Too many cooks spoil the broth

Pure rant ahead.

I wasted ages this morning trying getting rid of the automated text fill in the Google user accounts log in box. I accept that there are greater problems in the world, but this one was more irritating at the time. I am very comfortable living with AI, but I do want there to be a big OFF switch wherever it has an effect.

It wanted to log me in as me, in my main account, which is normally fine, but in the interests of holding back 1984, I resented Google ‘helping’ me by automatically remembering who uses my machine, which actually is only me, and filling in the data for me. I clean my machine frequently, and when I clean it, I want there to be no trace of anything on it, I want to have to type in all my data from scratch again. That way I feel safe when I clean up. I know if I have cleaned that no nasties are there sucking up stuff like usernames and passwords or other account details. This looked like it was immune to my normal cleanup.

I emptied all the cookies. No effect. I cleared memory. No effect. I ran c cleaner. No effect. I went in to the browser settings and found more places that store stuff, and emptied those too. No effect. I cleaned the browsing history and deleted all the cookies and restarted. No effect. I went to my google account home page and investigated all the settings there. It said all I had to do was hit remove and tick the account that I wanted to remove, which actually doesn’t work if the account doesn’t appear as an option when you do that. It only appeared when I didn’t want it too, and hid when I wanted to remove it. I tried a different browser and jumped through all the hoops again. No effect. I went back in to browser settings and unchecked the remember form fill data. No effect. Every time I started the browser and hit sign in, my account name and picture still appeared, just waiting for my password. Somehow I finally stumbled on the screen that let me remove accounts, and hit remove. No effect.

Where was the data? Was it google remembering my IP address and filling it in? Was it my browser and I hadn’t found the right setting yet? Did I miss a cookie somewhere? Was it my PC, with some file Microsoft maintains to make my life easier? Could it be my security software helping by remembering all my critical information to make my life more secure? By now it was becoming a challenge well out of proportion to its original annoyance value.

So I went nuclear. I went to google accounts and jumped through the hoops to delete my account totally. I checked by trying to log back in, and couldn’t. My account was definitely totally deleted. However, the little box still automatically filled in my account name and waited for my password. I entered it and nothing happened, obviously because the account didn’t exist any more. So now, I had deleted my google account, with my email and google+, but was still getting the log in assistance from somewhere. I went back to the google accounts and investigated the help file. It mentioned yet another helper that could be deactivated, account login assistant or something. I hit the deactivate button, expecting final victory. No effect. I went back to c cleaner and checked I had all the boxes ticked. I had not selected the password box. I did that, ran it and hooray, no longer any assistance. C cleaner seems to keep the data if you want to remember the password, even if you clear form data. That form isn’t a form it seems. C cleaner is brilliant, I refuse to criticize it, but it didn’t interpret the word form the way I do.

So now, finally, my PC was clean and google no longer knew it was me using it. 1984 purged, I then jumped through all the hoops to get my google account back. I wouldn’t recommend that as a thing to try by the way. I have a gmail account with all my email dating back to when gmail came out. Deleting it to test something is probably not a great idea.

The lesson from all this is that there are far too many agencies pretending to look after you now by remembering stuff that identifies you. Your PC, your security software, master password files, your cookies, your browser with its remembering form fill data and password data, account login assistant and of course google. And that is just one company. Forgetting to clear any one of those means you’re still being watched.

 

Synchronisation multiplies this problem. You have to keep track of all the apps and all their interconnections and interdependencies on all your phones and tablets now too. After the heartbleed problem, it took me ages to find all the account references on my tablets and clear them. Some can’t be deactivated within an app and require another app to be used to do so. Some apps tell you something is set but cant change it. It is a nightmare. Someone finding a tablet might get access to a wide range of apps with spending capability. Now they all synch to each other, it takes ages to remove something so that it doesn’t reappear in some menu, even temporarily. Kindle’s IP protection routine regularly means it regularly trying to synch with books I have downloaded somewhere, and telling me it isn’t allowed to on my tablet. It does that whether I ask it to or not. It even tries to synch with books I have long ago deleted and specifically asked to remove from it, and still gives me message warning that it doesn’t have permission to download them. I don’t want them, I deleted them, I told it to remove them, and it still says it is trying but can’t download them. Somewhere, on some tick list on some device or website, I forgot to check or uncheck a box, or more likely didn’t even know it existed, and that means forever I have to wait for my machines to jump through unwanted and unnecessary hoops. It is becoming near impossible to truly delete something – unless you want to keep it. There are far too many interconnections and routes to keep track of them all, too many intermediaries, too many tracking markers. We now have far too many different agencies thinking they are responsible for your data, all wanting to help, and all falling over each other and getting in your way, making your life difficult.

The old proverb says that too many cooks spoil the broth. We’re there now.

 

 

Preventing soil erosion using waffles

Sometimes simple ideas work, and this one is pretty simple.

Soil erosion occurs when rainwater lands faster than it can drain and starts to run off, and as it does, makes streams that wash away surface soil. It is worsened in heavy rain because the higher energy of the larger raindrops, which fall faster, breaks up the soil particles and makes them easier to wash away. Having excess non-draining water and a freshly broken surface layer makes for rapid erosion.

The speed of run-off can be slowed somewhat by making furrows run diagonally to a slope instead of straight up and down. Terraces also work, locally flattening areas of a slope and adding a small earth wall to keep water on that area until it can soak in.

My tiny idea is to imprint a waffle structure into the soil surface after plowing and leveling. If you aren’t familiar with waffles, here’s a pic from wikipedia. I don’t recommend adding the strawberries.

250px-Waffles_with_Strawberries

Waffles would keep rain water within a small square and prevent the soil from washing away, at least until the waffle floods and overflows. Some wall breakage would then occur, but much more rarely than otherwise. I don’t think the waffle structure needs to be printed very deeply. Even a few millimetres of wall would make a difference. Intuitively, I imagine a typical waffle could use a 10cm grid with 1cm wide walls 5mm high, but I haven’t done any experiments to determine the optimum. At that structure, soil compression damage would be minimal and local confinement of organic materials and water would work fine.

The future of biometric identification and authentication

If you work in IT security, the first part of this will not be news to you, skip to the section on the future. Otherwise, the first sections look at the current state of biometrics and some of what we already know about their security limitations.

Introduction

I just read an article on fingerprint recognition. Biometrics has been hailed by some as a wonderful way of determining someone’s identity, and by others as a security mechanism that is far too easy to spoof. I generally fall in the second category. I don’t mind using it for simple unimportant things like turning on my tablet, on which I keep nothing sensitive, but so far I would never trust it as part of any system that gives access to my money or sensitive files.

My own history is that voice recognition still doesn’t work for me, fingerprints don’t work for me, and face recognition doesn’t work for me. Iris scan recognition does, but I don’t trust that either. Let’s take a quick look at conventional biometrics today and the near future.

Conventional biometrics

Fingerprint recognition.

I use a Google Nexus, made by Samsung. Samsung is in the news today because their Galaxy S5 fingerprint sensor was hacked by SRLabs minutes after release, not the most promising endorsement of their security competence.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/samsung/10769478/Galaxy-S5-fingerprint-scanner-hacked.html

This article says the sensor is used in the user authentication to access Paypal. That is really not good. I expect quite a few engineers at Samsung are working very hard indeed today. I expect they thought they had tested it thoroughly, and their engineers know a thing or two about security. Every engineer knows you can photograph a fingerprint and print a replica in silicone or glue or whatever. It’s the first topic of discussion at any Biometrics 101 meeting. I would assume they tested for that. I assume they would not release something they expected to bring instant embarrassment on their company, especially something failing by that classic mechanism. Yet according to this article, that seems to be the case. Given that Samsung is one of the most advanced technology companies out there, and that they can be assumed to have made reasonable effort to get it right, that doesn’t offer much hope for fingerprint recognition. If they don’t do it right, who will?

My own experience with fingerprint recognition history is having to join a special queue every day at Universal Studios because their fingerprint recognition entry system never once recognised me or my child. So I have never liked it because of false negatives. For those people for whom it does work, their fingerprints are all over the place, some in high quality, and can easily be obtained and replicated.

As just one token in multi-factor authentication, it may yet have some potential, but as a primary access key, not a chance. It will probably remain be a weak authenticator.

Face recognition

There are many ways of recognizing faces – visible light, infrared or UV, bone structure, face shapes, skin texture patterns, lip-prints, facial gesture sequences… These could be combined in simultaneous multi-factor authentication. The technology isn’t there yet, but it offers more hope than fingerprint recognition. Using the face alone is no good though. You can make masks from high-resolution photographs of people, and photos could be made using the same spectrum known to be used in recognition systems. Adding gestures is a nice idea, but in a world where cameras are becoming ubiquitous, it wouldn’t be too hard to capture the sequence you use. Pretending that a mask is alive by adding sensing and then using video to detect any inspection for pulse or blood flows or gesture requests and then to provide appropriate response is entirely feasible, though it would deter casual entry. So I am not encouraged to believe it would be secure unless and until some cleverer innovation occurs.

What I do know is that I set my tablet up to recognize me and it works about one time in five. The rest of the time I have to wait till it fails and then type in a PIN. So on average, it actually slows entry down. False negative again. Giving lots of false negatives without the reward of avoiding false positives is not a good combination.

Iris scans

I was a subject in one of the early trials for iris recognition. It seemed very promising. It always recognized me and never confused me with someone else. That was a very small scale trial though so I’d need a lot more convincing before I let it near my bank account. I saw the problem of replication an iris using a high quality printer and was assured that that couldn’t work because the system checks for the eye being alive by watching for jitter and shining a light and watching for pupil contraction. Call me too suspicious but I didn’t and don’t find that at all reassuring. It won’t be too long before we can make a thin sheet high-res polymer display layered onto a polymer gel underlayer that contracts under electric field, with light sensors built in and some software analysis for real time response. You could even do it as part of a mask with the rest of the face also faithfully mimicking all the textures, real-time responses, blood flow mimicking, gesture sequences and so on. If the prize is valuable enough to justify the effort, every aspect of the eyes, face and fingerprints could be mimicked. It may be more Mission Impossible than casual high street robbery but I can’t yet have any confidence that any part of the face or gestures would offer good security.

DNA

We hear frequently that DNA is a superbly secure authenticator. Every one of your cells can identify you. You almost certainly leave a few cells at the scene of a crime so can be caught, and because your DNA is unique, it must have been you that did it. Perfect, yes? And because it is such a perfect authenticator, it could be used confidently to police entry to secure systems.

No! First, even for a criminal trial, only a few parts of your DNA are checked, they don’t do an entire genome match. That already brings the chances of a match down to millions rather than billions. A chance of millions to one sounds impressive to a jury until you look at the figure from the other direction. If you have 1 in 70 million chance of a match, a prosecution barrister might try to present that as a 70 million to 1 chance that you’re guilty and a juror may well be taken in. The other side of that is that 100 people of the 7 billion would have that same 1 in 70 million match. So your competent defense barrister should  present that as only a 1 in 100 chance that it was you. Not quite so impressive.

I doubt a DNA system used commercially for security systems would be as sophisticated as one used in forensic labs. It will be many years before an instant response using large parts of your genome could be made economic. But what then? Still no. You leave DNA everywhere you go, all day, every day. I find it amazing that it is permitted as evidence in trials, because it is so easy to get hold of someone’s hairs or skin flakes. You could gather hairs or skin flakes from any bus seat or hotel bathroom or bed. Any maid in a big hotel or any airline cabin attendant could gather packets of tissue and hair samples and in many cases could even attach a name to them.  Your DNA could be found at the scene of any crime having been planted there by someone who simply wanted to deflect attention from themselves and get someone else convicted instead of them. They don’t even need to know who you are. And the police can tick the crime solved box as long as someone gets convicted. It doesn’t have to be the culprit. Think you have nothing to fear if you have done nothing wrong? Think again.

If someone wants to get access to an account, but doesn’t mind whose, perhaps a DNA-based entry system would offer good potential, because people perceive it as secure, whereas it simply isn’t. So it might not be paired with other secure factors. Going back to the maid or cabin attendant. Both are low paid. A few might welcome some black market bonuses if they can collect good quality samples with a name attached, especially a name of someone staying in a posh suite, probably with a nice account or two, or privy to valuable information. Especially if they also gather their fingerprints at the same time. Knowing who they are, getting a high res pic of their face and eyes off the net, along with some voice samples from videos, then making a mask, iris replica, fingerprint and if you’re lucky also buying video of their gesture patterns from the black market, you could make an almost perfect multi-factor biometric spoof.

It also becomes quickly obvious that the people who are the most valuable or important are also the people who are most vulnerable to such high quality spoofing.

So I am not impressed with biometric authentication. It sounds good at first, but biometrics are too easy to access and mimic. Other security vulnerabilities apply in sequence too. If your biometric is being measured and sent across a network for authentication, all the other usual IT vulnerabilities still apply. The signal could be intercepted and stored, replicated another time, and you can’t change your body much, so once your iris has been photographed or your fingerprint stored and hacked, it is useless for ever. The same goes for the other biometrics.

Dynamic biometrics

Signatures, gestures and facial expressions offer at least the chance to change them. If you signature has been used, you could start using a new one. You could sign different phrases each time, as a personal one-time key. You could invent new gesture sequences. These are really just an equivalent to passwords. You have to remember them and which one you use for which system. You don’t want a street seller using your signature to verify a tiny transaction and then risk the seller using the same signature to get right into your account.

Summary of status quo

This all brings us back to the most basic of security practice. You can only use static biometrics safely as a small part of a multi-factor system, and you have to use different dynamic biometrics such as gestures or signatures on a one time basis for each system, just as you do with passwords. At best, they provide a simple alternative to a simple password. At worst, they pair low actual security with the illusion of high security, and that is a very bad combination indeed.

So without major progress, biometrics in its conventional meaning doesn’t seem to have much of a future. If it is not much more than a novelty or a toy, and can only be used safely in conjunction with some proper security system, why bother at all?

The future

You can’t easily change your eyes or your DNA or you skin, but you can add things to your body that are similar to biometrics or interact with it but offer the flexibility and replaceability of electronics.

I have written frequently about active skin, using the skin as a platform for electronics, and I believe the various layers of it offer the best potential for security technology.

Long ago, RFID chips implants became commonplace in pets and some people even had them inserted too. RFID variants could easily be printed on a membrane and stuck onto the skin surface. They could be used for one time keys too, changing each time they are used. Adding accelerometers, magnetometers, pressure sensors or even location sensors could all offer ways of enhancing security options. Active skin allows easy combination of fingerprints with other factors.

 

Ultra-thin and uninvasive security patches could be stuck onto the skin, and could not be removed without damaging them, so would offer a potentially valuable platform. Pretty much any kinds and combinations of electronics could be used in them. They could easily be made to have a certain lifetime. Very thin ones could wash off after a few days so could be useful for theme park entry during holidays or for short term contractors. Banks could offer stick on electronic patches that change fundamentally how they work every month, making it very hard to hack them.

Active skin can go inside the skin too, not just on the surface. You could for example have an electronic circuit or an array of micro-scale magnets embedded among the skin cells in your fingertip. Your fingerprint alone could easily be copied and spoofed, but not the accompanying electronic interactivity from the active skin that can be interrogated at the same time. Active skin could measure all sorts of properties of the body too, so personal body chemistry at a particular time could be used. In fact, medical monitoring is the first key development area for active skin, so we’re likely to have a lot of body data available that could make new biometrics. The key advantage here is that skin cells are very large compared to electronic feature sizes. A decent processor or memory can be made around the size of one skin cell and many could be combined using infrared optics within the skin. Temperature or chemical gradients between inner and outer skin layers could be used to power devices too.

If you are signing something, the signature could be accompanied by a signal from the fingertip, sufficiently close to the surface being signed to be useful. A ring on a finger could also offer a voluminous security electronics platform to house any number of sensors, memory and processors.

Skin itself offers a reasonable communications route, able to carry a few Mbit’s of data stream, so touching something could allow a lot of data transfer very quickly. A smart watch or any other piece of digital jewelry or active skin security patch could use your fingertip to send an authentication sequence. The watch would know who you are by constant proximity and via its own authentication tools. It could easily be unauthorized instantly when detached or via a remote command.

Active makeup offer a novel mechanism too. Makeup will soon exist that uses particles that can change color or alignment under electronic control, potentially allowing video rate pattern changes. While that makes for fun makeup, it also allows for sophisticated visual authentication sequences using one-time keys. Makeup doesn’t have to be confined only to the face of course, and security makeup could maybe be used on the forearm or hands. Combining with static biometrics, many-factor authentication could be implemented.

I believe active skin, using membranes added or printed onto and even within the skin, together with the use of capsules, electronic jewelry, and even active makeup offers the future potential to implement extremely secure personal authentication systems. This pseudo-biometric authentication offers infinitely more flexibility and changeability than the body itself, but because it is attached to the body, offers much the same ease of use and constant presence as other biometrics.

Biometrics may be pretty useless as it is, but the field does certainly have a future. We just need to add some bits. The endless potential variety of those bits and their combinations makes the available creativity space vast.

 

 

It’s homeopathy awareness week. So be aware: it’s total nonsense

Homeopathy amazes me by the number of otherwise intelligent people that believe in it. Some others do too, such as the UK’s Minister for Health Jeremy Hunt. How he keeps such a job while advocating such beliefs is a mystery.

Homeopathy is total nonsense. Proper scientists agree that it doesn’t work. There is no reliable scientific evidence for it, and no means by which it could possibly work other than invoking a placebo effect. It supposedly relies on dilution of some agent to such a point that not a single molecule of that agent remains.

If you believe in it, try this thought experiment, or do it for real if you prefer. Either way it will be at least as effective and much cheaper than paying for homeopathic treatment: collect a small bottle of seawater next time you go to a beach, preferably not at a sewage outfall (if you don’t live near the sea, best do the thought experiment). Seawater is of course a very highly diluted solution of anything that has ever flowed into it, including waste remedies from homeopathists at the various stages of dilution, so presumably every drop of it would work for all of the possible ailments that homeopathy can be used for, except that one drop will cover all of them, so it’s far better. So add a tiny drop of the seawater to a glass of fresh water and drink it – no more than that in case your local seawater is polluted. The glass of water must have the same molecular entanglement or quantum interconnectedness or magic or whatever it is as every possible homeopathic remedy and therefore cure every possible thing that homeopathy can cure. Treatment complete. Spend your savings on something more useful. If you have a real ailment, go and see a real doctor.

The future of ‘authenticity’

I recently watched an interesting documentary on the evolution of the British coffee shop market. I then had an idea for a new chain that is so sharp it would scratch your display if I wrote it here, so I’ll keep that secret. The documentary left me with another thought: what’s so special about authentic?

I’ll blog as I think and see where I get to, if anywhere.

Starbucks and Costa sell coffee (for my American readers, Costa is a British version of Starbucks that sells better coffee but seems to agree they should pay tax just like the rest of us - yes I know Starbucks has since reformed a bit, but Costa didn’t have to). Cafe Nero (or is it just Nero?) sells coffee with the ‘Authentic Italian’ experience. I never knew that until I watched the documentary. Such things fly way over my head. If Nero is closest when I want a coffee, I’ll go in, and I know the coffee is nice, just like Costa is nice, but authentic Italian? Why the hell would I care about my coffee being authentic Italian? I don’t go anywhere to get an authentic Danish pastry or an authentic Australian beer, or an authentic Swiss cheese, or an authentic Coke. What has coffee got to do with Italy anyway? It’s a drink. I don’t care how they treat it in any particular country, even if they used to make it nicer there. The basic recipes and techniques for making a decent coffee were spread worldwide decades ago, and it’s the coffee I want. Anyway, we use a Swiss coffee machine with Swiss coffee at home, not Italian, because the Swiss learned from their Italian sub-population and then added their usual high precision materials and engineering and science, they didn’t just take it as gospel that Mama somehow knew best. And because my wife is Swiss. My razor sharp idea isn’t a Swiss coffee chain by the way.

I therefore wonder how many other people who go into Cafe Nero care tuppence whether they are getting an authentic Italian experience, or whether like me they just want a decent coffee and it seems a nice enough place. I can understand the need to get the best atmosphere, ambiance, feel, whatever you want to call it. I can certainly understand that people might want a cake or snack to go with their coffee. I just don’t understand the desire to associate with another country. Italy is fine for a visit; I have nothing against Italians, but neither do I aspire in any way to be or behave Italian.

Let’s think it through a bit. An overall experience is made up of a large number of components: quality and taste of the coffee and snacks, natural or synthetic, healthy or naughty, the staff and the nature of the service, exterior and interior decor and color scheme, mixture of aromas, range of foods, size of cake portion, ages groups and tribal ranges of other customers, comfort of furnishings, lighting levels, wireless LAN access….. There are hundreds of factors. The potential range of combinations  is massive. People can’t handle all that information when they want a coffee, so they need an easy way to decide quickly. ‘Italian’ is really just a brand, reducing the choice stress and Cafe Nero is just adopting a set of typical brand values evolved by an entire nation over centuries. I guess that makes some sense.

But not all that much sense. The Italian bit is a nice shortcut, but once it’s taken out of Italy, whatever it might be, it isn’t in Italy any more. The customers are not expected to order in Italian apart beyond a few silly words to describe the size of the coffee. The customers mostly aren’t Italian, don’t look Italian, don’t chat in Italian and don’t behave Italian. The weather isn’t Italian. The views outside aren’t Italian. The architecture isn’t Italian. So only a few bits of the overall experience can be Italian, the overall experience just isn’t. If only a few bits are authentic, why bother? Why not just extract some insights of what things about ‘Italian’ customers find desirable and then adapt them to the local market? Perhaps what they have done, so if they just drop the pretense, everything would be fine. They can’t honestly say they offer an authentic Italian experience, just a few components of such. I never noticed their supposed Italianness anyway but I hate pretentiousness so now that I understand their offering, it adds up to a slight negative for me. Now that I know they are pretending to be Italian, I will think twice before using them again, but still will if it’s more than a few metres further to another coffee shop. Really, I just want a coffee and possibly a slice of cake, in a reasonably warm and welcoming coffee shop.

Given that it is impossible to provide an ‘authentic Italian experience’ outside of Italy without also simulating every aspect of being in Italy, how authentic could they be in the future? What is the future of authenticity? Could Cafe Nero offer a genuinely Italian experience if that’s what they really wanted? Bring on VR, AR, direct brain links, sensory recording and replay. Total Recall.  Yes they could, sort of. With a full sensory full immersion system, you could deliver an experience that is real and authentic in every sense except that it isn’t real. In 2050, you could sell a seemingly genuinely authentic Italian coffee and cake in a genuinely Italian atmosphere, anywhere. But when they do that, I’ll download that onto my home coffee machine or my digital jewelry. Come to think about it, I could just drink water and eat bread and do all the rest virtually. Full authenticity, zero cost.

This Total Recall style virtual holiday or virtual coffee is fine as far as it goes, but a key problem is knowing that it isn’t real. If you disable that by hypnosis or drugs or surgery or implants or Zombie tech, then your Matrix style world will have some other issues to worry about that are more important. If you don’t, and I’m pretty sure we won’t, then knowing the difference between real and virtual will be all-important. If you know it isn’t real, it pushes a different set of buttons in your brain.

In parallel, as AI gets more and more powerful, a lot of things will be taken over by machines. That adds to the total work pool of man + machine so the economy expands and we’re all better off, if we do it right. We can even restore and improve the environment at the same time. In that world, some roles will still be occupied by humans. People will focus more on human skills, human interaction, crafts, experiences, care, arts and entertainment, sports, and especially offering love and attention. I call it the Care Economy. If you take two absolutely identical items, one provided by a machine and one by another person, the one offered by the person will be more valued, and therefore more valuable – apart from a tiny geek market that specifically wants machines. Don’t believe me? Think of the high price glassware you keep for special occasions and dinner parties. Cut by hand by an expert with years of training. Each glass is slightly different from every other. In one sense it is shoddy workmanship compared to the mass-produced glass, precision made, all identical, that costs 1% as much. The human involvement is absolutely critical. The key human involvement is that you know you couldn’t possibly do it, that it took a highly skilled craftsman. You aren’t buying just the glass, but the skills and attention and dedication and time of the craftsman. In just the same way, you will happily pay a bigger proportion of your bigger future income for other people’s time. Virtual is fine and cheap, but you’ll happily pay far more for the real thing. That will greatly offset the forces pushing towards a totally virtual experience.

This won’t happen overnight, and that brings us to another force that plays out over the same time. When we use a phrase like ‘authentic Italian’, we don’t normally put a date on it. Do we mean contemporary Italy, 1960 Italy, or what? If 1960, then we’d have to use a lot of virtual tech to simulate it. If we mean contemporary, then that includes all the virtual stuff that goes on in Italy too, which is likely pretty much what happens virtually elsewhere. A large proportion of our everyday will be virtual. How can you have authentic virtual? When half of what everyone sees every day isn’t real, you could no more have an authentic Italian coffee bar than an authentic hobbit hole in Middle Earth.

Authenticity is a term that can already only be applied to a subset of properties of a particular component. A food item or a drink could be authentic in terms of its recipe and taste, origin and means of production of the ingredients, perhaps even served by an Italian, but the authenticity of the surrounding context is doomed to be more and more limited. Does it matter though? I don’t think so.

The more I think about it, the less I care if it is in any way authentic. I want a pleasing product served by pleasant human staff in a pleasant atmosphere. I care about the various properties and attributes in an absolute sense, and I also care whether they are provided by human or machine, but the degree to which they mimic some particular tradition really doesn’t add any value for me. I am very happy to set culture free to explore the infinite potential of imagination and make an experience as enjoyable as possible.  Authenticity is just a labelled cage, and we’re better if it is unlocked. I want real pleasure, not pretend pleasure, but authenticity is increasingly becoming a pretense.

Oh, my razor sharp idea? As I said, it’s secret.

 

 

Heartbleed: a personal action plan

There is much panic today after the Heartbleed bug has been announced. All those nice sites with the padlock symbol running https where you felt safe and warm, well it turns out that some of them may have not been so safe and warm after all. Some were, but many IT advisors are recommending you change all your passwords to be safe because we don’t know for sure what was compromised.

BUT DON’T CHANGE THEM ALL YET!!

Right at the moment, a lot of sites won’t have installed the patches to fix the bug, so are still vulnerable, and you really don’t want to be typing in a new password that is being intercepted, do you?

I am not an IT advisor, but I have managed to get through 33 years of computing all day every day with only 2 viruses so far, and one of those came on the system disks with my first ever Mac in 1987 – yes really. I think my approach is fairly common sense and not too over the top.

There is a natural common sense order in which you need to do stuff. It will take you ages, so my advice is to wait a couple of days. The bug has been there a long time, so a couple days more won’t increase your risk much, but if you change everything this morning you might have to do it all over again in a few days time. If it makes you feel safer, do Step 2 now and then change your Google and Yahoo passwords

When you do:

Step 1

First, limit the amount you use the web or internet for the next day or two so that you are compromised as little as possible, as few passwords are intercepted and cookies read and password files stolen as possible.

Step 2

Meanwhile, clean your PC up a bit. Some of you will be bang up to date and will have different set of favorite tools than me, in which case, do it your way, but make sure you do it. If you are not quite so IT savvy, try my list:

Run C-Cleaner. If you don”t have it, get the free version from

http://www.piriform.com/ccleaner/download

(Advanced System Care works fine too, but in my experience you need to be extremely careful installing it to avoid getting other dross on your machine. Don’t just click next without reading what boxes are checked/unchecked and what other downloads you’re authorising. I have both but really, either works fine alone)

Basically, tick all the boxes for all the browsers to clear out all your cookies and any junk that may have been stored in your temporary files. Then do a registry clean. It isn’t related to this problem but it is good practice anyway.

Your memory, wastebasket, temporary files, and other places that can be scanned using the heartbleed bug are now clean. I recently tried using Superantispyware too, which is fine, but so far it hasn’t found anything if I have already run C Cleaner.

Now, when you do use the web before it is all patched, you’ll at least be at lower risk.

Step 3

DON’T PANIC!!!!

HT Douglas Adams.

The world probably won’t collapse before the weekend and all the competent companies will have their IT staff patching up and writing you nice emails or welcome screens to say how much they love you and protect you and that they are now ready for your new password. Well, wait a while. They may be ready, but if your browser isn’t yet ready, and especially if you’re saving your passwords using the browser, then your new password could be intercepted.

Think about it. If you are being intercepted, changing the password won’t work, the new one will be caught, so you’ll have to do it all again. If you aren’t, then you won’t know, so will still have to do it again just in case. Google and Yahoo say you don’t have to worry about their sites, and they are probably telling the truth, but I among many am not 100% convinced, and I will be changing my Google and Yahoo stuff. Soon, but not yet.

Use the time to make a list of any sites you remember visiting that have passwords, especially any with other personal details or credit card or bank details.

Step 4

On Saturday, Sunday or Monday, reserve a long session to fix your life. Make a big coffee and set yourself down for a long session.

4.1 Run system update to make sure your system is up to date with the latest fixes.

4.2 Do Step 2 again to make sure your PC is once again clean.

4.3 A full system scan for viruses and other malware wouldn’t hurt.

4.3 Reboot just for peace of mind. You will be changing everything, you want to feel you did it right.

4.4 Think up some sort of password scheme that is different from the one you used before. Use combinations of things, first letters of items or people on a list, keyboard patterns, numbers that mean something. It’s notoriously easy to guess a birth-date or a pet’s name, but hard to crack a combination of bits of several things. Everyone agrees you should use a different one for every site, but we all know you won’t. At least if you use the same root, change a leaf or two by including a letter or two from the site name, maybe shifted two letters along the alphabet or whatever. Even that helps. Be inventive.

4.5 If you use a master password file on your computer, empty it, then change its password and to make sure your new ones go in a clean and secure box.

4.6 Change your Google, Yahoo passwords and for any browsers. If they had been compromised, then anything else you did on any parts of their empires could have been. If you store passwords using the browser, the browser has to be safe before you do anything else. So you have to do them first, or anything else you do could be a waste of time.

4.7 Change your email passwords. You won’t remember all your old one so will have to get resets for some and will need your email for that. You need to be sure you’re using fresh passwords for email in case they had been stolen.

4.8 Change your Facebook, chat room any other social networking passwords. Some say they are safe, best be safer still and change them anyway to your new regime.

One by one, log on to every other site you use and change its password. Use a mixture of characters, capitals and lower case, numbers, punctuation marks (if they are allowed). Write the new password down in your little black book if you want, in a way that means something to you but nobody else.

4.9 Relax. You won’t remember all the sites you ever go to. Some, you won’t have been to for months or even years. But when you cleaned your PC, you deleted all those passwords, so at least if they weren’t already stolen, at least they won’t be stolen now. You will still face a small risk if your passwords are known for sites you don’t remember, but it is probably just a small risk, so really not worth worrying too much about.

Errones, infectious biases that corrupt thinking

I know it isn’t always obvious in some of my blogs what they have to do with the future. This one is about error tendencies, but of course making an error now affects the future, so they are relevant and in any case, there is even a future for error tendencies. A lot of the things I will talk about are getting worse, so there is a significant futures trend here too. Much of the future is determined by happenings filtered through human nature so anything that affects human nature strongly should be an important consideration in futurology. Enough justification for my human nature thinkings. On with the show.

Hormones are chemicals that tend to push the behavior of an organic process in a particular direction, including feelings and consequentially analysis. A man flooded with testosterone may be more inclined to make a more risky decision. A lot of interpersonal interactions and valuations are influenced by hormones too, to varying degrees.

In much the same way, many other forces can influence our thinking or perception and hence analysis of external stimuli such as physical facts or statistics. A good scientist or artist may learn to be more objective and to interpret what they observe with less bias, but for almost everyone, some perceptive biases remain, and after perception, many analytical biases result from learned thinking behaviors. Some of those thinking behaviors may be healthy, such as being able to consciously discount emotions to make more clinical decisions when required, or to take full account of them at other times. Others however are less healthy and introduce errors.

Error-forcing agents

There are many well-known examples of such error-forcing agents. One is the notorious halo effect that surrounds attractive women, that may lead many people to believe they are better or nicer in many other ways than women who are less attractive. Similarly, tall men are perceived to be better managers and leaders.

Another is that celebrities from every area find their opinions are valued far outside the fields where they are actually expert. Why should an actor or pop singer be any more knowledgeable or wiser than anyone else not trained in that field? Yet they are frequently asked for their opinions and listened to, perhaps at the expense of others.

When it’s a singer or actor encouraging people to help protect a rain forest, it’s pretty harmless. When they’re trying to tell us what we should eat or believe, then it can become dangerous. When it is a politician making pronouncements about which scientists we should believe on climate change, or which medicines should be made available, it can cause prolonged harm. The reason I am writing this blog now is that we are seeing a lot more of that recently – for example, politicians in many countries suddenly pretending they can speak authoritatively on which results to believe from climate science and astrophysics even when most scientists couldn’t. A few of them have some scientific understanding, but the vast majority don’t and many actually show very little competence when it comes to clear thinking even in their own jurisdictions, let alone outside.

Errones

These groups are important, because they are emitting what I will call errones, hormone-like thinking biases that lead us to make errors. Politicians get to be elected by being good at influencing people, celebs too become popular by appealing to our tastes. By overvaluing pronouncements from these groups, our thinking is biased in that direction without good reason. It is similar in effect to a hormone, in that we may not be consciously aware of it, but it influences our thinking all the same. So we may have held a reasonably well-thought-out opinion of something, and then a favored celebrity or politician makes a speech on it, and even though they have no particular expertise in the matter, our opinion changes in that direction. Our subsequent perceptions, interpretations, analyses and opinions on many other areas may subsequently be affected by the bias caused by that errone. Worse still, in our interactions with others, the errone may spread to them too. They are infectious. Similar to Richard Dawkins’ memes, which are ideas that self-perpetuate and spread through a population, errones may self-reinforce and spread organically too, but errones are not ideas like memes, but are biases in thinking more like hormones, hence the name errone.

Some general thinking errors are extremely common and we are familiar with them, but tat doesn’t stop us being affected sometimes if we don’t engage due care.

Consensus

Other errones are assembled over years of exposure to our culture. Some even have some basis in some situations, but become errones when we apply them elsewhere. Consensus is a useful concept when we apply it to things that are generally nice to eat, but it has no proper place in science and becomes an errone when cited there. As Einstein pointed out when confronted with a long list of scientists who disagreed with him, if he was wrong, even one would suffice. There was once a consensus that the Earth was flat, that there were four elements, that there was an ether, that everything was created by a god. In each case, successions of individuals challenged the consensus until eventually people were persuaded of the error.

Authority

Another well-known errone is attitude to authority. Most parents will be well familiar with the experience of their kid believing everything teacher tells them and refusing to believe them when they say the teacher is talking nonsense (in case you didn’t know, teachers are not always right about everything). In varying degrees, people believe their doctors, scientists, parents, politicians not by the quality of their actual output but by the prejudice springing from their authority. Even within a field, people with high authority can make mistakes. I was rather pleased a long time ago when I spotted a couple of mistakes in Stephen Hawking’s ‘A brief history of time’ even though he seemingly has an extra digit in his IQ. He later admitted those same errors and I was delighted. He had the best authority in the world on the subject, but still made a couple of errors. I am pleased I hadn’t just assumed he must have been right and accepted what he said.

Vested interest

Yet another errone with which you should be familiar is vested interest. People often have an ax to grind on a particular issue and it is therefore appropriate to challenge what they are saying, but it is a big error to dismiss something as wrong simply because someone has an interest in a particular outcome. A greengrocer is still telling the truth when they say that vegetables are good for you. The correct answer to 7+6 is 13 regardless of who says so. You shouldn’t listen to someone else telling you the answer is 15 who says ‘well he would say it is 13 wouldn’t he…’

These common errors in thinking are well documented, but we still make new ones.

Word association errones

Some errones can be summed up in single words. For example ‘natural’, ‘organic’, ‘synthetic’, ‘fair’, ‘progressive’, ‘right’, ‘left’ are all words we hear every day that activate a range of prejudicial processes that color our processing of any subsequent inputs. Arsenic is natural, foxgloves are natural, so is uranium. That doesn’t necessarily make them good things to eat. Not every idea from the right or left of politics is good or bad. Stupidity exists across the political spectrum, while even the extremes have occasional good ideas. But errones cause us to apply filters and make judgments that bad ideas or things are good or that good ideas or things are bad, merely because of their origin. This errone is traditionally known as ‘tarring everything with the same brush’ just because they fall in the same broad category.

Deliberate errone creation

In my view, single word errones are the most dangerous, and we add to the list occasionally. The currently fashionable word ‘Self-proclaimed’ (yeah, OK, it’s hyphenated) is intended to suggest that someone has no genuine right to a platform and therefore should be ignored. It is as much an insult as calling someone an idiot, but is more malign because it seeks to undermine not just a single statement or argument, but everything that person says. Political correctness is very rich with such words. People mostly think using words, so coloring their meaning gradually over time means that people will still think the same way using the same verbal reasoning, but since the meaning of the words they are using has changed slightly, they will end up with a result that sounds the same as it used to, but now means something quite different.

For example, we’ve seen exactly that happen over the last decade by the redefining of poverty to be having an income below a percentage of average income rather than the traditional definition of being unable to afford basic essentials. People still retain the same emotional connection to the words poor and poverty, and are still shocked as politicians cite ever worsening statistics of the numbers of people in poverty even as society gets wealthier. Under its new meaning, if everyone’s income increased 1000-fold overnight, exactly the same number of people would remain ‘in poverty’, even though they could now all afford to live in luxury. People wanting to talk about poverty in its original meaning now have to use different language. The original words have been captured as political weapons. This errone was created and spread very deliberately and has had exactly the effect desired. People now have the same attitude to low income as they once held to poor.

All very 1984

Capturing language and fencing off entire areas of potential thought by labelling them is a proven excellent technique for furthering a cause. It is of course the basis of Orwell’s 1984, by which the authorities enslave a population by enforcing a particular group-think, with words as their primary tool, and understanding of the techniques has been much practiced around the world. Orwell wrote his book to highlight the problem, but it hasn’t gone away, but rather got worse. Increasing understanding of human psychology and use of advanced marketing techniques have only added to its power and effectiveness. In absolutely 1984 style, ‘progressive’ sounds very loving and positive and ‘regressive’ very nasty and negative, but how has it come that we describe alternative tax policies in such terms? Tax is rightfully an issue for political parties to debate and decide, but surely democratic politics is there to allow people a mechanism to live alongside peacefully in mutual tolerance and respect, not for each side to treat the other as inferiors who should be scorned and ostracized. However, infection biases someone’s thinking and is therefore error forcing, and an errone.

Similarly, ‘traditional’ was once a word we used to describe normal or slightly old-fashioned views, but political correctness seeks to quickly replace traditional values by using descriptors such as ‘dinosaur’, ‘bigoted’, ‘prejudiced’ for anyone who doesn’t follow their line. Most people are terrified of being labelled as such so will quickly fall in line with whatever the current demands for politically correct compliance are. Once someone does so, they adjust the external presentation of their own thinking to make the new status quo more acceptable to them, and seek to authenticate and justify themselves to others by proselytizing the errone, self censoring and controlling their own thinking according to the proscribed filters and value set. They basically accept the errone, build it into place and nurture it. Memes are powerful. Errones are worse because they get far deeper into places mere ideas can’t.

Thanks to the deliberate infection with such errones, it is no longer possible to hold a discussion or even to state statistical facts across a wide range of topics without demonstrating a me-too bias. If analysis and debate can no longer be done without deliberate introduction of systemic error,  when error is not seen as a problem but as a requirement, then I suggest we are in trouble. We should be able to agree at least on basic facts, and then argue what to do about them, but even facts now are heavily filtered and distorted at numerous stages before we are allowed access to them.

Old wives’ tales (no age or gender-related slur intended)

Not all errones are related to this kind of tribal-cultural-political warfare and deliberately fabricated and spread. Some are commonly held assumptions that are wrong, such as old wives’ tales or because people are not very good at thinking about exponential or non-linear systems. Take an example. Most environmentalists agree that rapid IT obsolescence is a big problem, resulting in massive waste and causing far more environmental impact than would be necessary if we just made things last longer. However, each generation of IT uses far less resource than the one it replaces, and in a few more generations of devices, we’ll be able to do all we do today in just a few grams of device. With far more people in the world wealthy enough and wanting all that function, doing it with today’s technology would have huge environmental impact, but with tomorrow’s, very much less. Thus slowing down the obsolescence cycle would have dire environmental consequences. The best way to help the environment is to progress quickly to ultra-low-impact IT. Similar errors exist across environmental policy world-wide, and the cause is the simple errone that reducing the impact of any part of a system will reduce the full system impact. That is very often incorrect. This same environmental errone has caused massive environmental and human damage already and will cause far more before it is done, by combining enthusiasm to act with what is now very commonly held analytical error.

Linear thinking

The Errone of linear thinking probably results from constant exposure to it in others, making it hard to avoid infection. Typical consequences are inability to take correctly account for future technology or future wealth, also typically assuming that everything except the problem you’re considering will remain the same, while your problem increases. A  related errone is not allowing for the fact that exponential growths generally only happen for a limited time, followed by eventual leveling off or even decline, especially when related to human systems such as population, obesity, debt etc. Many stories of doom are based on the assumption that some current exponential growth such as population or resource use will continue forever, which is nonsense, but the errone seems to have found some niches where it retains viability.

Errone communication

Errones spread through a population simply via exposure, using any medium. Watching an innocent TV program, reading a newspaper article or hearing a remark in a pub are all typical ways they spread. Just as some diseases can reduce resistance to other diseases, some errones such as the celebrity halo effect can lead to easier infection by others. People are far more likely to be infected by an errone from their favorite celebrity than a stranger. If you see them making an error in their reasoning but making it sound plausible because they believe it, there is a good chance you may be infected by it and also help to spread it. Also, like diseases, people have varying vulnerability to different types of errones.

Being smart won’t make you immune

Intelligence isn’t necessarily a defense and may even be essential to create vulnerability. Someone who is highly intelligent may actually be more susceptible to errones that are packaged in elaborate intellectual coatings, that may be useless for infecting less intelligent people who might just ignore them. A sophisticated economic errone may only be able to infect people with a high level of expertise in economics, since nobody else would understand it, but may nevertheless still be an errone, still wrong thinking. Similarly, some of the fine political theories across every point on the spectrum might be mind-numbingly dull to most people and therefore pass over with no effect, but may take root and flourish in certain political elites. Obviously lots of types of social and special interest groups have greater exposure and vulnerability to certain types of errones. There may well be some errones connected with basketball strategies but they can’t have an effect on me since I have zero knowledge of or interest in the game, and never have had any, so the basic platform for them to operate doesn’t exist in my brain.

Errones may interact with each other. Some may act as a platform for others, or fertilize them, or create a vulnerability or transmission path, or they may even be nested. It is possible to have an entire field of knowledge that is worse than useless and yet still riddled with errors. For example, someone may make some errone-type statistical errors when analyzing the effects of a homeopathic treatment. The fact that a whole field is nonsensical does not make it immune from extra errors within.

Perceptual errones are built into our brains too – some of which are part pre-programmed and part infectious. There are many well-known optical illusions that affect almost everyone. The mechanics of perception introduce the error, and that error may feed into other areas such as decision making. I suffer from vertigo, and even a simple picture of a large drop is quite enough to fool my brain into a fear reaction even though there is obviously no danger present. This phobia may not be part genetic and part infectious, and other phobias can be certainly be communicated, such as fear of spiders or snakes.

Group-think related errones

A very different class of errone is the collective one, closely related to group-think. The problem of ‘designed by committee’ is well known. A group of very smart people can collectively make really dumb decisions. There are many possible reasons and not all are errone-related. Agreeing with the boss or not challenging the idiot loud-mouth can both get bad results with no need for errones. Groupthink is where most people in the room shares the same prejudice, and that can often be an errone. If other people that you respect think something, you may just accept and adopt that view without thinking it through. If it is incorrect, or worse, if it is correct but only applies in certain conditions, and you don’t know that, or don’t know the conditions, then it can lead to later errors.

I once sat through an electronics lecture explaining why it was impossible to ever get more than 2.4kbit/s second through a copper telephone wire and no matter what happened, we never would, and you can’t change the laws of physics. That’s hard to believe today when ADSL easily delivers over 4Mbit/s to my home down the same copper wire. The physics wasn’t wrong, it just only applied to certain ways of doing things, and that lecturer obviously hadn’t understood that and thought it was a fundamental limit that would block any technique. I could use a similar excuse to explain why I failed a thermodynamics exam on my first attempt. It just seemed obviously wrong to me that you couldn’t get any energy from the waste heat from a power station. Our lecturer had delivered the correct thermodynamic equations for the first stage of a heat engine and then incorrectly left us knowing that that was it, and no additional heat could be used however clever anyone might be. I couldn’t see how that could possibly be right and that confusion remained for months afterwards until I finally saw it explained properly. Meanwhile, I was vulnerable to errors caused by knowing something that was wrong, that had been communicated to me by a poor lecturer. Well, that’s my side, but I have to admit it is theoretically possible that maybe I just didn’t listen properly. Either way, it’s still an errone.

Why I am mentioning this one in a group-think section is because misunderstandings and misapplications of thermodynamics have permeated large populations withing the climate change discussion community. Whichever side you are on, you will be familiar with some errors that affect the other lot, probably less so with the errones that you have been infected with. Just like me I guess.

On a larger scale, entire nations can be affected by errones. We don’t think of patriotism as an error, although it clearly affects our value judgments, but patriotism is just one aspect of our bias towards communities close to where we live. Whereas patriotism starts as a benign loyalty to your country, extending that loyalty into a belief in superiority is certainly a very common errone, thinking that anything and everyone in other countries must be less good than what you have close to home. The opposite exists too. In some countries, people assume that anything from abroad must be better. Of course, in some countries, they’re right.

The huge impacts of errones

Errones can be extremely expensive too. The banking crisis was caused in good measure by a widespread errone connected with valuation of complex derivatives. Once that happened, a different errone affected the rest of the population. Even though the bank crash was costly, it only directly accounted for a tiny fraction of the overall global economic crash. The rest was caused by a crisis of confidence, a confidence errone if you like. The economy had been sound, so there was absolutely no reason for any collapse, but once the errone that a recession was coming took hold, it became strongly self-fulfilling. Everyone shut their wallets, started being unduly careful with their spending and economies crashed. Those of us who challenged that assumption at the time were too few and too influential to prevent it. So errones can be an enormous problem.

Elsewhere economic errones are common. Housing bubbles, the web bubble, tulip bubbles, we don’t ever seem to learn and the bubble errone mutates and reappears again and again like flu viruses. Investment errones are pretty ubiquitous, even at government level. The UK created what is commonly known now as The Concorde Fallacy, an errone that makes people more inclined to throw money down the drain on a project if they already have spent a lot on it.

Still other errones affect people in their choice of where to live. People often discount liability to earthquakes, volcanoes,  hurricanes, tsuanmis and floods if they haven’t happened for a long time. When probability finally catches up, they are caught unprepared and often looking for someone to blame. The normality of everyday life quickly builds up into experience that pervades thinking and hides away thoughts of disaster. In stark contrast, other people fall easy prey to stories of doom and gloom, because they have been infected with errones that make them seem more dangerous or likely than in reality.

Health errones are an obvious problem. Scientists and nutritionists change advice on what to eat and drink from time to time as new research brings results, but the news of change in advice is not always accepted. Many people will not hear the news, others will not accept it because they are sick of changing advice from scientists, others will just hear and ignore it. The result is that outdated advice, sometimes wrong advice, can persist and continue to spread long after it has been proven wrong. What was once considered good advice essentially mutates into an errone. The current fat v sugar debate will be interesting to follow in this regard, since it will have ongoing effects throughout the entire food, sports, entertainment and leisure industries. We can be certain that some of the things we currently strongly believe are actually errones that lead to errors in many areas of our lives.

Looking at transport, everyone knows it is safer to fly than drive, but actually those stats only work for long trips. If you only want to travel 5km, it is safer to drive than to fly. 50km starts to favor flying and more than that certainly sees flying being safest. That errone probably has an immeasurably small impact in consequentially wrong decisions, but has managed to spread very successfully.

I could go on – there are a lot of errones around, and we keep making more of them. But enough for now.

WMDs for mad AIs

We think sometimes about mad scientists and what they might do. It’s fun, makes nice films occasionally, and highlights threats years before they become feasible. That then allows scientists and engineers to think through how they might defend against such scenarios, hopefully making sure they don’t happen.

You’ll be aware that a lot more talk of AI is going on again now. It does seem to be picking up progress finally. If it succeeds well enough, a lot more future science and engineering will be done by AI than by people. If genuinely conscious, self-aware AI, with proper emotions etc becomes feasible, as I think it will, then we really ought to think about what happens when it goes wrong. (Sci-fi computer games producers already do think that stuff through sometimes – my personal favorite is Mass Effect). We will one day have some insane AIs. In Mass Effect, the concept of AI being shackled is embedded in the culture, thereby attempting to limit the damage it could presumably do. On the other hand, we have had Asimov’s laws of robotics for decades, but they are sometimes being ignored when it comes to making autonomous defense systems. That doesn’t bode well. So, assuming that Mass Effect’s writers don’t get to be in charge of the world, and instead we have ideological descendants of our current leaders, what sort of things could an advanced AI do in terms of its chosen weaponry?

Advanced AI

An ultra-powerful AI is a potential threat in itself. There is no reason to expect that an advanced AI will be malign, but there is also no reason to assume it won’t be. High level AI could have at least the range of personality that we associate with people, with a potentially greater  range of emotions or motivations, so we’d have the super-helpful smart scientist type AIs but also perhaps the evil super-villain and terrorist ones.

An AI doesn’t have to intend harm to be harmful. If it wants to do something and we are in the way, even if it has no malicious intent, we could still become casualties, like ants on a building site.

I have often blogged about achieving conscious computers using techniques such as gel computing and how we could end up in a terminator scenario, favored by sci-fi. This could be deliberate act of innocent research, military development or terrorism.

Terminator scenarios are diverse but often rely on AI taking control of human weapons systems. I won’t major on that here because that threat has already been analysed in-depth by many people.

Conscious botnets could arrive by accident too – a student prank harnessing millions of bots even with an inefficient algorithm might gain enough power to achieve high level of AI. 

Smart bacteriaBacterial DNA could be modified so that bacteria can make electronics inside their cell, and power it. Linking to other bacteria, massive AI could be achieved.

Zombies

Adding the ability to enter a human nervous system or disrupt or capture control of a human brain could enable enslavement, giving us zombies. Having been enslaved, zombies could easily be linked across the net. The zombie films we watch tend to miss this feature. Zombies in films and games tend to move in herds, but not generally under control or in a much coordinated way. We should assume that real ones will be full networked, liable to remote control, and able to share sensory systems. They’d be rather smarter and more capable than what we’re generally used to. Shooting them in the head might not work so well as people expect either, as their nervous systems don’t really need a local controller, and could just as easily be controlled by a collective intelligence, though blood loss would eventually cause them to die. To stop a herd of real zombies, you’d basically have to dismember them. More Dead Space than Dawn of the Dead.

Zombie viruses could be made other ways too. It isn’t necessary to use smart bacteria. Genetic modification of viruses, or a suspension of nanoparticles are traditional favorites because they could work. Sadly, we are likely to see zombies result from deliberate human acts, likely this century.

From Zombies, it is a short hop to full evolution of the Borg from Star Trek, along with emergence of characters from computer games to take over the zombified bodies.

Terraforming

Using strong external AI to make collective adaptability so that smart bacteria can colonize many niches, bacterial-based AI or AI using bacteria could engage in terraforming. Attacking many niches that are important to humans or other life would be very destructive. Terraforming a planet you live on is not generally a good idea, but if an organism can inhabit land, sea or air and even space, there is plenty of scope to avoid self destruction. Fighting bacteria engaged on such a pursuit might be hard. Smart bacteria could spread immunity to toxins or biological threats almost instantly through a population.

Correlated traffic

Information waves and other correlated traffic, network resonance attacks are another way of using networks to collapse economies by taking advantage of the physical properties of the links and protocols rather than using more traditional viruses or denial or service attacks. AIs using smart dust or bacteria could launch signals in perfect coordination from any points on any networks simultaneously. This could push any network into resonant overloads that would likely crash them, and certainly act to deprive other traffic of bandwidth.

Decryption

Conscious botnets could be used to make decryption engines to wreck security and finance systems. Imagine how much more so a worldwide collection of trillions of AI-harnessed organisms or devices. Invisibly small smart dust and networked bacteria could also pick up most signals well before they are encrypted anyway, since they could be resident on keyboards or the components and wires within. They could even pick up electrical signals from a person’s scalp and engage in thought recognition, intercepting passwords well before a person’s fingers even move to type them.

Space guns

Solar wind deflector guns are feasible, ionizing some of the ionosphere to make a reflective surface to deflect some of the incoming solar wind to make an even bigger reflector, then again, thus ending up with an ionospheric lens or reflector that can steer perhaps 1% of the solar wind onto a city. That could generate a high enough energy density to ignite and even melt a large area of city within minutes.

This wouldn’t be as easy as using space based solar farms, and using energy direction from them. Space solar is being seriously considered but it presents an extremely attractive target for capture because of its potential as a directed energy weapon. Their intended use is to use microwave beams directed to rectenna arrays on the ground, but it would take good design to prevent a takeover possibility.

Drone armies

Drones are already becoming common at an alarming rate, and the sizes of drones are increasing in range from large insects to medium sized planes. The next generation is likely to include permanently airborne drones and swarms of insect-sized drones. The swarms offer interesting potential for WMDs. They can be dispersed and come together on command, making them hard to attack most of the time.

Individual insect-sized drones could build up an electrical charge by a wide variety of means, and could collectively attack individuals, electrocuting or disabling them, as well as overload or short-circuit electrical appliances.

Larger drones such as the ones I discussed in

http://carbonweapons.com/2013/06/27/free-floating-combat-drones/ would be capable of much greater damage, and collectively, virtually indestructible since each can be broken to pieces by an attack and automatically reassembled without losing capability using self organisation principles. A mixture of large and small drones, possibly also using bacteria and smart dust, could present an extremely formidable coordinated attack.

I also recently blogged about the storm router

http://carbonweapons.com/2014/03/17/stormrouter-making-wmds-from-hurricanes-or-thunderstorms/ that would harness hurricanes, tornados or electrical storms and divert their energy onto chosen targets.

In my Space Anchor novel, my superheroes have to fight against a formidable AI army that appears as just a global collection of tiny clouds. They do some of the things I highlighted above and come close to threatening human existence. It’s a fun story but it is based on potential engineering.

Well, I think that’s enough threats to worry about for today. Maybe given the timing of release, you’re expecting me to hint that this is an April Fool blog. Not this time. All these threats are feasible.

Sustainable capitalism – Ending exploitation

This blog is an extract from my book Total Sustainability. Just over 10k words

Sustainable capitalism

To see what needs adjusted and how to go about doing it, let’s first consider some of the systems that make people wealthy. With global change accelerating, in this period of global upheaval, the rise of new powers and decline of old ones, we have an opportunity to rethink it and perhaps make it better, or perhaps countries new to capitalism will make their own way and we will follow. If it is failing, it is time to look for ways to fix it or to change direction.

Some things are very difficult and need really smart people, but we don’t have very many of them. But as heavily globalised systems become more and more complex, the scope for very smart people to gain control of power and resources increases. Think about it for a moment. How many people do you know who could explain how big businesses manage to avoid paying tax in spite of making big profits beyond the first two words that everyone knows – tax haven? The money goes somewhere, but not on tax. This is one of the big topics being discussed now among the world’s top nations. No laws are being broken, it is simply that universally sluggish and incompetent governments have been outwitted again and again by smart individuals.

They should have had tax systems in place long ago to cope with globalisation, but they still haven’t. Representatives of those governments talk a lot about clampdowns, but nobody really expects that big business won’t stay at least 5 steps ahead. Consequently, money and power is concentrating at the top more than ever.

The contest between greedy and relatively smart business people and well-meaning but dumber (strictly relative terms here) politicians and regulators often ends with taxpayers being fleeced. Hence the banking crisis, where the vast wealth greedily that was accumulated by bankers over numerous gambling wins was somehow kept when they lost, with us having to pay the losses without ever benefiting from the wins, with the final farcically generous pay-offs to those who failed so miserably. The same could be said of some privatisations and probably most government contracts. It was noted thousands of years ago that a fool and his money are easily parted. The problem with democracy is that fools are often the ones elected. The people in government that aren’t fools are often there to benefit their own interests and later found with their fingers in the cake. Some of our leaders and regulators are honourable and smart enough to make decent decisions, but too small a fraction to make us safe from severe abuse.

We need to fix this problem and many other related if we are to achieve any form of sustainability in our capitalist world.

The undeserving rich

Magistrates in Britain once had a duty to distinguish between the deserving poor, who were poor through no fault of their own, and the undeserving poor, who were simply idle. The former would get hand-outs while they needed them, the idle would get a kick in the pants and told to go and sort themselves out. This attitude later disappeared from the welfare system, but the idea remains commonly held and recently, some emerging policies echo its sentiment to some degree.

Looking at the other end of the spectrum, there are the deserving and undeserving rich. Some people worked hard to get their cash and deserve every penny, some worked less hard in highly overpaid jobs. Some inherited it from parents or ancestors even further back, and maybe they worked hard for it. Some stole it from others by thievery, trickery, or military conquest. Some got it by marrying someone. Some won it, some were compensated. There are lots of ways of getting rich. Money is worth the same wherever it comes from but we hold different attitudes to the rich depending on how they got their money.

Most of us don’t think there is anything wrong with being rich, nor in trying to become so. There are examples of people doing well not just for themselves and their families and friends, but also benefiting their entire host community. Only jealousy could motivate any resentment of their wealth. But the system should be designed so that one person shouldn’t be able to become rich at the cost of other people’s misery. At the moment, in many countries, some people are gaining great wealth effectively by exploiting the poor. Few of us consider that to be admirable or desirable. It would be better if people could only become rich by doing well in a system that also protects other people. Let’s look at some of the problems with today’s capitalism.

Corruption

Corruption has to be one of the biggest problems in the world today. It has many facets, and some are so familiar in everyday life that we don’t even think of them as corruption any more.

As well as blatant corruption, most of us would also include rule bending and loophole-seeking in the corruption category. Squeezing every last millimetre when bending the law may keep it just about legal, but it doesn’t make behaviour creditable. When we see politicians bending rules and then using their political persuasiveness to argue that it is somehow OK for them, most of us feel a degree of natural revulsion. The same goes for big companies. It may be legal to avoid tax by using expensive lawyers to find holes in taxation systems and clever accountants to exploit them, re-labelling or moving money via a certain route to reduce the taxes required by law, but that doesn’t make it ethical. Even though it is technically on the right side of legal, I’d personally put a lot of corporate tax avoidance in the corruption category when it seeks to exploit loopholes that were never part of what the tax law intended.

Then of course it is possible to break the law and bribe your way out of trouble, or to lobby corruptible lawmakers to include a loophole that you want to exploit, or to make a contribution to party funds in order to increase the likelihood of getting a big contract later.

Lobbying can easily become thinly veiled bribery – nice dinners or tickets or promised social favours, but often manifests as well-paid clever chitchat, to get an MP to help push the law in the general direction you favour. Maybe it isn’t technically corrupt, but it certainly isn’t true to the basic principles of democracy either. Lobbying distorts the presentation, interpretation and implementation of the intentions of the voting community so it corrupts democracy.

So although there are degrees of corruption, they all have one thing in common – using positions of power or buy influence to tilt the playing field to gain advantage.

Exploitation

Once someone starts bending the rules, it affects other behaviour. If someone is happy exploiting the full flexibility of the letter of the law with little regard for others, they are also likely to be liable to engage in other ways of actively exploiting other people, in asset stripping, or debt concealing, or in how they negotiate and take advantage, or how they make people redundant because a machine is cheaper. It is often easy to spot such behaviour, wrapped with excuses such as ‘Companies aren’t charities, they exist to make money’, and ‘business is business’. There are plenty of expressions that the less noble business people use to excuse bad behaviour and pretend it is somehow OK. There are degrees of badness of course. For some companies, some run by people hailed as business heroes, anything goes as long as it is legal or if the process of law can be diverted long enough to make it worthwhile ignoring it. While ‘legal’ depends on the size and quality of your legal team, there is gain to be made by stretching the law. It can even pay to blatantly disobey the law, if you can stretch the court process out enough so that you can use some of the profits gained to pay the fines, and keep the rest. So corruption isn’t the only problem. Exploitation is its ugly sister and we see a lot of big companies and rich people doing it.

The price of bad behaviour and loose values

A common problem here is that we don’t assign financial value to honourable behaviour, community or national well-being, honesty, integrity, fairness or staff morale. So these can safely be ignored in the pursuit of profit. Business is justified in this approach perhaps, because we don’t assign value to them. If a company exists to make profit, measured purely financially, those other factors don’t appear on the bottom line, so there is no reason to behave any better. In fact, they cost money, so a ruthless board can make more money by behaving badly. That is one thing that could and should change if we want a sustainable form of capitalism. If we as a society want businesses to run more ethically, then we have to make the system in such a way that ethical behaviour is rewarded. If we don’t explicitly recognise particular value sets, then businesses are really under no obligation to behave in any particular way. As it is, I would argue that society has value sets that are on something of a random walk. There is no fixed reference point, and values can flip completely in just a few decades. That is hardly a stable platform on which to build anything.

Hardening of attitudes to welfare abuse

 

There is growing resentment right across the political spectrum against those taking welfare who won’t do enough to try to look after themselves but expect to receive hand-outs while others are having to work hard to make ends meet. At the same time, resentment is deepening against the rich who use loopholes in the law to find technically legal but morally dubious tax avoidance schemes. What these have in common is that they exploit others. There is a rich variety of ways in which people exploit others, some that we are so used to we don’t even notice any more. This is important in helping to determine what may happen in the future.

The few have always exploited the many

 

A while ago, I had a short break visiting the Cotswolds (a chocolate-box picture area of England). We saw a huge Roman villa, fantastic mosaics in the Roman museum in Cirencester, and a couple of stately homes. Then we went to Portugal where we saw the very ornate but rather tasteless Palace of Penna. It made me realise just how much better off we are today, when thanks to technology development, even a modest income buys vastly superior functionality and comfort than even royalty used to have to put up with.

I used to enjoy seeing such things, but the last few years I have found them increasingly disturbing. I still find them interesting to look at, but now they make me angry, as monuments to the ability of the few to exploit the efforts of the many for their own gain. So while admiring the landscape architecture of Lancelot (Capability) Brown, and the Roman mosaics, I felt sorry for the many people who had little or no choice but to do all the work for relatively little reward. I felt especially sorry for the people who built the Palace of Penna, where an obviously enormous amount of hard work and genuine talent has been spent on something that ended up as hideously ugly. Even if the artists and workmen were paid a good wage, their abilities could probably still have been put to much more constructive use.

But we don’t want equality of poverty

 

I strongly believe that we overvalue capital compared to knowledge, talent and effort, resulting in too high a proportion of wealth going to capital owners. Capitalism sometimes saps too many of the rewards of effort away from those who earn them. However, few people would argue for a system where everyone is poorer just so that we can have equality, as happened in communism, and as would be the result if some current socialists got their ways. The system should be fair to everyone, but if we are to prosper as a society, it also needs to incentivise the production of wealth.

Exploitation of society by the lazy and greedy

 

That of course brings us to the abuse at the other end, with some people who are perfectly able to work drawing state benefits instead (or indeed as well as wages from work) and thereby putting unjust extra load on the welfare system. This of course acts as a major drain on hard working people too and reduces the rewards of effort. Those who work hard may thus see their money disappearing at both ends, possibly taken by exploitative employers and certainly taken by the state to give to others. Exploitation is still exploitation whether it is by the privileged or the lazy. We all want the welfare system, because another powerful force in human nature is to care for others, and we instinctively want to help those who can’t help themselves. But that doesn’t mean we want to be taken advantage of.

Rewarding effort is essential for a healthy economy

As a general principle, extra effort or skill or risk or investment should reap extra reward. If there is too little incentive to do put in more work or investment, human nature dictates that most people won’t do it. The same goes for leading others or building companies and employing others. If you don’t get extra reward from enabling or leading other people to create more, you probably won’t bother doing that either. Very many communes have started up with idealism and failed for this reason.

In both of these cases, a few nice people will do more, even without financial incentive, simply because it makes them feel good to work hard or help others, but most won’t, or will start doing so and quickly give up when appreciation runs dry or they become frustrated by the laziness of others.

While effort and investment and skill and leadership must all be rewarded to make a healthy economy, it is a natural and fair consequence of rewarding these that some people will become richer than others, and if they help many other people also to do more, they may become quite a lot richer than others.

‘To each according to their effort’ is a fundamentally better approach than ‘from each according to their ability and to each according to their need’ as preached by communists – it is simply more in tune with human nature. It makes more people do more, so we all prosper. Trying to level the playing field by redistributing wealth too much deters effort and ultimately makes everyone worse off. A reasonable gap between rich and poor is both necessary and fair.

But we shouldn’t let people demand too much of the rewards

 

However, an extreme gap indicates that there is exploitation, that some people are keeping rather too much of the reward from the efforts of others. As always, we need to find the right balance. Greed does seem to be one of the powerful forces in human nature, and if opportunity exists for someone to take more for themselves at the expense of others, some will. I don’t believe we should try to change human nature, but I do believe we should try to defend the weak against exploitation by the greedy. Some studies have shown a correlation between social inequality and social problems of crime, poor education and so on. That doesn’t prove causality of course, but it does seem reasonable to infer causality in any case here.

In some large companies, top managers seem to run the company as if it were their own, allocating huge rewards for themselves at the expense of both customers and shareholders’ interests. Such abuse of position is widespread across the economy today, but it will inevitably have to be reined back over time in spite of fierce resistance from the beneficiaries.

The power of public pressure via shame should not be underestimated, even though some seem conspicuously immune to it. Where the abusers still decide to abuse, power will come either by shareholders disposing of abusers, or regulators giving shareholders better power to over-rule where there is abuse, as is already starting to happen, or by direct pay caps for public sector chiefs. The situation at the moment gives too much power to managers and shareholders need to be given back the rights to control their own companies more fully.

Reducing market friction

 

There are many opportunities to exploit others, and always some who will try to take the fullest advantage. We can’t ever make everyone nice, but at least we can make exploitation more difficult. Part of the problem is social structure and governance of course, but part is also market imperfection. While social structure only changes slowly, and government is doomed to suffer the underlying problems associated with democracy, we can almost certainly do something about the market using better technology. So let’s look at the market for areas to tweak.

Strength of position

 

Kings or slave owners may have been able to force subjects to work, but a modern employer theoretically has to offer competitive terms and conditions to get someone to work, and people are theoretically free to sell their efforts, or not.

Then the theory becomes more complex and the playing field starts to tilt. People have to live, and they have to support their dependants. Not everyone is born with the intellectual gifts or social privileges that enable them to be entrepreneurs or high-earning professionals who can pick and choose their work and set their own prices. If someone can’t sell their efforts directly to a customer, they may have to accept whatever terms and conditions are available from a local employer or trader.

Location makes traders powerful

 

In fact, most people have to look and see what jobs there are locally and have to apply for one of them because they need the money, and can’t travel far, so they are in a very poor bargaining position. By contrast, capital providers and leaders and entrepreneurs and traders have always been in an excellent position to exploit this. In a town with high unemployment, or low wages, or indeed, throughout a poor country, potential employees will settle for the local wage rate for that kind of work, but that may differ hugely from the rate for similar work elsewhere.

The laws of supply and demand apply, but the locations of supply and demand need not be the same, and where they aren’t, traders are the ones who benefit, not those doing the work. Traders have existed and prospered for millennia and have often become very wealthy by exploiting the difference in labour costs and produce prices around the world.

Manufacturers can play the same geography game

 

Now with increasing globalisation, those with good logistics available to them can use these differences in manufacturing too, using cheap labour in one place to produce goods that can be sold for high prices in other places. Is it only the margins and the balance of bargaining power that determines whether this exploitation is fair or not, or is it also the availability of access to markets? What is a fair margin? How much of the profit should we allow traders or manufacturers to keep? If not enough, and markets are not free and lubricated enough, potential producers may stay idle and be even poorer because they can’t sell their efforts. If too much, someone else is getting rich at their expense.

Making access to free global markets easier and better will help

 

We need to create a system where people on both sides are empowered to ensure a fair deal. At the moment, it is tilted very heavily in favour of the trader, selling the product of cheap labour in expensive markets. When someone has no choice but to take what’s going, they are weak and vulnerable. If they can sell into a bigger market, they become stronger.

If everyone everywhere can see your produce and can get it delivered, then prices will tend to become fairer. There is still need for distributors, and they will still need paid, but distributors are just suppliers of a service in a competitive market too, and with a free choice of customer and supplier at every stage, all parties can negotiate to get a deal they are all content with, where no-one is at an a priori disadvantage.

It may still work out cheaper to buy from a great distance, but at least each party has agreed acceptable terms on a relatively level playing field. The web has already gone some way to improving market visibility but it is still difficult for many people to access the web with reasonable speed and security, and many more don’t understand how to do things like making websites, especially ones that have commerce functions.

If we can make better free access to markets, then unfair exploitation should become less of a problem, because it will be easier for people to sell their effort direct to an end customer, but it will have to become a lot easier to display your goods on the web for all to see without undue risk. Making the web easier to use and automating as much as possible of the security and administration should help a lot. This is happening quite quickly, but it needs time.

Import levies can reduce the incentive to exploit low wage workers

 

Levies can be added to imported goods so that someone can’t use cheap labour in one area to compete with the equivalent product made in the other. This is well tried and operates frequently where manufacturers pressure their governments to protect them from overseas competition that they see as unfair. However, it is usually aimed at protecting the richer employees from cheap competition rather than trying to increase wages for those being exploited in low wage economies. So it is far from ideal. Better a tool that allows pressure to increase the proportion of proceeds that go to the workers.

Peer pressure via transparency of margins

 

Another is to provide transparency in price attribution. If customers can see how much of the purchase price is going to each of the agents involved in its production and distribution chain, then pressure increases to pay a decent wage to the workers who actually make it, and less to those who merely sell it. Just like greed and caring, shame is another powerful emotion in the suite of human nature, and people will generally be more honest and fair if they know others can see what they are doing.

However, I do not expect this would work very well in practice, since most customers don’t care enough to get ethically involved in every purchase, and the further away and more socially distant the workers are, the less customers care. And if the person needing shamed is thousands of miles away, the peer pressure is non-existent. Yet again, location is important.

Transparency to the workforce

 

In economies across the developed world, typically about half of the profits of someone’s ‘job’ go to the person doing it and the other half goes to the owners of the company employing them. Transparency helps customers decide on supplier, but also helps employees to decide whether to work for a particular employer. They should of course be made fully aware of how they will be rewarded but also how much of their efforts will reward others. In a good company, the chiefs may be able to generate greater rewards for both staff and shareholders (and themselves), but as long as the details are all available, a free and informed choice can be made.

The community can generate its own businesses

 

In a well automated web environment, some company types would no longer be needed. Companies are often top down designs, with departments and employee structures that are populated by staff. The reverse is increasingly feasible, with groups of freelancers and small businesses using the web to find each other, and working loosely together as virtual companies to address the same markets the traditional company once did. But instead of giving half of the profits to a company owner, they reap the full rewards and share it between them. The administrative functions once done by the company are largely off-the-shelf and cheap. The few essential professional functions that the company provided can also be found as independents in the same marketplace. Virtual companies are the 21st century co-operative. The employees own the company and keep all the profits. Not surprisingly, many people have already left big companies to set up on their own as freelancers and small businesses.

Unfortunately, this model can’t work everywhere. Sometimes, a large factory or large capital investment is needed. This favours the rich and powerful and large companies, but there is again a new model that will start to come into play.

Investors don’t have to be wealthy individuals or big companies. They can also be communities. In a period where banks have become extremely unpopular, community banking will become very appealing once it is demonstrated to work. Building societies will make a comeback, but even they are more organised than is strictly necessary in a mature web age.

Linking people in a community with some savings to others who need to borrow it to make a business will become easier as social and business networking develops the trust based communities needed to make this feasible. Trust is essential, but it is often based on social knowledge, and recommendations can be shared. Abusers could be filtered out, and in any case, their potential existence creates a sub market for risk assessors and insurance specialists, who may have left companies to go freelance too. Communities may provide their own finance for companies that provide goods and services for the local community. This is a natural development of the routine output of today’s social entrepreneurs. Community based company creation, nurturing, staffing and running is a very viable local model that could work very well for many areas of manufacturing, services, food production and community work. Some of this is already embryonic on the net today as crowd-funding, but it could grow nicely as the web continues to mature.

Whether this could grow to the size needed to make a car factory or a chip fabrication plant or a major pharmaceutical R&D lab is doubtful, but even these models are being challenged – future cars may not need the same sorts of production, a lot of biotech is suited to garden sheds, and local 3D printing can address a lot of production needs, even some electronic ones. So the number of industries completely immune to this trend is probably quite small. Most will be affected a bit or greatly. Companies that are deeply woven into communities may dominate the future commercial landscape. And as that happens, the willingness and the capability to exploit others reduces.

If we move towards this kind of system, companies will be more responsive to our needs, while providing a stronger base on which to build other enterprises. Integrated into community banking, it is hard to see why we would need today’s banks in such a world. We could dispense with a huge drain on our finances. Banks contribute no extra to the overall economy (taken globally) and siphon off considerable fees. Without them, people could keep more of what they earn and growth would accelerate.

Exploitation via celebrity?

 

In the UK, we don’t get very good value for money from our footballers. They get enormously generous pay for often poor performance. Individually, few of them seem to be intellectual giants, but the industry as a whole has grown enormously. By creating a monopoly of well supported clubs, they have established a position where they can extract huge fees for tickets, merchandising and TV coverage. The ordinary person has to pay heavily to watch a match, while the few people putting on the show get enormous rewards. This might look like exploitation at first glance, but is it?

It is certainly shrewd business dealing by the football industry, but mainly, the TV companies seem to be stupid negotiators. If they declined to pay huge fees to air the matches, the most likely outcome is that fees would tumble to a very nominal level quickly, after which the football associations would have to start paying the TV channels for air time to sell the game coverage direct to fans, or else distribute coverage via the net. They would have no choice. TV companies could easily end up being paid to show matches. When viewers each have to pay explicitly to watch rather than have the fees hidden in a TV license or satellite subscription, the takings would drop and the wages given to footballers would inevitably follow. However, they would still be paid very well, probably still grossly overpaid. We may still moan at them, but they would then simply be benefiting from scale of market, not exploiting. If you can sell unique entertainment or indeed any other valuable service to a large number of people you can generate a lot of income. If you don’t need many staff, they can be paid very well. Individual celebrities have emerged from every area of entertainment who get huge incomes simply because they can generate small amounts of cash from very large numbers of people. If many individuals vale the product highly, as in top level boxing for example, stars can be massively rewarded.

It is hard to label this as exploitation though. It is simply taking advantage of scale. If I can sell something at a sensible price and make a decent income from a small number of customers, someone better who can sell an even better product at the same price to a much larger number of people will be paid far more. In this case, the customer gets a better product for the same outlay, so is hardly being exploited, but the superior provider will get richer. If we forced them to sell better products cheaper than someone else’s inferior one, simply to reduce their income, we would destroy the incentive to be good. No-one benefits from that.

Entertainment isn’t unique here. The same goes for writing a good game or a piece or app, or inventing Facebook. In fact, the basis of the information economy, which includes entertainment, is very different from the industrial one. Information products can be reproduced, essentially without cost without losing their value. There are lots of products that can be sold to lots of people for low prices that do no harm to anyone, add quality to lives and still make providers very wealthy. Let’s hope we can find some more.

So even without exploitation, we will still have the super-rich

 

There will always be relatively poor and super rich people. But I think that is OK. What we should try to ensure is that people don’t get rich by abusing or exploiting others. If they can still get rich without exploiting anyone, then at least it is fair, and they should enjoy their wealth, within the law, provided that the law prevents them from using it to abuse or exploit others. Let’s not punish wealth per se, but focus instead on how it has been obtained, and on eliminating abuses.

In any case, there is a natural limit to how much you can use

 

As the global population climbs, and people get wealthier everywhere, the number of super-rich will grow, even if we eliminate unfairness and exploitation totally. But if we take huge amounts of money out of the system and put it in someone’s bank account, they will not be able to dispose of it all. In most cases, without great determination and extravagance indeed, the actual practical loading that an individual can make on the system is quite limited. They can only eat so much, occupy so much land, use up so much natural resource, have so many lovers. The rest of the world’s resources, of whatever kind, are still available to everyone else. So their reward is naturally capped, they simply don’t have the time or energy to use up any more. Any money they put in investments or cash is just a figure on a spreadsheet, and a license to use the power it comes with.

But while power is important in other ways, it is not directly an economic drain – it doesn’t affect how much is left for the rest of us. Above a certain amount that varies with individual imagination, taste and personality, extra wealth doesn’t give anything except power. It effectively disappears, and supply and demand and prices balance for the rest accordingly.

Power takes us full circle

 

When we have spent all we can, and just get extra power from the extra income, it is time to start asking other kinds of questions. Some would challenge the right of the super-rich to use their wealth to do things that others might think should be decided by the whole population. Should rich people be allowed to use their wealth to tackle Aids in Africa, run their own space programs, or build influential media empires? Well, we can make laws to prevent abuses and exploitation. We can employ the principle of ‘To each according to their effort’. Once we’ve done that, I don’t see how or why we should try to stop rich people doing what they want within the law.

Was the Roman villa I visited built by well rewarded workers? Probably not. Could something equivalent be built by a rich person who has done no harm to anyone, or even brought universal good? Yes. It isn’t what they build or how much they earn that matters, but how they earned it. Money earned via exploitation is very different from money earned by effort and talent.

In future, I will have to read up on the owners of stately homes before I get angry at them. And we must certainly consider these issues as we build our sustainable capitalism in the future.

Stupidity

You might think that the people at the top would be the smartest, but unfortunately, they usually aren’t. Some studies have shown that CEOs have an average IQ of around 130, which is fairly good but nothing special, and many of the staff below them would generally be smarter. That means that whatever skills might have got them there, their overall understanding of the world is limited and the quality of their decisions is therefore also limited. Considering that, we often pay board members far more than is necessary and we often put stupid people in charge. This is not a good combination, and it ultimately undermines the workings of the whole economy. I’ll look at stupidity in more detail later.

With corruption, exploitation, loose values, no real incentives to behave well, and sheer stupidity all fighting against capitalism as we have it today, it is a miracle it works at all, but it does and that argues for its fundamental strength. If we address these existing problems and start to protect against the coming ones, we will be fine, maybe even better than fine. We’d be flying.

Sustainable Automation

There are some new problems coming too, and sometimes major trends can conceal less conspicuous ones, but sometimes these less conspicuous trends can build over time into enormous effects. Global financial turmoil and re-levelling due to development are largely concealing another major trend towards automation, a really key problem in the future of capitalism. If we look at the consequences of developing technology, we can see an increasingly automated world as we head towards the far future. Most mechanical or mental jobs can be automated eventually, leaving those that rely on human emotional and interpersonal skills, but even these could eventually be largely automated. That would obviously have a huge effect on the nature of our economies. It is good to automate; it adds the work of machines to that of humans, but if you get to a point where there is no work available for the humans to take, then that doesn’t work so well. Overall effectiveness is reduced because you still have to finance the person you replaced somehow. We are reaching that point in some areas and industries now.

One idea that has started to gain ground is that of reducing the working week. It has some merit. If there is enough work for 50 hours a week, maybe it is better to have 2 people working 25 each than one working 50 and one unemployed, one rich and one poor. If more work becomes available, then they can both work longer again. This becomes more attractive still as automation brings the costs down so that the 25 hours provides enough to live well. It is one idea, and I am confident there will be more.

However, I think there is another area we ought to look for a better solution – re-evaluating ownership.

Sometimes taking an extreme example is the best way to illustrate a point. In an ultra-automated pure capitalist world, a single person (or indeed even an AI) could set up a company and employ only AI or robotic staff and keep all the proceeds. Wealth would concentrate more and more with the people starting with it. There may not be any other employment, given that almost anything could be automated, so no-one else except other company owners would have any income source. If no-one else could afford to buy the products, their companies would die, and the economy couldn’t survive. This simplistic example nevertheless illustrates that pure capitalism isn’t sustainable in a truly high technology world. There would need to be some tweaking to distribute wealth effectively and make money go round a bit. Much more than current welfare state takes care of.

Perhaps we are already well on the way. Web developments that highly automate retailing have displaced many jobs and the same is true across many industries. Some of the business giants have few employees. There is no certainty that new technologies will create enough new jobs to replace the ones they displace.

We know from abundant evidence that communism doesn’t work, so if capitalism won’t work much longer either, then we have some thinking to do. I believe that the free market is often the best way to accomplish things, but it doesn’t always deliver, and perhaps it can’t this time, and perhaps we shouldn’t just wait until entire industries have been eradicated before we start to ask which direction it should go.

Culture tax – Renting shared infrastructure, culture and knowledge

The key to stopping the economy grinding to a halt due to extreme wealth concentration may lie in the value of accumulated human knowledge. Apart from short-term IP such as patents and copyright, the whole of humanity collectively owns the vast intellectual wealth accumulated via the efforts of thousands of generations. Yettraditionally, when a company is set up, no payment is made for the use of this intellectual property; it is assumed to be free. The effort and creativity of the founders, and the finance they provide, are assumed to be the full value, so they get control of the wealth generated (apart from taxes).

Automated companies make use of this vast accumulated intellectual wealth when they deploy their automated systems. Why should ownership of a relatively small amount of capital and effort give the right to harness huge amounts of publicly owned intellectual wealth without any payment to the other owners, the rest of the people? Why should the rest of humanity not share in the use of their intellectual property to generate reward? This is where the rethinking should be focused. There is nothing wrong with people benefiting from their efforts, making profit, owning stuff, controlling it, but it surely is right that they should make proper payment for the value of the shared intellectual property they use. With properly shared wealth generation, everyone would have income, and the system might work fine.

Ownership is the key to fair wealth distribution in an age of accelerating machine power. The world economy has changed dramatically over the last two decades, but we still think of ownership in much the same ways. This is where the biggest changes need to be made to make capitalism sustainable. At the moment, of all the things needed to make a business profitable, capital investment is given far too great a share of control and of the output. There are many other hugely important inputs that are not so much hidden as simply ignored. We have become so used to thinking of the financial investors owning the company that we don’t even see the others. So let me remind you of some of the things that the investors currently get given to them for free. I’ll start with the blindingly obvious and go on from there.

First and most invisible of all is the right to do business and to keep the profits. In some countries this isn’t a right, but in the developed world we don’t even think of it normally.

The law, protecting the company from having all its stuff stolen, its staff murdered, or its buildings burned down.

The full legal framework, all the rules and regulations that allow the business to trade on known terms, and to agree contracts with the full backing of the law.

Ditto the political framework.

Workforce education – having staff that can read and write, and some with far higher level of education

Infrastructure – all the roads, electricity, water, gas and so on. Companies pay for ongoing costs, maintenance and ongoing development, but pay nothing towards the accumulated historical establishment of these.

Accumulated public intellectual property. It isn’t just access to infrastructure they get free, it is the invention of electricity, of plumbing, of water purification and sewage disposal techniques, and so on.

Human knowledge, science, technology knowhow. We all have access to these, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that there should be an automatic right for anyone to use them without due compensation to the rest of the community. We assume that as a right, but it wasn’t really ever explicitly agreed, ever. It has just evolved. If someone invents something and patents it, we assume they have every right to profit from it. If they use an invention in common ownership, such as the wheel, why should they not pay the rest of society for the right to use it for personal commercial gain?

Think of it another way. If a village has a common, everyone has the right to let their animals feed off the grass. That works fine when there are only a few animals, but if everyone has a large herd, it soon breaks down. The common might be taken under local council control, and rented out, returning due value to the community. So it could be for all other commonly held knowledge. And there is a lot of it, thousands of years’ worth.

Culture is also taken for granted, including hand-me-down business culture, all the stuff that makes up an MBA, or even everyday knowledge about how businesses operate or are structured. So are language, and social structure that ensures that all the other supporting roles in society are somehow provided. We may take these for granted because they belong to us all, but they are a high value asset and if someone gains financially from using them, why should they not pay some of the profits to the rest of the owners as they would for using any other asset?

So the question is: should business pay for it, as it pays for capital and labour?

This all adds up to an enormous wealth of investment by thousands of generations of people. It is shared wealth but wealth nonetheless. When a company springs up now, it can access it all, take it all for granted, but that doesn’t mean it is without value. It is immensely valuable. So perhaps it is not unreasonable to equate it in importance to the provision of effort or finance. In that case, entrepreneurs should pay back some of their gains to the community.


Reward is essential, but fair’s fair

A business will not happen unless someone starts it, works hard at setting it up, getting it going, with all the stress and sacrifice that often needs. They need to be assured of a decent reward or they won’t bother. The same goes for capital providers, if they are needed. They also want something to show for the risk they have taken. Without enough incentive, it won’t work, and that should always be retained in our thinking when we redesign. But it is also right to look at the parallel investment by the community in terms of all the things listed above. That should also be rewarded.

This already happens to some degree when companies and shareholders pay their taxes. They contribute to the ongoing functioning of the society and to the development to be handed on to the next generation, just as individuals do. But they don’t explicitly pay any purchase price or rent for the social wealth they assumed when they started. The host community needs to be better and more explicitly integrated into the value distribution of a company in much the same way as shareholders or a board.

The amount that should be paid is endlessly debatable, and views would certainly differ between parties, but it does offer a way of tweaking capitalism that ensures that businesses develop and use new technology in such a way that it can be sustained. We want progress, but if all jobs were to be replaced by a smart machines, then we may have an amazingly efficient system, but if nobody has a job, and everyone is on low-level welfare, then nobody can afford to buy any of the products so it would seize up. Conventional taxes might not be enough to sustain it all. On the other hand, linking the level of payments from a company to the social capital they use when they deploy a new machine means that if they make lots of workers redundant by automation, and there are no new jobs for them to go to, then a greater payment would be incurred. While business overall is socially sustainable and ensures reasonably full employment, then the payments can remain zero or very low.

But we have the makings of an evolution path that allows for fair balancing of the needs of society and business.

The assignment of due financial value to social wealth and accumulated knowledge and culture ensures that there is a mechanism where money is returned to the society and not just the mill owner. With payment of the ‘social dividend’, government and ultimately people can then buy the goods. The owner should still be able to get wealthy, but the system is still able to work because the money can go around. But it also allows linking the payments from a business to the social sustainability of its employment practices. If a machine exists that can automate a job, it has only done so by the accumulated works of the society, so society should have some say in the use of that machine and a share of the rewards coming from it.

So we need to design the system, the rules and conditions, so that people are aware when they set up a business of the costs they will incur, under what conditions. They would also know that if they change their employment via automation, then the payments for the assumed knowledge in the machines and systems will compensate for the social damage that is done by the redundancy if no replacement job exists. The design will be difficult, but at least there is a potential basis for the rules and equations and while we’re looking at automation, we can use the same logic to address the other ethical issues surrounding business, such as corruption and exploitation, and factor those into our rules and penalties too.

There remains the question of distribution of the wealth from this social dividend. It could be divided equally of course, but more likely, since political parties would have their priority lists, it would have some sort of non-equal distribution. That is a matter for politicians.

Summarising, there are many problems holding business and society back today and standing in the way of sustainable capitalism. Addressing them will make us all better off. Some of them can be addressed by a similar mechanism to that which I recommend for balancing automation against social interests. Automation is good, wealth is good, and getting rich is good. We should not replace capitalism because it mostly works, but it is now badly in need of a system update and some maintenance work. When we’ve done all that, we will have a capitalist system that rewards effort and wealth provision just as today, but also factors in the wider interests – and investment – of the whole community. We’ll all benefit, and it will be sustainable.


Sustainable tax and welfare

Tax systems seem to have many loopholes that stimulate jobs in creative accountancy, but deprive nations of tax. Sharp cut-offs instead of smooth gradients create problems for people whose income rises slightly above thresholds. We need taxation, but it needs to be fair and transparent, and what that means depends on your political allegiances, but there is some common ground. Most of us would prefer a simpler system than the ludicrously complicated one we have now and most of us would like a system that applies to everyone and avoids loopholes.

The rich are becoming ever richer, even during the economic problems. In fact some executives on bonus structures linked to short-term profits appear to be using the recession as an excuse to depress wages to increase company profits and thereby be rewarded more themselves. Some rich people pay full tax, some avoid paying taxes by roaming around the world, never staying anywhere long enough to incur local tax demands. It may be too hard to introduce global taxes, or to stop tax havens from operating, but it is possible to ensure that all income earned from sales in a country is taxed here.

Ensuring full taxation

Electronic cash opens the potential for ensuring that all financial transactions in the country go through a tax gateway, which could immediately and at the point of transaction determine what tax is due and deduct it. If we want, a complex algorithm could be used, taking into account the circumstances of the agencies involved and the nature of the transaction – number crunching is very cheap and no human needs to be involved after the algorithms are determined so it could be virtually cost-free however complex. Or we could decide that the rate is a fixed percentage regardless of purpose. It doesn’t even have to threaten privacy, it could be totally anonymous if there are no different rates. With all transactions included, and the algorithms applying at point of transaction, there would be no need to know or remember who is involved or why.

In favour of a flat tax

Different sorts of income sources are taxed differently today. It makes sense to me to have a single flat tax of rate for all income, whatever its source – why should it matter how you get your income, surely the only thing that matters is how much you get? Today, there are many rates and exceptions. Since people can take income by pay, dividends, capital gains, interest, gambling, lottery wins, and inheritance, a fair system would just count it all up and tax it all at the same rate. This could apply to companies too, at the same rate; since some people own companies and money accumulating in them is part of their income. Ditto property development, any gains when selling or renting a property could be taxed at that rate. Company owners would be treated like everyone else, and pay on the same basis as employees.

I believe flat taxes are a good idea. They have been shown to work well in some countries, and can stimulate economic development. If there are no exceptions, if everyone must pay a fixed percentage of everything they get, then the rich still pay more tax, but are better incentivised to earn even more. Accountants wouldn’t be able to prevent rich people avoiding tax just by laundering it via different routes or by relabelling it.

International experience suggests that a flat tax rate of around 20% would probably work. So, you’d pay 20% on everything you earn or your company earns, or you inherit, or win, or are given or whatever. Some countries also tax capital, encouraging people to spend it rather than hoard, but this is an optional extra. There is something quite appealing about a single rate of tax that applies to everyone and every institution for every transaction. It is simpler, with fewer opportunities to abdicate responsibility to pay, and any income earned in the country would be taxed in the country.

There are a few obvious problems that need solved. Husbands and wives would not be able to transfer money between them tax-free, nor parents giving their kids pocket money, so perhaps we need to allow anyone tax-free interchange with their immediate family, as determine by birth, marriage or civil partnership. When people buy a new house, or change their share portfolio, perhaps it should just be on the value difference that the 20% would apply. So a few tweaks here and there would be needed, but the simpler and the fewer exceptions we introduce, the better.

Welfare

So what about poorer people, how will they manage? The welfare system could be similarly simplified too. We can provide simply for those that need help by giving a base allowance to every adult, regardless of need, set so that if that is your only income, it would be sufficient to live modestly but in a dignified manner. Any money earned on top of that ensures that there is an incentive to work, and you won’t become poorer by earning a few pounds more and crossing some threshold.

(Since I first blogged about this in Jan 2012, the Swiss have agreed a referendum (in Oct 2013) on what they call the Citizen Wage Initiative, which is exactly this same idea. I guess it has been around in various forms for ages, but if the Swiss decide to go ahead with it, it might soon be real. At a modest level of payment, it is workable now, the main issue being that there still needs to be a big enough incentive for people to work, or many won’t, and the economy would dive. The Swiss are considering a wage of 2000 Francs per month, which might be too generous, as it would allow a household with a few adults to live fairly comfortably without working. Having noted that, I still think the idea itself is very sound, the level just needs to be carefully set to preserve the work incentive.)

There is also no need to have a zero tax threshold. People who earn enough not to need welfare would be paying tax according to their total income anyway, so it all sorts itself out. With everyone getting the same allowance, admin costs would be very low and since admin costs currently waste around a third of the money, this frees up enough money to make the basic allowance 50% more generous. So everyone benefits.

Children could also be provided with an allowance, which would go to their registered parent or guardian just as today in lieu of child benefits. Again, since all income is taxed at the same rate regardless of source, there is no need to means test it. There should be as few other benefits as possible. They shouldn’t be necessary if the tax and allowance rate is tuned correctly anyway. Those with specific needs, such as some disabled people, could be given what they need rather than a cash benefit, so that there is less incentive to cheat the system.

Such a system would reduce polarisation greatly. The extremes at the bottom would be guaranteed a decent income, while those at the top would be forced to pay their proper share of taxes, however they got their wealth. If they still manage to be rich, then their wealth will at least be fair. It also guarantees that everyone is better off if they work, and that no-one falls through the safety net.

If everyone gets the allowance, the flat tax rate would mean that anyone below average earnings would hardly pay any income tax, any work that someone on benefits undertakes would result in a higher standard of living for them, and those on much more will pay lots. The figures look generous, but company income and prices will adjust too, and that will also rebalance it a bit. It certainly needs tuned, but it could work.

In business, the flat tax applies to all transactions, and where there is some sort of swap, such as property or shares, then the tax could be on the value difference. So, in shops, direct debits, or internet purchases, the tax would be a bit higher than the VAT rate today, and other services would also attract the same rate. With no tax deductions or complex VAT rules, admin is easier but more things are taxed. This makes it harder for companies to avoid tax by being based overseas and that increased tax take directly from income to companies means that the tax needed from other routes falls. Then, with a re-balanced economy, and everyone paying on everything, the flat rate can be adjusted until the total national take is whatever is agreed by government.

This just has to be simpler, fairer, and less wasteful and a better stimulus for hard work than the messy and unfair system we have now, full of opportunities to opt out at the top if you have a clever accountant and disincentives to work at the bottom.

The economy today is big enough to provide basic standard of living to everyone, but thanks to economic growth it will be possible to have a flat tax and a basic welfare payment equivalent to today’s average income within 45 years. If those who want economic growth to stop get their way, the poor will be condemned to at best a basic existence.

Linking tax and welfare to social networks

We often hear the phrase ‘care in the community’. Nationalisation of social care has displaced traditional care by family and local community to some degree. Long ago, people who needed to be looked after were looked after by those who are related or socially close, either by geography or association. It could be again, and may even be necessary as care rationing is a strong likelihood. Meanwhile, wealth is being redefined in many countries now, with high quality social relationships becoming recognised as valuable and a major contributor to overall quality of life.

Social care costs money, and will inevitably be rationed as the population ages, so why not link it back to social structure as it used to be? In much the same way that financial welfare is only available to those that need it, those with social wealth could and perhaps should be cared for by those who love them instead of by the state. They would likely be happier, and it would cost less. Those that have low connectedness, i.e. few friends and family, should then be the rightful focus of state care. Everyone could be cared for better and the costs would be more manageable.

We already know people’s social connectedness very well, it is indicated by many easily measurable factors, and every year it gets easier. The numbers and strength of contacts on social networking sites is one clue, so is email and messaging use, so is phone use. Geographic proximity can be determined by information in the electoral roll. So it is possible to determine algorithms based on these many various factors that would determine who needs care from the state and who should be able to get it from social contacts.

Many people wouldn’t like that, resenting being forced to care for other people, so how can we make sure people do take care of those they are ‘allocated’ to? Well, that could be done by linking taxation to the care system in such a way that the amount of care you should be providing would be determined by your social connectivity, and providing that care yields tax discount. Or you could just pay your full quota of taxes and abdicate provision to the state. But by providing a high valuation on actual care, it would encourage people to choose to provide care rather than to pay the tax.

Social wealth could thus be linked to social tax, and this social tax could be paid either as care or cash. The technology of social networking has given us the future means to link the social care side of social security into social connectedness. Those who are socially poor would receive the greatest focus of state provision and those who gain most socially from their lives would have to put more in too. We do that with money, why not also with social value? It sounds fair to me.

Virtual reality. Will it stick this time?

My first job was in missile design and for a year, the lab I worked in was a giant bra-shaped building, two massive domes joined by a short link-way that had been taken out of use years earlier. The domes had been used by soldiers to fire simulated missiles at simulated planes, and were built in the 1960s. One dome had a hydraulic moving platform to simulate firing from a ship. The entire dome surface was used as a screen to show the plane and missile. The missile canisters held by the soldier were counterweighted with a release mechanism coordinated to the fire instruction and the soldier’s headphones would produce a corresponding loud blast to accompany the physical weight change at launch so that they would feel as full a range of sensation experienced by a real soldier on a real battlefield as possible. The missile trajectory and control interface was simulated by analog computers. So virtual reality may have hit the civilian world around 1990 but it was in use several decades earlier in military world. In 1984, we even considered using our advancing computers to create what we called waking dreaming, simulating any chosen experience for leisure. Jaron Lanier has somehow been credited with inventing VR, and he contributed to its naming, but the fact is he ‘invented’ it several decades after it was already in common use and after the concepts were already pretty well established.

I wrote a paper in 1991 based on BT’s VR research in which I made my biggest ever futurology mistake. I worked out the number crunching requirements and pronounced that VR would overtake TV as an entertainment medium around 2000. I need hardly point out that I was wrong. I have often considered why it didn’t happen the way I thought it would. On one front, we did get the entertainment of messing around in 3D worlds, and it is the basis of almost all computer gaming now. So that happened just fine, it just didn’t use stereo vision to convey immersion. It turned out that the immersion is good enough on a TV or PC screen.

Also, in the early 1990s, just as IT companies may have been considering making VR headsets, the class action law suit became very popular, and some of those were based on very tenuous connections to real cause and effect, and meanwhile some VR headset users were reporting eye strain or disorientation. I imagine that the lawyers in those IT companies would be thinking of every teenager that develops any eye problem suing them just in case it might have been caused in part by use of their headset. Those issues plus the engineering difficulties of commercialising manufacture of good quality displays probably were enough to kill VR.

However, I later enjoyed many a simulator ride at Disney and Universal. One such ride allowed me to design my own roller coaster with twists and loops and then ride it in a simulator. It was especially enjoyable. The pull of simulator rides remains powerful.  Playing a game on an xbox is fun, but doesn’t compare with a simulator ride.

I think much of the future of VR lies in simulators where it already thrives. They can go further still. Tethered simulators can throw you around a bit but can’t manage the same range of experience that you can get on a roller coaster. Imagine using a roller coaster where you see the path ahead via a screen. As your cart reaches the top of a hill, the track apparently collapses and you see yourself hurtling towards certain death. That would scare the hell out of me. Combining the g-forces that you can get on a roller coaster with imaginative visual effects delivered via a headset would provide the ultimate experience.

Compare that with using a nice visor on its own. Sure, you can walk around an interesting object like a space station, or enjoy more immersive gaming, or you can co-design molecules. That sort of app has been used for many years in research labs anyway. Or you can train people in health and safety without exposing them to real danger. But where’s the fun? Where’s the big advantage over TV-based gaming? 3D has pretty much failed yet again for TV and movies, and hasn’t made much impact in gaming yet. Do we really think that adding a VR headset will change it all, even though 3D glasses didn’t?

I was a great believer in VR. With the active contact lens, it can be ultra-light-weight and minimally invasive while ultra-realistic. Adding active skin interfacing to the nervous system to convey physical sensation will eventually help too. But unless plain old VR it is accompanied by stimulation of the other senses, just as a simulator does, I fear the current batch of VR enthusiasts are just repeating the same mistakes I made over twenty years ago. I always knew what you could do with it and that the displays would get near perfect one day and I got carried away with excitement over the potential. That’s what caused my error. Beware you don’t make the same one. This could well be just another big flop. I hope it isn’t though.