Monthly Archives: December 2012

Thanks for reading my blog

I like doing my blog. It sits alongside radio, TV and print media articles as a valuable channel, but more importantly, blogging is one of my main thinking tools. Writing a line of thinking down forces me to think it through in more detail and rigour and shows up any obvious gaping holes and errors in my world view. Then I fix some of them, tidy up and publish the result. If you haven’t already got a blog of your own, I’d certainly recommend it. It’s easy to do and good fun.

Welcome to my new readers and new followers. Many thanks to everyone who read my rambling, reblogged it, linked to it, tweeted links, added comments or pointed out gaps and errors in my thinking or just added their own alternative views. And last but not least, many thanks to WordPress for hosting it!

WordPress produces stats for numbers of readers etc. Stats are fun and they certainly ensure that my ego won’t get carried away any time soon. My blog still falls very firmly into the also-ran category.

I got 29,000 views across 77 posts, which compares with a top blog like Wattsupwiththat which got 36,000,000 views (1240 times more) of 1929 posts (25 times more posts), 50 times more readers per post than mine. Plenty of room for improvement then!

On the other hand, even leaving aside the blog’s value as a thinking aid, 29,000 views is more audience than I typically lecture at in a year at conferences so it is definitely worth continuing as an output stream.

So, onwards to 2013. Many thanks again for following and reading in 2012 and for your inputs. I look forward to blogging on numerous other topics in 2013. I really hope you’ll come along for the ride or pop in occasionally. I wish you all a happy new year and all the best for 2013.

Useful backgrounds for futurology: systems engineering

I wouldn’t swap futurology for any other career. It is superbly enjoyable, nigh on impossible to get bored, and you can make a decent living. I get emails sometimes asking how to become a futurologist. Actually there are lots of routes. A futurologist is just someone who studies the future. Some backgrounds may be more suited to that than others, but many work well. I know good futurologists with a wide variety of backgrounds. In this entry, I will argue the case for systems engineering as a background, because that’s what I know about from personal experience. I’d invite guest articles from other futurists on their experience and recommendations, what they think are the skills or experience that help them most.

So, my own background:

Under my futurologist wrapper lies an engineer. I did a maths and physics degree and then went into my first job in missile engineering, first doing simple mechanical engineering of aircraft brakes and tank turrets, then some mathematical modelling of heat shields, springs and all sorts of things, then aerodynamics, lethality, reliability, then onto guidance systems and finally systems engineering, which brings all of them together into thinking about the design of the overall system, bringing the many parts together into a working whole. Once a systems engineer, always a systems engineer, it isn’t reversible, it reprograms your core attitude to anything so that you automatically think about the rest of things will be affected by the thing you are messing with right now. It requires clear thinking and a heavy degree of scepticism. You learn to spot flaws quickly, how things might fail, but also how they could be fixed or made to work.

I later migrated to BT where I did systems engineering too, with computer protocols, network simulation, OS design, chip modelling, fibre optics, mobile, security, cybernetics and biomimetics, network design, and forays into just about every other IT field. Futurology is actually a natural progression but to me it is still systems engineering, just modelling a very big system with a lot of interactions. I started specialising in IT and gradually migrating into other fields as I learned how they interact. Connections among things in the real world are so numerous and complex that it is rarely possible to treat topics in isolation. Change anywhere eventually ripples through into change everywhere.

Everyone has had some experience of things that don’t work as planned. If a system is assembled and one or more bits of it don’t work as planned, the whole thing eventually can fail. It is easy and indeed quite common to design systems that will work initially but are doomed to fail. Bad design won’t necessarily stop a system being implemented, but it does mean failures are likely. Systems engineering includes a lot of spotting problems that arise when you combine different parts into a system. Systems engineers are also generally wary of claims by other people until they have analysed them at least a bit to spot obvious flaws in reasoning or basic science.

This all makes systems engineering a good starting point for futurology. Experience in lots of strands of engineering helps guess how something might be achieved, and how long it might take. Seeing potential systemic problems helps narrow down the solutions quickly, and also helps spot what might happen if a system is implemented poorly, and then helps think through potential solutions. I think it also helps with forming a decent world model that includes society and politics too. Altogether, it allows you to think a particular issue through, see how it may interact with everything else, and the consequent system-wide developments that might result.

Starting in a particular field and growing expertise from there into adjacent fields lets you eventually cover a broad area, but there is a future for everything and one person can’t know about everything  so some focus is inevitable. I stay within the field of technology and its  impacts on other aspects of life. I rely on others to cover other important issues and to some degree, if they look reasonably well thought through, I can build their conclusions into my own world view without having to understand them in detail. The penalty is that the further from my own areas of expertise I go, the less I truly understand the analyses, and the more likely I am to ignore some important aspect and to make errors. Your own predictions rely on your own world model, and the more dodgy equations there are in that, the less well it will work.

Still, I think systems engineering provides an excellent basket of core skills and knowledge from which to start futurology. I’d recommend it.

As I said, I would invite guest pieces from other futurists/futurologists to argue the case for other backgrounds, appropriate skill-sets, or even potential pitfalls.

The future of sticks

With the current IT patents fiasco, it’s only a matter of time before someone tries to patent sticks. So, just for the record, prior art exists, right up to using them for highly sophisticated 3d interfaces. I published my ideas on the future use of sticks as computer interfaces in 1991, but made no attempt to patent them. Sticks belong to everyone and all I did was to add a few pretty obvious electronics updates, so I’d hate for any company to try to steal this market, which should be left open to all. So doing my bit to protect the right to use sticks for everyone during the patents grabs, here is my original, and if need be I have the original signed paper version to prove prior art: shows the 1991 version I wrote while in BT, and it has been updated slightly a few times since.

Check the paper for some simple graphics if your imagination needs provoking, but here is a quick summary of the main points. 

Sticks are one of the most primitive tools. Humans have been using sticks for hundreds of thousands of years, so we are pretty good at it. Sticks are used for many very different purposes. Stick a few bristles on the end and you have a brush, make the end or edge hard and sharp and you have a chisel, an axe, a knife, a sword or scalpel, make it glow a bit and it becomes a light sabre. Hollow it out and you have a blowpipe, add a few bits to that and you have a gun. Hammers, sports rackets or clubs, many everyday objects can be approximated as a modified stick. Stick manipulation skills can be used as a base for many others.

Now let’s bring sticks into the realm of pads, and in particular 3D interfacing. Some pads already let you draw on them using small pointy sticks. It really isn’t very hard to extend that to 3d drawing. All you need is to be able to track both ends of a stick. Put a ball on each end of the stick, use a couple of LEDs and a receiver to spot where the reflections come from, and you’re there. The wii, xbox and playstation all have some basic 3d tracking and gesture recognition now, so it just needs slight adaptation to make it almost universally applicable.

There are lots of possible variations in the means of tracking the ends of a stick. You could use complex systems with gyros and dead-reckoning systems, but more easily and cheaply, you can use simple LEDs to illuminate the ends, and use quadrant photodiodes to triangulate them. Alternatively, raster scanning a light beam (from a laser or LED) with the direction encoded on the beam allows much greater precision – this sort of system is used in some missile guidance systems. Using multiple receivers or transmitters adds more precision still. If the balls at the end of the stick are striped, then the magnitude of the reflection will vary sinusoidally as the stick rotates, allowing the twist of the stick to be measured as well as orientation and location. Extra reflectors could be added to let the stick produce a curve. Two or more sticks could be used in combination to create planar or dynamic data. All this so far just uses a simple stick with reflectors. Adding electronics or smart materials to the stick, changing the colour of the ends to vary reflected spectrum or making them flash or pulse gives still further scope for extra data. You could go the whole hog, but then you’ve got a Wii remote.

All this allows a simple stick to be used as the basis for an extensive sculpting and drawing tool-kit  As 3d printers and virtual worlds become more important in everyday life, we will soon need lots of 3d interfacing, and I feel sure that stick-based tools will dominate.

We understand sticks. Let’s try to keep patents away from them.

What will your next body be like?

Many engineers, including me, think that some time around 2050, we will be able to make very high quality links between the brains and machines. To such an extent that it will thereafter be possible (albeit expensive for some years) to arrange that most of your mind – your thinking, memories, even sensations and emotions, could reside mainly in the machine world. Some (perhaps some memories that are rarely remembered for example) may not be suited to such external accessibility, but the majority should be.

The main aim of this research area is to design electronic solutions to immortality. But actually, that is only one application, and I have discussed electronic immortality a few times now :

What I want to focus on this time is that you don’t have to die to benefit. If your mind is so well connected, you could inhabit a new body, without having to vacate your existing one. Furthermore, there really isn’t much to stop you getting a new body, using that, and dumping your old one in a life support system. You won’t do that, but you could. Either way, you could get a new body or an extra one, and as I asked in passing in my last blog, what will your new body look like?

Firstly, why would you want to do this? Well, you might be old, suffering the drawbacks of ageing, not as mobile and agile as you want to be, you might be young, but not as pretty or fit as you want to be, or maybe you would prefer to be someone else, like your favourite celebrity, a top sports hero, or maybe you’d prefer to be a different gender perhaps? Or maybe you just generally feel you’d like to have the chance to start over, do it differently. Maybe you want to explore a different lifestyle, or maybe it is a way of expressing your artistic streak. So, with all these reasons and more, there will be plenty of demand for wanting a new body and a potentially new life.


Lets explore some of the options. Don’t be too channelled by assuming you even have to be human. There is a huge range of potential here, but some restrictions will be necessary too. Lots of things will be possible, but not permissible.

Firstly, tastes will vary a lot. People may want their body to look professional for career reasons, others will prefer sexy, others sporty. Most people will only have one at a time, so will choose it carefully. A bit like buying a house. But not everyone will be conservative.

Just like buying a house, some rich people will want to own several for different circumstances, and many others would want several but can’t afford it, so there could be a rental market. But as I will argue shortly, you probably won’t be allowed to use too many at the same time, so that means we will need some form of storage, and ethics dictates that the ‘spare’ bodies mustn’t be ‘alive’ or conscious. There are lots of ways to do this. Using a detachable brain is one, or not to put a brain in at all, using empty immobile husks that are switched on and then linked to your remote mind in the cloud to become alive. This sounds preferable to me. Most likely they would be inorganic. I don’t think it will be ethically acceptable to grow cloned bodies in some sort of farm and remove their brains, so using some sort of android is probably best all round.

So, although you can do a lot with biotech, and there are some options there, I do think that most replacement bodies, if not all, will be androids using synthetic materials and AI’s, not biological bodies.

As for materials, it is already possible to buy lifelike full sized dolls, but the materials will continue to improve, as will robotics. You could look how you want to look, and your new body would be as youthful, strong, and flexible as you want or need it to be.

Now that we’re in that very broad android/robot creativity space, you could be any species, fantasy character, alien, robot, android or pretty much any imaginary form that could be fabricated. You could be any size or shape from a bacterium to an avatar for an AI spaceship (such as Rommy’s avatar in Andromeda, or Edi in Mass Effect. Noteworthy of course is that both Rommy and Edi felt compelled to get bodies too, so that they could maximise their usefuleness, even though they were both useful in their pure AI form.)

You could be any age. It might be very difficult to make a body that can grow, so you might need a succession of bodies if you want to start off as a child again. Already, warning bells are ringing in my head and I realise that we will need to restrict options and police things. Do we really want to allow adults people to assume the bodies of children, with all the obvious paedophilic dangers that would bring? Probably not, and I suspect this will be one of the first regulations restricting choice. You could become young again, but the law will make it so your appearance must remain adult. For the same obvious reasons, you wouldn’t be allowed to become something like a teddy bear or doll or any other form that would provide easy access to children.

You could be any gender. I wrote about future gender potential recently in:

There will be lots of genders and sexuality variations in that time frame.  Getting a new or an extra body with a different gender will obviously appeal to people with transgender desires, but it might go further and appeal to those who want a body of each sex too. Why not? You can be perfectly comfortable with your sexuality in your existing gender, but  still choose a different gender for your new body. If you can have a body in each gender, many people will want to. You may not be restricted to one or two bodies, so you might buy several bodies of different ages, genders, races and appearances. You could have a whole village of variants of you. Again, obvious restrictions loom large. Regulation would not allow people, however rich or powerful, to have huge numbers of bodies running around at the same time. The environmental, social, political and military impacts would get too large. I can’t say what the limits will be, but there will certainly be limits. But within those limits, you could have a lot of flexibility, and fun.

You could be any species. An alien, or an elf, or a dog. Technology can do most shapes and as for how it might feel, noone knows how elves or dogs or aliens feel anyway, so you have a clean slate to work with, customising till you are satisfied that what you create matches your desire. But again, should elves be allowed to interbreed with people, or aliens? Or dogs? The technology is exciting, but it does create a whole new genre of ethical, regulatory and policing problems too. But then again, we need to create new jobs anyway.

Other restrictions on relationships might spring up. If you have two or more bodies, will they be allowed to have sex with each other, marry, adopt kids, or be both parents of your own kids. Bear in mind cloning may well be legal by then and artificial wombs may even exist, so being both parents of your own cloned offspring is possible. If they do have sex, you will be connected into both bodies, so will control and experience both sides. It is worth noting here that you will also be able to link into other people’s nervous systems using similar technology, so the idea of experiencing the ‘other’ side of a sex act will not be unique to using your own bodies.

What about being a superhero? You could do that too, within legal limits, and of course those stretch a bit for police and military roles. Adding extra senses and capabilities is easy if your mind is connected to an entire network of sensors, processors and actuators. Remember, the body you use is just an android so if your superheroing activity gets you killed, it is just a temporary inconvenience. Claim on insurance or expenses and buy a new body for the next performance.

In this future world, you may think it would be hard to juggle mindsets between different bodies, but today’s computer games give us some insight. Many people take on roles every day, as aliens, wizards or any fantasy in their computer gaming. They still achieve sanity in their main life, showing that it is almost certainly possible to safely juggle multiple bodies with their distinct roles and appearances too. The human mind is pretty versatile, and a healthy adult mind is also very robust. With future AI assistance and monitoring it should be even safer. So it ought to be safe to explore and have fun in a world where you can use a different body at will, maybe for an hour or maybe for a lifetime, and even inhabit a few at once.

So, again, what will your next body look like?

Things that don’t work but could

Continue reading

New type of wind harvester

I am moving old blogs across from nvireuk before I close it next month so that I don’t lose them. Here is another. Please don’t take it from this one that I am in favour of wind turbines. I most certainly am not, but if we must use wind power to appease renewable fans, then at least we should do it in ways that are less irritating to humans and wildlife and a little imagination can go a long way with today’s technology compared to the primitive, almost Victorian heavy engineering used for conventional turbines. This method should be a lot quieter, less visually intrusive, about the same efficiency but unlike wind turbines, potentially able to reduce in cost with Moore’s Law. Initial cost would be similar (the costings I mention are based just on their sample prices, which obviously are usually far higher than finished large scale production), so still nowhere near as good as using shale gas, but it could be. Even then, we’d still need backup generation for when the wind isn’t blowing.

Conventional wind energy harvesting uses turbines on a grand scale, connected to a central motor. The whole thing needs heavy engineering, complex control systems and expensive and scarce materials such as neodymium for the motors. It is possible to build a system that is far more elegant, resource-efficient and less intrusive. Perhaps even much cheaper.

Some time ago a Danish company Danfoss, invented plastic capacitors, that generate electrical energy directly when they are bent. Wind pressure could be used to bend small vanes made of this material by pushing it around a spindle. As it rotates, one side goes through extended, the other side is forced to bend on the way back through the gap. By repeated bending and extending every time it rotates, each vane would generate electricity from the wind. These could be arranged in long strings, and many strings made up into a large sail.

The sail would be tethered to an anchor using ropes, and when the wind blows, it would fill up, the vanes would rotate, and energy would be harvested, with no need for a central motor or any heavy engineering. When the wind dies down, the sail would collapse so that it is less visible. Because the vanes individually would be small, just 5-10 centimetres across, no motion would be visible from any distance away, so they would not be as distracting as conventional turbines. Nor would they kill birds. Plastic capacitor sail generators would therefore have a few advantages over conventional approaches.

The disadvantage is that at the moment the material is fairly expensive, but there are excellent prospects for large cost reductions, and these could make it a far cheaper, as well as a greener, way of harvesting wind power.

Revised comments policy

Now that my blog is getting more grown up, I should make a more sensible comments policy. I don’t provide a platform for every attention-seeking nutter out there. I welcome general comments, praise, criticisms, requests for clarifications and anything generally useful or reasonable. Most will still get published. I won’t publish some comments:

The comments are really thinly disguised ads;

a) The commenter obviously hasn’t shown me the courtesy of actually reading the entry they are supposedly commenting about’

b) The comments contain anything abusive, offensive, or illegal, such as  racist comments, incitement to violence etc

c) Comments whose main line of argument is ‘I would do it that way and that would be stupid, therefore you are stupid’;

d) The proposal that is clearly stated as being designed for x won’t work well in y, therefore is rubbish (irate New York bicycle riders please take note, some of you fall foul of a, c and d)

e) Comments that insist on citations for every point of my argument. I can use Google, so can you. Ditto comments demanding massive research projects. Give me a lab with generous staff and funding and we can chat.

Please note that while I have time to reply sometimes, I can’t always respond. Also, my blog articles are not intended to be of professional journal quality (I write those directly for the professional journals). Often they are just to introduce an idea at a superficial level, so I don’t aim for completeness or list citations.