - Assuming you can access that IP from your country. - Right, and the good thing is, is that I think there's probably enough people now dispersed in different places that would have access to something like this, whether it's Planet or some other competitors that like we do have that sort of like antibody system for the planet in some extent. It's probably smaller than it should be, but that brings up a different question of just like if you were to sort of, and this is like, it's a little bit dangerous in some respect, but like how should we maybe organize around this type of information? We know that this information is valuable, we know that this information is helpful.
There probably are like non like NGO type organizations who could be specifically watchdogs for this type of stuff, and it's like, "No, this is what actually happened. This is a certified image of what's going on." Like should there be an effort to create some sort of like verification system for the type of information that's coming out here, so if there are parties who are manipulating stuff, we can identify the manipulation that's happening? - Yeah, it's really hard to imagine how to create a system of trust right now, just because everyone has such a like subjective bubble of what they will and won't trust. - Right. - I mean, you know, pick your political party, and if some noted spokesperson from the other political party comes out and tells you, "You know, I'm pretty sure the sky is blue," you're gonna have questions. - Right.
- And you're gonna wanna verify that. Our confirmation bias is so strong now, and I feel like it's hard to say whether or not we could create a common source of trust for these sorts of things. - At least with Planet, we can find out determinatively, 'Is the sky blue?' - Unfortunately, no, 'cause it's pointed at the wrong direction. - Yeah, exactly. It's pointed down.
- Nice try, Toby. We all know it's blue. - One of the things that it's not necessarily like skeptical of the technology- - Right. - It's just that there's
so much activity in this like satellite space and this imaging the planet space that I wonder about Planet as like a business. - Mm. - 'Cause it's probably not that big of a moat, so to speak, and we're gonna be firing a lot more stuff into space and taking more pictures, it seems like. I do wonder like what's gonna happen to all of this data.
- Yeah. - Like and is somebody going to claim ownership of it at some level, or is some company just going to like open source it? - Right. - And which honestly, if I had my rathers on this, I wish we would open source all of this, actually. - Right. - Like nobody should own anything proprietary as it relates to the planet and how it operates, and sort of from my perspective, but I'm a big open source proponent. - I mean, in principle, I like the idea of that, but what I worry is it reduces the incentive for someone like Planet Labs- - For sure. - Put these things up there,
or anyone else, or Maxar or whomever, because if they can't financially benefit from the data they're collecting, then why would they bother to spend millions and millions of dollars to put it up there? - Yeah, I mean, you can benefit from the data, but still, the data is open source, right? - Right. - And so, 'cause it's like, "Oh, you're gonna get access to the photos, but our particular set of software that does all the analysis is a thing that you have to pay for." - Right. - I look at something like SpaceX as a real win, where SpaceX is, you know, it's a corporation, it has a profit motive towards it, and they're building things with the idea of like, "Okay, let's figure out how to address this with efficiency in mind and being able to make recurring revenue," but they also have really deep partnerships with NASA, right? And so there's this kind of like hybrid model where it's not a government, it's not a corporation. There's some level of understanding that, you know, at a certain point, these things need to be more than just the profits of a private company, right? They do ladder to a larger group of people, and as a result, like, you know, that could also be an entree into going into, you know, global collaboration on this data set. - Yeah, well, and everything in space is a commons, like space is connected to us all, we rely on it for so many things, and there isn't really any solid way to enforce things there, so we all have this very tenuous agreement across national boundaries and corporate boundaries to not be nasty actors in there.
And so far, we've been able to do that most of the time, but it is kind of mushy where there isn't like, there's no space patrol. Like there's no one up there enforcing law. - There is "Space Force." - There is "Space Force," yes.
- Yeah, I mean, and like let's say Planet becomes incredibly successful financially. What, you know, how many other companies want to be like Planet? And I feel like probably most of the questions on here or comments were probably around space junk. - Right. - Is this all space junk? Everybody's so concerned about space junk. - Well, I mean, there is some concern there, right? And so like one of, there was a NASA study that recently came up where the Starlink satellites specifically are obscuring some of the view of the Hubble telescope, and it was in a decent proportion of the images. I forget the exact percentage.
It was not enough of a threat to the Hubble telescope for NASA to say, "This is like an existential thing, we have to act." Like they're fine right now, but you know, the amount stuff that we put up in space does have impacts on our understanding of the rest of the Universe, and so we should be careful of that, and not make it a junkyard. - Yeah, for sure. - Well, these things burn up.
- Well yeah, I think this one's a little different. - They're tiny, so it's like the junk goes poof. - Yeah, and I believe the same is true of the Starlink satellites that they eventually have a degraded orbit. I think that 'cause they're all LEO. - Yeah.
- Yeah, and so I feel like, you know, the trade-off is yes, you're taking precious resources, precious metals and whatnot from the Earth, and you're taking them up to space, and then they're burning, right? And so there's definitely a cost to that, but is like, is that cost greater or less than what we're doing to our planet anyway if we don't actually have a real understanding of what is happening with regards to climate change? - Well, yeah, and even outside of climate change, there is no part of the planet that is left untouched by the human hands at this point, and we are now seeing like full photographic evidence of that from a day by day basis of the things that we're doing to the planet. - Right. - And just to be able to map that and understand that, regardless of like even if the climate change science proved to be wildly like off-base in terms of what the warming was going to be, we're seeing what we're doing to the planet, and we can't necessarily bring that back in the same way. Like ecologies and just the ecological balance of the planet is very, very tenuous. - Right.
- Like you change one thing in an ecosystem, and all of a sudden, it's completely different. You introduce one species, all of a sudden it's completely different. And so just to be able to have a record of that is monumentally helpful.
If you think about like what we're trying to do in terms of measuring the impact that we've had on the planet and the lack of information that we have, versus like 500 years from now, assuming we don't blow each other up, the amount of information we will have about what we've done to the planet, it's a vast difference in terms of what we'll know versus what we can speculate. And so like fundamentally, I believe this is good for what we're doing, and it's important. It's an interesting situation. I'm not sure exactly where to land this point. I've been talking for a while so.
- Put it up in the atmosphere. - Well, you were talking about us blowing ourselves up and in 500 years, and I was like, "Oh god, Rob, do you know something I don't know?" I do think that there is like- - Since when do we have 500 years left? - I do think that there is something to, I mean, the term used to be called 'global warming,' and then it was like eh, that term's not exactly accurate, and now it's 'climate change,' but I've also heard 'global weirding.' Global weirding, I feel like is far more accurate, 'cause it's just like things are getting- - Global weirding sounds fun.
- Yeah. - That's true. - But things are are getting kind of weird, right? And it's just like hotter, colder, rainier, like and being able to, I think that if you are concerned about all this stuff, it is best you probably focus on things that are small that you can really think about. And so I saw some article that was showing the number of trees in neighborhoods, and how you can look at trees and map that to the affluence of that neighborhood.
- Interesting. - Basically, like if you're in a low-income neighborhood, you probably have no trees on your street. If you're in a high-income neighborhood, big old trees. And so this is something where you can actually probably start to map this with something like Planet, and really start to see like, you know, the causal effect of one on the other, and vice versa. One of the examples that we included was tennis courts, right? You can easily map the world's tennis courts, right? And then start to see like what does tennis courts say about like the health and wellness of that community? - In urban areas, there's so many places that are poor neighborhoods that don't have parks.
- Right. - Or parks that have no greenery or parks that are not used or are unfriendly or unusable. - Yeah, and so I didn't think about that use case. That use case is fascinating, so. - That is already actually being done in L.A.
with Google Maps, and Google has launched an AI-based project to map like urban heat islands and correlate it to the number of street trees- we wrote an article about it on Freethink.com. - You'll have to send me that article, Toby. - I'm just plugging it for the audience. - If people sign up for our newsletter, they might be able to find that, no, sorry.
- One of the things that we talked about in one of the other videos was the 'grandma effect,' and so it's this thing that urban designers use of if there are grandmas out in the street by themselves, then it usually means that the neighborhood is safe. - Hmm. - Right? Because if you're, you know, if you're a grandma, and like there's a lot of like violence and gangs and stuff, like you're probably not walking by yourself. - Right. - And so this is like a leading indicator for urban designers when they're going in to like kind of measure what that is, right? So it's not like I want Planet to measure all the grandmas there is from space. I don't know exactly how you would do that.
- Suborbital grandma trackers? - Yeah, exactly. - But hopefully, you know, when they're talking about this API and different people all over the world being able to like start to track these things, what I think is really the most interesting stuff is the predictions that will happen. I mean, what he said in the video was that they're able to know where deforestation is gonna happen before it actually happens. That's a really powerful idea.
They're doing that with being able to see where the roads go for them to bring in all the, I dunno, bulldozers, to have you cut down a bunch of trees, big saws, the big giant saws that come. - And they're using lightsabers now. - Lightsabers, so they get roads for the Jedi to go and cut down all the trees. - Right.
- So what does that mean for kind of anything else that you care about in terms of literally anything? - I just wanna bring up that the resolution is one meter, and I don't wanna say your grandma is so fat, but. - That the nerdiest "Yo mama" joke I've ever heard. - Your grandma is so fat, she can be viewed by a satellite. is wild, that is wild.
- Wait, was he talking about my grandma? - I'm pretty sure he was talking about your grandma. - Well, I don't even know what a meter is. - I'm from America, what is a meter? - Oh sorry, yeah, if I can to space junk, 'cause that was totally far and away the most common comment was what about the space junk? - Right.
- And it was from a few different perspectives. It was from one, you know, are we polluting the atmosphere or something like that? I think the more sort of concrete concerns are one, like are we worried that if we're launching stuff that it's going to collide with space junk? - Right. - Are we going to create, you know, we've done videos about this too, about articles that are, you know, satellites that are in orbit or junk in space that collides with each other and creates clouds of debris that makes it inhospitable to launch other things up. I do remember going on their website, and you may know more about this than I do- I think you alluded it to it, that it is a lower orbit, and that it's in time to burn up and stuff like that. But I don't know if they addressed any of these other concerns, or if you had any perspective on that. - You know, they're very clear about it that these are designed to stay in orbit for a certain amount of time and then fall down to Earth.
A lot of people don't know this, but there is actually atmosphere at low Earth orbit. There is air in space. Even the ISS, which is fairly high up there and in space perpetually, it has drag, because it's running into the occasional air particles that sort of slows it down over time, and they have to add speed so they can stay in orbit. So anything that low in orbit will eventually slow down to the point that falls from orbit and falls to the Earth, and then that's true of the satellites. It's also true of the debris. It doesn't really matter how big or small you are, so if something does happen where there were a, you know, cascading explosion of satellites at that low Earth orbit, it would eventually fall to Earth, and that would clear up.
Where you have a bigger problem with that is at higher orbits where there's less drag and less ability for gravity to sort of naturally assert itself as these things hit drag. I would be way more worried about this happening at geostationary orbit, where if you're far enough away from the planet that you can rotate the planet slowly and stay over the same geographical area, and those places, if there were to be some sort of a debris field, that would be catastrophic where I think it would be harder for those sorts of debris fields to clear, harder for us to get to them and clear them, because it is harder to get that far away from the planet. So that's, to me, the real danger area. I think with a lot of the low Earth orbit stuff, you know, the people who are doing this are smart enough to know that they don't wanna mess up where they eat, let's put it that way.
- Yeah. - They make a living there. They want to keep it as clean and as litter-free as possible. But that would be my guess is that. - I mean, that's certainly their incentive.
- Yeah, they're highly incentivized to keep this into, you know, a clean and well-ordered area of orbit. I have one other thing that I wanna talk about real quick about skepticism. - Ooh. - I think one of the things that, the assumptions that we make in this video and that a lot of people make in discussions about space in general that doesn't go unquestioned very much, is this Overview effect. - Mm. - That by seeing this image of Earth from far away, we will feel more connected to Earth and feel like it's more precious, etc.
And I'm actually reading a book right now by Zach and Kelly Weinersmith, and they do a great job of questioning that, and I think that they have a worthwhile point of view, which is that this haven't really proved out so far. There are people who've seen this photo that still don't really care. - Yeah. - We've had this image for a while, so what is it, what will it take for enough people to see this sort of data and imagery and take it seriously? And I don't know that a couple more pictures of the Earth a day is gonna do it. - No, I think you need the data analysis part of it for like, or at least my perspective, with Planet, the thing that's interesting is like you're not just seeing the pictures, you're understanding what's happening on the pictures, and that context is important to understand like what we're doing to the planet potentially. But I do agree, I think the Overview effect as terms of like a photographic thing, it's like, "Yeah, it's just a photo."
I think the thing that the astronauts who had seen that are describing, it's like, "No, that wasn't a photo, I was on the Moon and I was seeing the Earth." That's like a very different thing. Chandler, our CEO, he said that he's been pretty skeptical of the Overview effect too, but he was able to do a VR experience where he got to see it from the International Space Station on an Oculus and looking down on the Earth, and that, because it tricks your senses, actually gave him a bit of that Overview effect. I do wonder when you stack different technologies and different things, if you can get some type of feeling like that. If you like put Planet stuff in a VR environment, like enough pictures and stitch them together, would that help with some people? - Right.
- With that, I'm not sure, - But I mean, I think what it comes down to is when you're in that environment and when it's immersive, it feels like it's happening to you. - Exactly. - It's relevant to you in that moment, and I feel like a lot of this stuff, people just aren't willing to look at the abstract implications of what their actions are until it's in their face, until their house is on fire. - Right. - And that's what I worry about is for a lot of people, it just will not matter until it's too late.
- Well, but I think that when you're talking about like the Blue Marble and all that, yeah, I mean, you can look at that photo and be like, "Cool, Blue Marble, sounds good." - Right, so we shouldn't just drive around showing it to people? Fix this world. - Right, yeah, I mean, it was a revolutionary photo when it was taken. - Yeah. - But now, every sixth-grade classroom has that up on the wall, and it's like, "Okay?" - Yeah, it's a different effect, but it's a different thing when it's my neighborhood, right? And if I am able to see like how my neighborhood or my city, something that I actually personally care about, is changing physically, like I do think that that will affect people. - Right, but I think the case needs to be made, that someone is gonna need to do that query, and say, "How can I look at the factors in your neighborhood that have adversely affected the lifespans of your children?" You know, like your children are gonna live X numbers of years less than the kids in this affluent neighborhood with more trees and less, you know, heat problems.
Someone needs to run those queries and make it clear to folks, and I think that is the missing element here. Just seeing it and having the data is not enough. We need the people who can make a convincing argument with that data. - Well, it's the convincing argument, but I do think that the photo is a really big deal, showing the before and the after or the comparison point. Like that's the thing that we haven't had really. - Yeah.
- Yeah, I think that it's, something can be good without it being a silver bullet that fixes all of the world's problems, you know? - That's fair. - I mean, I think it's good to have more information, but we should also be sanguine about how we have a ton of information, and most people don't use it, you know? It's not like, I mean, we have a lot of data about neighborhoods, and you know, our worlds, and you know, it becomes noise to people because we have so much of it, and you know, as a result, you can only focus on what you can actually see that's in your face, you know, that affects you, because, you know, we just, we have our lives, and we can't assimilate all the information and act on it in all the ways that, you know, in theory, might be best. - And the Blue Marble is a great story. It's like, "We went up to space and I looked back, and I saw this and I felt this," right? It's like a singular moment in time, whereas I think that the more interesting thing here is that all of our kids are going to be able to live in a world where they're able to see this Earth change on a day-to-day basis, right? And what happens when you're starting to have that as part of your consciousness of like what your city and what the rest of the world looks like? - Right. - Yeah,
it's actually interesting. The fact that we could see the Earth from space and we have perspective on the Earth from space was of like very little utility, and the thing that Planet is able to do is it's able to make it very useful to be able to see the Earth from space, and it's like actionable data and actionable insights. - Actionable weather report. - I was gonna say, I mean, I think what makes it actionable is the speed of it. - Right.
- That if you are driving, and you see a speed limit sign, and your speedometer only updates every three minutes, that's kind of useless. - Right. - But because it's a real-time indicator of how fast you're going based on how hard you're pressing on the pedal, your brain can use that feedback loop to match your speed to the sign as you go past it.
- Yeah. - Not that you do, because everyone's like, "I'm gonna cruise past this," but it's measurement in time, and that resolution in time measurement is valuable. So that if we can do these things, like you're saying, if we can do the geoengineering project and measure in real-time if it works, then we know whether or not we need to keep doing it or stop doing it. And I think that to me is really important that as an intelligent system, we need that feedback on a faster basis. - Yeah, I do wonder about whether we would, in the pursuit of doing some of this stuff, seed too much control to the technology in terms of its trusting its analysis, 'cause one I think one of the, or the most interesting things about early computers is that like the astronauts didn't trust them s****. Like they were like, "No, no, like let the humans check that first."
- Right. - And so as we implement this stuff, we should always be wary that it's doing the analysis right, especially depending on the type of AI that it is. Like a fair amount of these things are still black boxes to some respect, so I do worry about that aspect of it, but yeah, I agree. Like the fact that we can have basically, almost like a speedometer for the planet is amazing. - What were some of the questions that our audience had? What were some of the concerns they had? What were the things we didn't answer in the video? - The handy dandy laptop. ♪ Pull out the laptop ♪ ♪ Pull out the laptop time ♪ - I feel like we need a jingle for this section.
- That's a great idea. We should have a meeting about that. - A jingle meeting? - Let's circle back.
♪ Toby pulling out the laptop ♪ - This is where the podcast gets wild, and we bring out a laptop. ♪ Pulls out the laptop, asks questions ♪ ♪ Letters, we get letters ♪ - So we've touched on a lot of these. I think this is like typically how it goes.
We've touched on a bunch of the major concerns, space debris, you know, whether it'll be, assist or inhibit government abuses, how it will not just reveal, you know, labor camps in China, but also like, you know, many commenters pointed out like what about things the U.S. does? Or what about things this- - Good. - Yeah, good, yeah. Owned, Nick. - Yeah. - But I mean, I think that's good. I think we definitely should be keeping good track of what the terrible things that the United States government ever said otherwise. - Lots of crazy stuff.
- Yeah. We had a couple people asking about Starlink, basically, you know, why don't they just put these on Starlinks, or why don't these have internet? And obviously, SpaceX and Planet are different companies, but you would think that like- - A primary reason. - Could be a primary reason, but you wonder if at some point, like these functions are gonna get combined, you know? - Why doesn't my mailman also bring the milk? I get it, yeah, they're very different satellites, designed for very different functionality. I mean, obviously, these do have a data downlink, because it would be useless to have a really nice camera in space if you could never get the pictures from it. So these are clearly connected to Earth and downloading their data to Earth on a constant stream basis, and I imagine they're so dedicated to doing that job that there's not a lot of extra bandwidth to use these for satellite phones and, you know, linking up Starlink networks.
So it's really, they're just very purpose built for what they're trying to do. - Was there any one that we covered that was like spicily asked in some way? - Yeah, any spicy questions? - Picante. - There's a couple ones that are like sarcastic. - Oh good, let's get some of those out here. - Hmm, you can use them to spy on Chinese security facilities. Okay, can I spy on U.S. facilities too or just China...?
- Yeah, you can do U.S. - Yeah, we're down with that, spy on it all. - Yeah, why do people like- - What's the assumption there? - Yeah, I don't know. There's this like weird tendency- I'm guessing that commenter was not from the United States. - Right. - And so there's like, "Oh, you're dogging China, but you're not talking about what the U.S. is doing."
It's like this weird sort of like what-about-ism. - Yeah. - But it's like, yes, the U.S. is doing lots of bad things.
Like photograph them, expose them. - Yeah. - It's good for the world to know. - Yeah. - It's not a dig, it's, I don't know, it's weird. - Yeah, I mean, from that perspective, it's fair. We didn't specifically call out any- - Right. - Of the monstrous things
that other countries are doing. We really did focus on it- but the reason we focused on the Uyghur detention camps China's building is because it was in the news, and it had a great deal of attention. - I have one spicy question. If anyone can launch anything into orbit, what's to stop someone from launching something like a railgun and hold this all hostage? - Don't get me started. - I'm sorry, but this is a good question. Money, like it's not cheap, like these cost tens of thousands of dollars, and also like SpaceX isn't just like, "Just put whatever you want in the rocket."
Like they check, like you can't even fly with a suitcase without someone x-raying it, so. - Exactly. - I think we'll be fine. So yeah, if someone had the infrastructure and money to build their own rocket launch system, they could probably get the sort of privacy they need to put a, you know, a giant titanium rod into space that's expensive. I imagine if you're at that point, you don't need the world to hold hostage. You're already super rich, so just be happy.
Screw off, and have fun on your private island. So yeah, I'm not too worried about the Lex Luther aspect of this. - All right. I'm wondering about like the James Bond villain aspect of like a million of these tiny satellites linking together and turning around, and slowly pointing directly at the capitol or something.
- We're laughing about this right now, but you know. - Yeah, there are easier ways of, you know, destroying the entire planet. - Yeah, it's too much work, too much work. - It's a lot of work. - Exactly, impressive, though.
- So I think we should probably move on to some of the updates. So Planet Labs is still ticking along, they're still photographing the Earth every day. Their hardware's getting updated all the time, and actually, I think the most exciting thing, when we filmed this, they were talking about this idea of indexing and making a searchable database of the Earth as a fairly aspirational thing. They were still working on developing that, but they just came out with a demo that is really fascinating of a Queryable California.
So they've taken, you know, satellite data for California and made it so that they can ask it questions about, you know, the surface temperature, and tree canopy cover, and all these things like that so you can start to get a sense of, you know, what has happened in this state over the last, you know, 10, 15 years, and it's really, it's exactly what they said. And so this technology is here, like it's not fully, you know, for the whole globe, it's not all the things, but it's actually happening, and that's really exciting to see. They're, I think, still not quite making a profit, so I think that they're still sort of struggling to find that revenue, so I'm optimistic that they'll find that. I think it's a great company, and I want to see them succeed, but- - Do you have any financial interests you should disclose? - I do not, I'm not a stockholder in that, but I just want them to win, because I think what they're doing is really cool, but I you know, did my research on them today, and it looks like they're still working towards that right now. But the fact that they're making this technology real and making it so you can basically query the Earth as if it were the internet is really astounding. To see that just starting to happen is really amazing and inspiring.
And what's also really nice about this company, if people wanna get involved, is that you can. Like a lot of the data is behind a paywall, but there's a lot that's