Category Archives: Energy

Fusions needs jet engine architecture, not JET

Warning: some or all of what you will read here might be nonsense, but hey, faint heart ne’er won fair maid.

Lockheed Martin are in the news with yet another claim of a fusion breakthrough. It looks exciting, but some physicists are already claiming that it won’t work. I haven’t done the sums so I don’t have a sensible opinion on it. I am filing it mentally with all the other frequently claimed breakthroughs and will wait and see, not holding my breath. I really hope they succeed though. If they don’t, then their claim is just hot air, and if they can do that, then why can’t I? So here is how I would do the easy bits of the top level design, leaving the hard sums to others.

Joint European Torus = JET, and the new Lockheed Martin approach is meant to be about the same size as a jet engine. I couldn’t help making the obvious mental leap. Long ago, plane engines used internal combustion engines and propellers. The along came 40-year-old Frank Whittle and changed the world with his jet engine invention:

Whittle and his jet engine

Picture copyright Popperfoto

Smart bunny!

Standing on his (and Rutherford’s) shoulders, I had to ask whether we can’t use a jet engine arrangement to harness fusion. We don’t need the propulsion, just the ejected products to extract heat from, fairly conventionally. As lazy as researchers can be these days, I typed ‘jet engine fusion’ into google images. Way down the page was one that I thought had already used the idea, as a spaceship propulsion system, but bringing up the page, it doesn’t, it just uses a pretty conventional reaction chamber and ejects the fusion products out through a nozzle to provide propulsion force.

So either the idea is so obviously flawed that nobody has even bothered to investigate it far enough to bother making graphics, or a major case of group-think has affected the entire physicist community. Bit of a gamble proceeding then, but, if you have a few billion to gamble, here’s how to do fusion:

Jet style nuclear fusion process

Jet style nuclear fusion process

Intake a continuous stream of deuterium and tritium.

Compress it (using some of the energy from the fusion process)  and optionally heat  or compress it conventionally to reduce energy deficit in final stage.

Feed it into the narrow reaction pathway, which is a strongly confined tunnel surrounded by an Archimedes screw of high intensity lasers.

Generate continuous heating via lasers as the plasma passes along the reaction pathway (using some of the energy from the process) until fusion finally occurs in the short fusion zone.

Allow hot fused products to expand in an expansion chamber

Pass through suitable heat exchanger to make steam/molted sodium or whatever takes your fancy.

Feed some of the energy harvested to drive compressors, heaters, and obviously the lasers. Very possibly some of the products might be useful feedstock for production of lasing medium.

Bob’s your uncle.

OK, the intake and compression bits are quite jet enginy, and using some of the energy produced to power the earlier stages is very jet enginy. We don’t have any burning of gases so it isn’t quite the same. But in the interests of extracting as much from Whittle as possible, I kept it nice and circular with as few components as possible in the way, arranging the lasers in a continuous spiral (inspired by the Archimedes screw), so that the plasma heats up as it passes through them until it starts to fuse. There is no actual screw, its just that if all the lasers are mounted and directed towards the plasma jet as it heats, the external arrangement would look very similar, and the effect would be that the temperature and proximity to fusing would rise as the plasma passes through it.  You still need serious magnetic confinement to prevent the plasma touching the walls, but there is nothing physical in the path to touch, just magnetic fields and lots of laser beam.

I can’t see any immediate reasons why it couldn’t work, and it offers some definite advantages over a torus approach or exploding pellets. It takes ideas from all the other approaches so it isn’t really new, just a rearrangement.

Doesn’t Lockheed Martin make jet engines too?

Diesel – 4.4 times more deaths than by road accidents

In Dec 2010, the UK government released a report estimating that air pollution causes a ‘mortality burden’ of 340,000 years of life spread over an affected population of 200,000, equivalent to about 29,000 deaths each year in the UK, or a drop in average life expectancy across the whole population of 6 months. It also costs the NHS £27B per year. See:

http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20140505104658/http://www.comeap.org.uk/images/stories/Documents/Reports/COMEAP_Mortality_Effects_Press_Release.pdf

There is no more recent report as yet, although the figures in it refer to 2008.

Particulate matter (PM) is the worst offender and diesel engines are one of the main sources of PM, but they also emit some of the other offenders. COMEAP estimates that a quarter of PM-related deaths are caused by diesel engines, 7250 lives per year. Some of the PM comes from private vehicles. To save regeneration costs, some diesel drivers apparently remove the diesel particulate filters from their cars, which is illegal, and doing so would mean failing an MOT. See:

https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/263018/diesel-particulate-filters-guidance.pdf

The government encouraged people to go diesel by offering significant tax advantages. Road tax and company car tax are lower for diesels, resulting in more than half of new cars now being diesels. (https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/vehicle-licensing-statistics-2013) Almost all public buses and taxis and still many trains are diesel.

7250 lives per year caused by diesel vehicles is a lot, and let’s remember that was an estimate based on 2008 particulates. There are many more diesels on our roads now than then (https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/301636/veh0203.xls shows the number of diesel cars licensed has increased from 7163 to 10,064), but fuel efficiency has also improved in that period so total fuel use hasn’t increased much, only from 8788 to 9197 thousand tons of diesel. So the result isn’t as bad as it could have been and the proportionately scaled figure for 2012 would be 7587 deaths from diesel emissions. In 2013 there were only 1730 road deaths so 4.4 times as many people were killed by diesel emissions than road accidents.

I thought it would be interesting to compare deaths from just buses to those in road accidents, since buses are thought of by many as some sort of panacea whereas some of us see them as filthy environmental monsters. The proportion of diesel used by buses has fallen from 17% to 13.7% between 2008 and 2012. (I couldn’t find figures for the numbers of taxis, also officially included in public transport, since the fuel usage stats lump all cars together, but then I’ve never understood why taxis should be listed as public transport anyway.)

17% of the 7250 figure for 2008 gives 1232 deaths from public transport diesel emissions compared to 2538 road deaths that year, roughly half as many. However, for 2012, 13.7% of 7587 is 1039 deaths from public transport diesel emissions compared to 1754 people killed in road accidents in 2012.  That ratio has grown from 48.5% to 59% in just 4 years. Buses may use less fuel than cars but they certainly aren’t saints.

So, headline result: 60% as many people are killed by diesel emissions from buses as in road accidents, but altogether, 4.4 times as many people die due to diesel. The government is very noisy when it comes to reducing road deaths, but it should look at the far bigger gains that would be made by reducing diesel use. Perhaps it is time that the deaths arising from diesel emissions should be added to the road deaths figures. At least then there might be some better action against it.

As I wrote in a recent blog

(http://timeguide.wordpress.com/2014/07/18/road-deaths-v-hospital-hygiene/)

more still could be saved by just slightly improving the NHS. The £27B per year health costs saved by getting rid of diesel might go some way to doing both.

As a final observation, diesel was encouraged so much because it should help to reduce CO2 emissions, seen as a major contributor to global warming. In the last year or two, the sensitivity to CO2 emissions has been observed to be lower than originally thought. However, another major contribution to warming is the black carbon PM, noted especially for its contribution to melting glaciers by making them darker, also arising in large part from diesel. The efforts to reduce one contributor have increased another. Diesel doesn’t even solve the problem it was aimed at, but still causes others.

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.

The future of mining

I did an interview recently on future mining, so I thought I’d blog my thoughts on the subject while they’re all stuck together coherently.

Very briefly, increasing population and wealth will generate higher resource need until the resources needed per person starts to fall at a higher rate, and it will. That almost certainly means a few decades of increasing demand for many resources, with a few exceptions where substitution will impact at a higher rate. Eventually, demand will peak and fall for most resources. Meanwhile, the mining industry can prosper.

Robotics

Robots are already used a lot in mining, but their uses will evolve. Robots have a greater potential range of senses than humans, able to detect whatever sensors are equipped for. That means they can see into rock and analyse composition better than our eyes. AI will improve their decisions. Of course, we’ll still have the self drive vehicles, diggers and the other automation we already expect to see.

If a mine can be fully automated, it may reduce deaths and costs significantly. Robots can also have a rapid speed of reaction as well as AI and advanced sensing, and could detect accidents before they happen. Apart from saving on wages, robots also don’t need expensive health and safety, so that may see lower costs, but at the expense of greater risks with occasional flat robots in an automated mine. The costs of robots can be kept low if most of their intelligence is remote rather than on board. Saving human lives is a benefit that can’t easily be costed. Far better to buy a new machine than to comfort a bereaved family.

Robots in many other mixed mines will need to be maintained, so maybe people’s main role will often be just looking after the machines, and we would still need to ensure safety in that case. That creates a big incentive to make machines that can be maintained by other machines so that full automation can be achieved.

With use of penetrating positioning systems, specialist wanderer bots could tunnel around at will, following a seam, extracting and concentrating useful materials and leave markers for collector bots to gather the concentrates.

NBIC

With ongoing convergence of biotech, nanotech and IT, we should expect a lot of development of various types of bacterial or mechanical microbots, that can get into new places and reduce the costs of recovery, maybe even reopening some otherwise uneconomic mines. Development of bacteria that can transmute materials has already begun, and we should expect that some future mines will depend mainly on a few bucketfuls of bacterial soup to convert and concentrate resources into more easily extracted reserves. Such advanced technology will greatly increase the reserves of material that can economically be extracted. Obviously the higher the price, the more that can be justified on extraction, so advanced technologies will develop faster when we need them, as any shortages start to appear.

Deep Sea

Deep sea mines would provide access to far greater resource pools, limited mainly by the market price for the material. Re-opening other mines as technology improves recovery potential will also help.

Asteroid Mining

Moving away from the Earth, a lot of hype has appeared about asteroid mining and some analyses seem to think that it will impact enormously on the price of scarce materials here on Earth. I think that is oversold as a possibility.  Yes, it will be possible to bring stuff back to Earth, but the costs of landing materials safely would be high and only justified for those with extreme prices.  For traditionally expensive gold or diamonds, actual uses are relatively low and generally have good cheaper substitutes, so if large quantities were shipped back to Earth, prices would still be managed as they already are, with slow trickling onto the market to avoid price collapse. That greatly limits the potential wealth from doing so.

I think it is far more likely that asteroid mining will be focused on producing stuff for needed for construction, travel and living in space, such as space stations, ships, energy collection, habitation, outposts etc. In that case, many of the things mined from asteroids would be things that are cheap here, such as water and iron and other everyday materials. Their value in space might be far higher simply because of the expense of moving them. This last factor suggests that there may be a lot of interest in technologies to move asteroids or change their orbits so the resources end up closer to where they are needed. An asteroid could be mined at great length, with the materials extracted and left on its surface, then waiting until the asteroid is close to the required destination before the materials are collected and dispatched. The alternative that we routinely see in sci-fi, with vast mining ships, is possible, and there will undoubtedly be times they are needed, but surely can’t compete on cost with steering an entire asteroid so it delivers the materials itself.

Population growth and resource need

As human population increases, we’ll eventually also see robot and android population increase, and they might also need resources for their activities. We should certainly factor that into future demand estimates. However, there are also future factors that will reduce the resources needed.

Smarter Construction

More advanced construction techniques, development of smarter materials and use of reactive architecture all mean that less resource is needed for a given amount of building. Exotic materials such as graphene  and carbon nanotubes, boron derivatives, and possibly even plasma in some applications, will all impact on construction and other industries and reduce demand for lots of resources. The carbon derivatives are a double win, since carbon can usefully be extracted from the products of fossil fuel energy production, making cleaner energy at the same time as providing building and fabrication materials. The new carbon materials are a lot stronger than steel, so we may build much higher buildings, making a lower environmental footprint for cities. They are also perfect for making self-driving cars as well as their energy storage, power supply and supporting infrastructure.

IT efficiency v the Greens

Miniaturisation of electronics and IT will continue for decades more. A few cubic millimetres of electronics could easily replace all the electronics owned by a typical family today. Perversely, Greens are trying hard to force a slower obsolescence cycle, not understanding that the faster we get to minimal resource use, the lower the overall environmental impact will be. By prolonging high-resource-use gadgets, even as people get wealthier and can afford to buy more, the demands will increase far beyond what is really necessary of they hadn’t interfered. It is far better for 10 billion people to use a few cubic millimetres each than a few litres. Greens also often want to introduce restrictions on development of other advanced technology, greatly overusing the precautionary principle. Their distrust of science and technology is amazing considering how much it can obviously benefit the environment.

A lot of things can be done virtually too, with no resource use at all, especially displays and interfaces, all of which could share a single common display such as a 0.2 gram active contact lens. A lot of IT can be centralised with greater utilisation, while some can achieve better efficiency by decentralising. We need to apply intelligence to the problem, looking at each bit as part of an overall system instead of in isolation, and looking at the full life cycle as well as the full system.

Substitution will reduce demand for copper, neodymium, lithium

Recycling of some elements will provide more than is needed by a future market because of material substitution, so prices of some could fall, such as copper. Copper in plumbing is already being substituted heavily by plastic. In communications, fibre and mobile are already heavily replacing it. In power cables, it will eventually be substituted by graphene. Similar substitution is likely in many other materials. The primary use of neodymium is in wind turbines and high speed motors. As wind turbines are abandoned and recycled in favour of better energy production techniques, as future wind power can even be based on plastic capacitors that need hardly any metal at all, and as permanent magnets in motors are substituted by superconducting magnets, there may not be much demand for neodymium. Similarly, lithium is in great demand for batteries, but super-capacitors, again possibly using carbon derivatives such as graphene, will substitute greatly for them. Inductive power coupling from inductive mats in a road surface could easily replace most of the required capacity for a car battery, especially as self driving cars will be lighter and closer together, reducing energy demand. Self-driving cars even reduce the number of cars needed as they deter private ownership. So it is a win-win-win for everyone except the mining industry. A small battery or super-cap bank might have little need for lithium. Recycled lithium could be all we need. Recycling will continue to improve through better practice and better tech, and also some rubbish tips could even be mined if we’re desperate. With fewer cars needed, and plastic instead of steel, that also impacts on steel need.

The Greens are the best friends of the mining industry

So provided we can limit Green interference and get on with developing advanced technology quickly, the fall in demand per person (or android) may offset resource need at a higher rate than the population increases. We could use less material in the far future than we do today, even with a far higher average standard of living. After population peaks and starts falling, there could be a rapid price fall as a glut of recycled material appears. That would be a bleak outcome for the mining sector of course. In that case, by delaying that to the best of their ability, it turns out that the Greens are the mining industry’s best friends, useful idiots, ensuring that the markets remain as large as possible for as long as possible, with the maximum environmental impact.

It certainly takes a special restriction of mind to let someone do so much harm to the environment while still believing they occupy the moral high ground!

Carbon industry

Meanwhile, carbon sequestration could easily evolve into a carbon materials industry, in direct competition with the traditional resources sector, with carbon building materials, cables, wires, batteries, capacitors, inductors, electronics, fabrics…..a million uses. Plastics will improve in parallel, often incorporating particles of electronics, sensors, and electronic muscles, making a huge variety of potential smart materials for any kind of building, furniture of gadget. The requirement for concrete, steel, aluminium, copper, and many other materials will eventually drop, even as population and wealth grows.

To conclude, although population increase and wealth increase will generate increasing demand in the short to medium term, and mining will develop rapidly along many avenues, in the longer term, the future will rely far more on recycling and advanced manufacturing techniques, so the demand for raw materials will eventually peak and fall.

I wrote at far greater length about achieving a system-wide sustainable future in my book Total Sustainability, which avoids the usual socialist baggage.

The internet of things will soon be history

I’ve been a full time futurologist since 1991, and an engineer working on far future R&D stuff since I left uni in 1981. It is great seeing a lot of the 1980s dreams about connecting everything together finally starting to become real, although as I’ve blogged a bit recently, some of the grander claims we’re seeing for future home automation are rather unlikely. Yes you can, but you probably won’t, though some people will certainly adopt some stuff. Now that most people are starting to get the idea that you can connect things and add intelligence to them, we’re seeing a lot of overshoot too on the importance of the internet of things, which is the generalised form of the same thing.

It’s my job as a futurologist not only to understand that trend (and I’ve been yacking about putting chips in everything for decades) but then to look past it to see what is coming next. Or if it is here to stay, then that would also be an important conclusion too, but you know what, it just isn’t. The internet of things will be about as long lived as most other generations of technology, such as the mobile phone. Do you still have one? I don’t, well I do but they are all in a box in the garage somewhere. I have a general purpose mobile computer that happens to do be a phone as well as dozens of other things. So do you probably. The only reason you might still call it a smartphone or an iPhone is because it has to be called something and nobody in the IT marketing industry has any imagination. PDA was a rubbish name and that was the choice.

You can stick chips in everything, and you can connect them all together via the net. But that capability will disappear quickly into the background and the IT zeitgeist will move on. It really won’t be very long before a lot of the things we interact with are virtual, imaginary. To all intents and purposes they will be there, and will do wonderful things, but they won’t physically exist. So they won’t have chips in them. You can’t put a chip into a figment of imagination, even though you can make it appear in front of your eyes and interact with it. A good topical example of this is the smart watch, all set to make an imminent grand entrance. Smart watches are struggling to solve battery problems, they’ll be expensive too. They don’t need batteries if they are just images and a fully interactive image of a hugely sophisticated smart watch could also be made free, as one of a million things done by a free app. The smart watch’s demise is already inevitable. The energy it takes to produce an image on the retina is a great deal less than the energy needed to power a smart watch on your wrist and the cost of a few seconds of your time to explain to an AI how you’d like your wrist to be accessorised is a few seconds of your time, rather fewer seconds than you’d have spent on choosing something that costs a lot. In fact, the energy needed for direct retinal projection and associated comms is far less than can be harvested easily from your body or the environment, so there is no battery problem to solve.

If you can do that with a smart watch, making it just an imaginary item, you can do it to any kind of IT interface. You only need to see the interface, the rest can be put anywhere, on your belt, in your bag or in the IT ether that will evolve from today’s cloud. My pad, smartphone, TV and watch can all be recycled.

I can also do loads of things with imagination that I can’t do for real. I can have an imaginary wand. I can point it at you and turn you into a frog. Then in my eyes, the images of you change to those of a frog. Sure, it’s not real, you aren’t really a frog, but you are to me. I can wave it again and make the building walls vanish, so I can see the stuff on sale inside. A few of those images could be very real and come from cameras all over the place, the chips-in-everything stuff, but actually, I don’t have much interest in most of what the shop actually has, I am not interested in most of the local physical reality of a shop; what I am far more interested in is what I can buy, and I’ll be shown those things, in ways that appeal to me, whether they’re physically there or on Amazon Virtual. So 1% is chips-in-everything, 99% is imaginary, virtual, some sort of visual manifestation of my profile, Amazon Virtual’s AI systems, how my own AI knows I like to see things, and a fair bit of other people’s imagination to design the virtual decor, the nice presentation options, the virtual fauna and flora making it more fun, and countless other intermediaries and extramediaries, or whatever you call all those others that add value and fun to an experience without actually getting in the way. All just images directly projected onto my retinas. Not so much chips-in-everything as no chips at all except a few sensors, comms and an infinitesimal timeshare of a processor and storage somewhere.

A lot of people dismiss augmented reality as irrelevant passing fad. They say video visors and active contact lenses won’t catch on because of privacy concerns (and I’d agree that is a big issue that needs to be discussed and sorted, but it will be discussed and sorted). But when you realise that what we’re going to get isn’t just an internet of things, but a total convergence of physical and virtual, a coming together of real and imaginary, an explosion of human creativity,  a new renaissance, a realisation of yours and everyone else’s wildest dreams as part of your everyday reality; when you realise that, then the internet of things suddenly starts to look more than just a little bit boring, part of the old days when we actually had to make stuff and you had to have the same as everyone else and it all cost a fortune and needed charged up all the time.

The internet of things is only starting to arrive. But it won’t stay for long before it hides in the cupboard and disappears from memory. A far, far more exciting future is coming up close behind. The world of creativity and imagination. Bring it on!

Home automation. A reality check.

Home automation is much in the news at the moment now that companies are making the chips-with-everything kit and the various apps.

Like 3D, home automation comes and goes. Superficially it is attractive, but the novelty wears thin quickly. It has been possible since the 1950s to automate a home. Bill Gates notably built a hugely expensive automated home 20 years ago. There are rarely any new ideas in the field, just a lot of recycling and minor tweaking.  Way back in 2000, I wrote what was even then just a recycling summary blog-type piece for my website bringing together a lot of already well-worn ideas. And yet it could easily have come from this years papers. Here it is, go to the end of the italicised text for my updating commentary:

Chips everywhere

 August 2000

 The chips-with-everything lifestyle is almost inevitable. Almost everything can be improved by adding some intelligence to it, and since the intelligence will be cheap to make, we will take advantage of this potential. In fact, smart ways of doing things are often cheaper than dumb ways, a smart door lock may be much cheaper than a complex key based lock. A chip is often cheaper than dumb electronics or electromechanics. However, electronics no longer has a monopoly of chip technology. Some new chips incorporate tiny electromechanical or electrochemical devices to do jobs that used to be done by more expensive electronics. Chips now have the ability to analyse chemicals, biological matter or information. They are at home processing both atoms and bits.

 These new families of chips have many possible uses, but since they are relatively new, most are probably still beyond our imagination. We already have seen the massive impact of chips that can do information processing. We have much less intuition regarding the impact in the physical world.

 Some have components that act as tiny pumps to allow drugs to be dispensed at exactly the right rate. Others have tiny mirrors that can control laser beams to make video displays. Gene chips have now been built that can identify the presence of many different genes, allowing applications from rapid identification to estimation of life expectancy for insurance reasons. (They are primarily being use to tell whether people have a genetic disorder so that their treatment can be determined correctly).

 It is easy to predict some of the uses such future chips might have around the home and office, especially when they become disposably cheap. Chips on fruit that respond to various gases may warn when the fruit is at its best and when it should be disposed of. Other foods might have electronic use-by dates that sound an alarm each time the cupboard or fridge is opened close to the end of their life. Other chips may detect the presence of moulds or harmful bacteria. Packaging chips may have embedded cooking instructions that communicate directly with the microwave, or may contain real-time recipes that appear on the kitchen terminal and tell the chef exactly what to do, and when. They might know what other foodstuffs are available in the kitchen, or whether they are in stock locally and at what price. Of course, these chips could also contain pricing and other information for use by the shops themselves, replacing bar codes and the like and allowing the customer just to put all the products in a smart trolley and walk out, debiting their account automatically. Chips on foods might react when the foods are in close proximity, warning the owner that there may be odour contamination, or that these two could be combined well to make a particularly pleasant dish. Cooking by numbers. In short, the kitchen could be a techno-utopia or nightmare depending on taste.

 Mechanical switches can already be replaced by simple sensors that switch on the lights when a hand is waved nearby, or when someone enters a room. In future, switches of all kinds may be rather more emotional, glowing, changing colour or shape, trying to escape, or making a noise when a hand gets near to make them easier or more fun to use. They may respond to gestures or voice commands, or eventually infer what they are to do from something they pick up in conversation. Intelligent emotional objects may become very commonplace. Many devices will act differently according to the person making the transaction. A security device will allow one person entry, while phoning the police when someone else calls if they are a known burglar. Others may receive a welcome message or be put in videophone contact with a resident, either in the house or away.

 It will be possible to burglar proof devices by registering them in a home. They could continue to work while they are near various other fixed devices, maybe in the walls, but won’t work when removed. Moving home would still be possible by broadcasting a digitally signed message to the chips. Air quality may be continuously analysed by chips, which would alert to dangers such as carbon monoxide, or excessive radiation, and these may also monitor for the presence of bacteria or viruses or just pollen. They may be integrated into a home health system which monitors our wellbeing on a variety of fronts, watching for stress, diseases, checking our blood pressure, fitness and so on. These can all be unobtrusively monitored. The ultimate nightmare might be that our fridge would refuse to let us have any chocolate until the chips in our trainers have confirmed that we have done our exercise for the day.

 Some chips in our home would be mobile, in robots, and would have a wide range of jobs from cleaning and tidying to looking after the plants. Sensors in the soil in a plant pot could tell the robot exactly how much water and food the plant needs. The plant may even be monitored by sensors on the stem or leaves. 

The global positioning system allows chips to know almost exactly where they are outside, and in-building positioning systems could allow positioning down to millimetres. Position dependent behaviour will therefore be commonplace. Similarly, events can be timed to the precision of atomic clock broadcasts. Response can be super-intelligent, adjusting appropriately for time, place, person, social circumstances, environmental conditions, anything that can be observed by any sort of sensor or predicted by any sort of algorithm. 

With this enormous versatility, it is very hard to think of anything where some sort of chip could not make an improvement. The ubiquity of the chip will depend on how fast costs fall and how valuable a task is, but we will eventually have chips with everything.

So that was what was pretty everyday thinking in the IT industry in 2000. The articles I’ve read recently mostly aren’t all that different.

What has changed since is that companies trying to progress it are adding new layers of value-skimming. In my view some at least are big steps backwards. Let’s look at a couple.

Networking the home is fine, but doing so so that you can remotely adjust the temperature across the network or run a bath from the office is utterly pointless. It adds the extra inconvenience of having to remember access details to an account, regularly updating security details, and having to recover when the company running it loses all your data to a hacker, all for virtually no benefit.

Monitoring what the user does and sending the data back to the supplier company so that they can use it for targeted ads is another huge step backwards. Advertising is already at the top of the list of things we already have quite enough. We need more resources, more food supply, more energy, more of a lot of stuff. More advertising we can do without. It adds costs to everything and wastes our time, without giving anything back.

If a company sells home automation stuff and wants to collect the data on how I use it, and sell that on to others directly or via advertising services, it will sit on their shelf. I will not buy it, and neither will most other people. Collecting the data may be very useful, but I want to keep it, and I don’t want others to have access to it. I want to pay once, and then own it outright with full and exclusive control and data access. I do not want to have to create any online accounts, not have to worry about network security or privacy, not have to download frequent software updates, not have any company nosing into my household and absolutely definitely no adverts.

Another is to migrate interfaces for things onto our smartphones or tablets. I have no objection to having that as an optional feature, but I want to retain a full physical switch or control. For several years in BT, I lived in an office with a light that was controlled by a remote control, with no other switch. The remote control had dozens of buttons, yet all it did was turn the light on or off. I don’t want to have to look for a remote control or my phone or tablet in order to turn on a light or adjust temperature. I would much prefer a traditional light switch and thermostat. If they communicate by radio, I don’t care, but they do need to be physically present in the same place all the time.

Automated lights that go on and off as people enter or leave a room are also a step backwards. I have fallen victim once to one in a work toilet. If you sit still for a couple of minutes, they switch the lights off. That really is not welcome in an internal toilet with no windows.

The traditional way of running a house is not so demanding that we need a lot of assistance anyway. It really isn’t. I only spend a few seconds every day turning lights on and off or adjusting temperature. It would take longer than that on average to maintain apps to do it automatically. As for saving energy by turning heating on and off all the time, I think that is over-valued as a feature too. The air in a house doesn’t take much heat and if the building cools down, it takes a lot to get it back up again. That actually makes more strain on a boiler than running at a relatively constant low output. If the boiler and pumps have to work harder more often, they are likely to last less time, and savings would be eradicated.

So, all in all, while I can certainly see merits in adding chips to all sorts of stuff, I think their merits in home automation is being grossly overstated in the current media enthusiasm, and the downside being far too much ignored. Yes you can, but most people won’t want to and those who do probably won’t want to do nearly as much as is being suggested, and even those won’t want all the pain of doing so via service providers adding unnecessary layers or misusing their data.

Is is time to packetise electricity?

It is a couple of decades now since electricity cables were first demonstrated as potential telecomms networks, and some applications of that are commercially available now. You can even use special adapters that plug into a mains socket to communicate with devices in other sockets, though wireless LANs make that much less significant now.

However, an obvious derivative of that has also been known for decades but is still missing. That idea is to packetise the electricity itself. The electric current would still be constant, but each bit would have a communications packet written on it. That would allow electricity to be sold peer to peer, to be assigned to specific purposes, and rationed in time of shortage. It is closely related to smart metering, just a different way of doing something similar.

Here’s an example of how this may be used in practice: A power supplier could issue packets of electricity labelled according to their permitted use. Most of the time, all packets would be labelled open use and could be used for any purpose. When load is high and supply is limited, some packets would be marked restricted use. They could be used for lighting or a hair dryer, but not to power a freezer or electric heater, or battery chargers. Enough open packets would be issued to provide minimal power to these secondary uses, so that your ice cream doesn’t melt and your gran doesn’t freeze to death, but they would provide an excellent way of smart targeting for power rationing. In fact, grans might be allowed to use power for heating when some other homes aren’t, if they are known to have alternative supply for example.

What is meant by ‘each bit’ needs some thought though. To offer useful service potential, energy needs to be broken into quite small pieces. An electrical unit is far too large. I think a Joule is about right – 1 Watt for 1 second but I haven’t really though about it much. Millijoules would be feasible technically, but I don’t think they add much in terms of potential.

Energy from different suppliers could be labelled differently, but share the same wires, just like telecomms traffic. You could choose to run your house on just renewable energy, or just nuclear, or be bloody minded and insist that it has to come from a coal station just to annoy your green neighbour.

There has to be an incentive to use compliant appliances, and they would cost a little more for the embedded intelligence to understand the packets. The main incentive would be price reduction for the energy used, or perhaps event-specific rewards for allowing a local ban during peak times. They could even be offered in advance.

Peer to peer sale of electricity from a small wind turbine or from solar panels on a roof would work too. Instead of selling electricity back onto the grid at a poor price and some neighbour buying it back from the grid at a high price, peer to peer allows direct sales at mutual advantageous pricing, cutting out the middle-man and adding competition.

So there could be a market and it could work. I guess it’s up to the industry to decide whether this is a sensible alternative to smart meters.

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

Could wind farms and HS2 destroy the environment?

Remember when chaos theory arrived. We were bombarded with analogies to help us understand it, such as the butterfly effect, whereby a butterfly flapping its wings in a distant rain forest creates micro-turbulence that minutely affects some tiny variable in a very non-linear system, resulting in a hurricane forming somewhere later.

Imagine sticking up a wind turbine, and compare that to a butterfly. It is a fair bit bigger. A big turbine extracts up to 3MW of power from the passing wind, and a large wind farm may have hundreds of them. If weather is so chaotic in its nature that a butterfly can affect it, a massive deployment of numerous large wind farms certainly can.

Aerial wind farms are being explored a lot now too, using kites. I’ve proposed a few novel designs for wind energy extractors myself during idle time. It is very easy. In my sci-fi book Space Anchor I even described a feasible solution for harvesting energy from tornadoes and hurricanes, reducing their damage and getting lots of free energy.

But it isn’t free if the cost is such great interference with wind strength that the paths of the winds are affected, their ability to transfer water vapour from one region to another. We are already having an impact and it will increase as deployment volume grows. We don’t have the means to estimate the effects of siphoning of such energy. As has recently been shown, 99% of climate models have greatly overestimated the warming due to CO2. They simply don’t work. They don’t model the environment accurately, or even quite accurately.

In the arctic, last year the ice declined enormously, this year it grew back. Researchers found that heat added to river systems by mineral and oil exploration could have been important contributor to the excessive melt. It is human-originated but nothing to do with CO2, and it doesn’t appear in any of the climate models. If they’re right, it’s a good example of how we can interfere with local climate unintentionally, and also how we won’t usually get any warning from climate modelling community who seem obsessed with ignoring any variable that doesn’t link to CO2. The climate is certainly changing, just not at all in the ways they keep telling us it will, because the models leave out many of the important factors and the equations are wrong.

So how can we expect to be told the likely effects of wind farms? The simple answer is that we can’t. At best, we can hope to get some estimates of change in a few specific wind zones. Furthermore, due to extreme politicization of the whole field of energy production and climate change, any models that suggest harmful effects are highly likely to be blocked from reporting, or their results tweaked and airbrushed and generally sanitized beyond recognition. The Scottish wind farms have already been shown to increase CO2 emissions due to the effects they have on the peat bogs on which most of them are built but we still see push for more of the same, even knowing that on the only issue they are meant to help with, CO2 emissions, they make things worse.

The UK government seems to enjoy throwing money away just when we need it most. The HS2 rail link will waste between £50Bn and £75Bn depending who you believe. Wind farms are already adding hundreds per year to the energy bills of the poor, pushing them deeper into poverty. The Green Deal fiasco has wasted a tiny amount by comparison, but is another example of extreme government incompetence when it comes to protecting the environment. As part of EU environmental policies, blocking and delaying shale gas development across Europe has led to massive imports of coal from the USA, increasing EU CO2 emissions while USA emissions have tumbled. You just couldn’t do a worse job of protecting the environment.

So far it seems, almost all government attempts to protect the environment have made it worse. Building even more wind farms will likely add to the problems even further.

Looking at HS2, it is very hard indeed not to compare this enormously expensive project to build a fairly high speed conventional railway between two cities to the Hyperloop system in California recently proposed by Elon Musk. That would deliver a 600mph rail system at a tiny fraction of the cost of HS2. Sure, there are some engineering problems with the systems as initially proposed, but nothing that can’t be solved as far as I can see. If we have £50Bn to spend, we could build links between most of our major cities, instead of diverting even more into London. Instead of a few thousand rich people benefiting a little bit, everyone could. We could build a 21st century rail system instead of just building more of a 20th century one. A system like that would have high capacity between all the major places, diverting many cars off the roads, reducing congestion, acting as a core of a proper self-driven pod based system, reaping enormous environmental benefits as well as improvement of lives. HS2 is totally pants by comparison with what we could get with the same outlay, for the economy, the environment and for quality of life. Siphoning off 50 to 75Bn from the economy for HS2 will delay development of far better and more environmentally friendly means of mass transport. Compared to the right solution, HS2 will damage the economy and the environment enormously.

Wind farms and HS2 will become monuments to the magnitude of stupidity of people in power when they are driven to leave a personal legacy at other people’s expense without having the systems engineering skills to understand what they’re doing.

 

 

Getting estuary tidal power without damaging an estuary

Once in a while, people suggest using the Severn Estuary to generate tidal power. Many other countries with coastlines also have estuaries with sufficient tidal range to make them attractive candidates too. Tidal range is the vertical difference between the water depth at high and low tide, and when the shape of the estuary is factored in, this obviously represents the potential energy available to be harvested. The placing of the barrage determines most of the cost.

A good US overview is at

http://www.oceanenergycouncil.com/index.php/Tidal-Energy/Tidal-Energy.html

Building a dam is established technology, as is hydroelectric generation. The environmental problem is that estuaries are also valuable ecosystems, and it would be nice if we could get power that way without needing the estuary. Putting the enclosures, or impoundments off shore solves that. One option is to build a tidal lagoon. A nice UK site describes the idea:

http://www.tidalelectric.com/technology-lagoons.shtml

As a diversion, you could also just float a lagoon one and tether it, but that probably isn’t a great idea. This is why: A huge man-made enclosure with high walls in a high tidal range area off shore could open its gates to let water flood in via generators as the tide comes in and/or hold it to be released via generators as the tide goes out. But if we make it from plastic, it wouldn’t be able to withstand much pressure and wouldn’t last long. If we make it from steel, it would be stronger, but would take a lot of steel to make a worthwhile enclosure. Then once we’ve made it, how would it be anchored to the sea floor to stop it just rising with the tide or to stop it falling as the tide goes out. Remember, tidal generators only become useful when there is a significant pressure difference. It would need very strong anchors and very strong cables to prevent it from floating up as the tide rises. The base for the enclosure would have to be very strong with strong supports to hold up the enormous weight as the tide goes out, or it would have to sit on a huge base of concrete (assuming it can’t just sit on the sea floor because it is at sea, which is after all the whole point).

So it’s obvious once you think about it for a few minutes why people want to use estuaries or lagoons to hold the water. Only the wall is needed, not the base. The difficult half of the problem and most of the cost goes away.

We are already building off shore wind farms. They sit in regions where the sea is shallower, but since they already present an obstacle to shipping, that obstacle wouldn’t be much worse if the whole farm were to be surrounded by a sea wall. Then tidal generators could be fitted in those walls. Wind farms therefore ought to be perfect candidates for tidal lagoons. It would produce an impoundment without further damaging shipping channels or fish migration paths, while making a less hostile environment for the wind turbines and making their maintenance easier and safer.

A steel wall would be theoretically workable, but would be expensive and resource intensive. A concrete sea wall would be less expensive, but making concrete generates relatively large amounts of CO2. Stone could be used but leaves an ugly mine behind. So, the best solution for tidal lagoons is using a conventional rubble mound breakwater. 

This isn’t a new idea. It was thought through ages ago by others. One proposal for the UK that gathered support:

http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200506/cmselect/cmenvaud/584/584we78.htm describes almost exactly this solution, identifies promising UK sites, and even does all the appropriate surveys and calculations, showing costs compare reasonably with onshore wind turbines. It is still expensive, but not as bad as off shore wind or even a tidal barrage (because the depth of water on the path the wall follows is low, keeping construction costs down). Worth a read.

It is a sound idea already. I like it, though it is still far more expensive than developing shale gas. But instead of using just rubble, why not also use the opportunity to dispose of other waste such as plastic by using it as breakwater filler? Maybe even other kinds of landfill might work as filler. A lot of waste plastic is shipped to far-away lands for disposal. Mixed with rubble, the density would be OK to make it sink and stop it being washed away. It would get rid of waste, while providing some of the substance of the breakwater, hopefully even bringing the price down further. It is unlikely to make a huge dent in costs, but it would reduce the madness of sending plastic to China for disposal and take pressure of landfill.