Between the Silk Road and Life on Mars

In this decade that is fading out, there have been several technological moments in which humans experienced the amazement of the first time.

In this fading decade, there have been several technological moments in which humans experienced the amazement of the first time. The following vignettes showcase the advances and novelties that outline the near future.

 

On April 5, 2010, Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, presented a 39-minute video called Collateral Murder at the United States Press Club; the footage shows a U.S. AH-64 Apache helicopter firing on a group of people, a van, and a building during an air strike in al-Amin al-Thaniyah, Baghdad, on July 12, 2007. The transcript of the radio signal from the incident accounts for the group's location and the moment the militia decides to open fire on suspicion that they were insurgents in possession of rocket launchers, AK-47s and hand grenades. Among the victims of the attack were clearly unarmed civilians, children, and a pair of Reuters reporters. The transcript of the radio signal includes comments from military personnel such as "Ah, damn it. [...] Well, it's their fault for [...] bringing kids."

In July of the same year, WikiLeaks published the Afghan War Logs, more than 75,000 classified documents with details of the pursuit of Osama bin Laden and the Taliban regime, as well as unreported civilian casualties by the United States and the coalition.

In August, it published the Iraq War Logs, nearly 400,000 classified documents detailing the torture of prisoners of war.

In November, the first 250,000 of more than three million diplomatic cables from nearly 300 U.S. consulates and embassies, dated between 1966 and 2010, were released.

Julian Assange was born in 1971 in Townsville, Australia; by the age of 14 he had already moved 37 times, making a stable education impossible. At 16, his mother gave him a Commodore 64 computer on which he acquired remarkable programming and hacking skills, under the pseudonym Mendax. Together with Prime Suspect and Trax, he formed the International Subversives group, which managed to break into several systems in Europe and the United States, including the networks of the US Department of Defense and the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

After the leaks published by WikiLeaks—and the extensive discussion they unleashed in different spheres—Assange was named Man of the Year by Time magazine. In December he was arrested in London to face extradition to Sweden on two charges of sexual abuse. The process led to his request for asylum at the Ecuadorian embassy in 2012. These charges were dropped in November 2019; however, by the end of that same year, he still faced an extradition trial to the United States, accused of 18 offenses, including conspiracy.

 

On May 18, 2010, Laszlo Hanyecz, a programmer from Florida, asked for help on an internet forum to buy pizza, "maybe two large ones, I like to have leftovers for the next day." The exchange was finalized a few days later when Jeremy Sturdivant sent him two Papa John's pizzas that cost $25. Hanyecz paid with 10,000 bitcoins, equivalent to around $40 at the time, considered to be the first cryptocurrency transaction. At the current exchange rate, 10,000 bitcoins are worth over $70 million.

Both Hanyecz and Sturdivant were actively involved in the development of bitcoin, a virtual currency created and stored electronically, encrypted and managed through a decentralized system that incorporates blockchain to store all transactions publicly, anonymously and in a distributed manner.

In 2008, a message titled "Bitcoin P2P e-cash paper" signed by Satoshi Nakamoto was sent through a cryptography mailing list, describing the function of a peer-to-peer (P2P) network and how the protocol works. The genesis block with the first bitcoins was "mined" by Satoshi Nakamoto on January 3, 2009 at 6:15:05 PM UTC.

The adoption of bitcoin was very rapid. By 2012, over a thousand businesses were accepting payments in the cryptocurrency; in 2015 the number was 160,000. Its value has gone from $0.003 in 2010 to over $12,000 in June 2019, however, this fluctuation in its value continues to generate diverging opinions, just from January to December 2017 it went from $750 per bitcoin to $17,978—experiencing drops of up to 30% in between.

Today there are over 1,600 cryptocurrencies, from the petro launched in Venezuela by Nicolás Maduro to the pound presented by Facebook in June 2019, as well as other more widely accepted alternatives like litecoin (2011), dashcoin (2014), ethereum (2015). Bitcoin remains the most accepted: at one point it represented 90% of this market.

The identity of Satoshi Nakamoto remains unclear, on April 23, 2011 he sent an email to Mike Hearn saying he had "moved on to other things" and was "leaving bitcoin for someone else to carry the torch", after which he disappeared.

 

“Connect your LOIC (low orbit ion cannons) to the hive. The attack will begin soon." With this simple message, internet users around the world connected to an IRC channel to execute Operation Payback. The call was signed with the image of a man dressed in a black suit with a question mark in place of his head - they called themselves Anonymous.

Anonymous was made up of users from the 4chan site, the pinnacle of nonsense on the internet: lolcats, rickrolls, Pepe the Frog, Nyan Cat and practically every meme had its origin or went viral on 4chan. Many of their actions involved the participation of a large number of users - or not so many but with a lot of creativity and free time.

Anonymous. Ilustración de Kathia Recio
Illustration: Kathia Recio for the original publication

The first non-virtual manifestation of Anonymous took place on February 10, 2008, as part of Project Chanology, thousands of people (over 9,000!) wearing the Guy Fawkes mask from the movie V for Vendetta gathered outside several Church of Scientology buildings around the world, chanting transcendental slogans like "Long cat is long."

A LOIC or low orbit ion cannon - named in reference to a weapon that appears in the Command & Conquer video game series - is an application designed to send multiple TCP or UDP packets. Anonymous used it to launch distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks: saturating a server's capacity so that a site becomes inaccessible.

As part of Operation Payback, Anonymous managed to take down the services of the Motion Picture Association of America and the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry for several moments over 30 hours in response to attacks to take down torrent file-sharing sites - mainly against The Pirate Bay. In the following months, Operation Payback would also attack, with varying degrees of success, the Ministry of Sound, the General Society of Authors and Publishers of Spain, the UK Intellectual Property Office, the Recording Industry Association of America, Amazon, PayPal, MasterCard and VISA.

Anonymous ended each message with the legend "We are Anonymous. We are Legion. We do not forgive. We do not forget. Expect us."

 

On Thursday, January 27, 2011, on the Shroomery forums—a portal dedicated to the dissemination of activities related to mushroom cultivation—a user with the nickname Altoid wrote: "I found this website called Silk Road. It's a Tor hidden service that supposedly lets you buy and sell anything online anonymously. I'm thinking about buying from them, but wanted to see if anyone here has heard anything and could recommend it." The author of the comment was Ross Ulbricht, a physics and engineering student from Austin.

The original Silk Road, a name coined by Ferdinand Freiherr von Richthofen in 1877, comprised a network of trade routes of various kinds from China across Asia to Africa and Europe between the 1st and 15th centuries. It was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2014.

The modern Silk Road was a market on the deep web (dark web).

When visiting the .onion site, accessible via the Tor network, users could register and browse a catalog of more than 10,000 products accompanied by photos, descriptions, user comments and ratings. The media soon began calling it the eBay of drugs.

Grouped into categories such as drugs—around 70% of the products were in this category in the subcategories of stimulants, psychedelics, prescription drugs, precursors, others, opioids, ecstasy, dissociatives and steroids/PEDs—laboratory supplies, digital goods, services, money, jewelry, home and garden, food. Legal goods such as books and art were also sold. At the start of its operations, sales were open to any product or service except those intended to cause harm or fraud—over time, these premises would also change to allow the sale of weapons, the hiring of hitmen, fraud, smuggling, banking information and malicious applications.

Silk Road generated an estimated $1.2 billion in sales (9,519,664 bitcoins), around $80 million (614,305) in commissions; 1,229,465 transactions were completed; 957,079 users registered.

Silk Road was founded on libertarian principles and continues to operate on them. It's a great idea and a great practical system... It's not a utopia. It's regulated by market forces, not by a central power (even I am subject to market forces through my competition. No one is forced to be here). The same principles that have allowed Silk Road to flourish can and do work anywhere that human beings come together.”1

The above quote is signed by the forum administrator DPR, an abbreviation for Dread Pirate Roberts from William Goldman's 1973 book The Princess Bride, which narrates the adventures of a pirate in search of his true love; the identity of Roberts is assumed by various characters who, upon retiring, secretly pass it on to the next Roberts. The FBI investigation determined that the identity of Dread Pirate Roberts was Ross William Ulbricht, currently convicted in Tucson, guilty of charges of money laundering, computer hacking, conspiracy to traffic fraudulent identification documents, and conspiracy to traffic narcotics over the internet.

 

In October 2015, the AlphaGo program, developed by Google DeepMind, became the first machine to win a game of go against a professional dan player, defeating three-time European champion Fan Hui by a score of 5:0.

Go is a board game originating in China over 2,500 years ago—it is mentioned in Book XVII of Confucius' Analects. The objective is to control the largest possible territory by placing stones on the intersections of a 19x19 line grid, surrounding territory to make it one's possession. In the simplicity of its elements, a complex construction unfolds, exceeding possibilities—the average number of possible moves per turn in chess is 37, while in go the average is 150-250.

When in 1996 Deep Blue became the first machine to win a game and a match of chess against the then world champion Garry Kasparov, the approach was completely different; Deep Blue's starting point was brute force: a procedure designed by a human to search for good chess moves. This is impossible in go; the common saying is that there are more possible go games than the number of atoms in the universe—the approximate number of legal go positions is 2.081681994 * 10170.

AlphaGo, on the other hand, is an artificial intelligence machine that learns to make decisions through its own experience. AlphaGo begins as a poor go player that, as it plays, acquires knowledge of which moves are valuable for winning the game, combining an advanced search tree with deep neural networks.

In 2017, the AlphaGo Zero version was introduced, a system capable of teaching itself to play from scratch with only the knowledge of the rules: with three hours of gameplay the performance is comparable to that of a beginner human, with 19 hours it performs like an advanced player, after 70 hours it is capable of playing at a level higher than any human.

The knowledge that AlphaGo can develop has shifted to its application in other structured problems such as protein folding, energy consumption reduction or the search for new materials.

 

In May 2017, the UK's National Health Service (NHS) halted its operations, canceled appointments, and announced it would only handle emergencies: around 70,000 of its devices were infected with the WannaCry ransomware, including computers, MRI scanners, and blood refrigerators. Their screens displayed the message "Oops, your files have been encrypted."

WannaCry searches the hard drive for 176 types of files, including text documents, images, videos, etc., encrypts them using a combination of AES (Advanced Encryption Standard) and RSA (Rivest, Shamir and Adleman), and deletes the original files. The attackers demanded payment of the equivalent of $300 in bitcoins to send a unique key capable of decrypting the files.

The message on the WannaCry screen continued: "You might be busy looking for a way to recover your files, but don't waste your time. Nobody can recover your files without our decryption service." Finding the decryption key is practically impossible; the possible combinations for a 128-bit AES key are 3.4*1038, meaning that if one tried to obtain the correct combination through brute force, making a thousand attempts per second, it would take 1.02*1018 years.

On the same screen appeared two countdown timers: the first started at three days until the ransom price was doubled; the second counted seven days, the time until the files were deleted—in the subsequent analysis, no file deletion functions were found in WannaCry.

The ransomware included a transport mechanism to spread: it used the EternalBlue exploit to gain access to vulnerable systems and DoublePulsar to install and run a copy. These tools, released shortly before by a hacker group called The Shadow Brokers, were apparently developed by the US National Security Agency.

The British Health Service was not the only one affected; subsidiaries of Nissan, Renault, FedEx, Telefónica, Iberdrola, and Deutsche Bahn were also infected. On the first day, it is estimated that more than 230,000 computers in 150 countries were infected.

And suddenly, when WannaCry was in full propagation, it stopped. The malware had a kill switch: before encrypting the files, it searched the internet for the domain iuqerfsodp9ifjaposdfjhgosurijfaewrwergwea[.]com and, if it existed, it stopped the process. Marcus Hutchins, a 22-year-old Briton, discovered the hardcoded kill switch in the code, so he registered the domain and with that stopped the biggest ransomware attack in history.

 

On Tuesday, September 27, 2016, during the 67th International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Elon Musk presented the talk “Making Humans a Multi-Planetary Species”.

Elon Musk. Ilustración de Kathia Recio
Illustration: Kathia Recio for the original publication

Musk, born in South Africa in 1971, ranks 23rd on the Forbes list with an estimated fortune of $23.6 billion. He is the CEO of SpaceX, CEO of Tesla Inc., Chairman of SolarCity Corporation, and CEO of The Boring Company.

The first cargo mission is planned for 2022, with the objectives of confirming water resources, identifying hazards, and establishing initial infrastructure for energy, mining, and life support. The second mission, with cargo and crew, would serve to build a propellant depot and prepare for future crewed flights. In short, he estimates it will take between 40 and 100 years to establish a self-sustaining civilization on Mars.

Musk points to four key elements to achieve this: reusable equipment and resources, capable of refueling in orbit; fuel production on Mars; and finding the appropriate fuel. With these elements, it would be possible to travel to other planets and moons in the solar system. The cost of the mission would be around $62 million, and for the user, the cost would be $200,000.

 

Jorge Landa
Diseñador, comunicador visual y programador


Originally published in Nexos

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