The future of planetary exploration robots

An article in Popular Science about explorer robots:

BwPQ4LWIcAAefKu (1)http://www.popsci.com/article/technology/weird-tumbleweed-robot-might-change-planetary-exploration?src=SOC&dom=tw

This is a nice idea for an explorer. I’m a bit surprised it is in Popular Science, unless it’s an old edition, since the idea first appeared ages ago, but then again, why not, it’s still a good idea. Anyway…

The most impressive idea I ever saw for an explorer robot was back in the 90s from Joe Michael of Robodyne Cybernetics, which used fractal cubes that could slide along each face, thereby rearranging into any shape. Once the big cubes were in place, smaller ones would rearrange to give fine structure. That was way before everyone and his dog new all about nanotech, his thinking was well ahead of his time. A huge array of fractal cubes could become any shape – a long snake to cross high or narrow obstacles, a thin plate to capture wind like a sail, a ball to roll around, or a dense structure to minimize volume or wind resistance.

NASA tends to opt for ridiculously expensive and complex landers with wheels and lots of gadgetry that can drive to where they want to be.

I do wonder though whether people are avoiding the simple ideas just because they’re simple. In nature, some tiny spiders get around just by spinning a length of thread and letting the wind carry them. Bubbles can float on the wind too, as can balloons. Where there’s an atmosphere, there is likely to be wind, and if simple exploration is the task, why not just let the winds carry you around? If not a thread, use a balloon that can be inflated and deflated, or a sail. Why not use a large cloud of tiny explorers using wind by diverse techniques instead of a large single robotic vehicle? Even if there is no atmosphere, surely a large cloud of tiny and diverse explorers is more capable and robust than a single one? The clue to solving the IT bits are that a physical cloud can also be an IT cloud. Why not let them use different shapes for different circumstances, so that they can float up, be blown around, and when they want to go somewhere interesting, then glide to where they want to be? Dropping from a high altitude is an easy way of gathering the kinetic energy for ground penetration too, you don’t have to carry sophisticated drills. Local atmosphere can be used as the gas source and ballast (via freezing atmospheric gases or taking some dust with you) for balloons and wind or solar can be the power supply. Obviously, people in all space agencies must have thought of these ideas themselves. I just don’t understand why they have thrown them away in favor of far more heavier and more expensive variants.

I’m not an expert on space. Maybe there are excellent reasons that each and every one of these can’t work. But I also have enough experience of engineering to know that one of the most likely reasons is that they just aren’t exciting enough and the complex, expensive, unreliable and less capable solutions simply look far more cool and trendy. Maybe it is simply that ego is more important than mission success.

The future of Tesco – a recovery strategy

Tesco’s share price has fallen dramatically after yet another profit warning. A once thriving supermarket chain finds itself in real trouble. Tesco blames the discount supermarkets, but although that is an easy excuse and some of the other chains are also suffering, it is too simplistic an analysis and merely distracts attention from Tesco’s own blame for the profit drop. The reason some others are suffering too is that similar problems also apply to them, the big chains copy each other a great deal. They take similar approaches and suffer the same consequences.

The root of the problem

Overall basket price is a big factor in customers migrating to the new discounters, but failure of trust is an even bigger one. A customer who is worried by prices still knows they have to eat and accepts having to pay, but is particularly worried about being overcharged, so trust becomes more important. It isn’t just the absolute shopping budget they care about. Feeling confident that they are getting the best value for what they have is equally important. Having to be constantly on their guard to avoid store tricks while doing what is already a boring chore is a sure way of making them want to shop elsewhere, and that is exactly why Tesco is suffering now.

Death by accountant and marketer

Accountants are critical to a successful company. If they are good, the company can flourish. If they are bad, it can die. The worst employee a company can have is an accountant who thinks they are cleverer than their customers. If they work with an equivalent self-regarding boss from marketing, they can destroy a company. Tesco sells a lot of products and its accountants and marketers have developed a large number of tricks to get customers to pay more than they should. It is easy to trick customers occasionally, and easy to think up new ways of doing so, but it isn’t clever. Eventually the customer notices. The practice of trying to trick customers to spend over the odds destroys trust and customer loyalty. When another supplier arrives that doesn’t abuse the customer in the same way, people vote with their feet, as we are now seeing.

I discussed death by marketing in a blog 9 months ago: http://timeguide.wordpress.com/2013/11/29/fake-sales-death-by-marketing/. If Tesco had read it and acted on it, perhaps the share price wouldn’t just have dropped.

I don’t need to list all the tricks here, you know them all too well, so just a few headline ones – reducing sizes while keeping the price the same, fake 50% off offers by charging double for a period, selling larger boxes at higher price per unit weight and so on. These are all technically legal, but any idiot can do that, and only an idiot would. A trivial short term gain may be had from a customer not concentrating enough, but the customer soon loses trust in the company. While it is inconvenient or more expensive overall to shop elsewhere they might still keep coming, but all the unnecessary effort they have to expend every time they go to avoid being fleeced all adds up. In the end, they walk. Nobody wants to be the poor sucker who paid £10 for a £5 bottle of win just so that others can be conned by a half price offer.

Trust has most definitely been squandered by repeated bad experiences of being fleeced. Frequently bad signage and misleading labelling don’t help. Some of that seems to be quite deliberate confusion marketing too, another fundamentally bad idea that only looks clever to the dumbest or marketers or store managers. Add to that rubbish customer service that seeks to defend the store against refunds and just argues that the customer is in the wrong and it’s a sure recipe for failure. The adverts may try to portray Tesco as the shopper’s best friend, desperate to give them the best possible value and service, but the reality experienced by the shopper is often the opposite. Many customers think of Tesco as the enemy rather than a friend. The share price drop is the direct result.

Solving this isn’t rocket science and it is astonishing just how reluctant previous managers have been to abandon so obviously flawed practice. The new boss needs to avoid these obvious mistakes. Treating customers as fools to be fleeced at every opportunity will not restore profits or the share price but will instead ensure continued collapse of loyalty.

The first foundation stone for a recovery is to stop trying to fool customers. The above points firmly to that. If you want that as ancient wisdom: “Once bitten, twice shy”. All the fake half-price and special offers have to go, and all the confusion marketing and confusion pricing. I know that accountants and marketers want to show off to their peers how smart they are, but really, fooling customers is NOT smart. The smartest way to show off to customers is by getting them really good deals occasionally, genuine special purchases.

Secondly, there can be no profit without customers. The customer is not the enemy and certainly not prey. The second foundation stone is to start treating the customer as a friend, as a potentially loyal source of future profit who just wants good value and good service. If the ethos is right, that customers should be looked after, then Tesco will recover. That the marketing says so but the reality is the opposite is a key clue to finding out where the problems really are. All the areas where customers are seen as the enemy need to be eradicated from corporate thinking. The new CEO should look down that avenue and kick the butts that need kicked.

Customer services should also go back to the old wisdom that the customer is always right. That was understood by retailers for centuries. Why has Tesco forgotten it? It needs to learn it afresh.

Thirdly, customers want consistently fair markups. They don’t want to get bread cheap and pay double for fruit and veg to make up the profits. They’d rather have purchase price + x%. Profit isn’t a dirty word and customers don’t expect shops to be charities. Markup is both expected and accepted. They just want a fair deal.

These foundations can create a solid platform for recovery. More bricks are needed on top of course, but that will come down to company flair. Tesco is huge and has enough market clout to get excellent special buys on occasion. It can offer some things the discounters can’t. It can add value in a myriad ways without adding to cost. Survival ultimately isn’t about price wars, but about looking after your customers.

My 6S guide to retailing is my view for high street retailing from 18 months ago, and is only partly appropriate to superstores, but a company the size of Tesco should know better that me anyway:

http://timeguide.wordpress.com/2013/01/16/the-future-of-high-street-survival-the-6s-guide/

Tesco was once a great company. You could be sure of getting good quality at a good price and you didn’t have to be on your guard the whole time. On that strategy, it grew from a tiny company into a huge one. All it needs to do to recover is to remember its old values and apply them again. Those are the very same techniques the new discounters are using. They treat customers as friends, they try to get them the best deals, they offer good service, and they don’t try to fleece them. Tesco can even charge a little more than the discounters and survive, because price isn’t the only factor in play – the environment, types of display, range and quality of produce all count too. But it needs to go back to its original ethos. Genuinely.

If Tesco wants to survive, it can’t carry on treating customers as dumb prey. The trust has run dry.

 

The future of Fridays

F now. Done fairies, food, fashion, never done Fridays, so here we go.

TFIF is a common sentiment for wage slaves. Some of us are very fortunate and manage to earn sufficient income from things we love doing, but most people have to make do with jobs instead. If you don’t enjoy your work, then the weekend often promises a welcome break and Friday is a long emotional run-up or run-down.

Many companies have discovered that staff work better when they are happy, and that people can be very creative when they are having fun. Some of them have introduced formal contractual agreements or at least informal managerial tolerance of their staff working a proportion of their time on their own projects, typically 10%.

Few bother to coordinate or manage such activities, leaving that to the staff themselves. I believe that is a mistake. With a few minor tweaks, this could really become a good source of employee fulfillment and corporate revenue.

Self-managing should be an option for sure, but it should be permitted and even encouraged to rope other people into your interesting projects, consensually of course. An engineer might have some great ideas, but some other staff might have other skills appropriate to bring it through to realization. Lots of staff might welcome being involved in other people’s pet projects if they sound more fun than their own ideas.

Companies should also make the full company resources available in the same proportion. A project probably still needs some expenditure, even if it is for fun.

They should also allow people to join up with appropriate people from other companies where it will provide a benefit. Obviously, there needs to be some reasonable restriction on that, but it is certainly feasible and potentially valuable.

Why? Surely the company employs accountants and strategists and planners and directors to decide what to do and where to allocate funds? Actually, the staff sometimes know better. Senior staff may be marginally better at some things than those below them and therefore managed to get through a few promotion interviews, but that doesn’t make them infallible or omniscient. Every employee probably knows better what they are really good at than their boss’s boss’s boss’s boss. Many will have a pretty good idea how they can make things better, or have an idea for a new technique or product or service. Some might not work, but letting them try will bring in a few valuable wins, and even when it doesn’t, it will still maker the staff happier, more self-fulfilled, and importantly, more loyal and productive. If your staff love you and your company because you let them enjoy themselves, you will find them easier to manage and more productive, so you’ll get rewarded too.

When this is all informal and uncoordinated, it doesn’t achieve full potential. Making Friday, or Friday afternoon at least, a time when everyone plays at their own projects would allow the project team-building and managing to work well. If lots of companies adopt it, there would be a large pool of people from lots of companies to add value to their companies, their own lives, and their communities. It would be fun, it would make everyone happier and we’d all benefit from the results.As part of the ongoing evolution of capitalism into a warmer, more human-centered care economy, it is a natural next step.

So, fun-friday. Not because the weekend is coming, but because Friday’s themselves are fun.

 

The future of euthanasia and suicide

Another extract from You Tomorrow, one that is very much in debate at the moment, it is an area that needs wise legislation, but I don’t have much confidence that we’ll get it. I’ll highlight some of the questions here, but since I don’t have many answers, I’ll illustrate why: they are hard questions.

Sadly, some people feel the need to end their own lives and an increasing number are asking for the legal right to assisted suicide. Euthanasia is increasingly in debate now too, with some health service practices bordering on it, some would say even crossing the boundary. Suicide and euthanasia are inextricably linked, mainly because it is impossible to know for certain what is in someone’s mind, and that is the basis of the well-known slippery slope from assisted suicide to euthanasia.

The stages of progress are reasonably clear. Is the suicide request a genuine personal decision, originating from that person’s free thoughts, based solely on their own interests? Or is it a personal decision influenced by the interests of others, real or imagined? Or is it a personal decision made after pressure from friends and relatives who want the person to die peacefully rather than suffer, with the best possible interests of the person in mind? In which case, who first raised the possibility of suicide as a potential way out? Or is it a personal decision made after pressure applied because relatives want rid of the person, perhaps over-eager to inherit or wanting to end their efforts to care for them? Guilt can be a powerful force and can be applied very subtly indeed over a period of time.

If the person is losing their ability to communicate a little, perhaps a friend or relative may help interpret their wishes to a doctor. From here, it is a matter of degree of communication skill loss and gradual increase of the part relatives play in guiding the doctor’s opinion of whether the person genuinely wants to die. Eventually, the person might not be directly consulted because their relatives can persuade a doctor that they really want to die but can’t say so effectively. Not much further along the path, people make their minds up what is in the best interests of another person as far as living or dying goes. It is a smooth path between these many small steps from genuine suicide to euthanasia. And that all ignores all the impact of possible alternatives such as pain relief, welfare, special care etc. Interestingly, the health services seem to be moving down the euthanasia route far faster than the above steps would suggest, skipping some of them and going straight to the ‘doctor knows best’ step.

Once the state starts to get involved in deciding cases, even by abdicating it to doctors, it is a long but easy road to Logan’s run, where death is compulsory at a certain age, or a certain care cost, or you’ve used up your lifetime carbon credit allocation.

There are sometimes very clear cases where someone obviously able to make up their own mind has made a thoroughly thought-through decision to end their life because of ongoing pain, poor quality of life and no hope of any cure or recovery, the only prospect being worsening condition leading to an undignified death. Some people would argue with their decision to die, others would consider that they should be permitted to do so in such clear circumstances, without any fear for their friends or relatives being prosecuted.

There are rarely razor-sharp lines between cases; situations can get blurred sometimes because of the complexity of individual lives, and because judges have their own personalities and differ slightly in their judgements. There is inevitably another case slightly further down the line that seems reasonable to a particular judge in the circumstances, and once that point is passed, and accepted by the courts, other cases with slightly less-defined circumstances can use it to help argue theirs. This is the path by which most laws evolve. They start in parliament and then after implementation, case law and a gradually changing public mind-set or even the additive effects of judges’ ideologies gradually evolve them into something quite different.

It seems likely given current trends and pressures that one day, we will accept suicide, and then we may facilitate it. Then, if we are not careful, it may evolve into euthanasia by a hundred small but apparently reasonable steps, and if we don’t stop it in time, one day we might even have a system like the one in the film ‘Logan’s Run’.

 Suicide and euthanasia are certainly gradually becoming less shocking to people, and we should expect that in the far future both will become more accepted. If you doubt that society can change its attitudes quickly, it actually only takes about 30 years to get a full reversal. Think of how long it took for homosexuality to change from condemned to fashionable, or how long abortion took from being something a woman would often be condemned for to something that is now a woman’s right to choose. Each of these took only 3 decades for a full 180 degree turnaround. Attitudes to the environment switched from mad panic about a coming ice age to mad panic about global warming in just 3 decades too, and are already switching back again towards ice age panic. If the turn in attitudes to suicide started 10 years ago, then we may have about 20 years left before it is widely accepted as a basic right that is only questioned by bigots. But social change aside, the technology will make the whole are much more interesting.

As I argued earlier, the very long term (2050 and beyond) will bring technology that allows people to link their brains to the machine world, perhaps using nanotech implants connected to each synapse to relay brain activity to a high speed neural replica hosted by a computer. This will have profound implications for suicide too. When this technology has matured, it will allow people to do wonderful things such as using machine sensors as extensions to their own capabilities. They will be able to use android bodies to move around and experience distant places and activities as if they were there in person. For people who feel compelled to end it all because of disability, pain or suffering, an alternative where they could effectively upload their mind into an android might be attractive. Their quality of life could improve dramatically at least in terms of capability. We might expect that pain and suffering could be dealt with much more effectively too if we have a direct link into the brain to control the way sensations are dealt with. So if that technology does progress as I expect, then we might see a big drop in the number of people who want to die.

But the technology options don’t stop there. If a person has a highly enhanced replica of their own brain/mind, in the machine world, people will begin to ask why they need the original. The machine world could give them greater sensory ability, greater physical ability, and greater mental ability. Smarter, with better memory, more and better senses, connected to all the world’s knowledge via the net, able effectively to wander around the world at the speed of light, and being connected directly to other people’s minds when you want, and doing so without fear of ageing, ill health of pain, this would seem a very attractive lifestyle. And it will become possible this century, at low enough cost for anyone to afford.

What of suicide then? It might not seem so important to keep the original body, especially if it is worn out or defective, so even without any pain and suffering, some people might decide to dispose of their body and carry on their lives without it. Partial suicide might become possible. Aside from any religious issues, this would be a hugely significant secular ethical issue. Updating the debate today, should people be permitted to opt out of physical existence, only keeping an electronic copy of their mind, timesharing android bodies when they need to enter the physical world? Should their families and friends be able to rebuild their loved ones electronically if they die accidentally? If so, should people be able to rebuild several versions, each representing the deceased’s different life stages, or just the final version, which may have been ill or in decline?

And then the ethical questions get even trickier. If it is possible to replicate the brain’s structure and so capture the mind, will people start to build ‘restore points’, where they make a permanent record of the state of their self at a given moment? If they get older and decide they could have run their lives better, they might be able to start again from any restore point. If the person exists in cyberspace and has disposed of their physical body, what about ownership of their estate? What about working and living in cyberspace? Will people get jobs? Will they live in virtual towns like the Sims? Indeed, in the same time frame, AI will have caught up and superseded humans in ability. Maybe Sims will get bored in their virtual worlds and want to end it all by migrating to the real world. Maybe they could swap bodies with someone coming the other way?

What will the State do when it is possible to reduce costs and environmental impact by migrating people into the virtual universe? Will it then become socially and politically acceptable, even compulsory when someone reaches a given age or costs too much for health care?

So perhaps suicide has an interesting future. It might eventually decline, and then later increase again, but in many very different forms, becoming a whole range of partial suicide options. But the scariest possibility is that people may not be able to die completely. If their body is an irrelevance, and there are many restore points from which they can be recovered, friends, family, or even the state might keep them ‘alive’ as long as they are useful. And depending on the law, they might even become a form of slave labour, their minds used for information processing or creativity whether they wish it or not. It has often truly been noted that there are worse fates than death.

The future of death

This one is a cut and paste from my book You Tomorrow.

Although age-related decline can be postponed significantly, it will eventually come. But that is just biological decline. In a few decades, people will have their brains linked to the machine world and much of their mind will be online, and that opens up the strong likelihood that death is not inevitable, and in fact anyone who expects to live past 2070 biologically (and rich people who can get past 2050) shouldn’t need to face death of their mind. Their bodies will eventually die, but their minds can live on, and an android body will replace the biological one they’ve lost.

Death used to be one of the great certainties of life, along with taxes. But unless someone under 35 now is unfortunate enough to die early from accident or disease, they have a good chance of not dying at all. Let’s explore that.

Genetics and other biotechnology will work with advanced materials technology and nanotechnology to limit and even undo damage caused by disease and age, keeping us young for longer, eventually perhaps forever. It remains to be seen how far we get with that vision in the next century, but we can certainly expect some progress in that area. We won’t get biological immortality for a good while, but if you can move into a high quality android body, who cares?

With this combination of technologies locked together with IT in a positive feedback loop, we will certainly eventually develop the technology to enable a direct link between the human brain and the machine, i.e. the descendants of today’s computers. On the computer side, neural networks are already the routine approach to many problems and are based on many of the same principles that neurons in the brain use. As this field develops, we will be able to make a good emulation of biological neurons. As it develops further, it ought to be possible on a sufficiently sophisticated computer to make a full emulation of a whole brain. Progress is already happening in this direction.

Meanwhile, on the human side, nanotechnology and biotechnology will also converge so that we will have the capability to link synthetic technology directly to individual neurons in the brain. We don’t know for certain that this is possible, but it may be possible to measure the behaviour of each individual neuron using this technology and to signal this behaviour to the brain emulation running in the computer, which could then emulate it. Other sensors could similarly measure and allow emulation of the many chemical signalling mechanisms that are used in the brain. The computer could thus produce an almost perfect electronic equivalent of the person’s brain, neuron by neuron. This gives us two things.

Firstly, by doing this, we would have a ‘backup’ copy of the person’s brain, so that in principle, they can carry on thinking, and effectively living, long after their biological body and brain has died. At this point we could claim effective immortality. Secondly, we have a two way link between the brain and the computer which allows thought to be executed on either platform and to be signalled between them.

There is an important difference between the brain and computer already that we may be able to capitalise on. In the brain’s neurons, signals travel at hundreds of metres per second. In a free space optical connection, they travel at hundreds of millions of metres per second, millions of times faster. Switching speeds are similarly faster in electronics. In the brain, cells are also very large compared to the electronic components of the future, so we may be able to reduce the distances over which the signals have to travel by another factor of 100 or more. But this assumes we take an almost exact representation of brain layout. We might be able to do much better than this. In the brain, we don’t appear to use all the neurons, (some are either redundant or have an unknown purpose) and those that we do use in a particular process are often in groups that are far apart. Reconfigurable hardware will be the norm in the 21st century and we may be able to optimize the structure for each type of thought process. Rearranging the useful neurons into more optimal structures should give another huge gain.

This means that our electronic emulation of the brain should behave in a similar way but much faster – maybe billions of times faster! It may be able to process an entire lifetime’s thoughts in a second or two. But even there are several opportunities for vast improvement. The brain is limited in size by a variety of biological constraints. Even if there were more space available, it could not be made much more efficient by making it larger, because of the need for cooling, energy and oxygen supply taking up ever more space and making distances between processors larger. In the computer, these constraints are much more easily addressable, so we could add large numbers of additional neurons to give more intelligence. In the brain, many learning processes stop soon after birth or in childhood. There need be no such constraints in computer emulations, so we could learn new skills as easily as in our infancy. And best of all, the computer is not limited by the memory of a single brain – it has access to all the world’s information and knowledge, and huge amounts of processing outside the brain emulation. Our electronic brain could be literally the size of the planet – the whole internet and all the processing and storage connected to it.

With all these advances, the computer emulation of the brain could be many orders of magnitude superior to its organic equivalent, and yet it might be connected in real time to the original. We would have an effective brain extension in cyberspace, one that gives us immeasurably improved performance and intelligence. Most of our thoughts might happen in the machine world, and because of the direct link, we might experience them as if they had occurred inside our head.

Our brains are in some ways equivalent in nature to how computers were before the age of the internet. They are certainly useful, but communication between them is slow and inefficient. However, when our brains are directly connected to machines, and those machines are networked, then everyone else’s brains are also part of that network, so we have a global network of people’s brains, all connected together, with all the computers too.

So we may soon eradicate death. By the time today’s children are due to die, they will have been using brain extensions for many years, and backups will be taken for granted. Death need not be traumatic for our relatives. They will soon get used to us walking around in an android body. Funerals will be much more fun as the key participant makes a speech about what they are expecting from their new life. Biological death might still be unpleasant, but it need no longer be a career barrier.

In terms of timescales, rich people might have this capability by 2050 and the rest of us some time before 2070. Your life expectancy biologically is increasing every year, so even if you are over 35, you have a pretty good chance of surviving long enough to gain. Half the people alive today are under 35 and will almost certainly not die fully. Many more are under 50 and some of them will live on electronically too. If you are over 50, the chances are that you will be the last generation of your family ever to have a full death.

As a side-note, there are more conventional ways of achieving immortality. Some Egyptian pharaohs are remembered because of their great pyramids. A few philosophers, artists, engineers and scientists have left such great works that they are remembered millennia later. And of course, on a small scale, for the rest of us, making an impression on those around us keeps your memory going a few generations. Writing a book immortalises your words. And you may have a multimedia headstone on your grave, or one that at least links into augmented reality to bring up your old web page of social networking site profile. But frankly, I am with Woody Allen on this one “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality through not dying”. I just hope the technology arrives early enough.

The future of creativity

Another future of… blog.

I can play simple tunes on a guitar or keyboard. I compose music, mostly just bashing out some random sequences till a decent one happens. Although I can’t offer any Mozart-level creations just yet, doing that makes me happy. Electronic keyboards raise an interesting point for creativity. All I am actually doing is pressing keys, I don’t make sounds in the same way as when I pick at guitar strings. A few chips monitor the keys, noting which ones I hit and how fast, then producing and sending appropriate signals to the speakers.

The point is that I still think of it as my music, even though all I am doing is telling a microprocessor what to do on my behalf. One day, I will be able to hum a few notes or tap a rhythm with my fingers to give the computer some idea of a theme, and it will produce beautiful works based on my idea. It will still be my music, even when 99.9% of the ‘creativity’ is done by an AI. We will still think of the machines and software just as tools, and we will still think of the music as ours.

The other arts will be similarly affected. Computers will help us build on the merest hint of human creativity, enhancing our work and enabling us to do much greater things than we could achieve by our raw ability alone. I can’t paint or draw for toffee, but I do have imagination. One day I will be able to produce good paintings, design and make my own furniture, design and make my own clothes. I could start with a few downloads in the right ballpark. The computer will help me to build on those and produce new ones along divergent lines. I will be able to guide it with verbal instructions. ‘A few more trees on the hill, and a cedar in the foreground just here, a bit bigger, and move it to the left a bit’. Why buy a mass produced design when you can have a completely personal design?

These advances are unlikely to make a big dent in conventional art sales. Professional artists will always retain an edge, maybe even by producing the best seeds for computer creativity. Instead, computer assisted and computer enhanced art will make our lives more artistically enriched, and ourselves more fulfilled as a result. We will be able to express our own personalities more effectively in our everyday environment, instead of just decorating it with a few expressions of someone else’s.

However, one factor that seems to be overrated is originality. Anyone can immediately come up with many original ideas in seconds. Stick a safety pin in an orange and tie a red string through the loop. There, can I have my Turner prize now? There is an infinitely large field to pick from and only a small number have ever been realized, so coming up with something from the infinite set that still haven’t been thought of is easy and therefore of little intrinsic value. Ideas are ten a penny. It is only when it is combined with judgement or skill in making it real that it becomes valuable. Here again, computers will be able to assist. Analyzing a great many existing pictures or works or art should give some clues as to what most people like and dislike. IBM’s new neural chip is the sort of development that will accelerate this trend enormously. Machines will learn how to decide whether a picture is likely to be attractive to people or not. It should be possible for a computer to automatically create new pictures in a particular style or taste by either recombining appropriate ideas, or just randomly mixing any ideas together and then filtering the new pictures according to ‘taste’.

Augmented reality and other branches of cyberspace offer greater flexibility. Virtual objects and environments do not have to conform to laws of physics, so more elaborate and artistic structures are possible. Adding in 3D printing extends virtual graphics into the physical domain, but physics will only apply to the physical bits, and with future display technology, you might not easily be able to see where the physical stops and the virtual begins.

So, with machine assistance, human creativity will no longer be as limited by personal skill and talent. Anyone with a spark of creativity will be able to achieve great works, thanks to machine assistance. So long as you aren’t competitive about it, (someone else will always be able to do it better than you) your world will feel nicer, more friendly and personal, you’ll feel more in control, empowered, and your quality of life will improve. Instead of just making do with what you can buy, you’ll be able to decide what your world looks, sounds, feels, tastes and smells like, and design personality into anything you want too.

The future of bacteria

Bacteria have already taken the prize for the first synthetic organism. Craig Venter’s team claimed the first synthetic bacterium in 2010.

Bacteria are being genetically modified for a range of roles, such as converting materials for easier extraction (e.g. coal to gas, or concentrating elements in landfill sites to make extraction easier), making new food sources (alongside algae), carbon fixation, pollutant detection and other sensory roles, decorative, clothing or cosmetic roles based on color changing, special surface treatments, biodegradable construction or packing materials, self-organizing printing… There are many others, even ignoring all the military ones.

I have written many times on smart yogurt now and it has to be the highlight of the bacterial future, one of the greatest hopes as well as potential danger to human survival. Here is an extract from a previous blog:

Progress is continuing to harness bacteria to make components of electronic circuits (after which the bacteria are dissolved to leave the electronics). Bacteria can also have genes added to emit light or electrical signals. They could later be enhanced so that as well as being able to fabricate electronic components, they could power them too. We might add various other features too, but eventually, we’re likely to end up with bacteria that contain electronics and can connect to other bacteria nearby that contain other electronics to make sophisticated circuits. We could obviously harness self-assembly and self-organisation, which are also progressing nicely. The result is that we will get smart bacteria, collectively making sophisticated, intelligent, conscious entities of a wide variety, with lots of sensory capability distributed over a wide range. Bacteria Sapiens.

I often talk about smart yogurt using such an approach as a key future computing solution. If it were to stay in a yogurt pot, it would be easy to control. But it won’t. A collective bacterial intelligence such as this could gain a global presence, and could exist in land, sea and air, maybe even in space. Allowing lots of different biological properties could allow colonization of every niche. In fact, the first few generations of bacteria sapiens might be smart enough to design their own offspring. They could probably buy or gain access to equipment to fabricate them and release them to multiply. It might be impossible for humans to stop this once it gets to a certain point. Accidents happen, as do rogue regimes, terrorism and general mad-scientist type mischief.

Transhumanists seem to think their goal is the default path for humanity, that transhumanism is inevitable. Well, it can’t easily happen without going first through transbacteria research stages, and that implies that we might well have to ask transbacteria for their consent before we can develop true transhumans.

Self-organizing printing is a likely future enhancement for 3D printing. If a 3D printer can print bacteria (onto the surface of another material being laid down, or as an ingredient in a suspension as the extrusion material itself, or even a bacterial paste, and the bacteria can then generate or modify other materials, or use self-organisation principles to form special structures or patterns, then the range of objects that can be printed will extend. In some cases, the bacteria may be involved in the construction and then die or be dissolved away.

The future of the Aardvark

When I started writing articles on the future, I started almost every title with the words ‘The future of”. I think I will do that again.

Let’s start with the future of the Aardvark.

aardvark_432_600x450An aardvark, image credit: National Geographic

They look interesting, and do play important role in their ecosystem, so it would be a shame to lose them, and it is likely that they will be protected sufficiently to survive a good while longer.

Aardvarks eat ants and termites. Termites are one of the biggest natural sources of methane, which is well known as a greenhouse gas, so they could be thought of as assistants in prevention of global warming, except that methane’s greenhouse activities are mostly obscured by the absorption of the same frequencies by water vapor. So atmospheric water prevents aardvarks from being accidental environmental heroes. Or does it?

Having just blogged yet again on internet of things, it’s obvious that aardvarks could easily be fitted with tracking and monitoring devices, externally and internally. Small devices near the end of their noses could do a lot of environmental monitoring. They could monitor a wide range of pollutants, local climate variations, the spread of various organisms, all sorts of things. Maybe they could even be used to spread various biological or synthetic agents to termite or any colonies, since they don’t eat every single one. That provides a means to spread sensing even further. I suggested a few years ago that ants would make good spies, if they could be persuaded to pick up sugar crystals containing sensors such as microphones, and carry them to their nests, unseen by militants.

It is likely that genetic modification will be used to ‘improve’ a range of natural organisms by adding sensory enhancement, enhancing their ability to find mates as well as their libidos, or navigate around man-made obstacles, process new types of food, or adapt to climate change.

We’re also likely to see some robotic Aardvarks. These could be used to interact with natural populations for scientific study, or they could be used as biomimetic IED detectors in war zones. With multisensory noses to detect chemical or EM emissions or local ground absorption spectrum, and effective claws to dig up and destroy IEDs, they might be better suited than wheeled or caterpillar tracked variants used today.

Finally, virtual aardvarks will be even more ubiquitous. Being an interesting shape puts them in a good position when it comes to choosing creatures to populate virtual environments. In virtual worlds, they might talk or come in different sizes and colors, or shape shift. Far future technology could even link virtual ones to real individuals still living in the wild, so that the virtual ones behave realistically.

Well, there we are. First marker in a new ‘The future of …’ series. Bacteria next.

 

 

Estimating IoT value? Count ALL the beans!

In this morning’s news:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/news/11043549/UK-funds-development-of-world-wide-web-for-machines.html

£1.6M investment by UK Technology Strategy Board in Internet-of-Things HyperCat standard, which the article says will add £100Bn to the UK economy by 2020.

Garnter says that IoT has reached the hype peak of their adoption curve and I agree. Connecting machines together, and especially adding networked sensors will certainly increase technology capability across many areas of our lives, but the appeal is often overstated and the dangers often overlooked. Value should not be measured in purely financial terms either. If you value health, wealth and happiness, don’t just measure the wealth. We value other things too of course. It is too tempting just to count the most conspicuous beans. For IoT, which really just adds a layer of extra functionality onto an already technology-rich environment, that is rather like estimating the value of a chili con carne by counting the kidney beans in it.

The headline negatives of privacy and security have often been addressed so I don’t need to explore them much more here, but let’s look at a couple of typical examples from the news article. Allowing remotely controlled washing machines will obviously impact on your personal choice on laundry scheduling. The many similar shifts of control of your life to other agencies will all add up. Another one: ‘motorists could benefit from cheaper insurance if their vehicles were constantly transmitting positioning data’. Really? Insurance companies won’t want to earn less, so motorists on average will give them at least as much profit as before. What will happen is that insurance companies will enforce driving styles and car maintenance regimes that reduce your likelihood of a claim, or use that data to avoid paying out in some cases. If you have to rigidly obey lots of rules all of the time then driving will become far less enjoyable. Having to remember to check the tyre pressures and oil level every two weeks on pain of having your insurance voided is not one of the beans listed in the article, but is entirely analogous the typical home insurance rule that all your windows must have locks and they must all be locked and the keys hidden out of sight before they will pay up on a burglary.

Overall, IoT will add functionality, but it certainly will not always be used to improve our lives. Look at the way the web developed. Think about the cookies and the pop-ups and the tracking and the incessant virus protection updates needed because of the extra functions built into browsers. You didn’t want those, they were added to increase capability and revenue for the paying site owners, not for the non-paying browsers. IoT will be the same. Some things will make minor aspects of your life easier, but the price of that will that you will be far more controlled, you will have far less freedom, less privacy, less security. Most of the data collected for business use or to enhance your life will also be available to government and police. We see every day the nonsense of the statement that if you have done nothing wrong, then you have nothing to fear. If you buy all that home kit with energy monitoring etc, how long before the data is hacked and you get put on militant environmentalist blacklists because you leave devices on standby? For every area where IoT will save you time or money or improve your control, there will be many others where it does the opposite, forcing you to do more security checks, spend more money on car and home and IoT maintenance, spend more time following administrative procedures and even follow health regimes enforced by government or insurance companies. IoT promises milk and honey, but will deliver it only as part of a much bigger and unwelcome lifestyle change. Sure you can have a little more control, but only if you relinquish much more control elsewhere.

As IoT starts rolling out, these and many more issues will hit the press, and people will start to realise the downside. That will reduce the attractiveness of owning or installing such stuff, or subscribing to services that use it. There will be a very significant drop in the economic value from the hype. Yes, we could do it all and get the headline economic benefit, but the cost of greatly reduced quality of life is too high, so we won’t.

Counting the kidney beans in your chili is fine, but it won’t tell you how hot it is, and when you start eating it you may decide the beans just aren’t worth the pain.

I still agree that IoT can be a good thing, but the evidence of web implementation suggests we’re more likely to go through decades of abuse and grief before we get the promised benefits. Being honest at the outset about the true costs and lifestyle trade-offs will help people decide, and maybe we can get to the good times faster if that process leads to better controls and better implementation.

Railgun water pistols

August is meant to be the silly season so here’s my contribution.

There is something about railguns that generates ‘I want one of those’ thoughts.

bae railgun

BAE Systems Railgun

 

See: http://www.popsci.com/article/technology/navy-wants-fire-its-ridiculously-strong-railgun-ocean

about the US Navy 5000mph projectile. Or:

http://www.guns.com/2014/04/08/u-s-navys-32-megajoule-rail-gun-one-step-closer-blue-water-video/

Most people have no idea how fast normal missiles go so it’s hard to visualise it, but many missiles travel below the speed of sound and only a few go faster than Mach 2. So 5000mph is pretty fast. Few bullets go faster than 1000mph.

Rail guns are not the old-fashioned big guns that used to be transported by rail. They are electromagnetic guns that send enormous currents down two rails and use a projectile or sled to electrically join the two rails. Magnetic forces propel the sled at high speed.

Anyway, I wondered whether you could make a better water pistol for domestic use using rail gun technology. If you attempt to get rid of a cat from your garden by squirting it with water from a water pistol such as the wonderful Super Soaker, it runs away as soon as it hears the hiss from the escaping water, or so I’ve heard. Please don’t do this – cats are probably nice gentle creatures at heart that have the utmost respect for bird life, always poo in the bushes and away from the flower beds and are probably innocent victims of specist slurs.

Rail guns use either the projectile itself or a sled as part of the conducting circuit. Salty water conducts, so a water jet might work a bit, but probably not enough. Nor milk, for much the same reason. I suspect that far too much of the electricity would be converted to heat and you’d risk scalding the cat, which would be cruel. However, using a sled within the water pistol to push the water out would probably work a lot better.

The Navy railgun uses 25MW of electricity to fire its projectile at 5000mph, with 32MJ of energy. That is  probably a bit over the top for a water pistol and it is also illegal in some countries to make one that could be used as a serious weapon unless you have a license. It would also make rather a mess of the cat. 55mph or 25m/s is probably adequate (according to http://www.tomsguide.com/us/water-gun-tests,review-1313-9.html, a Super Soaker only has a muzzle velocity of around 50 ft per second or 15m/s, so 25m/s is a LOT better, but still less than half the speed of a BB gun), and by the time the cat takes a soaking it would be much slower so wouldn’t hurt it. Even for the same mass, E=0.5MV^2 rule says that 55mph needs about 10,000 times less energy, but we also don’t need as much mass. Even 10ml (two teaspoonfuls) of water is enough to wet a cat enough that it won’t come back for a while and small enough volume to fit in compartment to fire as a package rather than as long feeble squirt. 0.5 x 0.01kg  x 25^2 = 3.125J, roughly one ten millionth as much as the navy gun. (Or you could discourage 10 million cats using the navy version).

The water has to reach that 25m/s in the 75cm that a reasonable water pistol sniper rifle could be so it has to accelerate at 33m/s^2, only about 3.5g. That all sounds very feasible to me. 0.75=-.5 x 33 t^2 gives the time t as 0.2s, which gives a power requirement of 15W. Easy.

A quick googling shows that you can easily get 18v, 3.0 amp hr lithium ion batteries for reasonable price (below $75) that produce over 50W for up to an hour. A superior water pistol could use rapid fire to issue three such water packets per second, 60% faster than a Super Soaker, and emptying a 300ml water tank in 10 seconds. So our superior rapid-fire water rail gun sniper rifle sounds entirely feasible. Far better than a Super Soaker, and still far safer than a BB gun.

I want one of those.

I guess in principle, it doesn’t really have to be a rail gun. It could just use some sort of chain to push out compartments of water at the same speed, with the same power limits. But that would just be boring. Sometimes style is as important as substance.