Category Archives: communications

The future of sky

The S installment of this ‘future of’ series. I have done streets, shopping, superstores, sticks, surveillance, skyscrapers, security, space, sports, space travel and sex before, some several times. I haven’t done sky before, so here we go.

Today when you look up during the day you typically see various weather features, the sun, maybe the moon, a few birds, insects or bats, maybe some dandelion or thistle seeds. As night falls, stars, planets, seasonal shooting stars and occasional comets may appear. To those we can add human contributions such as planes, microlights, gliders and helicopters, drones, occasional hot air balloons and blimps, helium party balloons, kites and at night-time, satellites, sometimes the space station, maybe fireworks. If you’re in some places, missiles and rockets may be unfortunate extras too, as might be the occasional parachutist or someone wearing a wing-suit or on a hang-glider. I guess we should add occasional space launches and returns too. I can’t think of any more but I might have missed some.

Drones are the most recent addition and their numbers will increase quickly, mostly for surveillance purposes. When I sit out in the garden, since we live in a quiet area, the noise from occasional  microlights and small planes is especially irritating because they fly low. I am concerned that most of the discussions on drones don’t tend to mention the potential noise nuisance they might bring. With nothing between them and the ground, sound will travel well, and although some are reasonably quiet, other might not be and the noise might add up. Surveillance, spying and prying will become the biggest nuisances though, especially as miniaturization continues to bring us many insect-sized drones that aren’t noisy and may visually be almost undetectable. Privacy in your back garden or in the bedroom with unclosed curtains could disappear. They will make effective distributed weapons too:

http://timeguide.wordpress.com/2014/07/07/drones-it-isnt-the-reapers-and-predators-you-should-worry-about/

Adverts don’t tend to appear except on blimps, and they tend to be rare visitors. A drone was this week used to drag a national flag over a football game. In the Batman films, Batman is occasionally summoned by shining a spotlight with a bat symbol onto the clouds. I forgot which film used the moon to show an advert. It is possible via a range of technologies that adverts could soon be a feature of the sky, day and night, just like in Bladerunner. In the UK, we are now getting used to roadside ads, however unwelcome they were when they first arrived, though they haven’t yet reached US proportions. It will be very sad if the sky is hijacked as an advertising platform too.

I think we’ll see some high altitude balloons being used for communications. A few companies are exploring that now. Solar powered planes are a competing solution to the same market.

As well as tiny drones, we might have bubbles. Kids make bubbles all the time but they burst quickly. With graphene, a bubble could prevent helium escaping or even be filled with graphene foam, then it would float and stay there. We might have billions of tiny bubbles floating around with tiny cameras or microphones or other sensors. The cloud could be an actual cloud.

And then there’s fairies. I wrote about fairies as the future of space travel.

http://timeguide.wordpress.com/2014/06/06/fairies-will-dominate-space-travel/

They might have a useful role here too, and even if they don’t, they might still want to be here, useful or not.

As children, we used to call thistle seeds fairies, our mums thought it was cute to call them that. Biomimetics could use that same travel technique for yet another form of drone.

With all the quadcopter, micro-plane, bubble, balloon and thistle seed drones, the sky might soon be rather fuller than today. So maybe there is a guaranteed useful role for fairies, as drone police.

 

 

 

The Future of IoT – virtual sensors for virtual worlds

I recently acquired a point-and-click thermometer for Futurizon, which gives an instant reading when you point it at something. I will soon know more about the world around me, but any personal discoveries I make are quite likely to be well known to science already. I don’t expect to win a Nobel prize by discovering breeches of the second law of thermodynamics, but that isn’t the point. The thermometer just measures the transmission from a particular point in a particular frequency band, which indicates what temperature it is. It cost about £20, a pretty cheap stimulation tool to help me think about the future by understanding new things about the present. I already discovered that my computer screen doubles as a heater, but I suspected that already. Soon, I’ll know how much my head warms when if think hard, and for the futurology bit, where the best locations are to put thermal IoT stuff.

Now that I am discovering the joys or remote sensing, I want to know so much more though. Sure, you can buy satellites for a billion pounds that will monitor anything anywhere, and for a few tens of thousands you can buy quite sophisticated lab equipment. For a few tens, not so much is available and I doubt the tax man will agree that Futurizon needs a high end oscilloscope or mass spectrometer so I have to set my sights low. The results of this blog justify the R&D tax offset for the thermometer. But the future will see drops in costs for most high technologies so I also expect to get far more interesting kit cheaply soon.

Even starting with the frequent assumption that in the future you can do anything, you still have to think what you want to do. I can get instant temperature readings now. In the future, I may also want a full absorption spectrum, color readings, texture and friction readings, hardness, flexibility, sound absorption characteristics, magnetic field strength, chemical composition, and a full range of biological measurements, just for fun. If Spock can have one, I want one too.

But that only covers reality, and reality will only account for a small proportion of our everyday life in the future. I may also want to check on virtual stuff, and that needs a different kind of sensor. I want to be able to point at things that only exist in virtual worlds. It needs to be able to see virtual worlds that are (at least partly) mapped onto real physical locations, and those that are totally independent and separate from the real world. I guess that is augmented reality ones and virtual reality ones. Then it starts getting tricky because augmented reality and virtual reality are just two members of a cyberspace variants set that runs to more than ten trillion members. I might do another blog soon on what they are, too big a topic to detail here.

People will be most interested in sensors to pick up geographically linked cyberspace. Much of the imaginary stuff is virtual worlds in computer games or similar, and many of those have built-in sensors designed for their spaces. So, my character can detect caves or forts or shrines from about 500m away in the virtual world of Oblivion (yes, it is from ages ago but it is still enjoyable). Most games have some sort of sensors built-in to show you what is nearby and some of its properties.

Geographically linked cyberspace won’t all be augmented reality because some will be there for machines, not people, but you might want to make sensors for it all the same, for many reasons, most likely for navigating it, debugging, or for tracking and identifying digital trespass. The last one is interesting. A rival company might well construct an augmented reality presence that allows you to see their products alongside ones in a physical shop. It doesn’t have to be in a properly virtual environment, a web page is still a location in cyberspace and when loaded, that instance takes on a geographic mapping via that display so it is part of that same trespass. That is legal today, and it started many years ago when people started using Amazon to check for better prices while in a book shop. Today it is pretty ubiquitous. We need sensors that can detect that. It may be accepted today as fair competition, but it might one day be judged as unfair competition by regulators for various reasons, and if so, they’ll need some mechanism to police it. They’ll need to be able to detect it. Not easy if it is just a web page that only exists at that location for a few seconds. Rather easier if it is a fixed augmented reality and you can download a map.

If for some reason a court does rule that digital trespass is illegal, one way of easy(though expensive) way of solving it would be to demand that all packets carry a geographic location, which of course the site would know when the person clicks on that link. To police that, turning off location would need to be blocked, or if it is turned off, sites would not be permitted to send you certain material that might not be permitted at that location. I feel certain there would be better and cheaper and more effective solutions.

I don’t intend to spend any longer exploring details here, but it is abundantly clear from just inspecting a few trees that making detectors for virtual worlds will be a very large and diverse forest full of dangers. Who should be able to get hold of the sensors? Will they only work in certain ‘dimensions’ of cyberspace? How should the watchers be watched?

The most interesting thing I can find though is that being able to detect cyberspace would allow new kinds of adventures and apps. You could walk through a doorway and it also happens to double as a portal between many virtual universes. And you might not be able to make that jump in any other physical location. You might see future high street outlets that are nothing more than teleport chambers for cyberspace worlds. They might be stuffed with virtual internet of things things and not one one of them physical. Now that’s fun.

 

Ground up data is the next big data

This one sat in my draft folder since February, so I guess it’s time to finish it.

Big Data – I expect you’re as sick of hearing that term as I am. Gathering loads of data on everything you or your company or anything else you can access can detect, measure, record, then analyzing the hell out of it using data mining, an equally irritating term.

I long ago had a quick twitter exchange with John Hewitt, who suggested “What is sensing but the energy-constrained competition for transmission to memory, as memory is but that for expression?”. Neurons compete to see who gets listened too.  Yeah, but I am still not much wiser as to what sensing actually is. Maybe I need a brain upgrade. (It’s like magnets. I used to be able to calculate the magnetic field densities around complicated shaped objects – it was part of my first job in missile design – but even though I could do all the equations around EM theory, even general relativity, I still am no wiser how a magnetic field actually becomes a force on an object. I have an office littered with hundreds of neodymium magnets and I spend hours playing with them and I still don’t understand). I can read about neurons all day but I still don’t understand how a bunch of photons triggering a series of electro-chemical reactions results in me experiencing an image. How does the physical detection become a conscious experience?

Well, I wrote some while back that we could achieve a conscious computer within two years. It’s still two years because nobody has started using the right approach yet. I have to stress the ‘could’, because nobody actually intends to do it in that time frame, but I really believe some half-decent lab could if they tried.  (Putting that into perspective, Kurzweil and his gang at Google are looking at 2029.) That two years estimate relies heavily on evolutionary development, for me the preferred option when you don’t understand how something works, as is the case with consciousness. It is pretty easy to design conscious computers at a black box level. The devil is in the detail. I argued that you could make a conscious computer by using internally focused sensing to detect processes inside the brain, and using a sensor structure with a symmetrical feedback loop. Read it:

http://timeguide.wordpress.com/2013/12/28/we-could-have-a-conscious-machine-by-end-of-play-2015/

In a nutshell, if you can feel thoughts in the same way as you feel external stimuli, you’d be conscious. I think. The symmetrical feedback loop bit is just a small engineering insight.

The missing link in that is still the same one: how does sensing work? How do you feel?

At a superficial level, you point a sensor at something and it produces a signal in some sort of relationship to whatever it is meant to sense. We can do that bit. We understand that. Your ear produces signals according to the frequencies and amplitudes of incoming sound waves, a bit like a microphone. Just the same so far. However, it is by some undefined processes later that you consciously experience the sound. How? That is the hard problem in AI. It isn’t just me that doesn’t know the answer. ‘How does red feel?’ is a more commonly used variant of the same question.

When we solve that, we will replace big data as ‘the next big thing’. If we can make sensor systems that experience or feel something rather than just producing a signal, that’s valuable already. If those sensors pool their shared experience, another similar sensor system could experience that. Basic data quickly transmutes into experience, knowledge, understanding, insight and very quickly, value, lots of it. Artificial neural nets go some way to doing that, but they still lack consciousness. Simulated neural networks can’t even get beyond a pretty straightforward computation, putting all the inputs into an equation. The true sensing bit is missing. The complex adaptive analog neural nets in our brain clearly achieve something deeper than a man-made neural network.

Meanwhile, most current AI work barks up a tree in a different forest. IBM’s Watson will do great things; Google’s search engine AI will too. But they aren’t conscious and can’t be. They’re just complicated programs running on digital processors, with absolutely zero awareness of anything they are doing. Digital programs on digital computers will never achieve any awareness, no matter how fast the chips are.

However, back in the biological realm, nature manages just fine. So biomimetics offers a lot of hope. We know we didn’t get from a pool of algae to humans in one go. At some point, organisms started moving according to light, chemical gradients, heat, touch. That most basic process of sensing may have started out coupled to internal processes that caused movement without any consciousness. But if we can understand the analog processes (electrochemical, electronic, mechanical) that take the stimulus through to a response, and can replicate it using our electronic technology, we would already have actuator circuits, even if we don’t have any form of sensation or consciousness yet. A great deal of this science has been done already of course. The computational side of most chemical and physical processes can be emulated electronically by some means or another. Actuators will be a very valuable part of the cloud, but we already have the ability to make actuators by more conventional means, so doing it organically or biomimetically just adds more actuation techniques to the portfolio. Valuable but not a terribly important breakthrough.

Looking at the system a big further along the evolutionary timeline, where eyes start to develop, where the most primitive nervous systems and brains start, where higher level processing is obviously occurring and inputs are starting to become sensations, we should be able to what is changed or changing. It is the emergence of sensation we need to identify, even if the reaction is still an unconscious reflex. We don’t need to reverse engineer the human brain. Simple organisms are simpler to understand. Feeding the architectural insights we gain from studying those primitive systems into our guided evolution engines is likely to be far faster as a means to generating true machine consciousness and strong AI. That’s how we could develop consciousness in a couple of years rather than 15.

If we can make primitive sensing devices that work like those in primitive organisms, and can respond to specific sorts of sensory input, then that is a potential way of increasing the coverage of cloud sensing and even actuation. It would effectively be a highly distributed direct response system. With clever embedding of emergent phenomena techniques (such as cellular automata, flocking etc) , it could be a quite sophisticated way of responding to quite complex distributed inputs, avoiding some of the need for big data processing. If we can gather the outputs from these simple sensors and feed them into others, that will be an even better sort of biomimetic response system. That sort of direct experience of a situation is very different from a data mined result, especially if actuation capability is there too. The philosophical question as to whether that inclusion of that second bank of sensors makes the system in any way conscious remains, but it would certainly be very useful and valuable. The architecture we end up with via this approach may look like neurons, and could even be synthetic neurons, but that may be only one solution among many. Biology may have gone the neuron route but that doesn’t necessarily mean it is the only possibility. It may be that we could one day genetically modify bacteria to produce their own organic electronics to emulate the key processes needed to generate sensation, and to power them by consuming nutrients from their environment. I suggested smart yogurt based on this idea many years ago, and believe that it could achieve vast levels of intelligence.

Digitizing and collecting the signals from the system at each stage would generate lots of  data, and that may be used by programs to derive other kinds of results, or to relay the inputs to other analog sensory systems elsewhere. (It isn’t always necessary to digitize signals to transmit them, but it helps limit signal degradation and quickly becomes important if the signal is to travel far and is essential if it is to be recorded for later use or time shifting). However, I strongly suspect that most of the value in analog sensing and direct response is local, coupled to direct action or local processing and storage.

If we have these sorts of sensors liberally spread around, we’d create a truly smart environment, with local sensing and some basic intelligence able to relay sensation remotely to other banks of sensors elsewhere for further processing or even ultimately consciousness. The local sensors could be relatively dumb like nerve endings on our skin, feeding in  signals to a more connected virtual nervous system, or a bit smarter, like neural retinal cells, doing a lot of analog pre-processing before relaying them via ganglia cells, and maybe part of a virtual brain. If they are also capable of or connected to some sort of actuation, then we would be constructing a kind of virtual organism, with tendrils covering potentially the whole globe, and able to sense and interact with its environment in an intelligent way.

I use the term virtual not because the sensors wouldn’t be real, but because their electronic nature allows connectivity to many systems, overlapping, hierarchical or distinct. Any number of higher level systems could ‘experience’ them as part of its system, rather as if your fingers could be felt by the entire human population. Multiple higher level virtual organisms could share the same basic sensory/data inputs. That gives us a whole different kind of cloud sensing.

By doing processing locally, in the analog domain, and dealing with some of the response locally, a lot of traffic across the network is avoided and a lot of remote processing. Any post-processing that does occur can therefore add to a higher level of foundation. A nice side effect from avoiding all the extra transmission and processing is increased environmental friendliness.

So, we’d have a quite different sort of data network, collecting higher quality data, essentially doing by instinct what data mining does with huge server farms and armies of programmers. Cloudy, but much smarter than a straightforward sensor net.

… I think.

It isn’t without risk though. I had a phone discussion yesterday on the dangers of this kind of network. In brief, it’s dangerous.

The future of questions

The late Douglas Adams had many great ideas. One of the best was the computer Deep Thought, built to answer The question of ‘life, the universe and everything’ that took 6 million years to come up with the answer 42. It then had to design a far bigger machine to determine what the question actually was.

Finding the right question is often much harder than answering it. Much of observational comedy is based on asking the simplest questions that we just happen never to have thought of asking before.

A good industrial illustration is in network design. A long time ago I used to design computer communication protocols, actually a pretty easy job for junior engineers. While doing one design, I discovered a flaw in a switch manufacturer’s design that would allow data networks to be pushed into a gross overload situation and crashed repeatedly by a single phone call. I simply asked a question that hadn’t been asked before. My question was “can computer networks be made to resonate dangerously?” That’s the sort of question bridge designers have asked every time they’ve built a bridge since roman times, with the notable exception of the designers of London’s Millennium Bridge, who had to redesign their’s. All I did was apply a common question from one engineering discipline to another. I did that because I was trained as a systems engineer, not as a specialist. It only took a few seconds to answer in my head and a few hours to prove it via simulation, so it was a pretty simple question to answer (yes they can), but it had taken many years before anyone bothered to ask it.

More importantly, that question couldn’t have been asked much before the 20th century, because the basic knowledge or concept of a computer network wasn’t there yet. It isn’t easy to think of a question that doesn’t derive from existent culture (which includes the full extent of fiction of course). As new ideas are generated by asking and answering questions, so the culture gradually extends, and new questions become possible. But we don’t ask them all, only a few. Even with the culture and knowledge we already have at any point, it is possible to ask far more questions, and some of them will lead to very interesting answers and a few of those could change the world.

Last night I had a dream where I was after-dinner speaking to some wealthy entrepreneurs (that sort of thing is my day job). One of them challenged me that ideas were hard to come by and as proof of his point asked me why the wheel had never been reinvented (actually it is often reinvented, just like the bicycle – all decent engineers have reinvented the bicycle to some degree at some point, and if you haven’t yet, you probably will. You aren’t allowed to die until you have). Anyway, I invented the plasma caterpillar track there and then as my answer to show that ideas are ten a penny and that being an entrepreneur is about having the energy and determination to back them, not the idea itself. That’s why I stick with ideas, much less work. Dreams often violate causality, at least mine do, and one department of my brain obviously contrived that situation to air an idea from the R&D department, but in the dream it was still the question that caused the invention. Plasma caterpillar tracks are a dream-class invention. Once daylight appears, you can see that they need work, but in this case, I also can see real potential, so I might do that work, or you can beat me to it. If you do and you get rich, buy me a beer. Sorry, I’m rambling.

How do you ask the right question? How do you even know what area to ask the right question in? How do you discover what questions are possible to ask? Question space may be infinite, but we only have a map of a small area with only a few paths and features on it. Some tools are already known to work well and thousands of training staff use them every day in creativity courses.

One solution is to try to peel back and ask what it is you are really trying to solve. Maybe the question isn’t ‘what logo should we use?’ but ‘what image do we want to present?’, or is it ‘how can we appeal to those customers?’ or ‘how do we improve our sales?’ or ‘how do we get more profit?’ or ‘how can we best serve shareholders?’. Each layer generates different kinds of answers.

Another mechanism I use personally is to matrix solutions and industries, applying questions or solutions from one industry to another, or notionally combining random industries. A typical example: Take TV displays and ask why can’t makeup also change 50 times a second? If the answer isn’t obvious, look at how nature does displays, can some of those techniques be dragged into makeup? Yes, they can, and you could make smart makeup using similar micro-structures to those that butterflies and beetles use and use the self-organisation developing in materials science to arrange the particles automatically.

Dragging solutions and questions from one area to another often generates lots of ideas. Just list every industry sector you can think of (and nature), and all the techs or techniques or procedures they use and cross reference every box against every other. By the time you’ve filled in every box, it will be long overdue to start again because they’ll all have moved on.

But however effective they are, these mechanistic techniques only fill in some of the question space and some can be addressed at least partly by AI. There is still a vast area unexplored, even with existing knowledge. Following paths is fine, but you need to explore off-road too. Group-think and cultural immersion stand in the way of true creativity. You can’t avoid your mind being directed in particular directions that have been ingrained since birth, and some genetic.

That leads some people to the conclusion that you need young fresh minds rather than older ones, but it isn’t just age that determines creativity, it is susceptibility to authority too, essentially thinking how you’re told to think. Authority isn’t just parents and teachers, or government, but colleagues and friends, mainly your peer group. People often don’t see peers as authority but needing their approval is as much a force as any. I am frequently amused spotting young people on the tube that clearly think they are true individuals with no respect for authority. They stick out a mile because they wear the uniform that all the young people who are individuals and don’t respect authority wear. It’s almost compulsory. They are so locked in by the authority and cultural language of those they want to impress by being different that they all end up being the same. Many ‘creatives’ suffer the same problem, you can often spot them from a distance too, and it’s a fairly safe bet that their actual creativity is very bounded. The fact is that some people are mentally old before they leave school and some die of old age yet still young in mind and heart.

How do you solve that? Well, apart from being young, one aspect of being guided down channels via susceptibility to authority is understanding the rules. If you are too new in a field to know how it works, who everyone is, how the tools work or even most of the basic fundamental knowledge of the field, then you are in an excellent position to ask the right questions. Some of my best ideas have been when I have just started in a new area. I do work in every sector now so my mind is spread very thinly, and it’s always easy to generate new ideas when you aren’t prejudiced by in-depth knowledge. If I don’t know that something can’t work, that you tried it ages ago and it didn’t, so you put it away and forgot about it, then I might think of it, and the technology might well have moved on since then and it might work now, or in 10 years time when I know the tech will catch up. I forget stuff very quickly too and although that can be a real nuisance it also minimizes prejudices so can aid this ‘creativity via naivety’.

So you could make sure that staff get involved in other people’s projects regularly, often with those in different parts of the company. Make sure they go on occasional workshops with others to ensure cross-fertilization. Make sure you have coffee areas and coffee times that make people mix and chat. The coffee break isn’t time wasted. It won’t generate new products or ideas every day but it will sometimes.

Cultivating a questioning culture is good too. Just asking obvious questions as often as you can is good. Why is that there? How does it work? What if we changed it? What if the factory burned down tomorrow, how would we rebuild it? Why the hell am I filling in this form?

Yet another one is to give people ‘permission’ to think outside the box. Many people have to follow procedures in their jobs for very good reasons, so they don’t always naturally challenge the status quo, and many even pursue careers that tend to be structured and ordered. There is nothing wrong with that, each to their own, but sometimes people in any area might need to generate some new ideas. A technique I use is to present some really far future and especially seemingly wacky ones to them before making them do their workshop activity. Having listened to some moron talking probable crap and getting away with it gives them permission to generate some wacky ideas too, and some invariably turn out to be good ones.

These techniques can improve everyday creativity but they still can’t generate enough truly out of the box questions to fill in the map.

I think what we need is the random question generator. There are a few random question generators out there now. Some ask mathematical questions to give kids practice before exams. Some just ask random pre-written questions from a database. They aren’t the sort we need though. We won’t be catapulted into a new era of enlightenment by being asked the answer to 73+68 or ones that were already on a list. Maybe I should have explored more pages on google, but most seemed to bark up the wrong tree. The better approach might be to copy random management jargon generators. Tech jargon ones exist too. Some are excellent fun. They are the sort we need. They combine various words from long categorized lists in grammatically plausible sequences to come out with plausible sounding terms. I am pretty sure that’s how they write MBA courses.

We can extend that approach to use a full vocabulary. If a question generator asks random questions using standard grammatical rules and a basic dictionary attack, (a first stage filtration process) most of the questions filtering through would still not make sense (e.g, why are all moons square?). But now we have AI engines that can parse sentences and filter out nonsensical ones or ones that simply contradict known facts and the web is getting a lot better at being machine-comprehensible. Careful though, some of those facts might not be any more.

After this AI filtration stage, we’d have a lot of questions that do make sense. A next stage filtration could discover which ones have already been asked and which of those have also been answered, and which of those answers have been accepted as valid. These stages will reveal some questions still awaiting proper responses, or where responses are dubious or debatable. Some will be about trivia, but some will be in areas that might seem to be commercially or socially valuable.

Some of the potentially valuable ones would be suited to machines to answer too. So they could start using spare cycles on machines to increase knowledge that way. Companies already do this internally with their big data programs for their own purposes, but it could work just as well as a global background task for humanity as a whole, with the whole of the net as one of its data sources. Machines could process data and identify potential new markets or products or identify social needs, and even suggest how they could be addressed and which companies might be able to do them. This could increase employment and GDP and solve some social issues that people weren’t even aware of.

Many would not be suited to AI and humans could search them for inspiration. Maybe we could employ people in developing countries as part of aid programs. That provides income and utilizes the lack of prejudice that comes with unfamiliarity with our own culture. Another approach is to make the growing question database online and people would make apps that deliver randomly selected questions to you to inspire you when you’re bored. There would be enough questions to make sure you are usually the first to have ever seen it. When you do, you could rate it as meaningless, don’t care, interesting, or wow that’s a really good question, maybe some other boxes. Obviously you could also produce answers and link to them too. Lower markings would decrease their reappearance probability, whereas really interesting ones would be seen by lots of people and some would be motivated to great answers.

Would it work? How could this be improved? What techniques might lead us to the right questions? Well, I just asked those ones and this blog is my first attempt at an answer. Feel free to add yours.

 

 

The future of prying

Prying is one side of the privacy coin, hiding being the other side.

Today, lots of snap-chat photos have been released, and no doubt some people are checking to see if there are any of people they know, and it is a pretty safe bet that some will send links to compromising pics of colleagues (or teachers) to others who know them. It’s a sort of push prying isn’t it?

There is more innocent prying too. Checking out Zoopla to see how much your neighbour got for their house is a little bit nosy but not too bad, or at the extremely innocent end of the line, reading someone’s web page is the sort of prying they actually want some people to do, even if not necessarily you.

The new security software I just installed lets parents check out on their kids online activity. Protecting your kids is good but monitoring every aspect of their activity just isn’t, it doesn’t give them the privacy they deserve and probably makes them used to being snooped on so that they accept state snooping more easily later in life. Every parent has to draw their own line, but kids do need to feel trusted as well as protected.

When adults install tracking apps on their partner’s phones, so they can see every location they’ve visited and every call or message they’ve made, I think most of us would agree that is going too far.

State surveillance is increasing rapidly. We often don’t even think of it as such, For example, when speed cameras are linked ‘so that the authorities can make our roads safer’, the incidental monitoring and recording of our comings and goings collected without the social debate. Add that to the replacement of tax discs by number plate recognition systems linked to databases, and even more data is collected. Also ‘to reduce crime’, video from millions of CCTV cameras is also stored and some is high enough quality to be analysed by machine to identify people’s movements and social connectivity. Then there’s our phone calls, text messages, all the web and internet accesses, all these need to be stored, either in full or at least the metadata, so that ‘we can tackle terrorism’. The state already has a very full picture of your life, and it is getting fuller by the day. When it is a benign government, it doesn’t matter so much, but if the date is not erased after a short period, then you need also to worry about future governments and whether they will also be benign, or whether you will be one of the people they want to start oppressing. You also need to worry that increasing access is being granted to your data to a wider variety of a growing number of public sector workers for a widening range of reasons, with seemingly lower security competence, meaning that a good number of people around you will be able to find out rather more about you than they really ought. State prying is always sold to the electorate via assurances that it is to make us safer and more secure and reduce crime, but the state is staffed by your neighbors, and in the end, that means that your neighbors can pry on you.

Tracking cookies are a fact of everyday browsing but mostly they are just trying to get data to market to us more effectively. Reading every email to get data for marketing may be stretching the relationship with the customer to the limits, but many of us gmail users still trust Google not to abuse our data too much and certainly not to sell on our business dealings to potential competitors. It is still prying though, however automated it is, and a wider range of services are being linked all the time. The internet of things will provide data collection devices all over homes and offices too. We should ask how much we really trust global companies to hold so much data, much of it very personal, which we’ve seen several times this year may be made available to anyone via hackers or forced to be handed over to the authorities. Almost certainly, bits of your entire collected and processed electronic activity history could get you higher insurance costs, in trouble with family or friends or neighbors or the boss or the tax-man or the police. Surveillance doesn’t have to be real time. Databases can be linked, mashed up, analysed with far future software or AI too. In the ongoing search for crimes and taxes, who knows what future governments will authorize? If you wouldn’t make a comment in front of a police officer or tax-man, it isn’t safe to make it online or in a text.

Allowing email processing to get free email is a similar trade-off to using a supermarket loyalty card. You sell personal data for free services or vouchers. You have a choice to use that service or another supermarket or not use the card, so as long as you are fully aware of the deal, it is your lifestyle choice. The lack of good competition does reduce that choice though. There are not many good products or suppliers out there for some services, and in a few there is a de-facto monopoly. There can also be a huge inconvenience and time loss or social investment cost in moving if terms and conditions change and you don’t want to accept the deal any more.

On top of that state and global company surveillance, we now have everyone’s smartphones and visors potentially recording anything and everything we do and say in public and rarely a say in what happens to that data and whether it is uploaded and tagged in some social media.

Some companies offer detective-style services where they will do thorough investigations of someone for a fee, picking up all they can learn from a wide range of websites they might use. Again, there are variable degrees that we consider acceptable according to context. If I apply for a job, I would think it is reasonable for the company to check that I don’t have a criminal record, and maybe look at a few of the things I write or tweet to see what sort of character I might be. I wouldn’t think it appropriate to go much further than that.

Some say that if you have done nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear, but none of them has a 3 digit IQ. The excellent film ‘Brazil’ showed how one man’s life was utterly destroyed by a single letter typo in a system scarily similar to what we are busily building.

Even if you are a saint, do you really want the pervert down the road checking out hacked databases for personal data on you or your family, or using their public sector access to see all your online activity?

The global population is increasing, and every day a higher proportion can afford IT and know how to use it. Networks are becoming better and AI is improving so they will have greater access and greater processing potential. Cyber-attacks will increase, and security leaks will become more common. More of your personal data will become available to more people with better tools, and quite a lot of them wish you harm. Prying will increase geometrically, according to Metcalfe’s Law I think.

My defense against prying is having an ordinary life and not being famous or a major criminal, not being rich and being reasonably careful on security. So there are lots of easier and more lucrative targets. But there are hundreds of millions of busybodies and jobsworths and nosy parkers and hackers and blackmailers out there with unlimited energy to pry, as well as anyone who doesn’t like my views on a topic so wants to throw some mud, and their future computers may be able to access and translate and process pretty much anything I type, as well as much of what I say and do anywhere outside my home.

I find myself self-censoring hundreds of times a day. I’m not paranoid. There are some people out to get me, and you, and they’re multiplying fast.

 

 

 

The future of I

Me, myself, I, identity, ego, self, lots of words for more or less the same thing. The way we think of ourselves evolves just like everything else. Perhaps we are still cavemen with better clothes and toys. You may be a man, a dad, a manager, a lover, a friend, an artist and a golfer and those are all just descendants of caveman, dad, tribal leader, lover, friend, cave drawer and stone thrower. When you play Halo as Master Chief, that is not very different from acting or putting a tiger skin on for a religious ritual. There have always been many aspects of identity and people have always occupied many roles simultaneously. Technology changes but it still pushes the same buttons that we evolved hundred thousands of years ago.

Will we develop new buttons to push? Will we create any genuinely new facets of ‘I’? I wrote a fair bit about aspects of self when I addressed the related topic of gender, since self perception includes perceptions of how others perceive us and attempts to project chosen identity to survive passing through such filters:

http://timeguide.wordpress.com/2014/02/14/the-future-of-gender-2/

Self is certainly complex. Using ‘I’ simplifies the problem. When you say ‘I’, you are communicating with someone, (possibly yourself). The ‘I’ refers to a tailored context-dependent blend made up of a subset of what you genuinely consider to be you and what you want to project, which may be largely fictional. So in a chat room where people often have never physically met, very often, one fictional entity is talking to another fictional entity, with each side only very loosely coupled to reality. I think that is different from caveman days.

Since chat rooms started, virtual identities have come a long way. As well as acting out manufactured characters such as the heroes in computer games, people fabricate their own characters for a broad range of kinds of ‘shared spaces’, design personalities and act them out. They may run that personality instance in parallel with many others, possibly dozens at once. Putting on an act is certainly not new, and friends easily detect acts in normal interactions when they have known a real person a long time, but online interactions can mean that the fictional version is presented it as the only manifestation of self that the group sees. With no other means to know that person by face to face contact, that group has to take them at face value and interact with them as such, though they know that may not represent reality.

These designed personalities may be designed to give away as little as possible of the real person wielding them, and may exist for a range of reasons, but in such a case the person inevitably presents a shallow image. Probing below the surface must inevitably lead to leakage of the real self. New personality content must be continually created and remembered if the fictional entity is to maintain a disconnect from the real person. Holding the in-depth memory necessary to recall full personality aspects and history for numerous personalities and executing them is beyond most people. That means that most characters in shared spaces take on at least some characteristics of their owners.

But back to the point. These fabrications should be considered as part of that person. They are an ‘I’ just as much as any other ‘I’. Only their context is different. Those parts may only be presented to subsets of the role population, but by running them, the person’s brain can’t avoid internalizing the experience of doing so. They may be partly separated but they are fully open to the consciousness of that person. I think that as augmented and virtual reality take off over the next few years, we will see their importance grow enormously. As virtual worlds start to feel more real, so their anchoring and effects in the person’s mind must get stronger.

More than a decade ago, AI software agents started inhabiting chat rooms too, and in some cases these ‘bots’ become a sufficient nuisance that they get banned. The front that they present is shallow but can give an illusion of reality. In some degree, they are an extension of the person or people that wrote their code. In fact, some are deliberately designed to represent a person when they are not present. The experiences that they have can’t be properly internalized by their creators, so they are a very limited extension to self. But how long will that be true? Eventually, with direct brain links and transhuman brain extensions into cyberspace, the combined experiences of I-bots may be fully available to consciousness just the same as first hand experiences.

Then it will get interesting. Some of those bots might be part of multiple people. People’s consciousnesses will start to overlap. People might collect them, or subscribe to them. Much as you might subscribe to my blog, maybe one day, part of one person’s mind, manifested as a bot or directly ‘published’, will become part of your mind. Some people will become absorbed into the experience and adopt so many that their own original personality becomes diluted to the point of disappearance. They will become just an interference pattern of numerous minds. Some will be so infectious that they will spread widely. For many, it will be impossible to die, and for many others, their minds will be spread globally. The hive minds of Dr Who, then later the Borg on Star Trek are conceptual prototypes but as with any sci-fi, they are limited by the imagination of the time they were conceived. By the time they become feasible, we will have moved on and the playground will be far richer than we can imagine yet.

So, ‘I’ has a future just as everything else. We may have just started to add extra facets a couple of decades ago, but the future will see our concept of self evolve far more quickly.

Postscript

I got asked by a reader whether I worry about this stuff. Here is my reply:

It isn’t the technology that worries me so much that humanity doesn’t really have any fixed anchor to keep human nature in place. Genetics fixed our biological nature and our values and morality were largely anchored by the main religions. We in the West have thrown our religion in the bin and are already seeing a 30 year cycle in moral judgments which puts our value sets on something of a random walk, with no destination, the current direction governed solely by media and interpretation and political reaction to of the happenings of the day. Political correctness enforces subscription to that value set even more strictly than any bishop ever forced religious compliance. Anyone that thinks religion has gone away just because people don’t believe in God any more is blind.

Then as genetics technology truly kicks in, we will be able to modify some aspects of our nature. Who knows whether some future busybody will decree that a particular trait must be filtered out because it doesn’t fit his or her particular value set? Throwing AI into the mix as a new intelligence alongside will introduce another degree of freedom. So already several forces acting on us in pretty randomized directions that can combine to drag us quickly anywhere. Then the stuff above that allows us to share and swap personality? Sure I worry about it. We are like young kids being handed a big chemistry set for Christmas without the instructions, not knowing that adding the blue stuff to the yellow stuff and setting it alight will go bang.

I am certainly no technotopian. I see the enormous potential that the tech can bring and it could be wonderful and I can’t help but be excited by it. But to get that you need to make the right decisions, and when I look at the sorts of leaders we elect and the sorts of decisions that are made, I can’t find the confidence that we will make the right ones.

On the good side, engineers and scientists are usually smart and can see most of the issues and prevent most of the big errors by using comon industry standards, so there is a parallel self-regulatory system in place that politicians rarely have any interest in. On the other side, those smart guys unfortunately will usually follow the same value sets as the rest of the population. So we’re quite likely to avoid major accidents and blowing ourselves up or being taken over by AIs. But we’re unlikely to avoid the random walk values problem and that will be our downfall.

So it could be worse, but it could be a whole lot better too.

 

The future of bacteria

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Estimating IoT value? Count ALL the beans!

In this morning’s news:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ultra-simple computing: Part 4

Gel processing

One problem with making computers with a lot of cores is the wiring. Another is the distribution of tasks among the cores. Both of these can be solved with relatively simple architecture. Processing chips usually have a lot of connectors, letting them get data in parallel. But a beam of light can contain rays of millions of wavelengths, far more parallelism than is possible with wiring. If chips communicated using light with high density wavelength division multiplexing, it will solve some wiring issues. Taking another simple step, processors that are freed from wiring don’t have to be on a circuit board, but could be suspended in some sort of gel. Then they could use free space interconnection to connect to many nearby chips. Line of sight availability will be much easier than on a circuit board. Gel can also be used to cool chips.

Simpler chips with very few wired connections also means less internal wiring too. This reduces size still further and permits higher density of suspension without compromising line of sight.

Ripple scheduler

Process scheduling can also be done more simply with many processors. Complex software algorithms are not needed. In an array of many processors, some would be idle while some are already engaged on tasks. When a job needs processed, a task request (this could be as simple as a short pulse of a certain frequency) would be broadcast and would propagate through the array. On encountering an idle processor, the idle processor would respond with an accept response (again this could be a single pulse of another frequency. This would also propagate out as a wave through the array. These two waves may arrive at a given processor in quick succession.

Other processors could stand down automatically once one has accepted the job (i.e. when they detect the acceptance wave). That would be appropriate when all processors are equally able. Alternatively, if processors have different capabilities, the requesting agent would pick a suitable one from the returning acceptances, send a point to point message to it, and send out a cancel broadcast wave to stand others down. It would exchange details about the task with this processor on a point to point link, avoiding swamping the system with unnecessary broadcast messages.  An idle processor in the array would thus see a request wave, followed by a number of accept waves. It may then receive a personalized point to point message with task information, or if it hasn’t been chosen, it would just see the cancel wave of . Busy processors would ignore all communications except those directed specifically to them.

I’m not saying the ripple scheduling is necessarily the best approach, just an example of a very simple system for process scheduling that doesn’t need sophisticated algorithms and code.

Activator Pastes

It is obvious that this kind of simple protocol can be used with a gel processing medium populated with a suitable mixture of different kinds of processors, sensors, storage, transmission and power devices to provide a fully scalable self-organizing array that can perform a high task load with very little administrative overhead. To make your smart gel, you might just choose the volume of weight ratios of components you want and stir them into a gel rather like mixing a cocktail. A paste made up in this way could be used to add sensing, processing and storage to any surface just by painting some of the paste onto it.

A highly sophisticated distributed cloud sensor network for example could be made just by painting dabs of paste onto lamp posts. Solar power or energy harvesting devices in the paste would power the sensors to make occasional readings, pre-process them, and send them off to the net. This approach would work well for environmental or structural monitoring, surveillance, even for everyday functions like adding parking meters to lines marking the spaces on the road where they interact with ID devices in the car or an app on the driver’s smartphone.

Special inks could contain a suspension of such particles and add a highly secure electronic signature onto one signed by pen and ink.

The tacky putty stuff that we use to stick paper to walls could use activator paste as the electronic storage and processing medium to let you manage  content an e-paper calendar or notice on a wall.

I can think of lots of ways of using smart pastes in health monitoring, packaging, smart makeup and so on. The basic principle stays the same though. It would be very cheap and yet very powerful, with many potential uses. Self-organising, and needs no set up beyond giving it a job to do, which could come from any of your devices. You’d probably buy it by the litre, keep some in the jar as your computer, and paste the rest of it all over the place to make your skin, your clothes, your work-spaces and your world smart. Works for me.

 

Ultra-simple computing: Part 1

Introduction

This is first part of a techie series. If you aren’t interested in computing, move along, nothing here. It is a big topic so I will cover it in several manageable parts.

Like many people, I spent a good few hours changing passwords after the Heartbleed problem and then again after ebay’s screw-up. It is a futile task in some ways because passwords are no longer a secure defense anyway. A decent hacker with a decent computer can crack hundreds of passwords in an hour, so unless an account is locked after a few failed attempts, and many aren’t, passwords only manage to keep out casual observers and the most amateurish hackers.

The need for simplicity

A lot of problems are caused by the complexity of today’s software, making it impossible to find every error and hole. Weaknesses have been added to operating systems, office automation tools and browsers to increase functionality for only a few users, even though they add little to most of us most of the time. I don’t think I have ever executed a macro in Microsoft office for example and I’ve certainly never used print merge or many its other publishing and formatting features. I was perfectly happy with Word 93 and most things added since then (apart from the real time spelling and grammar checker) have added irrelevant and worthless features at the expense of safety. I can see very little user advantage of allowing pop-ups on web sites, or tracking cookies. Their primary purpose is to learn about us to make marketing more precise. I can see why they want that, but I can’t see why I should. Users generally want pull marketing, not push, and pull doesn’t need cookies, there are better ways of sending your standard data when needed if that’s what you want to do. There are many better ways of automating logons to regular sites if that is needed.

In a world where more of the people who wish us harm are online it is time to design an alternative platform which it is designed specifically to be secure from the start and no features are added that allow remote access or control without deliberate explicit permission. It can be done. A machine with a strictly limited set of commands and access can be made secure and can even be networked safely. We may have to sacrifice a few bells and whistles, but I don’t think we will need to sacrifice many that we actually want or need. It may be less easy to track us and advertise at us or to offer remote machine analysis tools, but I can live with that and you can too. Almost all the services we genuinely want can still be provided. You could still browse the net, still buy stuff, still play games with others, and socialize. But you wouldn’t be able to install or run code on someone else’s machine without their explicit knowledge. Every time you turn the machine on, it would be squeaky clean. That’s already a security benefit.

I call it ultra-simple computing. It is based on the principle that simplicity and a limited command set makes it easy to understand and easy to secure. That basic physics and logic is more reliable than severely bloated code. That enough is enough, and more than that is too much.

We’ve been barking up the wrong trees

There are a few things you take for granted in your IT that needn’t be so.

Your PC has an extremely large operating system. So does your tablet, your phone, games console… That isn’t really necessary. It wasn’t always the case and it doesn’t have to be the case tomorrow.

Your operating system still assumes that your PC has only a few processing cores and has to allocate priorities and run-time on those cores for each process. That isn’t necessary.

Although you probably use some software in the cloud, you probably also download a lot of software off the net or install from a CD or DVD. That isn’t necessary.

You access the net via an ISP. That isn’t necessary. Almost unavoidable at present, but only due to bad group-think. Really, it isn’t necessary.

You store data and executable code in the same memory and therefore have to run analysis tools that check all the data in case some is executable. That isn’t necessary.

You run virus checkers and firewalls to prevent unauthorized code execution or remote access. That isn’t necessary.

Overall, we live with an IT system that is severely unfit for purpose. It is dangerous, bloated, inefficient, excessively resource and energy intensive, extremely fragile and yet vulnerable to attack via many routes, designed with the user as a lower priority than suppliers, with the philosophy of functionality at any price. The good news is that it can be replaced by one that is absolutely fit for purpose, secure, invulnerable, cheap and reliable, resource-efficient, and works just fine. Even better, it could be extremely cheap so you could have both and live as risky an online life in those areas that don’t really matter, knowing you have a safe platform to fall back on when your risky system fails or when you want to do anything that involves your money or private data.