Monthly Archives: February 2012

How much choice should you have?

Like most people I can’t get through an hour without using Google. They are taking a lot of flak at the moment over privacy concerns, as are Apple, Facebook and other big IT companies. There are two sides to this though.

On one side, you need to know what is being done and want the option to opt out of personal information sharing, tracing and other big brothery types of things.

On the other, and we keep forgetting this, most people have no idea what they want. Ford noted that if you asked the customer what they wanted, they would say a faster horse. Sony’s Akio Morita observed that there was little point in doing customer surveys because customers have no idea what is possible. He went ahead and made the Walkman, knowing that people would buy it, even though no-one had asked for it. Great visions often live far ahead of customer desires. Sometimes it is best just to do it and then ask.

I think to a large extent, these big IT companies are in that same boat.

If your collective IT knows what you do all day (and by that I mean all your gadgets, and all the apps and web services and cloud stuff you use), and it knows a hell of a lot, then it is possible to make your life a lot easier by providing you with a very talented and benign almost telepathic personal assistant. Pretty much for free, at point of delivery anyway.

If we hold companies back with  too many legal barriers because of quite legitimate privacy concerns, this won’t happen properly. We will get a system with too much internal friction that fails frequently and never quite works.

But can we trust them? Apple, Google and Facebook all have far too much arrogance at the moment, so perhaps they do need to be put in their place. But they aren’t evil dictators. They don’t want to harm us at all, they just want to find new ways to help us because it’s on the back of those services that they can get even richer and more powerful. Is that good or bad?

I deleted and paused my web history on Google and keep my privacy settings tight on everything else. Maybe you do the same. But I actually can’t wait till they develop all the fantastic new services they are working on. As a technology futurologist I have a pretty good idea how it will be, I’ve been lecturing about Google’s new augmented reality headset since 3 years before Google existed. Once everyone else has taken all the risks and it’s all safely up and running, I’ll let them have it all. Trouble is, if we all do that it won’t happen.

Avatar 0.0

There has been some activity in recent weeks on the development of avatars, as in the film, or at least some agreement on feasibility and intention to develop, with real actual funding.

The concept is that you could inhabit another body and feel it is yours. I have written many times about direct brain links, superhuman AIs, shared consciousness and so on, since 1992, and considered a variety of ways of connecting. It has been fun exploring the possibilities and some of the obvious applications and dangers. For a few years it seemed to be just Kurzweil and me, but gradually a number of people joined in, often labelling themselves transhumanists. Now that it is more obvious how the technology might spin out, the ideas are becoming quite mainstream and no longer considered the realm of cranks. Many quite respectable scientists are now involved.

Google DARPA and avatar and you’ll see a lot of recent commentary on the DARPA project to create surrogate soldiers, just like we see them in the film. Not tomorrow, but by around 2045. Why then? Well, 2045 is the date when some of us expect to be able to do a full direct brain link, at least in prototype. I think with a lot of funding and the right brains involved, it is entirely achievable then.

But DARPA won’t have it all to themselves. The Russians are also looking at it, and hosted a recent conference. Dmitry Itskov, founder of Russia 2045, has been given permission to develop his own avatar program. Check this out:

http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/44938297/ns/technology_and_science-innovation/t/does-future-hold-avatar-like-bodies-us/#.T0YoIPFmKom

From their conference press release:

The first Global Future Congress 2045 (GF2045) was held on Feb.17-20 in Moscow, where 56 world leading physicists, biologists, anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists and philosophers met to discuss breakthroughs in life extension technologies and draft a resolution to the United Nations setting the radical lengthening of human lifespan and the creation of Avatars as a priority for preservation of humankind.

About 500 people attended the three-day event featuring presentations by over 50 scientists including inventor Ray Kurzweil, Microsoft Research Director Rane Johnson-Stempson, and Astronaut Sergey Krichevskiy. The event was focused on breakthrough technologies that could create a synthetic body-vessel for the mind, offering humans unlimited prolongation of life to the point of immortality…..

Among the featured life-extension projects is “2045” a Russia-based Avatar project consisting of three phases. First, to create a humanoid robot named “Avatar”, and a state-of-the-art brain-computer interface system. Next, to create a life support system between the “Avatar” and the human brain. The final step is creating an artificial brain in which to transfer the original individual consciousness.

Development of a cybernetic body. This is about as advanced as it gets currently. You can link to nerves, and transmit signals to and from them to capture and relay sensations. But this will progress quickly over coming years as we start seeing strong positive feedback among the nano-bio-info-cogno disciplines. I’m just annoyed that I am not just starting my career about now, it would be an excellent time to do so. But at least I’ll get pleasure from saying ‘I told you so’ a few times.

I won’t repeat all the exciting possibilities for the military, sex and games industries, or electronic immortality, I’ve blogged enough on these. For now, it’s just great to see the field moving another important step further from sci-fi into the realms of reality

 

Zombies are coming!

Zombies are coming. They might arrive around 2075. I like Zombies, or more accurately, I like killing them. I shoot hundreds of them every week on my Xbox, in games like Half Life, Oblivion and Dead Space. There are a fair few zombie films around too, evidence that we just love being terrified by zombies. I think perhaps the big attraction is that they are extremely scary when done right, fictional, only a bit human-like, and of course dead anyway, so it doesn’t cause any guilt when you kill them again. So, I got to thinking whether they will always be fictional, or whether there is some prospect of them arriving, and if so, what can we do about it? Will it be like the computer games and movies, or different? Here goes. Bear with me, since you need to look first at the basic foundations of the technology platform on which their arrival will depend.
As I outlined already, nanotechnology is feeding in to neuroscience by enabling finer probes that can assist scientists in reverse engineering it. Biotechnology and IT are slowly converging, with insights in AI helping brain science and vice versa, but also in that we can now make rudimentary connections between IT and our nervous systems. Synthetic biology is rapidly getting to grips with basic tools and techniques used by nature, and improving on some of them, replicating others, to make entirely synthetic components of future biological systems. We are already designing bacteria to do specific protein engineering tasks, break down waste, and provide sensory capability So, lots of interesting tech is going on.
Listing a few of the important (from a Zombie perspective anyway) outcomes of such research, we can now connect IT to nerve tissue (and the connections are rapidly becoming finer thanks to nanotech). We can modify DNA and simulate and then assemble a wide range of proteins (although this is still very limited and very slow). We are starting to understand some of the basic principles of how to make smart and conscious machines and are already very good at distributed processing, self organisation, sensing and data storage and distribution. In the not too far future, we will be able to enhance human senses by linking various synthetic sensors to our brains. We will be able to link to peripheral nerves to pick up sensations and relay them across networks, stimulating equivalent nerves in other people to create the same or at least similar sensations in them. In IT, we have already progressed some way along the multi-core and distributed processing time-lines, and it is foreseeable that in the far future, computing my well be done by billions of tiny processors suspended in a gel, using optical interconnects. In fact, using progress in biotech and synthetic biology, it is equally foreseeable that this will be done by using bacteria to assemble the IT in their own cells, and using their own energy to power the circuits.
So, round about the time we figure out how the brain works well enough to connect properly to it, we will also be designing conscious machines and very probably using smart bacteria as the platform for them, creating and powering the electronic components in what is best described as smart yogurt. Looking at the basic physics and maths, it is clear that a smart yogurt could have as much raw processing power as all the human brains in Europe! Already scary, but let’s not go all Terminatory just yet, Zombies are much more fun.
Smart yogurt is actually really scary stuff. It would look (and maybe even taste) just like today’s. But each cell would contain electronic circuits, that can be connected to the circuits in other bacteria using optical signals (bioluminescence for example) to make very sophisticated circuits for all kinds of sensing, storage, comms and processing. And because they are still viable bacteria, they will be able to survive and flourish anywhere there is a decent food supply. Being very smart collectively (each yogurt could have an IQ equivalent to the whole of the EU), they will be able to genetically redesign their own offspring to capture and colonise other biological niches. They will be able to design offspring so that they can penetrate the human body and bypass the immune system, or to enter and remain in the brain (let’s not even call these bacteria, since they are more likely to be nothing like natural bacteria when they’ve finished, they may well be as small as viruses but with much more sophisticated capability). Inside the brain, they might connect to individual synapses and monitor and signal the electrical activity to their external allies. These allies might then create an electronic replica of that person’s brain, thereby replicating their mind. They might map out the connections to work out the signals the person uses to move their limbs, to speak or do anything else.
This obviously provides the means to remote control the person’s body, and to intercept or over-ride any thoughts they might have. Smart yogurt could take over your mind, over-ride your brain at will, and to control your body as easily as you can. Keeping a person’s body alive is optional, but obviously comes with advantages of maintaining its capability. Keeping the brain alive is less advantageous, as the yogurt can take over and replace any and all of its functions. So we are likely to have a few varieties of zombies. Some will be brain-dead, but otherwise perfectly healthy. Others will be fully alive but with their minds under supervision and subject to over-ride. They might know what is happening to them but be powerless to resist. Others will have no awareness of their predicament and think they are fine even though they have been enslaved. And finally, we may have some that are fully and properly dead, brought back to an animated state by the yogurt taking over all the main electrical functions while the brain itself is potentially even missing. We could even have headless zombies!
Killing these zombies would probably work much like it does in the games and movies. They all need a body to be in at least partial working order, and if they are going to get around, that means they need a circulatory and respiratory system, and legs (or a mobility scooter at least). So you could kill them by fire, chopping them up, or shooting them in the heart, or various other ways.
The headless and dead zombies sound quite disturbing, but they would be in small minority. The great majority of zombies would look much like normal people. This is more like ‘The Body Snatchers’ than ‘Dead-Space’. How much they will worry us depends mainly on whether they are aggressive. Terry Pratchett wrote amusingly about a zombie being gainfully employed as a solicitor. If they use the technology suggested here, many zombies could be fully functioning, valuable members of the community, even leaders and captains of industry. For a while anyway. But some might be violent. We might try to use zombies extensively in the army or police, for obvious reasons. But if they are as smart as or smarter than people, they will soon have their own culture and inevitably come into conflict with regular people. They might rise against us in a war against humans. Trouble is, if they have superior senses and faster brains and more intelligence and can communicate directly across the net, they will be pretty good competition. We will probably lose.
So, zombies are possible, plausible, even likely, given what we already can deduce about the future of technology. And the time-frame for this possibility is sooner than you would hope. Depending on our reactions and adaptations, they could become a threat to human existence. I’m going back on Dead Space to improve my aim.
The one possibly good thing is that as a way of wiping out life on earth, zombies are only one of 150 alternatives that are feasible this century. We might not last long enough to be killed by zombies. I am not sure if that is good or bad.

pinterest.com, male and female websites

Men and women are different. Shock, horror.

Their range of likes and dislikes overlaps to a high degree, but the centre of gravity is markedly different in some areas.

A fairly new social website called pinterest is growing very rapidly

http://pinterest.com/

I looked at it and I can see why. It is a very good site. A very nice idea, very nicely done. It deserves to succeed.  But 97% of the followers are women. It is unusual to see such gender polarisation.

So what would a man do if he has lots of images and visual ideas he wanted to share? Well, he would blog them, or stick them on tumblr. Tumblr looks the same as pinterest but without all the chitchat. Social networking sites, blogs and tumblr represent well how men communicate. Social networking sites, blogs and Pinterest represent best how women do.

Strong overlap, but the extremes are pinterest and tumblr. They look like male and female versions of the same idea. There must be lots of other sites that work very well for men or women for which there are gender opposites.

OK, so it’s Valentine’s day. Here is one missing link:

There should be a website that allows people to have a personal board on which people can post notes of affection and affirmation and encouragement for each other. You could limit it to friends to avoid stalkers and nasty comments, but people could give you nice feedback to make your day better. Strokes I think psychologists call them. You can do that with twitter or facebook or email or blogs of course, but it needs brought out, crystallised, just like pinterest does the picture sharing and comment stuff for women. It will be another women 97% site. The pinterest people should build it.

Capitalism 2.0

This entry now forms a chapter in my book Total Sustainability, available from Amazon in paper or ebook form.

ATS, Addressed Time Slicing

1       Introduction

In normal packet or cell based communication, the header and contents are of the same bit rate and line codes etc. The only freedom the user has is in the actual choice of bits used in the cell and their meaning. Although this has some advantages, it restricts the use of the system. Some users may only require a low transmission capability and would wish to avoid transmission at the full line rate. Others may be quite capable of much higher rates and be frustrated at the slow speed available to them. This document discusses an alternative method for information transport which supports users with different transmission requirements. It uses time slices with attached addresses and is thus an addressed time slice (ATS) transport system.

The technique is now possible because of the advent of purely optical transmission and routing/ switching. It is no longer necessary to read a packet’s contents at a switch before routing it. This allows complete traffic transparency to be achieved, which has not been possible with previous technology.

2       ATS Mechanism

The ATS cell is comprised of a fixed duration time slice and an attached header. The time slice can be used in whatever way the user chooses. The user may send any signal subject to the bandwidth limitations of the system and the time slice duration. The header contains only an address, for routing purposes. There is no other header information. Such a cell is shown in figure 1.  ATS cells are routed according to the address in the cell header so the address format and header rate must be the same throughout the network. This system has many advantages which are discussed below.

3       Contents Flexibility

As mentioned above, the time slice can be used for whatever purpose the user chooses. This could be a digital signal of any bit rate, analogue signal or just a chunk of optical spectrum. The user is no longer constrained to a fixed bit rate for transmission. He is not even forced to digitize a signal. The source simply fills the ATS time field with the signal. The transmission unit attaches an appropriate header. At the destination, the header is stripped off and the information field is relayed unchanged to the appropriate device. The format, information rate and meaning of the information field is entirely determined by the end devices and is completely independent of the carrier protocol. The only limitation on the signal is imposed by the system bandwidth.

4       Network Implications

The ATS technique has become possible because of the new optical technologies. It is possible to transmit and route an optical signal entirely optically, without ever converting it to the electrical domain. There is no need to have devices in the network which are linked with service categories. The signal itself need only be read at the destination. This allows the network to be made completely transparent to the data traffic types, digital and analogue. The user is constrained to use particular transmission times but is otherwise completely free. The network can be designed purely on the basis of the traffic weight, regardless of the form that the traffic takes.

Because the ATS does not have a fixed format information field, it is not possible to construct a network with fully active nodes which read and re-write data. Any system which affects the information field (except obviously at the destination) must be excluded. Thus regenerators, store and forward switches and any other modulation dependent devices are excluded, but appropriate amplifiers may be used. The system would work best on a network where the route is switched optically on the basis of the address without affecting the information field.

The system would also work well with optical transmission system which distribute all signals to all destinations, provided that there are no regenerators. In this case, the address would be read only by the terminals and the ATS would be completely ‘untouched’ on its way.

5       User Advantages

Because of the contents flexibility, the user can buy a transmission system which fits his personal needs in the most economic way because he is free to make the trade-off between cost of time and the cost of digitizing for fixed rate transmission. The user may wish to use the time slice to transmit a much lower data rate than bandwidth allows. Although he would not get the maximum value for the time bought, this may be outweighed by the saving through using a cheaper transmitter. Alternatively, a user may have a capability to transmit at a higher speed than that tolerable for the header readers in the routers. He can squeeze much more information into the ATS than would be allowed by a conventional system which limits the data rate to be the same as in the header.

6       ATS Routing

The ATS header contains only an address. This would be read optically and the ATS routed accordingly. There would not be any other information in the header. Whatever method is actually used for reading the address, the information field should be left alone so as not to affect the contents in any way. Optical routing would allow this to be done. The network could be made very simple indeed and the potential throughput would be very high.

7       ATM Compatibility

The ATS could be made to resemble an ATM cell in size and address structure. However, there would be no control or other information in the header except the address. Any ATM transport system which only reads the address and automatically routes the cell unaltered could be compatible with ATS.

8       WDM Migration

The technique would migrate well with WDM. It would allow wavelengths to be shared very easily, and could even be used to deal with multi-wavelength transmissions between nodes. If the problems of dispersion can be reduced to a tolerable level, an ATS could have a single wavelength header and be comprised of data using many wavelengths. This would reduce by orders of magnitude the switching problems caused by having to switch large numbers of packets at different wavelengths.

9       Multiplexing Options

Another extension of the technique would be to vary the size of the time slice at the different hierarchical levels in the network. Many local level ATSs could be multiplexed into large second level ATSs with others sharing the same second level route. This could be done again at the trunk level. A second level ATS is shown in figure 2.

The world is more complex than it seems. AARRGGHH!

Thanks @AKPosthuman for the title. I’ll be largely preaching to the converted here, but never mind.

Life seems to be cyclical in all sorts of ways. The one phasing me today is that all of a sudden I feel less sure about lots of things I was certain about a few years ago. Science, political allegiance, world order, basic values, even basic questions like who the hell am I really?

You start of as a child and know sod all, but by the time you’re out of nappies you persuade yourself (and fail to persuade your parents) that you know everything. Then you go to school and discover there are deeper problems than counting to ten. At each stage of qualifications you get to a point where you start thinking you understand stuff, or at least must be getting close. But it is an illusion. You only ever get to understand the answers to some of the questions you’ve been made aware of so far. A bit more education and a whole new range of questions appears. A garden snail is probably confident that it understands the world fine. And it does, it has answers to all it wonders about, it just doesn’t ask deep questions (guessing a bit here, I don’t really know what a snail thinks). It may well be true that ignorance is bliss. It certainly needs less effort.

After graduation, you get chucked in at the deep end in work, and are exposed to the full reality that you are a mere novice in a world of experts. A decade later, you’re starting to catch up and hopefully pushing ahead in at least some tiny areas. A decade after that, you’re flying high, in your own head at least. You’re confident in your field, understand how the world works, the arguments for and against X,Y and Z, and which is right. You have a well stocked basket of opinions on just about everything of importance to you, you know which flag to salute, who you are, what matters, what you believe and what you know to be trash. You know who to look up to, and who is full of crap. You know there is more to learn, that the world is much bigger and more complex than you thought, but that just drives you on, it’s what life is about.

And then you start to realise it isn’t even that simple. Just as you thought you realised the world was more complex than you thought, but you could allow for that, but you were at least starting to get the beginnings of a grip, you discover it is actually far more complex than you thought. Well, that’s where I realised I am this morning. Another cycle of discovery, starting all over again. I have to re-evaluate the whole damn thing from scratch again with revised thinking.

AKposthuman assures me that this is becoming wiser. God I hope he’s right. I’d hate to think my brain is decaying and yesterday’s easy problems now look hard because of that. If I can persuade myself  that what I’m seeing is just a glimpse of the next level of questions, and see how damned frightening it is, then I’ll be fine.

Thanks AK. Wonder if I’ll live long enough to see the start of the next cycle?

Environmental and engineering convergence

My best friend Dave Faulkner runs an environmental consultancy. I host a couple of his papers on global warming on the Futurizon web site. We have many a beer over debate about environmental issues. Over the years, I have worked a few times with both Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace. I have a lot of respect for Jonathon Porritt and Doug Parr. We share a passion for a healthy environment, though we disagree on some of the ways to achieve it. It’s the same with my friend Dave. I can like and respect a person without agreeing with everything they say. It is nicer still when some common ground appears.

Only a small bit of my work involves environmental issues so I am far from expert in the environment field, though I do have my own embryonic environmental consultancy now. But I am expert at studying the future overall and pretty good at making predictions – I get it right 6 times more often than I get it wrong – and as I look at the many factors affecting the way the world is going, I feel hesitantly optimistic. There is some potential for a techno-utopia but I know we won’t get that. We will take a sub-optimal path that creates as many new problems as we solve. The world of 2050 and beyond will still be a mixture of good and bad, just with different goods and bads.

The approach to our environment though is one area I think will improve. On one side, we have the likes of Porritt and Parr, leading much of the green community and doing what they can to motivate people with the desire to live in a nicer world in harmony with nature. I can’t fault that, only in some of the policies they recommend to achieve it, which I think come from occasional flaws in their analyses. On another side, engineers are racing to develop better technologies, sometimes deliberately to help the environment, but more often almost coincidentally making better toys that happen to be better for the environment. Engineers are mostly driven by market forces, but they are still human, and many also care passionately for the environment, so will generally seek solutions that do their job but are better for the environment where the choice exists. In fact, it is hard to spot examples of new technology that are worse for the environment than their predecessors. Market forces, mediated through well motivated engineers, can make the world better just as well as any green. Both can help us move to a better world. 

I see a lot of needless worrying by environmentalists though, some of whom (I won’t name names) think of scientists and engineers as the enemy. Needless worry, and sometimes counter-productive. One of the big worries this week is that a lot of resources are scarce that we need to make renewable energy, or to make batteries to store it. But almost at the same time, articles appear on inductive power delivery to cars that circumvents the need for large batteries and hence the need for lithium – I even proposed that solution myself a few years ago, so it is good to see it appearing as a project somewhere. New materials for IT are being developed too, so we won’t rely for much longer on the other things that are scarce. So, no worries, it’s just a short-term problem. For the last few years it has been recommending spending trillions to avoid carbon dioxide production. But even without spending any trillions, future energy technology that is being developed anyway will make fossil fuels redundant, so it will take care of itself. Panic is expensive but unnecessary, the worry needless and counter-productive, serving only to slow down the race to sustainability by diverting funds to the wrong areas.

The environment has some very good friends in engineering now. Biomimetics is the engineering field of copying ideas  or at least inspiration from nature. I’ve occasionally use biokleptics when an idea is blatantly stolen. Nature doesn’t have any lawyers defending her intellectual property rights, but has been using random trial and error for 3 billion years to develop some fantastic engineering solutions and if anything encourages their copying. So, someone looks at spiders and develops a new kind of architecture that produces better structures with less material. Going way back to the 80s, I looked at evolution and made the tiny deductive leap to thinking of evolving software and hardware, then soon after looked at embryo growth and came up with ideas of how to self organise telecomms networks and sensor nets. I love biomimetics.  So do many other engineers, and the whole field is exploding now. It will help to make systems, objects, fabrics, materials, architecture and processes that are more energy or resource efficient, and quite often more beautiful.There are a few purists who insist on copying something exactly as nature does it, but mostly engineers are happy to be inspired and make their own tweaks to adapt it to needs. So, long ago, Icarus started the field by copying nature but a century ago we discovered we could make planes more easily with metal fixed wings.

Synthetic biology essentially completes the relationship by adding human design into biology. This embryonic field will expand vastly, and will be used for a wide range of tasks from resource extraction and processing, to computing. Nanotech and insights from neuroscience will add more to allow rich interaction between organic and inorganic devices, often bridging the gap to allow us to put electronic devices in direct connection with our bodies, or those of other creatures. This field also allows the wonderful possibility of undoing some of the damage done to the environment, and even making nature work better. Gaia 2.0 will be with us this century. Of course, if we don’t develop all this science and technology, we will be stuck with a human world that is immensely resource hungry and getting worse, using far more resources than would otherwise be needed, damaging the environment, with no hope of repairing the damage. There wouldn’t even be a plus side, because people would also live poorer lives and be less fulfilled and less happy.

Having been highly convergent on the goal of making the world a better place, this is where engineers often part company with greens. Most engineers think better engineering is the best route to a sustainable world, most greens (and, it has to be admitted, some engineers) think we should slow it all down. This superficially suggests lower environmental impact, implying that people will consume less if they swap devices less often, or don’t get that next pay rise, but it doesn’t deliver. It is a wrong deduction. In much the same way that poor people are often fatter than rich people, what it does change is the access to a better diet, in this case, of environmentally friendlier technology that really needs extra R&D before it is with us. That funding comes from market demand and the ability to pay, and that needs more people to be richer. For the next several decades, what we need is economic growth, selectively. Again, I start to agree with Porritt here. It isn’t just any growth we need, but growth that is spent wisely, using growth to improve peoples lives, and improving the environment we live in either directly or via R&D and the greener technology it will deliver.

Progress and The Care Economy (btw, the UN is badly wrong)

I’ve often written about the Care Economy, the one that I think comes after the information economy. As new things come over the horizon, it is always worth an update. And anyway, I promised a while back to write further on the future of capitalism: http://timeguide.wordpress.com/2012/01/04/we-need-to-rethink-capitalism/ so time to get on with it I guess. The Care Economy idea is resonating better with the way the word is now than when I first raised it in the 90s. We see a stronger desire to live sustainably, to see human skills valued per se rather than just financial wealth. These are both care economy values.

The primary driver for the care economy is progress in machines. Let’s include large-scale robotics and AI of course, but let’s also recognise that much of the progress now happens at invisibly small scales, in biotech, in synthetic biology, biomimetics, in synthetic neurology.  Taking the most obvious and most easily quantifiable area, the fastest supercomputers now compare to the human brain in overall power (which I estimate at the equivalent of around 10^15 instructions per second and 10^15 bits of storage, though it is a bit of an apples-and-oranges comparison). Thanks to the limits on Moore’s Law recently having been pushed back another decade or two, their descendants will carry on getting even better (graphene and molybdenene circuits can be smaller and faster, with lasagne processors not far away, not to mention smart yoghurt, so there is a lot of potential still in the pipeline, but that’s another blog). Eventually, even personal gadgets will have better capability than the Mk1 human brain (unless regulation intervenes).

An ordinary computer doesn’t work the same way as the brain of course, but work is also ongoing in understanding how the brain works, and scientists can produce electronic equivalents to some small brain regions already. Electronics isn’t all digital chips, there are many other sorts of devices too. With a big well-stocked toolbox and detailed instruction manuals, or descendants will be able to do a lot with electronics.

What then for your information economy job? Well, it will eventually be better, faster and cheaper to use some sort of machine instead of you. That will force you to retrain or to concentrate on those areas of your job that can’t still be done by machine, and those areas will be shrinking.

The Care Economy is recognition of this problem, and suggesting that we will focus more and more on the emotional, human interaction, side of work. Social, emotional, interpersonal skills will be relatively more important. Hence, for lack of a better name, the care economy. However, there is absolutely no guarantee that the number of care economy jobs will expand to fill the number leaving the information economy. Today, about 30% of jobs are in what could reasonably be described as the care economy. This can grow, but not indefinitely. So we will have to rework our economy to avoid excessive polarisation between haves and have nots. That won’t be easy. We will need to redesign capitalism.

It isn’t going to be just that a lot of people in information economy jobs will have migrated to care economy jobs. The nature of the economy will change. With machines increasingly doing the physical and intellectual work, it will be like a black box economy, where people put a request into the box, and out comes the required product. The cost of material goods will drop a great deal, as will the materials and energy needed – progress in all branches of science and engineering will accelerate a great deal as AI adds hugely to the available thinking. (Some of us call this the singularity, though that can be a somewhat misleading term, because infinite development speed is not possible.) A small number of people plus a lot of machine power will take basic resources (mined or recycled, it matters not) and add highly to their usefulness, vastly more than previous technology generations could. Nanotech, biotech, infotech and cognotech will converge and will allow tiny amounts of physical resource to yield huge benefits in people’s lives. NBIC convergence includes areas such as synthetic biology, biomimetics, which will adsorb parts of IT and strong AI as well as materials technology and nanotech. And vice versa.

I am not certain whether professional economists call it economic growth if we end up with far more stuff at lower output cost. Reduction in costs reduces prices, which reduces the size of the financial economy if growth in demand doesn’t grow faster. It is certainly a growth in the economy to me, since money is only one factor that indicates wealth and economics isn’t about money, it is about managing resources to gain the greatest benefit. And this benefit will grow spectacularly. In the care economy, we could even see less money but still all have a far higher standard of living. Money simply becomes less important as things become cheaper.

So one of a characteristics of the Care Economy is that it is a time of spectacular growth in material wealth, of plenty, even as it reduces environmental impact and improves the valuation of human interaction. Even if there is less of what we now call money (there may not be less money, I’m just saying it doesn’t necessarily matter if there is).

I find myself agreeing a bit, but mostly disagreeing with the UN’s recent proclamations here. (quick summary here:http://news.yahoo.com/un-panel-says-retool-world-economy-sustainability-164515165.html)

I fully agree that we need to become sustainable, and need to value non-financial things like quality of environment and human social well-being more. I believe strongly that the technology progress route is the best way to achieve it. The UN is very wrong with their approach. They are coming at it from totally the wrong angle, not understanding that technology progress can deliver lower environmental impact than cutting back on standard of living. Whether this is extreme left-wing influence or just bad futurist advice I don’t know. What is clear is that they argue for the opposite philosophy, that growth is bad, that we should trim back our lifestyles because only then can we live sustainably. That is nonsense, we don’t need to do that. In fact, to do so slows down the demand for new products slows down the progress to better ones that are more environmentally friendly. We are faced with a simple choice. Do we want to live in a healthy environment with happy people with a fantastic lifestyle? Or do we want a UN world of relative poverty, using primitive technology sparingly and telling ourselves it is for our own good, polishing our halos to make ourselves feel better?

The care economy will change our value sets as it progresses. If we leap towards the mature care economy, say 2050, where anyone can buy a $100 device with a five-figure IQ, and integrate it so well into their nervous system that it acts as a brain extension, what is the value of being smart? If anyone can use an assembler to create pretty much anything they can imagine (within modest size and resource limits), what is the value of physical skill? If anyone can use technology to reach what is today Olympic class performance in any sport within months, where is the value in being faster or stronger or more precise? Historical advantage has come from being born with a genetic advantage, and using cultural advantage to nurture it to overall benefit. Technology levels the field.

So we will value the most core of human skills, being human. Even if R2D2 can beat you in just about every way possible, it still won’t be human.

2050 is some way off, and the information economy is still running at full speed. However, we already see the increasing focus on human value and reduction of emphasis on financial wealth as indicators of happiness or even national well-being. We already see more demands for human value-add, such as ‘authenticity’, or provenance. Even celebrity is increasing in value. Some new trends will start soon. As people come to value machines less and humans more, companies will find the markets forcing them to become closer to the customer, to become more integrated into their customer communities. Many care economy businesses will emerge from social network sites.

The biggest problem with all of this, and it remains unresolved, is that increasing  efficiency via machine effort reduces the number of people needed in many job areas, and offers no guarantee elsewhere that new jobs will be created in equal measure. We don’t want to end up with many people unemployed and poor. We have to make sure somehow that everyone has access to the very nice life potentially on offer. We do need to redesign capitalism.

I wrote in my capitalism piece about taxing the accumulated human knowledge and infrastructure needed to make all the automated systems – those using them shouldn’t be able to keep all the wealth for themselves if the entire society has contributed, providing capital and effort is important and valuable, but nevertheless is only one of the inputs, and should be valued as such.

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

Concluding, we are one notch closer to the care economy. We can see a bit better where the technology path is leading, and can already see some of the signs of cultural change. We are also becoming more aware of some of the problems along the way, but are starting to produce potential solutions for them.  Sadly, we now have misguided institutions like the UN muddying the waters with policy suggestions that would destroy the potential for good, and make the world a worse place. The UN suggestions are based on poor thinking and bad futurology. They should be ignored.

It’s time to invest in shale gas

There is much ado about shale gas at the moment. It is coming nicely into fashion. It is cheap, produces low-carbon dioxide compared to coal, is cleaner, and offers energy independence and security compared to current gas and oil suppliers. It is far cheaper and greener than current wind energy solutions such as turbine farms.

After many years of talk of global warming, it looks very like that has flattened off. With convincing new studies coming through every week, the warming we saw in the late 20th century looks more and more to me to have been mainly caused by natural cycles, with only a fairly small push by increasing CO2. Temperature has levelled off, with no increase in temperature for 15 years, strong evidence that  CO2 increases were not a primary cause, since CO2 levels have carried on increasing with no associated rise in temperature. Many astrophysicists and other scientists, (just about everyone except climate scientists whose jobs depended on warming and greens who were on the climate change bandwagon to push their own sociopolitical agendas), are now suggesting that we are heading into a long period of colder climate. I am happy now to accept that the alarmism was much overdone and I am no longer concerned about warming. I am far more concerned about the economic damage being done because of the mis-informed panic, especially in the UK and the rest of Europe. The CO2 problem hasn’t gone away, it is universally agreed that it does act as a greenhouse gas, but it has certainly been revised downwards as a problem, with evidence that it isn’t as strong a forcing agent as claimed, and we have several more decades at least to worry about solving it. As we move to better technologies anyway, it will solve itself.

As the climate cools, we will need more energy for heating. The cooling is expected by some scientists to last for decades, so this won’t be a short-lived market.

There are several up and coming new technologies that will offer us abundant energy. I am a big believer that photovoltaic solar will eventually come up trumps, but it needs a while yet. Nuclear power based on thorium is another big contender, offering nuclear without most of the problems. But it isn’t ready yet either. Wind energy is ludicrously expensive, requires scarce materials and needs backups anyway, either that or batteries also using scarce materials. Shale gas however is already coming on the market, the extraction technologies are charging ahead, supplies are being discovered, and once we have it out of the ground, it needs only ordinary gas power stations. Shale gas will therefore be an accelerating trend. Calls to develop it in the UK will get progressively louder, and companies involved in extracting it will profit greatly. While there are still many who remain convinced that warming is on the cards, the share prices are probably undervalued, so it is a good time to get in to gas extraction companies. Invest before the worst of the rush.