Category Archives: death

WMDs for mad AIs

We think sometimes about mad scientists and what they might do. It’s fun, makes nice films occasionally, and highlights threats years before they become feasible. That then allows scientists and engineers to think through how they might defend against such scenarios, hopefully making sure they don’t happen.

You’ll be aware that a lot more talk of AI is going on again now. It does seem to be picking up progress finally. If it succeeds well enough, a lot more future science and engineering will be done by AI than by people. If genuinely conscious, self-aware AI, with proper emotions etc becomes feasible, as I think it will, then we really ought to think about what happens when it goes wrong. (Sci-fi computer games producers already do think that stuff through sometimes – my personal favorite is Mass Effect). We will one day have some insane AIs. In Mass Effect, the concept of AI being shackled is embedded in the culture, thereby attempting to limit the damage it could presumably do. On the other hand, we have had Asimov’s laws of robotics for decades, but they are sometimes being ignored when it comes to making autonomous defense systems. That doesn’t bode well. So, assuming that Mass Effect’s writers don’t get to be in charge of the world, and instead we have ideological descendants of our current leaders, what sort of things could an advanced AI do in terms of its chosen weaponry?

Advanced AI

An ultra-powerful AI is a potential threat in itself. There is no reason to expect that an advanced AI will be malign, but there is also no reason to assume it won’t be. High level AI could have at least the range of personality that we associate with people, with a potentially greater  range of emotions or motivations, so we’d have the super-helpful smart scientist type AIs but also perhaps the evil super-villain and terrorist ones.

An AI doesn’t have to intend harm to be harmful. If it wants to do something and we are in the way, even if it has no malicious intent, we could still become casualties, like ants on a building site.

I have often blogged about achieving conscious computers using techniques such as gel computing and how we could end up in a terminator scenario, favored by sci-fi. This could be deliberate act of innocent research, military development or terrorism.

Terminator scenarios are diverse but often rely on AI taking control of human weapons systems. I won’t major on that here because that threat has already been analysed in-depth by many people.

Conscious botnets could arrive by accident too – a student prank harnessing millions of bots even with an inefficient algorithm might gain enough power to achieve high level of AI. 

Smart bacteriaBacterial DNA could be modified so that bacteria can make electronics inside their cell, and power it. Linking to other bacteria, massive AI could be achieved.

Zombies

Adding the ability to enter a human nervous system or disrupt or capture control of a human brain could enable enslavement, giving us zombies. Having been enslaved, zombies could easily be linked across the net. The zombie films we watch tend to miss this feature. Zombies in films and games tend to move in herds, but not generally under control or in a much coordinated way. We should assume that real ones will be full networked, liable to remote control, and able to share sensory systems. They’d be rather smarter and more capable than what we’re generally used to. Shooting them in the head might not work so well as people expect either, as their nervous systems don’t really need a local controller, and could just as easily be controlled by a collective intelligence, though blood loss would eventually cause them to die. To stop a herd of real zombies, you’d basically have to dismember them. More Dead Space than Dawn of the Dead.

Zombie viruses could be made other ways too. It isn’t necessary to use smart bacteria. Genetic modification of viruses, or a suspension of nanoparticles are traditional favorites because they could work. Sadly, we are likely to see zombies result from deliberate human acts, likely this century.

From Zombies, it is a short hop to full evolution of the Borg from Star Trek, along with emergence of characters from computer games to take over the zombified bodies.

Terraforming

Using strong external AI to make collective adaptability so that smart bacteria can colonize many niches, bacterial-based AI or AI using bacteria could engage in terraforming. Attacking many niches that are important to humans or other life would be very destructive. Terraforming a planet you live on is not generally a good idea, but if an organism can inhabit land, sea or air and even space, there is plenty of scope to avoid self destruction. Fighting bacteria engaged on such a pursuit might be hard. Smart bacteria could spread immunity to toxins or biological threats almost instantly through a population.

Correlated traffic

Information waves and other correlated traffic, network resonance attacks are another way of using networks to collapse economies by taking advantage of the physical properties of the links and protocols rather than using more traditional viruses or denial or service attacks. AIs using smart dust or bacteria could launch signals in perfect coordination from any points on any networks simultaneously. This could push any network into resonant overloads that would likely crash them, and certainly act to deprive other traffic of bandwidth.

Decryption

Conscious botnets could be used to make decryption engines to wreck security and finance systems. Imagine how much more so a worldwide collection of trillions of AI-harnessed organisms or devices. Invisibly small smart dust and networked bacteria could also pick up most signals well before they are encrypted anyway, since they could be resident on keyboards or the components and wires within. They could even pick up electrical signals from a person’s scalp and engage in thought recognition, intercepting passwords well before a person’s fingers even move to type them.

Space guns

Solar wind deflector guns are feasible, ionizing some of the ionosphere to make a reflective surface to deflect some of the incoming solar wind to make an even bigger reflector, then again, thus ending up with an ionospheric lens or reflector that can steer perhaps 1% of the solar wind onto a city. That could generate a high enough energy density to ignite and even melt a large area of city within minutes.

This wouldn’t be as easy as using space based solar farms, and using energy direction from them. Space solar is being seriously considered but it presents an extremely attractive target for capture because of its potential as a directed energy weapon. Their intended use is to use microwave beams directed to rectenna arrays on the ground, but it would take good design to prevent a takeover possibility.

Drone armies

Drones are already becoming common at an alarming rate, and the sizes of drones are increasing in range from large insects to medium sized planes. The next generation is likely to include permanently airborne drones and swarms of insect-sized drones. The swarms offer interesting potential for WMDs. They can be dispersed and come together on command, making them hard to attack most of the time.

Individual insect-sized drones could build up an electrical charge by a wide variety of means, and could collectively attack individuals, electrocuting or disabling them, as well as overload or short-circuit electrical appliances.

Larger drones such as the ones I discussed in

http://carbonweapons.com/2013/06/27/free-floating-combat-drones/ would be capable of much greater damage, and collectively, virtually indestructible since each can be broken to pieces by an attack and automatically reassembled without losing capability using self organisation principles. A mixture of large and small drones, possibly also using bacteria and smart dust, could present an extremely formidable coordinated attack.

I also recently blogged about the storm router

http://carbonweapons.com/2014/03/17/stormrouter-making-wmds-from-hurricanes-or-thunderstorms/ that would harness hurricanes, tornados or electrical storms and divert their energy onto chosen targets.

In my Space Anchor novel, my superheroes have to fight against a formidable AI army that appears as just a global collection of tiny clouds. They do some of the things I highlighted above and come close to threatening human existence. It’s a fun story but it is based on potential engineering.

Well, I think that’s enough threats to worry about for today. Maybe given the timing of release, you’re expecting me to hint that this is an April Fool blog. Not this time. All these threats are feasible.

Will population grow again after 2050? To 15Bn?

We’ve been told for decades now that population will level off, probably around 2050, and population after that will likely decline. The world population will peak around 2050 at about 9.5 Billion. That’s pretty much the accepted wisdom at the moment.

The reasoning is pretty straight forward and seems sound, and the evidence follows it closely. People are becoming wealthier. Wealthier people have fewer kids. If you don’t expect your kids to die from disease or starvation before they’re grown up, you don’t need to make as many.

But what if it’s based on fallacy? What if it is just plain wrong? What if the foundations of that reasoning change dramatically by 2050 and it no longer holds true? Indeed. What if?

Before I continue, let me say that my book ‘Total Sustainability’, and my various optimistic writings and blogs about population growth all agree with the view that population will level off around 2050 and then slowly decline, while food supply and resource use will improve thanks to better technologies, thereby helping us to restore the environment. If population may increase again, I and many others will have to rethink.

The reason I am concerned now is that I just made another cross-link with the trend of rising wealth, which will allow even the most basic level of welfare to be set at a high level. It is like the citizen payment that the Swiss voted on recently. I suggested it a couple of years ago myself and in my books, and am in favour of it. Everyone would receive the same monthly payment from the state whether they work or not. The taxes due would then be calculated on the total income, regardless of how you get it, and I would use a flat tax for that too. Quite simple and fair. Only wealthier people pay any tax and then according to how wealthy they are. My calculations say that by 2050, everyone in the UK could get £30,000 a year each (in today’s money) based on the typical level of growth we’ve seen in recent decades (ignoring the recession years). In some countries it would be even higher, in some less, but the cost of living is also less in many countries. In many countries welfare could be as generous as average wages are today.

So by 2050, people in many countries could have an income that allows them to survive reasonably comfortably, even without having a job. That won’t stop everyone working, but it will make it much easier for people who want to raise a family to do so without economic concerns or having to go out to work. It will become possible to live comfortably without working and raise a family.

We know that people tend to have fewer kids as they become wealthier, but there are a number of possible reasons for that. One is the better survival chances for children. That may still have an effect in the developing world, but has little effect in richer countries, so it probably won’t have any impact on future population levels in those countries. Another is the need to work to sustain the higher standard of living one has become used to, to maintain a social status and position, and the parallel reluctance to have kids that will make that more difficult. While a small number of people have kids as a means to solicit state support, but that must be tiny compared to the numbers who have fewer so that they can self sustain. Another reason is that having kids impedes personal freedom, impacts on social life and sex life and adds perhaps unwelcome responsibility. These reasons are all vulnerable to the changes caused by increasing welfare and consequential attitudes. There are probably many other reasons too. 

Working and having fewer kids allows a higher standard of living than having kids and staying at home to look after them, but most people are prepared to compromise on material quality of life to some degree to get the obvious emotional rewards of having kids. Perhaps people are having fewer kids as they get wealthier because the drop of standard of living is too high, or the risks too high. If the guaranteed basic level of survival is comfortable, there is little risk. If a lot of people choose not to work and just live on that, there will also be less social stigma in not working, and more social opportunities from having more people in the same boat. So perhaps we may reasonably deduce that making it less uncomfortable to stop work and have more kids will create a virtuous circle of more and more people having more kids.

I won’t go as far as saying that will happen, just that it might. I don’t know enough about the relative forces that make someone decide whether to have another child. It is hard to predetermine the social attitudes that will prevail in 2050 and beyond, whether people will feel encouraged or deterred from having more kids.

My key point here is that the drop in fertility we see today due to increasing wealth might only hold true up to a certain point, beyond which it reverses. It may simply be that the welfare and social floor is too low to offer a sufficient safety net for those considering having kids, so they choose not to. If the floor is raised thanks to improving prosperity, as it might well be, then population could start to rise quickly again. The assumption that population will peak at 9 or 9.5 billion and then fall might be wrong. It could rise to up to 15 billion, at which point other factors will start to reassert themselves. If our assumptions on age of death are also underestimates, it could go even higher.

And another new book: You Tomorrow, 2nd Edition

I wrote You Tomorrow two years ago. It was my first ebook, and pulled together a lot of material I’d written on the general future of life, with some gaps then filled in. I was quite happy with it as a book, but I could see I’d allowed quite a few typos to get into the final work, and a few other errors too.

However, two years is a long time, and I’ve thought about a lot of new areas in that time. So I decided a few months ago to do a second edition. I deleted a bit, rearranged it, and then added quite a lot. I also wrote the partner book, Total Sustainability. It includes a lot of my ideas on future business and capitalism, politics and society that don’t really belong in You Tomorrow.

So, now it’s out on sale on Amazon

http://www.amazon.co.uk/You-Tomorrow-humanity-belongings-surroundings/dp/1491278269/ in paper, at £9.00 and

http://www.amazon.co.uk/You-Tomorrow-Ian-Pearson-ebook/dp/B00G8DLB24 in ebook form at £3.81 (guessing the right price to get a round number after VAT is added is beyond me. Did you know that paper books don’t have VAT added but ebooks do?)

And here’s a pretty picture:

You_Tomorrow_Cover_for_Kindle

Free-floating AI battle drone orbs (or making Glyph from Mass Effect)

I have spent many hours playing various editions of Mass Effect, from EA Games. It is one of my favourites and has clearly benefited from some highly creative minds. They had to invent a wide range of fictional technology along with technical explanations in the detail for how they are meant to work. Some is just artistic redesign of very common sci-fi ideas, but they have added a huge amount of their own too. Sci-fi and real engineering have always had a strong mutual cross-fertilisation. I have lectured sometimes on science fact v sci-fi, to show that what we eventually achieve is sometimes far better than the sci-fi version (Exhibit A – the rubbish voice synthesisers and storage devices use on Star Trek, TOS).

Glyph

Liara talking to her assistant Glyph.Picture Credit: social.bioware.com

In Mass Effect, lots of floating holographic style orbs float around all over the place for various military or assistant purposes. They aren’t confined to a fixed holographic projection system. Disruptor and battle drones are common, and  a few home/lab/office assistants such as Glyph, who is Liara’s friendly PA, not a battle drone. These aren’t just dumb holograms, they can carry small devices and do stuff. The idea of a floating sphere may have been inspired by Halo’s, but the Mass Effect ones look more holographic and generally nicer. (Think Apple v Microsoft). Battle drones are highly topical now, but current technology uses wings and helicopters. The drones in sci-fi like Mass Effect and Halo are just free-floating ethereal orbs. That’s what I am talking about now. They aren’t in the distant future. They will be here quite soon.

I recently wrote on how to make force field and floating cars or hover-boards.

http://timeguide.wordpress.com/2013/06/21/how-to-actually-make-a-star-wars-landspeeder-or-a-back-to-the-future-hoverboard/

Briefly, they work by creating a thick cushion of magnetically confined plasma under the vehicle that can be used to keep it well off the ground, a bit like a hovercraft without a skirt or fans. Using layers of confined plasma could also be used to make relatively weak force fields. A key claim of the idea is that you can coat a firm surface with a packed array of steerable electron pipes to make the plasma, and a potentially reconfigurable and self organising circuit to produce the confinement field. No moving parts, and the coating would simply produce a lifting or propulsion force according to its area.

This is all very easy to imagine for objects with a relatively flat base like cars and hover-boards, but I later realised that the force field bit could be used to suspend additional components, and if they also have a power source, they can add locally to that field. The ability to sense their exact relative positions and instantaneously adjust the local fields to maintain or achieve their desired position so dynamic self-organisation would allow just about any shape  and dynamics to be achieved and maintained. So basically, if you break the levitation bit up, each piece could still work fine. I love self organisation, and biomimetics generally. I wrote my first paper on hormonal self-organisation over 20 years ago to show how networks or telephone exchanges could self organise, and have used it in many designs since. With a few pieces generating external air flow, the objects could wander around. Cunning design using multiple components could therefore be used to make orbs that float and wander around too, even with the inspired moving plates that Mass Effect uses for its drones. It could also be very lightweight and translucent, just like Glyph. Regular readers will not be surprised if I recommend some of these components should be made of graphene, because it can be used to make wonderful things. It is light, strong, an excellent electrical and thermal conductor, a perfect platform for electronics, can be used to make super-capacitors and so on. Glyph could use a combination of moving physical plates, and use some to add some holographic projection – to make it look pretty. So, part physical and part hologram then.

Plates used in the structure can dynamically attract or repel each other and use tethers, or use confined plasma cushions. They can create air jets in any direction. They would have a small load-bearing capability. Since graphene foam is potentially lighter than helium

http://timeguide.wordpress.com/2013/01/05/could-graphene-foam-be-a-future-helium-substitute/

it could be added into structures to reduce forces needed. So, we’re not looking at orbs that can carry heavy equipment here, but carrying processing, sensing, storage and comms would be easy. Obviously they could therefore include whatever state of the art artificial intelligence has got to, either on-board, distributed, or via the cloud. Beyond that, it is hard to imagine a small orb carrying more than a few hundred grammes. Nevertheless, it could carry enough equipment to make it very useful indeed for very many purposes. These drones could work pretty much anywhere. Space would be tricky but not that tricky, the drones would just have to carry a little fuel.

But let’s get right to the point. The primary market for this isn’t the home or lab or office, it is the battlefield. Battle drones are being regulated as I type, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be developed. My generation grew up with the nuclear arms race. Millennials will grow up with the drone arms race. And that if anything is a lot scarier. The battle drones on Mass Effect are fairly easy to kill. Real ones won’t.

a Mass Effect combat droneMass Effect combat drone, picture credit: masseffect.wikia.com

If these cute little floating drone things are taken out of the office and converted to military uses they could do pretty much all the stuff they do in sci-fi. They could have lots of local energy storage using super-caps, so they could easily carry self-organising lightweight  lasers or electrical shock weaponry too, or carry steerable mirrors to direct beams from remote lasers, and high definition 3D cameras and other sensing for reconnaissance. The interesting thing here is that self organisation of potentially redundant components would allow a free roaming battle drone that would be highly resistant to attack. You could shoot it for ages with laser or bullets and it would keep coming. Disruption of its fields by electrical weapons would make it collapse temporarily, but it would just get up and reassemble as soon as you stop firing. With its intelligence potentially local cloud based, you could make a small battalion of these that could only be properly killed by totally frazzling them all. They would be potentially lethal individually but almost irresistible as a team. Super-capacitors could be recharged frequently using companion drones to relay power from the rear line. A mist of spare components could make ready replacements for any that are destroyed. Self-orientation and use of free-space optics for comms make wiring and circuit boards redundant, and sub-millimetre chips 100m away would be quite hard to hit.

Well I’m scared. If you’re not, I didn’t explain it properly.

3D printable guns are here to stay, but we need to ban magnets from flights too.

It’s interesting watching new technologies emerge. Someone has a bright idea, it gets hyped a bit, then someone counter-hypes a nightmare scenario and everyone panics. Then experts queue up to say why it can’t be done, then someone does it, then more panic, then knee-jerk legislation, then eventually the technology becomes part of everyday life.

I was once dismissed by our best radio experts when I suggested making cellphone masts like the ones you see on every high building today. I recall being taught that you couldn’t possibly ever get more than 19.2kbits/s down a phone line. I got heavily marked down in an appraisal for my obvious stupidity suggesting that mobile phones could include video cameras. I am well used to being told something is impossible, but if I can see how to make it work, I don’t care, I believe it anyway. My personal mantra is ‘just occasionally, everyone else IS wrong’. I am an engineer. Some engineers might not know how to do something, but others sometimes can.

When the printable gun was suggested (not by me this time!) I accepted it as an inevitable part of the future immediately. I then listened as experts argued that it could never survive the forces. But guess what? A gun doesn’t have to survive. It just needs to work once, then you use a fresh one. The first prototypes only worked for a few bullets before breaking. The Liberator was made to work just once. Missiles are like that. They fire once, only once. So you bring a few to the battle.

The recently uploaded blueprint for the Liberator printable gun has been taken offline after 100,000 copies were downloaded, so it will be about as hard to find as embarrassing pictures of any celebrity. There will be innovations, refinements, improvements, then we will see them in use by hobbyists and criminals alike.

But there are loads of ways to skin a cat, allegedly. A gun’s job is to quickly accelerate a small mass up to a high speed in a short distance. Using explosives in a bullet held in a printable lump of plastic clearly does the job on a one-shot basis, but you still need a bullet and they don’t sell them in Tesco’s. So why do it that way?

A Gauss Rifle is a science toy that can fire a ball-bearing across your living room. You can make one in 5 minutes using nothing more than sticky tape, a ruler and some neodymium magnets. Here’s a nice example of the toy version using simple steel balls:

http://scitoys.com/scitoys/scitoys/magnets/gauss.html

The concept is very well known, though a bit harder to Google now because so many computer games have used the same name for imaginary weapons. In an easily adapted version, where the steel balls are replaced by neodymium magnets held in place in alternately attracting and repelling polarities, when the first magnet is released, it is pulled by strong magnetic force to the second one, hitting it quite fast, and conveying all that energy to the next stage magnet, which is then pushed away from the one repelling it towards the one attracting it, so accumulating lots of energy. The energy accumulates over several stages, optimally harnessing the full repulsive and attractive forces available from the strong magnets. Too many stages result in the magnets shattering, but with care, four stages with simple steel balls can be used reasonably safely as a toy.

Some sites explain that if you position the magnets accurately with the poles oriented right, you can get it to make a small hole in a wall. I imagine you could design and print a gauss rifle jig with very high precision, far better than you could do with tape and your fingers, that would hold the magnets in the right locations and polarity orientations.  Then just put your magnets in and it is ready. Neodymium magnets are easily available in various sizes at low cost and the energy of the final ball is several times as high as the first one. With the larger magnets, the magnetic forces are extremely high so the energy accumulated would also be high. A sharp plastic dart housing the last ball would make quite a dangerous device. A Gauss rifle might lack the force of a conventional gun, but it could still be quite powerful. If I was in charge of airport security, I’d already be banning magnets from flights.

I really don’t see how you could stop someone making this sort of thing, or plastic crossbows or fancy plastic jigs with stored energy in springs that can be primed in an aircraft toilet that fire things in imaginative ways. There are zillions of ways to accelerate something, some of which can be done in cascades that only generate tolerable forces at any particular point so could easily work with printable materials. The current focus on firearms misses the point. You don’t have to transfer all the energy to a projectile in one short high pressure burst, you can accumulate it in stages. Focusing security controls on explosives-based systems will leave us vulnerable.

3D printable weapons are here to stay, but for criminals and terrorists, bullets with explosives in might soon be obsolete.

What will your next body be like?

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

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

http://timeguide.wordpress.com/2012/01/29/how-to-live-forever/

http://timeguide.wordpress.com/2012/01/21/increasing-longevity-and-electronic-immortality-3bn-people-to-live-forever/

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

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

Options

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

http://timeguide.wordpress.com/2012/09/02/the-future-of-gender/

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

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

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

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

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

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

Things that don’t work but could

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The future of time travel: cheat

Time travel comes up frequently in science fiction, and some physicists think it might be theoretically possible, to some degree, within major constraints, at vast expense, between times that are in different universes. Frankly, my physics is rusty and I don’t have any useful contribution to make on how we might do physical time travel, nor on its potential. However, intelligence available to us to figure the full physics out will accelerate dramatically thanks to the artificial intelligence positive feedback loop (smarter machines can build even smarter ones even faster)  and some time later this century we will definitely work out once and for all whether it is doable in real life and how to do it. And we’ll know why we never meet time tourists. If it can be done and done reasonable economically and safely, then it will just be a matter of time to build it after that.

Well, stuff that! Not interested in waiting! If the laws of physics make it so hard that it may never happen and certainly not till at least towards the end of this century, even if it is possible, then let’s bypass the laws of physics. Engineers do that all the time. If you are faced with an infinitely tall impenetrable barrier so you can’t go over it or through it, then check whether the barrier is also very wide, because there may well be an easy route past the barrier that doesn’t require you to go that way. I can’t walk over tall buildings, but I still haven’t found one I couldn’t walk past on the street. There is usually a way past barriers.

And with time travel, that turns out to be the case. There is an easy route past. Physics only controls the physical world. Although physics certain governs the technologies we use to create cyberspace, it doesn’t really limit what you can do in cyberspace any more than in a dream, a costume drama, or a memory.

Cyberspace takes many forms, it is’t homogeneous or even continuous. It has many dimensions. It can be quite alien. But in some areas, such as websites, archives are kept and you can look at how a site was in the past. Extend that to social networking and a problem immediately appears. How can you communicate or interact with someone if the site you are on is just an historical snapshot and isn’t live? How could you go back and actually chat to someone or play a game against them?

The solution to this problem is a tricky technological one but it is entirely  possible, and it won’t violate any physics. If you want to go back in time and interact with people as they were, then all you need is to have an archive of those people. Difficult, but possible. In cyberspace.

Around 2050, we should be starting to do direct brain links, at least in the lab and maybe a bit further. Not just connections to the optic nerve or inner ear, or chips to control wheelchairs, we already have that. And we already have basic thought recognition. By 2050 we will be starting to do full links, that allow thoughts to pass both ways between man and machine, so that the machine world is effectively an extension of your brain.

As people’s thoughts, memories and even sensations become more cyberspace based, as they will, the physical body will become less relevant. (Some of my previous blogs have considered the implication of this for immortality). Once stuff is in the IT world, it can be copied, and backed up. That gives us the potential to make recordings of people’s entire lives, and capable of effectively replicating them at will. Today we have web archives that try to do that with web sites so you can access material on older versions of them. Tomorrow we’ll also be able to include people in that. Virtually replicating the buildings and other stuff would be pretty trivial by comparison.

In that world, it will be possible for your mind, which is itself an almost entirely online entity, to interact with historic populations, essentially to time travel. Right back to the date when they were started being backed up, some time after 2050. The people they would be dealing with would be the same actual people that existed then, exactly as they were, perfect copies. They would behave and respond exactly the same. So you could use this technique to time travel back to 2050 at the very best but no earlier. And for a proper experience it would be much later, say 2100.

And then it starts to get interesting. In an electronic timeline such as that, the interactions you have with those people in the last would have two options. They could be just time tourism  or social research, or other archaeology, which has no lasting effect, and any traces of your trip would vanish when you leave. Or they could be more effectual. The interactions you have when you visit could ripple all the way back through the timeline to your ‘present?’, or future? or was it the past when you were present in the future? (it is really hard to choose the right words tenses when you write about time travel!!). The computers could make it all real, running the entire society through its course, at a greatly accelerated speed. The interactions could therefore be quite real, and all the interactions and all the minds and the rippling social effects could all be implemented. But the possibilities branch again, because although that could be true, and the future society could be genuinely changed, that could also be done by entirely replicating the cyberworld, and implementing the effects only in the parallel new cyber-universe. Doing either of these effectual options might prove very expensive, and obviously dangerous. Replicating things can be done, but you need a lot of computer power and storage to do it with everything affected, so it might be severely restricted. And policed.

But importantly, this sort of time travel could be done – you could go back in time to change the present. All the minds of all the people could be changed by someone going back in the past cyberspace records and doing something that would ripple forwards through time to change those same minds. It couldn’t be made fully clean, because some people for example might choose not to have kids in the revised edition, and although the cyberspace presence of their minds could be changed or deleted, you’d still have to dispose of their physical bodies and tidy up other physical residual effects. But not being clean is one of the things we’d expect for time travel. There would be residues, mess, paradoxes, and presumably this would all limit the things you’d be allowed to mess with. And we will need the time cops and time detectives and licenses and time cleaners and administrators and so on. But in our future cyberspace world, TIME TRAVEL WILL BE POSSIBLE. I can’t shout that loud enough. And please don’t ignore the italics, I am absolutely not suggesting it will be doable in the real world.

Fun! Trouble is, I’m going to be 90 in 2050 so I probably won’t have the energy any more.

Avatar 0.0

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

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

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

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

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

From their conference press release:

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

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

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

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

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

 

Zombies are coming!

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