Monthly Archives: January 2012

Computer models are not reality

I spent the first decade of my working life in mathematical modelling, using computers. I simulated all kinds of things to design better ones. I started on aircraft hydraulic braking systems, moved on to missile heat shields, springs, zoom lenses, guidance systems, electromagnetic brakes, atmospheric behaviour, lightning strikes, computer networks, telecomms systems, markets, evolution….

I wrote my last computer model soon after I became a futurologist, 21 years ago now. Why? Because they don’t work, in anything other than tiny closed systems. Any insight about the future worth mentioning usually requires thinking about highly complex interactions, many of which are subjective. Humans are very good at deductions based on very woolly input data, vague guesses and intuition, but it is not easy or even possible to explain all you take into account to a computer, and even if you could, it would take far more than a lifetime to write a model to do what your brain does routinely in seconds. Models are virtually useless in futurology. They only really work in closed systems where all the interactions are known, quantifiable, and can be explained to the computer. Basically, the research and engineering lab then.

Computer models all work the same way, they expect a human to describe in perfect detail how the system  works. When you are simulating a heat shield, whether for a missile of a space shuttle, it is a long but essentially very simple process because only very simple known laws of physics are involved. A few partial differential equations, some finite difference techniques and you’re there. The same goes for material science or biotech. Different equations, but essentially a reasonably well-known closed system that just needs the addition of some number crunching. When a closed system is accurately modelled, you can get some useful data. But the model isn’t reality, it is just an approximation of those bits of reality that the modeller has bothered to model, and done so correctly.

People often cite computer models now as evidence, especially in environmental disciplines. Today’s papers talk of David Attenborough and his arguments with Lawson over Polar Bears. I have no knowledge about polar bears whatsoever, either may be right, but I can read. The cited report http://pbsg.npolar.no/en/status/population-map.html uses mostly guesses and computer-generated estimates, not  actual bear counts. I’d be worried if the number of bears was known and was actually falling. Looking at the data, I still don’t have a clue how many bears there are or whether they are falling or growing in number. The researchers say they are declining. So what? That isn’t evidence. They have an axe to grind so are likely to be misleading me. I want hard evidence, not guesses and model outputs.

I discovered early on that not all models are what they appear. I went to a summer school studying environmental engineering. We had to use a computer model to simulate an energy policy we designed, within a specific brief. As a fresh mathematician, I found the brief trivially easy and jumped straight to the optimal solution – it was such a simple brief that there was one. I typed the parameters in to the model and it created an output that was simply wrong. I challenged the lecturer who had written it, and he admitted that his model was biased. Faced with my inputs, it would simply over-rule them for ethical reasons and use a totally different policy instead. Stuff that!

It was a rude awakening to potential dishonesty in models, and I have rarely trusted anyone’s models since. My boss at the time explained it: crap in, crap out. Models reflect reality, but only as far as the modeller allows. Lack of knowledge, omissions, errors and quite deliberate bias are all common factors that make models a less than accurate representation of reality.

Since that was my first experience in someone deliberately biasing their models to produce the answer they want, I have always distrusted environmental models. Much of the evidence since has confirmed bias to be a good presumption. As well as ignorance. The environment is an extremely complex system, and humanity is a very long way from understanding all the interactions well enough to model it all. Even a small sub-field such as atmospheric modelling has been shown (last year by CERN’s CLOUD experiment) to be full of bits we don’t know yet. And yet the atmosphere interacts with the ground, with space, with oceans, with countless human activities in many ways that are still in debate, and almost certainly in many ways we don’t even know exist yet. Without knowing all the interactions, and certainly without knowing all the appropriate equations and factors, we don’t have a snowflake’s chance in a supernova of making a model of the atmosphere that works yet, let alone the entire environment. And yet we see regular pronouncements on the far future of the environment based on computer models that only look at a fraction of the system and don’t even do that well.

Climate models suffer from all of these problems.

First, there is a lack of basic knowledge, even disagreement on what is missing and what is important. Even in the areas agreed to be important, there is strong disagreement on the many equations and coefficients.

Secondly, there are many omissions. In any engineering department, people will be well familiar with the problem of ‘not invented here’. Something invented by a competing team is often resented, rather than embraced. The same applies in science too. So models can feature in great detail interactions discovered by the team, though they may be highly reluctant to model things discovered by other scientists. Some scientific knowledge is therefore often missing from models, or tweaked, or discounted, or misunderstood and mis-modelled.

Thirdly, there is strong bias. If a researcher wants their work to further some particular point of view, it is extremely easy to leave things out of change equations or coefficients to produce the output desired. There are very many factors causing the bias now. Climategates 1 and 2 are enough to convince any right-thinking person that the field is corrupt beyond repair.

Finally, there are errors. There always are. Errors in data, algorithm, programming, interpretation and presentation.

Models can be useful, but they are far too open to human failings to ever consider computer model outputs as evidence where there is any debate whatsoever about the science or data. There is huge debate in climate science and researchers are frequently accused of bias, error, omission and lack of knowledge. But quite simply, these model outputs fail by the ‘crap in, crap out’ rule. Their output cannot be considered evidence, however much it may be spun that way by the researchers.

Let’s put it another way. One of the simplest programs most programmers write is to write ‘X is a genius’ again and again on the screen. But that doesn’t make it true, however often or large it is printed. The same goes for models. The output is only as honest as the researcher, only as accurate as their completeness and representation of the entire system. Using a long winded program to print ‘we’re all doomed’ doesn’t make it any more true. I don’t trust the researchers, I know the tricks, I don’t trust their models, and I don’t trust their output.

Web censorship will force next generation nets

Twitter are the latest in a line of surrenders to authority  in the last few years. The web started off nicely and grew in importance and everyone talked of how governments couldn’t censor it, and it would always bypass them. It was the new land of the free. But underneath, we all knew that wouldn’t last forever and governments would use their real world power to force web companies into submission. Actually, the surrenders seem rather spineless to me, and were unnecessary, but I guess the web has become a standard ordinary everyday business platform and the companies behave just like any other business now. The brave explorers pushing out in pursuit of the frontiers have gone, replaced by MBAs.

Napster was the first biggy, forced to stop music sharing on the free and to become a proper commercial front end for the music industry. Then Google surrendered its ‘Do no evil’ principle to commercialism, first in China, now globally. It has since become a Big Brother in its own right, collecting deep data not only for its own megalomania but also for any government department that can make ‘a valid legal claim’ (extracted from their new rules on privacy). I have no real choice but to carry on using their mail and search, and I still like Google in spite of their abuses - no one’s perfect – though I am extremely wary of using Google+ seriously. I barely access my account, just like Facebook, and for the same reasons. Facebook and Apple also both became Big Brothers, collecting far more date than most people realised, wanting their own high-walled garden dictatorships. They have them now, but I keep my distance and only visit them as much as I need to. After a few years of ongoing high-profile collapses and surrenders of principle, now Twitter has surrendered too. So now the web is under government control, pretty much everywhere, and worse still, with a layer of big corporate control underneath. Companies on the web have to do as they are told, follow the rules. But they also impose their own too. It is the worst nightmare for those of us who used to debate whether big companies or governments would end up controlling us, which would have the power? We ended up with the worst of both worlds.

Many would argue that that is what should be. Why should the web have different rules? All companies should obey the law. I’d agree to a point, but I’d agree a whole lot more if we lived in a world with good leaders of properly democratic governments taking us forwards to a life of freedom and health and prosperity for all. What I see instead is a global flock of very poor leaders, a sad combination of the greedy, the corrupt and the stupid, with increasing oppression, increasing polarisation, grabbing what they can for themselves in a less fair world, and more attempts to control our thoughts.

So I tend to lean towards wanting a new kind of web, one that governments can’t control so easily, where freedom of speech and freedom of thought can be maintained. If a full surveillance world prevents us from speaking, then we need to make another platform on which we can speak freely.

I’ve written a number of times about jewellery nets and sponge nets. These could do the trick. With very short-range communication directly between tiny devices that each of us wears just like jewellery, a sponge network can be built that provides zillions of paths from A to B, hopping from device to device till it gets there.

A sponge net doesn’t need any ISPs. (In fact, I’ve never really understood why the web needs them either, it is perfectly possible to build a web without them). Each device is autonomous. Each shares data with its immediate neighbours, and route dynamically according to a range of algorithms available to them. They can route data from A to B so that every packet goes by a different route of need be. Even without any encryption, only A and B can see the full message. The various databases that the web uses to tell packets where their destination is can be distributed. There is a performance price, but so what? You could even route geographically. Knowing the precise geographic location of your recipient, packets can simply use a map or GPS to get there. I’m not aware of any GPS based nets yet, but you could easily build one. I quite like the idea personally.

Self organisation is an easy way of linking processing and storage and sensory capability into massively capable platforms. This is useful in its own right but also enables better file sharing or free speech with reasonable performance. It would be easy to bypass any monitoring if it is detected. Even if it is only suspected, the massively divergent routing that sponges enable would make monitoring extremely hard to do.

The capability to make these kinds of devices is almost here. Given the world that we live in, governments might try hard to prevent them from existing. But there are so many benign reasons to do so that it might be hard for them to resist the pressure. Almost all of the spirit of the early web was aimed at making the world a better place. Sure a few criminals and terrorists got in on the act, but the balance was for good. We lost it, and are worse off for it. Letting it happen again would be good for everyone. Sponge nets can do that. If some government officials don’t like it, well, so what? Right now, I don’t have a lot of respect for government.

How to live forever

MIT were showing on Horizon how they can activate areas of a mouse brain using light beams. That’s fine if you have optical fibres going into the brain. I have always considered that being able to stimulate and read and individual cells in the brain is the main key to immortality – it allows you to make a copy outside and migrate you thoughts and memories across until that becomes your main mind platform, then your brain doesn’t matter. Combining the ideas, if you have some sort of photo active cell as per the MIT group, and you can create the light using addressing of photorealism near those cells, then injecting addressable photo-diodes that can be IP addressed should allow you to interact with brain cells without needing optical fibres. You’d just need a radio link.

We can’t reasonably expect to inject one photo-diode for each brain cell, but we could make all the brain cells photo-sensitive using viruses to carry the genes, or electro-sensitive. Doesn’t matter which. Once every cell is sensitised, we can impose local structure using self organisation techniques and use that as mapping for signalling. Again this could use viruses to introduce the genes needed. This will allow each cell to be mapped relative to each of its neighbours and a full map of the brain made, with the ability to have two-way comms with each individual cell. Once we have that, the brain can signal two way to an external replica, in which the processing can be far faster, the storage far more secure and long-lived, emotional control far superior, and the sensing better. As you migrate your mind gradually onto the superior platform, your brain matters less and less, till one day when it dies, you will barely notice any drop in your mental function.

I’ll write more detail on the various parts of this in later blogs. Now I have another more intersting one to write.

Future sports

Training

Today it takes many years of training to get to the top of any field of sports. In the future it could be a whole lot faster thanks to progress in three areas of technology – biotech, nanotech and IT. Miniaturisation in IT, thanks to nanotechnology, will continue to the point where electronics can be printed onto the skin surface. So you may get a display on your arm, like a video tattoo, showing you how well you are doing, showing your heart rate, temperature, blood chemistry and so on and displaying any relevant warnings. Not long after that, electronics can be blasted into the skin, so that it is contact with blood capillaries and nerve endings. With this technology, called Active Skin, athletes could have their body condition monitored all the way through a session to help optimise the balance of effort over the duration of the event and to help them choose the right dietary supplements. So problems of giving too much or too little at a particular point could be identified and fixed. But more excitingly, nerve signals could also be recorded from individual nerve endings, and recreated by computer later. So, a novice golfer or tennis player would try to copy the swing that their pro is showing them, and a computer could create nerve inputs, creating discomfort when they deviate from the perfect movement. So the perfect swing with feel right and any other will feel wrong. As an extra aid, active contact lenses will be able to create 3d images directly into the athlete’s eyes, showing them exactly what they are doing and superimposing what they should be doing. They would be able to see their body position precisely, with any deviations highlighted and amplified with mild discomfort. With practice, doing what feels right will generate the right movement every time. With such training aids, progress from novice to expert could be a matter of weeks rather than years. This will certainly help people to quickly reach their potential, and to get more out of the sports they participate in, but it will also allow the top pros to extract every last bit of potential from their bodies. If they could do a little better by changing one tiny little thing, the computer will be able to help identify it, and help them address the imperfection. So professional sport will improve too.

We’ll also see computer game technology coming down the same route. Physiotherapists are already using Wii machines to treat stroke patients by helping them learn movement again through sports games. Taking this forward, we will certainly start seeing some hybrid sport evolve, with lots of top level physical activity in combination with the computer game. Top skiers would be able to practice different runs all the year round, with the computer recreating all the sensations of doing it for real as well as the full 3d video. So by the time they even get there, they will have had hours of computer assisted training on the run. Who knows, maybe the top level of sports in the future might not even take place on real snow, but in fantastic computer simulations of imaginary, more challenging environments

Nutrition

Top performance depends on a lot of things, and getting proper nutrition is one of the most important, both during training and right up to the main event. At the moment, athletes don’t get enough data on exactly what happens in their bodies while they are performing. New technologies in the biotech industry will change that soon. Already, special chips, developed for genetic analysis, can identify chemicals with just a couple of molecules. As ongoing development inevitably takes this level of monitoring capability into everyday training, athletes will soon be able to see exactly how their body behaved all the way through a session. Even during a session, if something is running low, they could be warned, and perhaps change their behaviour accordingly. Computers would be able to identify exactly what nutrition an athlete should take before a performance to put the body in perfect condition for the event.

The release of energy and nutrients over time varies enormously among foodstuffs as they break down at different rates. Athletes already take different foodstuffs to keep them going during different parts of an event. Again, new developments borrowed from the biotech industry will allow nutrients to be packaged in microcapsules that enter the blood during normal digestion, and which can then be ruptured on receiving a special signal from a computer, allowing a perfectly tailored delivery of nutrients into the blood just as the athlete needs them. Just how far such electronically assisted nutrition goes depends on regulation.

Making the right proteins and vitamins in the first place is also changing. Rather than producing batches of chemicals and pills, genetic modification is developing nicely, and already a commonplace technology and already a whole range of plants will be grown specifically to optimise particular protein or vitamin content. Athletes can also go to a clinic and have their genes tested, helping their doctors and trainers to identify a highly personalised regime to get exactly the right nutrition for that person and that event, even to the extent of tackling some medical conditions. They will then be able to commission foodstuffs grown to their own needs and personal specification. They will still have their own genetic limitations, but at least they can go all the way to the limits of their personal potential. And it is likely that in some events, there may be  handicap systems that take account of genetic limitations to allow athletes to compete on a level playing field. Sport would then become about reaching your natural limits, rather than just been born with some genetic advantages.

Personalised and optimised nutrition regime stands in stark contrast to today’s increasing obesity, but new foodstuffs promise to make dents in that too, as does the rising popularity of computer games that involve vigorous physical activity. Playing electronic sports on the net against other people could well be one of the next big social networking trends, maybe even becoming the 21st century version of the gym, or more probably being incorporated into gym technology to make it as much fun there as staying with the games console at home. Hopefully obesity will start levelling off soon and start to decline.

Psychology

With all the technology advances over the last few millennia, our psychology probably hasn’t changed much since we were cavemen. Sport appears to be a symbolic form of hunting or combat designed to demonstrate skill and bravery and to win a higher place in the pecking order, or bind a tribe together. At a deep level, people still want to win, to be top dog, to have the admiration of the crowd, to win prizes and to feel the close bonds of hunting or fighting together. I don’t think that is going to change, even with future technology. Better tools and better locations will only change the nature of the game, not the psychological incentives to perform heroically.

Future training equipment will include thought recognition and nervous system links to gather information on neurological and mental activity. If our champions are not giving it their all, it will show on the readout. And in the far future, when brain add-on devices can enhance people’s minds, even if they are not allowed in sporting events , they might be permitted during training. But none of this changes the fundamental nature of the person underneath. The degree of motivation they experience when faced with a challenge, the possibility of winning a prize, or the possibility of losing, goes deeper than technology can reach. These are part of the nature component in the formula, so as with physiology, it takes a good trainer with the right tools, in the right environment, to bring them fully to the surface. Champions are champions partly because their inner motivation is stronger and they will push themselves even harder than their competitors.

But I still think there is a missing component in the equation, the roar of the crowd. Champions will manage to find the last tiny bit of heroic effort only when the crowd demands it. At a live event with a big audience, there is no problem, but when the main crowd is only there via TV or the net, I suspect that the performance will be less. If we can somehow bring the crowd deeper into their perception while they compete, maybe they can perform better. But full sensory immersion technology can bring the crowd from the living room into the competitors’ presence.  Active contact lenses will allow athletes to see the crowd, ear implants will allow them to hear them roar. Then they will still feel the atmosphere even in an empty arena. Only then will the ancestral tribal motivations kick in fully.

Finally, we will one day see androids competing in sports, and though they will normally compete against each other, there will be demands to have humans compete with them. When this happens, our champions will want to win in defence of humankind, the ultimate crowd. I think we will be able to give androids emotions too. If we design them to be similar in physical performance, and give them similar psychology, maybe we could have a very interesting contest indeed.

Making a champion

People have debated for millennia what it is that makes a sporting hero into a real champion. How can people be compared when they competed in different sports, in different periods? Some of the equations hold some merit, other don’t. Here is my take, based on the above.

Simplifying tax and welfare

Few people would argue that the UK tax system is either simple or fair. It seems to have many loopholes that stimulate jobs in creative accountancy, but deprive the nation of tax. It has sharp cut-offs instead of smooth gradients, creating problems for people whose income rises a few pounds above certain 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 even appear to be using the recession as an excuse to depress wages for junior staff to increase company profits and thereby be rewarded more themselves). Some rich people pay their dues properly, 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 the UK 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 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 earn your income? Today, there are many rates and exceptions. Since people can take income by pay, dividends, capital gains, interest, gambling, lotteries, 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 relabelling it.

International experience suggests that a 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. Accountants who play the international systems to minimise taxes would have fewer opportunities, and any income earned in the UK would be taxed in the UK.

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 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.

But the simpler and the fewer exceptions, 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.

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. This frees up more money so that the basic allowance can be more generous. Everyone benefits.

Children would also be provided with an allowance, which would go to their registered parent or guardian just as today. 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 need to be set higher than 20%. Let’s play with a few numbers and set it at 25% to start. Let’s set the basic allowance at £8000. Someone out of work might get £8,000 per year. After tax at 25% that leaves £6000. Then they get a low paid job at £10,000 per year. Now on £18000 total, they end up with £13,500, a big incentive to take any work going. Mr Average, on £30,000 per year gets  £38,000 including the allowance so ends up on £28,500. Mr Manager on £60,000 salary ends up with £51,000. With these figures anyone below average earnings would hardly pay any income tax, 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 25% still applies to all transactions, and where there is some sort of swap, such as property or shares, then the tax would be on the value difference. So, in shops, direct debits, or internet purchases, that 25% would be rather 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, 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.

I feel sure I have ignored some major factors. It is my first cut and I’ll probably tweak it later.

Shale gas will impact on world harmony

The USA is going full out for shale gas. As well as creating jobs, stimulating growth, and reducing costs and CO2 emissions, they expect fully to achieve energy independence from unstable and hostile regions such as the Middle East so it is as much a security goal as an economic or environmental one. Europe is still trying to be greener-than-thou so will be a bit later converting to shale gas, but the pressure to do so is increasing and it also wants to be free from relying on hostile or unstable suppliers. It will go the same way soon. China is also looking at new energy sources, even more diversely, so also won’t need these regions for supply to the same degree.

The Middle East and Russia will see huge drops in income from other regions as their oil and gas is no longer needed. As their income drops, internal pressures will rise, and they are likely to become more volatile. Since the rest of the world won’t need them so much, they are likely to see themselves cut off from the rest of the world. There will be less pressure on Western governments to ignore  abuses of human rights, or harbouring of terrorist groups, or any other trouble making. Alienation will increase. Russia will still be tolerated because of its power in other spheres, and is a growing market due to other development routes, but its energy income will certainly fall. The Middle East won’t justify the same concessions and will be even more cut off.

There are far greater political analysts than me, so I’ll leave it here, but this sudden new access to new and cheap energy supplies on our own doorsteps will have a major effect on the world order.

Social security and social networking

We often hear the phrase ‘care in the community’ in the UK. 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.

Wealth is being redefined, with high quality social relationships becoming recognised as valuable and a major contributor to overall quality of life.

OK, in a roundabout way, what I am getting to is that social care costs money, and will be rationed, so why not link it back to social structure as it used to be. 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 state care. Everyone could be cared for better and the costs would be more manageable.

We know people’s social connectedness by many means, 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 of course 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 having 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 encouraged people to choose to provide care rather than to pay the tax.

Social wealth would this 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? Sounds fair to me.

Terrorism and marketing

Firstly, rather than cutting and pasting large amounts of text, here are a couple of links to papers I have written on future technologies that can be used by terrorist groups, mad scientists or anyone else wanting to cause trouble. They are a couple of years old, but mostly still valid.

http://futurizon.com/articles/backlash.pdf

http://futurizon.com/articles/threats.pdf

http://futurizon.com/articles/madscientists.pdf

Terrorism is diversely motivated. Feelings of oppression or political disenfranchisement are common excuses, as are religious zeal, xenophobia and other forms of hatred. Those are the oldest justifications and go back millennia.

Terrorism makes culprits instantly famous, and gives them a feeling of power and importance far and above what they could otherwise attain. One of the reasons terrorism was so persistent in Northern Ireland even after most of the original political and religious reasons had evaporated was because nobodies could suddenly be someone once they carried an armalite rifle. They were all too aware that when they put it down, they would be nobody again. In that sense it achieves dual goals of status seeking and self actualisation, and that is often as important to individual terrorists as the cause they back, probably more so.

But terrorism can also be a form of marketing, and this I believe is the biggest problem we face from it in the future. Marketing is growing in importance, but is very expensive, and many organisations struggle to make their messages heard within the budgets available to them. So there is a growing temptation to bend the rules, and some are succumbing. Marketing is losing what’s left of its innocence and the boundary into terrorism-land is blurring.

When it come to getting attention for a message, there is a sliding scale all the way from simple innocent marketing at one extreme to 9/11 at the other. Starting with conventional marketing, shock tactics magnify the message significantly, albeit at a price. For example the use of FCUK is a pathetic attempt to raise awareness by shocking and offending people. It attracts some people but alienates many more. The company might argue that the ones it alienates aren’t their target group anyway. Benetton used similar techniques in their 90s campaigns and achieved similar results, alienating many and winning a few. They didn’t use actual violence, and fell short of advocating or glorifying it, but actually, the deliberate offending of people to grab attention is just a mild form of terrorism – it creates mental distress instead of physical pain, it is really only degree that is different.

Unless you draw a huge distinction between mental and physical distress, the low end of violent terrorism is just one stage further along the scale than using deliberate offence. It is really just a relatively cheap but highly effective way to draw attention to any cause, however undeserving. Given that, I do wonder how much French Connection and Benetton contribute to terrorism by demonstrating effective use of deliberate offence. Offence is a cheap and crude substitute for talent. By comparison, Compare the Market’s Meerkat campaign is sheer brilliance that offends no-one but wins huge support and awareness.

Marketing exploits any new platform that it can, but as old platforms such as TV and newspapers go out of favour (people tend to skip ads) and as people seem oblivious to most web ads, the game is gradually getting more vicious. This is obvious at the grubby end of web advertising. Hijacking of web browsers is common now to force adverts into your field of view. Many otherwise high quality sites often force adverts and use cookies to track browsing – they used to just use cookies to remember who you were so they could save you logging on afresh, but now they collect a lot more. Only slightly further along, some websites use web browsers to infiltrate PCs with more dangerous forms of malware and harness them in denial of service attacks.

Similarly, some sites put spyware and ad-ware on to PCs to force adverts of capture marketing information (it isn’t just bank details that are valuable). It is hard to see much difference between the nastier kinds of marketing abuse and milder forms of terrorism, other than intent. Marketers use sometimes quite nasty techniques to gather data and better push their products, often hiding them well from users. Terrorists use similar functions to hijack PCs for illicit spamming, spying or DOS attacks. The boundary between marketing and terrorism is becoming blurred. That is not good news.

With people exposed thoroughly to such ethics from business and government alike, it isn’t very surprising that they think in similar ways when they want to further a specific cause. Grabbing attention is the aim. Marketing gives them the tools. And if the temptation exists to modify those tools or use some of the less benign ones, it doesn’t take such an enormous shift of attitude now to make that transition. And so we saw last year the use of the web to push for democracy in the Middle East and also to market the riots in London, because marketing it certainly was. We  see attempts to boycott companies and pressurise governments with mass email campaigns, to market demonstrations. You draw the moral  line somewhere along that line according to your own preferences, but it is a very long thin wedge. We all make our line at different places now. And when the marketing doesn’t quite achieve enough, maybe a slightly more violent demo might work better to grab more headlines, or maybe a bomb or a shooting or kidnapping a scientist’s daughter or something.

So, where next? We have the web and the media, mobile phones. Augmented reality will present many new opportunities for marketing. AR is a marketer’s dream. I can hardly type AR without getting excited at all the ways it will improve our lives. But it also will allow threats and coercion and overlays from less scrupulous agencies. It will enable bullying. It will allow people to be digitally marked out, exposed, made vulnerable to anyone looking for them in order to harm them. It will greatly enhance boycotts and demonstrations and make the work of pressure groups so much easier. It stretches very well from the benign to the malign. And when it comes to enhancing the violent side of terrorism, it will help a lot there too, assisting in coordinating the maximum damage and effect, as well as reporting. Positioning systems enabling easy linking of what is happening to where it is happening, and that increases effectiveness too. Of course, any technology that allows adverts to be placed in someone’s field of view also makes it easier to show a terrorist exactly where to put a device.

It is highly likely that some pressure groups and attention seekers will use the seedier marketing tools and these can be expected to get steadily more powerful and potentially harmful. As they progress gradually to the more extreme end, they will also want to maximise the impact of any violent measures they undertake, using whatever clever marketing available to make sure they get the best spin in the media and the biggest overall impact.

We need marketing but it will always be the case that it will give extra power to would-be terrorists, and as it progresses, we should remain aware of this and try to avoid some of the areas where benefits might be outweighed by the problems.

Priorities for futurists

Like most people, I like to think and write about things that are interesting more than those that are important. Of course, we shouldn’t neglect important things just because they are dull. Futurists have their own views as to what is important, and are in a good position to know. Public surveys are useful to tell us what other people think, and we should also give them an appropriate weighting, biased as they are to the present and immediate future. This new one from Pewpoll is a nice easy one to understand, asking simply what are the top priorities for the US government to deal with.

Some of these are very specific to the USA, some are fairly universal. Thankfully, many futurists write loads about economies so I only occasionally cover economic issues. I write far too much about global warming though, because it is fun, but I should cut down on that, and devote more time to other environmental issues, education, medicine, crime, jobs, terrorism and so on. I am always wary of doing issues such as moral breakdown, religion and so on since such things are polarised and many people take offence too easily. I don’t mind offending people per se, but it does affect income to do so, so I do it sparingly. The others I think I do in more or less the right proportions.

So, kick in the pants taken. Next blog: terrorism

Increasing longevity and electronic immortality. 3Bn people to live forever.

I have written and lectured many times on this topic, but it’s always worth doing an occasional update.  Anyone under 35 today will likely have access to electronic immortality and live forever.Well, not forever, but until the machines running their minds fail. How? Read on.

Scientists can already replicate the functions of small parts of the brain, and can essentially replace them in lab animals. Every year, this moves on a little, for all the best reasons. They aren’t mad scientists, they are trying to find solutions to enormous human problems such as  senility, strokes and general loss of brain function due to normal ageing. These destroy parts of the brain function, so if we can work out how to augment the remaining brain to replace lost function, then that should be a good thing. But although these things start in medical treatment, the military also has an interest in making super-soldiers, with faster reactions, better senses, superior intelligence and so on. And the rest of us present a large and attractive market for cosmetic use of brain augmentation.

Most of us would happily pay out for the cosmetic version of all of these things once they become available and safe. I want a higher IQ, perfect memory, better creativity, modifiable personality, enhanced senses and so on. You probably do too., though your list may not be exactly the same as mine. The wish list is long and many of the items on it will become available this century.

The timeline goes from today’s simple implants and sensory links all the way to a full direct link to most parts of the brain by 2045-2050. This will allow 2-way communication between your organic brain and electronic enhancement, which could physically be almost anywhere, though transmission time limits how far away some functions can be. What starts as a cosmetic enhancement to senses or memory will gradually be enhanced to add IQ, telepathic communication, shared minds and many other areas. Over time, more and more of your mind will actually be housed in the machine world. Some of it will still run in your organic brain, but a reducing proportion, so your brain will become less and less important to your mind’s ongoing existence . At some point your organic body will die, and you’ll lose that bit, but hey, it’s no big deal, most of the bits you actually use are elsewhere. But medical advances are fixing many of the things that might otherwise kill you, and pushing your date of death further into the future. That buys you more time to make the migration. How much time?

For young people, the rate of medical advancement expected over the next few decades is such that their expected death date is actually moving further away.

Let’s clarify that: for anyone under 35, each year, for quite a long period starting soonish, more than a year will be added to their expected lifespan, so they won’t be getting closer to dying, they will be getting further away. But only for a time. That rate of development can’t continue forever. It will eventually slow down. But realistically, for the developed world and for many in the developing world too, under 35s will live into their late 90s or 100s. If you’re 35 today, that means you  probably aren’t going to die until after 2075, and that is well after the electronic immortality option kicks in. If it appears on the market in the 2050s, as I believe it will for rich or important people, by 2080, it will be cheap and routine and pretty much anyone will have it as an option.

So, anyone under 35 has a very good chance of being able to carry on electronically after their body dies. They will buy some sort of android body, or maybe just rent one when they want to do something in the physical world and otherwise stay in the cloud. Space and resource limitations may dictate how much real world presence you are permitted.

How many people does this apply to. Median age in the world at the moment in almost exactly 30. 3.5Bn pople are under 30, but some will die too early to benefit. Another 500M in the 30-35 range will make up for the younger ones that die from accidents, wars, disease, or disasters. Then we need to discount for those that won’t be able to afford it. After much hand waving and guesstimating, a reasonable estimate of 3Bn results for those that will have reasonable access to electronic immortality, and will probably live to around 100 before that. Wow! We don’t just have the first person alive who will live electronically for hundreds of years after their body dies. We have the first 3Bn.

They won’t live forever. The Earth won’t last forever, nor will the rest of the universe. But they will be able to live until someone destroys the equipment or switches them off. Wars or terrorism could do that, or even a future society that turns against the idea. It is far from risk free. But, with a bit of luck maybe they could expect to live for a few hundred years after they ‘die’.

I know I’ve made the joke many times, but it’s still worth repeating. Soon, death will no longer be a career problem.