Monthly Archives: January 2013

Hover boards

My daughter asked me when we could expect hoverboards. OK.

In the old film Back to the Future, the hero rides a hoverboard instead of a skateboard. We don’t see many of them around yet, but there are a few ways you could do it. One is clumsy and involves using a compressor and air jets to make a small hovercraft that you can ride on.

Another has no moving parts, so would be much more in keeping with the one Michael J Fox modelled.

I wrote a while ago about the future of bicycles:

The basic idea was to add a plate to the front forks of the bike that would be pulled along a linear induction mat.

A highly skilled skateboard user with an excellent sense of balance might be able to dispense with the bike bit. Instead, repulsion between the magnetic forces created by the mat and circuits in the board would keep it afloat. Pulling the board along would be no problem of course, as the filed can propagate down the mat just as for the bikes.

The big question is whether sufficient force could be generated with everyday simple circuits, or even with permanent neodymium magnets. And how easy it would be to balance the board. I suspect it ought to be doable but my EM theory is rather rusty and although I have designed magnetic clutches before, and the principle should be similar, I am no longer up to the job.

It isn’t essential to have a linear induction mat cannibalised from bicycle lane use. If there is sufficient demand for hover-skate-board parks, special surfaces with loads of coils could be switched on and off to coordinate with the board circuits to make it far easier. Rather like a Segway manages to stay upright by rapidly adjusting torques, a hoverboard could easily house enough electronics to do the job. It would cost more than an ordinary skateboard of course, but with no wheels, maybe a wider range of tricks might be feasible too. With no wheels, they could slide sideways and spin around easily. That would make them harder in some ways, but also more versatile, so sports could evolve that are even more fun that regular skateboards. As someone who has never managed to stay on a real skateboard more than 25m yet, I feel inadequate to advise on techniques, but the engineering should be feasible.

In terms of timescale, there is nothing here that is beyond current technology. Nobody has bothered yet, as far as I know. But if there was a demand, someone could make hoverboards soon, and they could fly, and you could probably make some pretty fun sports with them too.

Vampires are yesterday, zombies will peak soon, then clouds are coming

Most things that you can imagine have been the subject of sci-fi or fantasy at some point. There is certainly a large fashion element in the decision what to make the next film about and it is fun trying to spot what will come next.

Witches went out of fashion a decade ago even while other sword and sorcery, dungeons and dragons stuff remained stable and recurrent, albeit a niche. Vampires and werewolves accounted for far too many films and became boring, though admittedly, some of them were very good fun, so it’s safe to bury them for a decade or hopefully two.

Zombies are among the current leaders, (as I predicted several years ago, in spite of being laughed at back then). It is still hard to find a computer game that doesn’t have some sort of zombies in it, so they have a good while to go yet. The zombie apocalypse is scientifically and technologically feasible (see that makes them far more disturbing than vampires and dragons, though the parasites in Alien are arguably even scarier.

Star Trek and the Terminator series introduced us to shape shifters. Avatar and Star Trek enthused over futuristic Indians. Symbionts and proxies are interesting but that’s really quite a shallow seam, there is really only one idea and it’s been used already. Religion and New Age trash has generally polluted throughout sci-fi and fantasy, but people are getting tired of it – American Indians and Australian Aborigines have been apologised to now. Recent Muslim backlash however suggests that the days are numbered for Star Wars, Dune, Mk 1 Klingons and others tapping into middle eastern stereotypes, so maybe  that will force other exotic cultures into the sci-fi limelight. The Cold War has already been done in overdose. South America has already been fully mined too. It’s a good while since the Chinese and Japanese cultures had a decent turn and I suspect they will come back strongly soon, whereas Africa doesn’t hold enough cultural identification points yet. Homophilia is having recurrent effects from Star Wars to Dr Who, but apart from gender-hopping, there isn’t really very far it can go. You can’t make many films from it.

So if those are the areas that are already showing signs of exhaustion  what comes after zombies? Gay zombies? Chinese zombies? Virtual zombies? Time travel zombies? Yeah, but after that?

Here’s my guess. Clouds.

Clouds are the IT Zeitgeist. They are the mid term future for sci-fi. There are a few possible manifestations and some tap well into other things we are getting to like. Clouds are a deep seam too. Not just one idea there. We have self-organisation, distribution, virtualisation, hybridisation, miniaturisation, self-replication, adaptation and evolution. We have AI, biomimetics, symbiosis, parasitic and commensalistic relationships. We have new kinds of gender, new kinds of intelligence, new physical and electronic forms. We have new kinds of materials, new ways of reproduction, new forms of attack and defense. I could write dozens of sci-fi books based on clouds. So could other people, and some of them will. Books, games, films, lots of them. About clouds.

You heard it here first. Clouds are the future of sci-fi.


UK crime and policing

The news that the level of reported crime in the UK has fallen over the last decade or two is the subject of much debate.  Is it because crime has fallen, or because less is being reported? If crime has actually fallen, is that because the police are doing a better job or some other reason? Will crime fall or rise in the future?

My view is that our police are grossly overpaid (high salaries, huge pensions), often corrupt (by admission of chief inspectors), politically biased (plebgate, London riots) and self serving, lazy, inefficient, and generally a waste of money, and I don’t for a minute believe they deserve any credit for falling crime.

I think the crime figures are the sum of many components, none of which show the police in a good light. Let’s unpick that.

Let’s start from the generous standpoint that recorded crime may be falling – generous because even that assumes that they haven’t put too much political spin on the figures. I’d personally expect the police to spin it, but let’s ignore that for now.

Recorded crime isn’t a simple count of crimes committed, nor even those that people tell the police about.

Some crimes don’t even get as far as being reported of course. If confidence in the police is low, as it is, then people may think there is little point in wasting their time (and money, since you usually have to pay for the call now) in doing so. Reporting a crime often means spending ages giving loads of details, knowing absolutely nothing will happen other than, at best, that the crime is recorded. It is common perception based on everyday experience that police will often say there isn’t much they can do about x,y or z, so there is very little incentive to report many crimes. In the case of significant theft or vandalism someone might need a crime number to claim on insurance, but otherwise, if there is no hope that the police will find the criminal and then bother to prosecute them, many people won’t bother. So it is a safe assumption that a lot of crimes don’t even get as far as being mentioned to a police officer. I have seen many that I haven’t bothered to report, for exactly those reasons. So have you.

Once a crime does get mentioned to the police, it still has to jump over some more hurdles to actually make it into the official books.  From personal experience, I know some cases fall at those hurdles too. As well as the person telling the police, the person has to persuade the police to do something about it and demand that it is recorded. Since police want to look good, they resist doing that and will make excuses for not recording it officially. The police may also try to persuade the crime reporter to let them mark a case as solved even when it hasn’t been. They may also just sideline a case and hope it is forgotten about. So, some reported offences don’t make it onto the books and some that do are inaccurately marked as solved.

This means that crime levels exceed recorded crime levels. No big surprise there. But if that has been the case for many years, as it has, and recorded crime levels have fallen, that would still indicate a fall in crime levels. But that still doesn’t make the police look good.

Technology improvement alone would be expected to give a very significant reduction in crime level. Someone is less likely to commit a car theft since it is harder to do so now. They are less likely to murder or rape someone if they know that it is almost impossible to avoid leaving DNA evidence all over the place. They are less likely to shoplift or mug someone if they are aware of zillions of surveillance cameras that will record the act. Improving technology has certainly reduced crime.

A further reduction in crime level is expected due to changes in insurance. If your insurance policies demand that you have a car immobiliser and a burglar alarm, and lock your doors and windows with high quality locks, as they probably do, then that will reduce both home and car crime.

Another reduction is actually due to lack of confidence in the police. If you believe for whatever reasons that the police won’t protect you and your property, you will probably take more care of it yourself. The police try hard to encourage such thinking because it saves them effort. So they tell people not to attract crime by using expensive phones or wearing expensive jewellery or dressing in short skirts. Few people have so little common sense that they need such advice from the police, and lack of confidence in police protection is hardly something they can brag about.

More controversially, still further reduction has been linked recently to the drop in lead exposure via petrol. This is hypothesised to have reduced violent tendencies a little. By similar argument, increasing feminisation of men due to endocrine disrupters in the environment may also have played a part.

So, if the police can’t claim credit for a drop in crime, what effect do they have?

The police have managed to establish a strong reputation for handing out repeat cautions to those repeat criminals they can be bothered to catch, and making excuses why the rest are just too hard to track down, yet cracking down hard on easy-to-spot first offenders on political correctness or minor traffic offences. In short, they have created something of an inverted prison, where generally law-abiding people live expecting harsh penalties for doing anything slightly naughty, so that they can show high clear-up stats, while hardened criminals can expect to be let off with a slight slap of the wrist. Meanwhile, recent confessions from police chiefs indicate astonishingly high levels of corruption in every force. It looks convincingly as if police are all too often on the wrong side of the law. One law for them and one for us is the consistent picture. Reality stands in stark contrast with the dedication shown in TV police dramas. A bit like the NHS then.

What of the future? Technology will continue to make it easier to look after your own stuff and prevent it being used by a thief. It will make it easier to spot and identify criminals and collect evidence. Insurance will make it more difficult to avoid using such technology. Lack of confidence in the police will continue to grow, so people will take even more on themselves to avoid crime. The police will become even more worthless, even more of a force of state oppression and political correctness and even more of a criminal’s friend.

Meanwhile, as technology makes physical crime harder, more criminals have moved online. Technology has kept up to some degree, with the online security companies taking the protector role, not the police. The police influence here is to demand every more surveillance, less privacy and more restriction on online activity, but no actual help at all. Again they seek to create oppression in place of protection.

Crime will continue to fall, but the police will deserve even less credit. If we didn’t already have the police, we might have to invent something,  but it would bear little resemblance to what we have now.

UK Brain Drain

For some years I have covered in my talks the possibility of the UK ending up as a retirement home, as high taxes and intergenerational conflicts of interest couple with the forces of remigration and professional mobility. The newspapers this morning say that of the 3.6 million to leave the UK in the last 10 years, two million were between 25 and 44 and one million were professional/managerial. Only 125,000 pensioners left. While this is hardly a major catastrophe, it is still worrying, but then again, it confirms my theory so at least I get to say I told you so.

On one hand, emigration is consistent with a healthy system. We want our kids to be sought after and to be free to move and prosper in a globalised world. On the other hand, those who are leaving are the ones we need to keep to pay for those that won’t leave. If this pattern continues, the ratio of old people to those paying taxes to look after them will increase still further, making care costs even less manageable than they already are. And it is a vicious circle – more will want to leave as it gets worse.

If emigrants were balanced skill for skill against immigrants, there would not be a problem. We certainly will need immigration to balance the outflow, but to solve the problem it needs to be the right immigrants with the right skills. Some immigrants won’t contribute sufficiently to pay for their extra load, others will contribute well in excess of their loading, so we need to get as many of those as we can. To attract them and deter others is not easy. Every country wants the best people to come to help pay their bills.

Low taxes, light regulation and freedom would be much more likely to attract and keep good people than high taxes, high levels of poor regulation and an obsessive surveillance and control culture. It would be better to change in that direction before it’s too late.

Future population v resources. Humans are not a plague.

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

Future food production

Food production is adapting to increased environmental awareness, but we will see far more change over coming years.

There is a lot of innovation right now in food production. Hydroponics is growing, as are vertical farms, home growing and focus on local production that is encouraging cottage industry specialists. There are some nice synergies. Greenhouses can make good use of waste heat from power stations and also benefit from the CO2 given off if they burn fossil fuels, which of course is locked up when the plants convert it to biomass. This effectively increases the energy efficiency of the power station by adding an extra layer of chemical energy recovery after thermal. There are many articles already out there about hydroponics etc so I don’t need to repeat them here. That’s what Google is for.

The web makes it easy for producers of all kinds to have a closer relationship with customers, so it is now possible to organise local marketing and distribution around social networking, with groups of customers even commissioning crops grown according to specific regimes. GPS-enabled tractors can treat each square metre of a field effectively as a different managed allotment. With people more interested in exactly how their food is produced, this is sure to find a healthy market as the economy recovers.

At higher levels, financial strain during the lengthy recession is forcing many people to commercialise their hobbies, such as baking or catering, creating a growing home-made sector. This will even extend into arts ad crafts thanks to new technology such as 3D printing, which will make its way into the kitchen any time soon.  So the emerging pattern is one of rapidly increasing diversity in food production, from crop growing to processed foods manufacture. This creates opportunities for increased competition in the food space, but also presents risks to existing manufacturers. As ever with any kind of turbulence, the winners and losers will be decided by how willing and able companies are to adapt.

Vertical farms on the walls of tall buildings add agricultural space to cities and as well as growing food, also helps air quality. The food would be of dubious taste and value if air were polluted as badly as it used to be, but with emissions now, it is probably OK. A variety of mechanisms have been suggests for vertical farms. Some look more feasible than others, but the general idea seems workable, and experimentation and development will sort out which solutions work best. One thing that is easy to forget though is that the amount of sunlight incident on a given land area doesn’t depend on the building architecture raised on it, and using a wall gives a lower energy density than a field or a roof because the same total light is spread over a larger area. Interior farms of course need artificial light, but if that is produced via nuclear energy, then it might still work out well environmentally.

Home finishing is a good prospect too. Many people are already used to part bake products, where they buy a product that is already mostly prepared and just needs finishing off in the oven to make one with all the benefits of freshly made cuisine. Microwave and other ready-meals are even more familiar. 3D printing technology may even have a future role, making edible frills and accessories to brighten up appearance.

Home finishing could be done as a small local business too. Large manufacturers could gain local presence for fresh produce by using local finishers, and these could be ordinary households or based in small offices or shops, making a new cottage industry. They could also work well with local manufacturing and distribution companies. Social networks could provide most of the platform for these local business clouds but they could also be based on systems run by large companies.

This social potential is useful if people rebel against the multinationals at some point. With frequent problem areas like tax avoidance, misleading information, exploitation and other issues that are setting people against them, having a fall-back position increases leverage by showing that communities are not powerless.

Current biotechnology research into lab-grown meat might eventually flourish into a large meat manufacturing industry. It is hard to tell yet how successful it might be in creating cost effective, healthy and palatable solutions. Vegetarian meats would presumably see a good market since many vegetarians avoid meat mainly because of the ways animals are reared and treated, and many meat eaters also have some reservations and would be willing to switch. Lab-grown meat would be little different from a yoghurt in terms of its cruelty implications. Although the principle has been proven, much work is need to replicate textures and taste well at a reasonable cost.

Lab-grown meat could be more energy efficient than that produced by animals, and would liberate farmland for crops. Together with increasing productivity in crop production anyway, some expect that we will be able to start returning land to nature in the second half of this century because we will make plenty of food for everyone with less land.

Biotech will create new varieties of crops, some with extra vitamin content or other health benefits, lower fat animals and enable varieties that are adapted to a wider range of climates, thereby increasing the amount of land that could be used for agriculture.

Home printer technology also is being hyped for food production, or rather assembly is probably a more accurate description, since nobody is yet suggesting its use for making the raw materials such as proteins and carbohydrates.  Its is effectively the next level up in abstraction from the lab grown products. Even chocolate could be made using printers. Food printers could only ever be a niche market, but could sit alongside other home gadgets such as microwaves and mixers. Cakes, confectionery,  frills and accessories would be the probable markets. It would especially appeal to the kinds of people who make elaborate cake decorations and could extend creative food design to a much broader group.

Food technology will continue to other areas too, making more appealing products from even wider range of raw materials. GM bacteria or algae could compete well with land grown crops. Algae may be grown at sea as part of carbon reduction schemes anyway, and could be used for either biofuel or as a component for food production. Of course, many foods contain lots of ingredients, so even if it isn’t suitable as a main platform, such humble starting points may be a used as fillers or other additives.

Of course, fish farming is bound to increase too. Many fish species are threatened today and near extinction of a key species does eventually force governments to listen and act. Although regulation so far has at best been poor, it can only improve and perhaps we may soon have a global set of treaties that ensure sustainable fishing and farming. There will also be a place for GM fish that maybe grow faster or breed faster. Some countries will be more willing to accept GM than others but when the choice is high prices v GM, GM will win out.

The future of music and video media

With the death of HMV and Blockbuster this week, I’ve done some radio interviews on the future of the high street and one on the future of media. I wrote about retailing yesterday so today I’ll pick up on media. I wrote a while back that Spotify isn’t the future of music, not in its current form anyway, though I will admit that streaming is part of the future. Spotify will probably up its game and survive. If it doesn’t, it won’t. (I didn’t properly answer the question then of what the future would actually be. I will now.)

CDs aren’t the future of music either. DVDs or Blu-rays aren’t the future of video. Think about it. If you were starting from scratch today, would you base media distribution on plastic discs that have to be spun quickly in a mechanical device, and need to be read by lasers, are easily damaged, and take up lots of storage space? Of course you wouldn’t. You’d almost certainly go for either solid state or web storage. I’d go for solid state. Here’s why.

Web storage is fine as long as you have a good connection all the time and don’t have to pay for data downloads. I think we will still have streaming services in the far future and they might even remain a large market, but streaming isn’t a perfect solution. Transmitting data requires energy, and transmitting lots of data streams to lots of customers requires big server farms. It also clogs up bandwidth and that is limited too.

Downloading to local storage is also fine to a point. It is a large market now, and will remain so for some time. But there are also big problems with it. Licenses are not the same for downloaded music. You have a much more restricted ownership of music you buy online. The companies’ desire to protect their revenue is a higher priority for them that giving their customers full rights, just as it is with streaming (another reason streaming is not what it could be). With physical media, even though you may have ripped (and hence stolen) the content of the disc before you transferred it, the disc itself stops being yours if you pass it on to someone else. The concept of ownership and theft is very clear with physical media. With an MP3, less so. It is clear that the extra actual cost to the music provider is zero if you give a copy of an MP3 away, and you won’t buy a replacement anyway, and they probably wouldn’t either, so there is no clear revenue loss, so you can easily reason away any guilt in keeping a copy. So the music companies put in stuff like copy protection and non-transferable licenses that make it harder to keep your music organised, use it on multiple devices, recover it after disk crashes or sell it on when you’re bored with it. And with an MP3, you don’t have a nice box to look at and know that you own it. The music companies are more conspicuously stingy with MP3s too. If you are downloading the music, why don’t you get the music videos thrown in too? It’s obvious with the CD, there isn’t space on the disc, so you don’t mind, and the tradition has never been there anyway. A DVD could contain the video, but would cost more. With online music, you can usually watch it on YouTube so why don’t you get a proper decent resolution copy when you actually pay for it?

Anyway, solid state storage. I don’t want to be stuck with CDs or DVDs, and would much prefer to get a USB memory stick with the media on. I could plug it straight into my home cinema systems and watch a full Dolby Digital 7.1 Hi-def music video, preferably in 3D. I could easily play or transfer the files to any device I want. But that’s just today. Already, flexible displays and flexible batteries are appearing in electronics shows. It won’t be long at all before they are extremely common.


This is a demo flexible battery/display from Samsung. This is far more suited to carrying around and everyday abuse than glass. This could be a general purpose display but is also perfectly suited to be an all-round CD/DVD replacement, eventually. It will cost too much initially to directly replace CDs or DVDs or downloads, but the price of such devices is governed by Moore’s Law and will tumble. It could show you the music video or movie, it could hold the music or video, it could communicate with any of your display and audio devices as well as being one itself. It is collectable, and could hold a permanent album cover image or slideshow of video clips or stills. It could be of any shape and size and still do the job. It ticks all the boxes for ownership, portability, robustness, media future-proofing. The battery could be built in or it could be powered inductively, or using solar.

It could support a range of business models too. You could buy albums, one per device, just like CDs, proudly keeping them on a nice rack or display shelf. Resell them at car boot sales or give them to friends. Or you could subscribe to a band or a music producer, and it could hold all of their stuff, and be immediately updated with any of their new releases. It could be locked to just their stuff and just you if that’s what you bought.  The device could support lots of different kinds of license. Or you could buy stuff online and it would download to one you have as a replacement for today’s MP3 player. So it could hold one track, an album, a group, an entire collection, or be the front end device of a streaming service. Devices like this could support many business models. It meets the requirements of the music industry and the customer, doesn’t need lots of energy for cloud based storage, improves the potential quality of offering for everyone. This is the future of music media and probably video.

Of course you can do some of this with an app on a pad too. But having a dedicated device solves a lot of the problems we are used to that are associated with doing that.

The future of high street survival: the 6S guide

I do occasionally write a blog relevant to the news of the day rather than just what takes my fancy. The news today, apart from Tesco horse burgers, is the closure of another national retail chain, HMV. I learned on the news that HMV stands for ‘His Master’s Voice’. Never knew that, I thought it was a 90s chain. ‘His master’s voice’ is immediately recognisable as an ancient and trusted brand. HMV has a nice up to date logo  though so maybe their marketing department though that is more important to appeal to a generation that has mostly never bought a CD. HMV also didn’t bother to explain the difference to shoppers between what you get when you buy a CD v what you get when you download, i.e proper ownership and rights v part and temporary ownership and severely restricted rights. Still, too late for them to ask me my views. They’re dead.

Some high street shops make excellent use of the synergy between a physical outlet and web presence. As we progress into the age of augmented reality, that will become ever more important. People will expect to be able to buy via either route but still use the facilities offered by the shop. AR also adds huge potential to add virtual architecture, décor  themes and gaming. Reserving online for high street collection, or buying for home delivery while in the shop are well established; less so is using 3d printing to accessorise outfits, or laser scanning body shape so that you can use stores as try-on outlets. These are starting to generate presence and will grow in importance. And some shops are getting extra income by acting as drop off centres for other companies, so that people can collect things on their way home from work, a big thing for the many households where nobody is at home during the day to receive goods.

Socialising is best done face to face, and shopping is a social experience too. Coffee shops and restaurants have been familiar in shops for decades now, but shops could make far more advantage of social networking to offer meeting and hanging out facilities for people using social networks and who share something in common related to the theme of the shop. Clothes shops could offer fashion related events, gadget shops demos of up and coming products, and so on. Establishing shops as something more than just places to buy increases their relevance and brand loyalty, hence survival chances. So, synergy, socialising. I feel a ’6S guide to high street survival’ coming on.

Next S:  service. This should be obvious, and most shops do appreciate the importance of differentiating on service quality. While it used to be a concern that people would use the shop for service and then buy online, having good web presence and competitiveness anyway makes this less problematic. There is nothing wrong with having some premium services and charging for them in addition to free basic service. Some premium services could even be provided for competitor web sites with no high street presence, making a potential income stream even when people do use competitors. Opticians doing prescriptions for online glasses sellers, or clothes shops providing paid measuring services are good examples where this already occurs. Seeing competitors as potential market opportunities rather than just as threats is key.

Suck and see. OK, a bit contrived to get the S this time, but shops are starting to do it. The Apple Store is a good example, where you try it out in the shop but the purchase is essentially an online one. Clothes shops can let you try a garment on and then order it in your size for home delivery, using rapid customisation manufacturing and delivery systems.

Surprise is another one. It is easy to shop online when you know what you want. If you don’t, shops can offer that mixture of expected and unexpected to make you want to visit. Call it serendipity if you prefer.

The 6th S is for Special. This could be customisation or personalisation of products for customers, or it could be an extended relationship with customers in terms of pampering of regular customers, after-sales services, advice, affiliate programs, belonging to social groups… People want to feel special.

There you have it. Service, surprise, suck-and-see, socialisation, synergy and special. The 6S guide to high street survival. :)


When will AI marriage become legal?

Gay marriage is so yesterday. OK, it isn’t quite yet, but everything has been said a million times and I don’t intend to repeat it. A related but much more interesting debate is already gathering volume globally. When will you be able to marry your robot or AI?

The traditional Oxford English definition of marriage:

The formal union of a man and a woman, typically recognized by law, by which they become husband and wife. 

But, as is being asked by some, who says they have to be a man and a woman? Why can’t they be any sex? I don’t want to get into the arguments, because people on both sides argue passionately, often flying in the face of logic, but here is a gender neutral alternative definition:

Marriage is a social union or legal contract between people called spouses that establishes rights and obligations between the spouses, between the spouses and their children, and between the spouses and their in-laws.

Well, I am all for equality for all, but who says they have to be people?

If we are going to fight over definitions, surely we should try to finish with one that might survive more than a decade or two. This one simply won’t.

Artificial intelligence, or AI as it is usually called now, is making good progress. We already have computers with more raw number crunching power than the human brain. Their software, and indeed their requirement to use software, makes them far from equivalent overall, but I don’t think we will be waiting very long now for AI machines that we will agree are conscious, self aware, intelligent, sentient, with emotions, capable of forming human-like relationships. A few cranks will still object maybe, but so what?

These AIs will likely be based on adaptive analog neural networks rather than digital processing so they will not be so different from us really. Different futurists list different dates for AIs with man-machine equivalence, depending mostly on the prejudices and experiences bequeathed by their own backgrounds. I’d say 10 years, some say 15 or 20. Some say we will never get there, but they are just wrong, so wrong. We will soon have artificially intelligent entities comparable to humans in intellect and emotional capability. So how about this definition? :

Marriage is a social union or legal contract between conscious entities called spouses that establishes rights and obligations between the spouses, between the spouses and their derivatives, and those legally connected to them.

An AI might or might not be connected to a robot. An AI may not have any permanent physical form, and robots are really a red herring here. The mind is what is surely important, not the container. An AI can still be an entity that lives for a long enough time to be eligible for a long term relationship. I often watch sci-fi or play computer games, and many have AI characters that take on some sort of avatar – Edi in Mass Effect or Cortana in Halo for example. Sometimes these avatars are made to look very attractive, even super-attractive. It is easy to imaging how someone could fall in love with their AI. It isn’t much harder to imagine that they could fall in love with each other.

It’s a while since I last wrote about machine consciousness so I’ll say how I think it will work again now. tells of my ideas on gel computing. A lot of adaptive electronic devices suspended in gel that can set up free space optical links to each other would be an excellent way of making an artificial brain-like processor.

Using this as a base, and with each of the tiny capsules being able to perform calculations, an extremely powerful digital processor could be created. But I don’t believe digital processors can become conscious, however much their processing increases in speed. It is an act of faith I guess, I can’t prove it, but coming from a computer modelling background it seems to me that a digital computer can simulate the processes in consciousness but it can’t emulate them and that difference is crucial.

I firmly believe consciousness is a matter of internal sensing. The same way that you sense sound or images or touch, you can sense the processes based on those same neural functions and their derivatives in your brain. Emotions ditto. We make ideas and concepts out of words and images and sounds and other sensory things and emotions too. We regenerate the same sorts of patterns, and filter them similarly to create new knowledge, thoughts and memories, a sort of vortex of sensory stimuli and echoes. Consciousness might not actually just be internal sensing, we don’t know yet exactly how it works, but even if it isn’t, you could do it that way. Internal sensing can be the basis of a conscious machine, an AI. Here’s a picture. This would work. I am sure of it. There will also be other ways of achieving consciousness, and they might have different flavours. But for the purposes of arguing for AI marriage, we only need one method of achieving consciousness to be feasible.


I think this sort of AI design could work and it would certainly be capable of emotions. In fact, it would be capable of a much wider range of emotions than human experience. I believe it could fall in love, with a human, alien, or another AI. AIs will have a range and variety of gender capabilities and characteristics. People will be able to link to them in new ways, creating new forms of intimacy. The same technology will also enable new genders for people too, as I discussed recently. In the long term view, gay marriage is just another point on a long line.

When we set aside the arguing over gender equality, what we usually agree on is the importance of love. People can fall in love with any other human of any age, race or gender, but they are also capable of loving a sufficiently developed AI. As we rush to legislate for gender equality, it really is time to start opening the debate. AI will come in a very wide range of capability and flavour. Some will be equivalent or even superior to humans in many ways. They will have needs, they will want rights, and they will become powerful enough to demand them. Sooner or later, we will need to consider equality for them too. And I for one will be on their side.

Could graphene foam be a future Helium substitute?

I just did a back-of-the-envelope calculation to work out what size of sphere containing a vacuum would give the same average density as helium at room temperature, if the sphere is made of graphene, the new one-size-does-everthing-you-can-imagine wonder material.

Why? Well, the Yanks have just prototyped a big airship and it uses helium for buoyancy.–new-type-rigid-airship-thats-set-revolutionise-haulage-tourism–warfare.html

Helium weighs 0.164kg per cubic metre. Graphene sheet weighs only 0.77mg per square metre. Mind you, the data source was Wikipedia so don’t start a business based on this without checking! If you could make a sphere out of a single layer of graphene, and have a vacuum inside (graphene is allegedly impervious to gas) it would become less dense than helium at sizes above 0.014mm. Wow! That’s very small. I expected ping pong ball sizes when I started and knew that would never work because large thin spheres would be likely to collapse. 14 micron spheres are too small to see with the naked eye, not much bigger than skin cells, maybe they would work OK.

Confession time now. I have no idea whether a single layer of graphene is absolutely impervious to gas, it says so on some websites but it says a lot of things on some websites that are total nonsense.

The obvious downside even if it could work is that graphene is still very expensive, but everything is when is starts off. Imagine how much you could sell a plastic cup for to an Egyptian Pharaoh.

Helium is an endangered resource. We use it for party balloons and then it goes into the atmosphere and from there leaks into space. It is hard to replace, at least for the next few decades. If we could use common elements like carbon as a substitute that would be good news. Getting the cost of production down is just engineering and people are good at that when there is an incentive.

So in the future, maybe we could fill party balloons and blimps with graphene foam. You could make huge airships happily with it, that don’t need helium of hydrogen. 

Tiny particles that size readily behave as a fluid and can easily be pumped. You could make lighter-than-air building materials for ultra-tall skyscrapers, launch platforms, floating Avatar-style sky islands and so on.

You could also make small clusters of them to carry tiny payloads for espionage or terrorism. Floating invisibly tiny particles of clever electronics around has good and bad uses. You could distribute explosives with floating particles that congeal into whatever shape you want on whatever target you want using self-organisation and liberal use of EM fields. I don’t even have that sort of stuff on Halo. I’d better stop now before I start laughing evilly and muttering about taking over the world.