Category Archives: Society

The future of ‘authenticity’

I recently watched an interesting documentary on the evolution of the British coffee shop market. I then had an idea for a new chain that is so sharp it would scratch your display if I wrote it here, so I’ll keep that secret. The documentary left me with another thought: what’s so special about authentic?

I’ll blog as I think and see where I get to, if anywhere.

Starbucks and Costa sell coffee (for my American readers, Costa is a British version of Starbucks that sells better coffee but seems to agree they should pay tax just like the rest of us - yes I know Starbucks has since reformed a bit, but Costa didn’t have to). Cafe Nero (or is it just Nero?) sells coffee with the ‘Authentic Italian’ experience. I never knew that until I watched the documentary. Such things fly way over my head. If Nero is closest when I want a coffee, I’ll go in, and I know the coffee is nice, just like Costa is nice, but authentic Italian? Why the hell would I care about my coffee being authentic Italian? I don’t go anywhere to get an authentic Danish pastry or an authentic Australian beer, or an authentic Swiss cheese, or an authentic Coke. What has coffee got to do with Italy anyway? It’s a drink. I don’t care how they treat it in any particular country, even if they used to make it nicer there. The basic recipes and techniques for making a decent coffee were spread worldwide decades ago, and it’s the coffee I want. Anyway, we use a Swiss coffee machine with Swiss coffee at home, not Italian, because the Swiss learned from their Italian sub-population and then added their usual high precision materials and engineering and science, they didn’t just take it as gospel that Mama somehow knew best. And because my wife is Swiss. My razor sharp idea isn’t a Swiss coffee chain by the way.

I therefore wonder how many other people who go into Cafe Nero care tuppence whether they are getting an authentic Italian experience, or whether like me they just want a decent coffee and it seems a nice enough place. I can understand the need to get the best atmosphere, ambiance, feel, whatever you want to call it. I can certainly understand that people might want a cake or snack to go with their coffee. I just don’t understand the desire to associate with another country. Italy is fine for a visit; I have nothing against Italians, but neither do I aspire in any way to be or behave Italian.

Let’s think it through a bit. An overall experience is made up of a large number of components: quality and taste of the coffee and snacks, natural or synthetic, healthy or naughty, the staff and the nature of the service, exterior and interior decor and color scheme, mixture of aromas, range of foods, size of cake portion, ages groups and tribal ranges of other customers, comfort of furnishings, lighting levels, wireless LAN access….. There are hundreds of factors. The potential range of combinations  is massive. People can’t handle all that information when they want a coffee, so they need an easy way to decide quickly. ‘Italian’ is really just a brand, reducing the choice stress and Cafe Nero is just adopting a set of typical brand values evolved by an entire nation over centuries. I guess that makes some sense.

But not all that much sense. The Italian bit is a nice shortcut, but once it’s taken out of Italy, whatever it might be, it isn’t in Italy any more. The customers are not expected to order in Italian apart beyond a few silly words to describe the size of the coffee. The customers mostly aren’t Italian, don’t look Italian, don’t chat in Italian and don’t behave Italian. The weather isn’t Italian. The views outside aren’t Italian. The architecture isn’t Italian. So only a few bits of the overall experience can be Italian, the overall experience just isn’t. If only a few bits are authentic, why bother? Why not just extract some insights of what things about ‘Italian’ customers find desirable and then adapt them to the local market? Perhaps what they have done, so if they just drop the pretense, everything would be fine. They can’t honestly say they offer an authentic Italian experience, just a few components of such. I never noticed their supposed Italianness anyway but I hate pretentiousness so now that I understand their offering, it adds up to a slight negative for me. Now that I know they are pretending to be Italian, I will think twice before using them again, but still will if it’s more than a few metres further to another coffee shop. Really, I just want a coffee and possibly a slice of cake, in a reasonably warm and welcoming coffee shop.

Given that it is impossible to provide an ‘authentic Italian experience’ outside of Italy without also simulating every aspect of being in Italy, how authentic could they be in the future? What is the future of authenticity? Could Cafe Nero offer a genuinely Italian experience if that’s what they really wanted? Bring on VR, AR, direct brain links, sensory recording and replay. Total Recall.  Yes they could, sort of. With a full sensory full immersion system, you could deliver an experience that is real and authentic in every sense except that it isn’t real. In 2050, you could sell a seemingly genuinely authentic Italian coffee and cake in a genuinely Italian atmosphere, anywhere. But when they do that, I’ll download that onto my home coffee machine or my digital jewelry. Come to think about it, I could just drink water and eat bread and do all the rest virtually. Full authenticity, zero cost.

This Total Recall style virtual holiday or virtual coffee is fine as far as it goes, but a key problem is knowing that it isn’t real. If you disable that by hypnosis or drugs or surgery or implants or Zombie tech, then your Matrix style world will have some other issues to worry about that are more important. If you don’t, and I’m pretty sure we won’t, then knowing the difference between real and virtual will be all-important. If you know it isn’t real, it pushes a different set of buttons in your brain.

In parallel, as AI gets more and more powerful, a lot of things will be taken over by machines. That adds to the total work pool of man + machine so the economy expands and we’re all better off, if we do it right. We can even restore and improve the environment at the same time. In that world, some roles will still be occupied by humans. People will focus more on human skills, human interaction, crafts, experiences, care, arts and entertainment, sports, and especially offering love and attention. I call it the Care Economy. If you take two absolutely identical items, one provided by a machine and one by another person, the one offered by the person will be more valued, and therefore more valuable – apart from a tiny geek market that specifically wants machines. Don’t believe me? Think of the high price glassware you keep for special occasions and dinner parties. Cut by hand by an expert with years of training. Each glass is slightly different from every other. In one sense it is shoddy workmanship compared to the mass-produced glass, precision made, all identical, that costs 1% as much. The human involvement is absolutely critical. The key human involvement is that you know you couldn’t possibly do it, that it took a highly skilled craftsman. You aren’t buying just the glass, but the skills and attention and dedication and time of the craftsman. In just the same way, you will happily pay a bigger proportion of your bigger future income for other people’s time. Virtual is fine and cheap, but you’ll happily pay far more for the real thing. That will greatly offset the forces pushing towards a totally virtual experience.

This won’t happen overnight, and that brings us to another force that plays out over the same time. When we use a phrase like ‘authentic Italian’, we don’t normally put a date on it. Do we mean contemporary Italy, 1960 Italy, or what? If 1960, then we’d have to use a lot of virtual tech to simulate it. If we mean contemporary, then that includes all the virtual stuff that goes on in Italy too, which is likely pretty much what happens virtually elsewhere. A large proportion of our everyday will be virtual. How can you have authentic virtual? When half of what everyone sees every day isn’t real, you could no more have an authentic Italian coffee bar than an authentic hobbit hole in Middle Earth.

Authenticity is a term that can already only be applied to a subset of properties of a particular component. A food item or a drink could be authentic in terms of its recipe and taste, origin and means of production of the ingredients, perhaps even served by an Italian, but the authenticity of the surrounding context is doomed to be more and more limited. Does it matter though? I don’t think so.

The more I think about it, the less I care if it is in any way authentic. I want a pleasing product served by pleasant human staff in a pleasant atmosphere. I care about the various properties and attributes in an absolute sense, and I also care whether they are provided by human or machine, but the degree to which they mimic some particular tradition really doesn’t add any value for me. I am very happy to set culture free to explore the infinite potential of imagination and make an experience as enjoyable as possible.  Authenticity is just a labelled cage, and we’re better if it is unlocked. I want real pleasure, not pretend pleasure, but authenticity is increasingly becoming a pretense.

Oh, my razor sharp idea? As I said, it’s secret.

 

 

Errones, infectious biases that corrupt thinking

I know it isn’t always obvious in some of my blogs what they have to do with the future. This one is about error tendencies, but of course making an error now affects the future, so they are relevant and in any case, there is even a future for error tendencies. A lot of the things I will talk about are getting worse, so there is a significant futures trend here too. Much of the future is determined by happenings filtered through human nature so anything that affects human nature strongly should be an important consideration in futurology. Enough justification for my human nature thinkings. On with the show.

Hormones are chemicals that tend to push the behavior of an organic process in a particular direction, including feelings and consequentially analysis. A man flooded with testosterone may be more inclined to make a more risky decision. A lot of interpersonal interactions and valuations are influenced by hormones too, to varying degrees.

In much the same way, many other forces can influence our thinking or perception and hence analysis of external stimuli such as physical facts or statistics. A good scientist or artist may learn to be more objective and to interpret what they observe with less bias, but for almost everyone, some perceptive biases remain, and after perception, many analytical biases result from learned thinking behaviors. Some of those thinking behaviors may be healthy, such as being able to consciously discount emotions to make more clinical decisions when required, or to take full account of them at other times. Others however are less healthy and introduce errors.

Error-forcing agents

There are many well-known examples of such error-forcing agents. One is the notorious halo effect that surrounds attractive women, that may lead many people to believe they are better or nicer in many other ways than women who are less attractive. Similarly, tall men are perceived to be better managers and leaders.

Another is that celebrities from every area find their opinions are valued far outside the fields where they are actually expert. Why should an actor or pop singer be any more knowledgeable or wiser than anyone else not trained in that field? Yet they are frequently asked for their opinions and listened to, perhaps at the expense of others.

When it’s a singer or actor encouraging people to help protect a rain forest, it’s pretty harmless. When they’re trying to tell us what we should eat or believe, then it can become dangerous. When it is a politician making pronouncements about which scientists we should believe on climate change, or which medicines should be made available, it can cause prolonged harm. The reason I am writing this blog now is that we are seeing a lot more of that recently – for example, politicians in many countries suddenly pretending they can speak authoritatively on which results to believe from climate science and astrophysics even when most scientists couldn’t. A few of them have some scientific understanding, but the vast majority don’t and many actually show very little competence when it comes to clear thinking even in their own jurisdictions, let alone outside.

Errones

These groups are important, because they are emitting what I will call errones, hormone-like thinking biases that lead us to make errors. Politicians get to be elected by being good at influencing people, celebs too become popular by appealing to our tastes. By overvaluing pronouncements from these groups, our thinking is biased in that direction without good reason. It is similar in effect to a hormone, in that we may not be consciously aware of it, but it influences our thinking all the same. So we may have held a reasonably well-thought-out opinion of something, and then a favored celebrity or politician makes a speech on it, and even though they have no particular expertise in the matter, our opinion changes in that direction. Our subsequent perceptions, interpretations, analyses and opinions on many other areas may subsequently be affected by the bias caused by that errone. Worse still, in our interactions with others, the errone may spread to them too. They are infectious. Similar to Richard Dawkins’ memes, which are ideas that self-perpetuate and spread through a population, errones may self-reinforce and spread organically too, but errones are not ideas like memes, but are biases in thinking more like hormones, hence the name errone.

Some general thinking errors are extremely common and we are familiar with them, but tat doesn’t stop us being affected sometimes if we don’t engage due care.

Consensus

Other errones are assembled over years of exposure to our culture. Some even have some basis in some situations, but become errones when we apply them elsewhere. Consensus is a useful concept when we apply it to things that are generally nice to eat, but it has no proper place in science and becomes an errone when cited there. As Einstein pointed out when confronted with a long list of scientists who disagreed with him, if he was wrong, even one would suffice. There was once a consensus that the Earth was flat, that there were four elements, that there was an ether, that everything was created by a god. In each case, successions of individuals challenged the consensus until eventually people were persuaded of the error.

Authority

Another well-known errone is attitude to authority. Most parents will be well familiar with the experience of their kid believing everything teacher tells them and refusing to believe them when they say the teacher is talking nonsense (in case you didn’t know, teachers are not always right about everything). In varying degrees, people believe their doctors, scientists, parents, politicians not by the quality of their actual output but by the prejudice springing from their authority. Even within a field, people with high authority can make mistakes. I was rather pleased a long time ago when I spotted a couple of mistakes in Stephen Hawking’s ‘A brief history of time’ even though he seemingly has an extra digit in his IQ. He later admitted those same errors and I was delighted. He had the best authority in the world on the subject, but still made a couple of errors. I am pleased I hadn’t just assumed he must have been right and accepted what he said.

Vested interest

Yet another errone with which you should be familiar is vested interest. People often have an ax to grind on a particular issue and it is therefore appropriate to challenge what they are saying, but it is a big error to dismiss something as wrong simply because someone has an interest in a particular outcome. A greengrocer is still telling the truth when they say that vegetables are good for you. The correct answer to 7+6 is 13 regardless of who says so. You shouldn’t listen to someone else telling you the answer is 15 who says ‘well he would say it is 13 wouldn’t he…’

These common errors in thinking are well documented, but we still make new ones.

Word association errones

Some errones can be summed up in single words. For example ‘natural’, ‘organic’, ‘synthetic’, ‘fair’, ‘progressive’, ‘right’, ‘left’ are all words we hear every day that activate a range of prejudicial processes that color our processing of any subsequent inputs. Arsenic is natural, foxgloves are natural, so is uranium. That doesn’t necessarily make them good things to eat. Not every idea from the right or left of politics is good or bad. Stupidity exists across the political spectrum, while even the extremes have occasional good ideas. But errones cause us to apply filters and make judgments that bad ideas or things are good or that good ideas or things are bad, merely because of their origin. This errone is traditionally known as ‘tarring everything with the same brush’ just because they fall in the same broad category.

Deliberate errone creation

In my view, single word errones are the most dangerous, and we add to the list occasionally. The currently fashionable word ‘Self-proclaimed’ (yeah, OK, it’s hyphenated) is intended to suggest that someone has no genuine right to a platform and therefore should be ignored. It is as much an insult as calling someone an idiot, but is more malign because it seeks to undermine not just a single statement or argument, but everything that person says. Political correctness is very rich with such words. People mostly think using words, so coloring their meaning gradually over time means that people will still think the same way using the same verbal reasoning, but since the meaning of the words they are using has changed slightly, they will end up with a result that sounds the same as it used to, but now means something quite different.

For example, we’ve seen exactly that happen over the last decade by the redefining of poverty to be having an income below a percentage of average income rather than the traditional definition of being unable to afford basic essentials. People still retain the same emotional connection to the words poor and poverty, and are still shocked as politicians cite ever worsening statistics of the numbers of people in poverty even as society gets wealthier. Under its new meaning, if everyone’s income increased 1000-fold overnight, exactly the same number of people would remain ‘in poverty’, even though they could now all afford to live in luxury. People wanting to talk about poverty in its original meaning now have to use different language. The original words have been captured as political weapons. This errone was created and spread very deliberately and has had exactly the effect desired. People now have the same attitude to low income as they once held to poor.

All very 1984

Capturing language and fencing off entire areas of potential thought by labelling them is a proven excellent technique for furthering a cause. It is of course the basis of Orwell’s 1984, by which the authorities enslave a population by enforcing a particular group-think, with words as their primary tool, and understanding of the techniques has been much practiced around the world. Orwell wrote his book to highlight the problem, but it hasn’t gone away, but rather got worse. Increasing understanding of human psychology and use of advanced marketing techniques have only added to its power and effectiveness. In absolutely 1984 style, ‘progressive’ sounds very loving and positive and ‘regressive’ very nasty and negative, but how has it come that we describe alternative tax policies in such terms? Tax is rightfully an issue for political parties to debate and decide, but surely democratic politics is there to allow people a mechanism to live alongside peacefully in mutual tolerance and respect, not for each side to treat the other as inferiors who should be scorned and ostracized. However, infection biases someone’s thinking and is therefore error forcing, and an errone.

Similarly, ‘traditional’ was once a word we used to describe normal or slightly old-fashioned views, but political correctness seeks to quickly replace traditional values by using descriptors such as ‘dinosaur’, ‘bigoted’, ‘prejudiced’ for anyone who doesn’t follow their line. Most people are terrified of being labelled as such so will quickly fall in line with whatever the current demands for politically correct compliance are. Once someone does so, they adjust the external presentation of their own thinking to make the new status quo more acceptable to them, and seek to authenticate and justify themselves to others by proselytizing the errone, self censoring and controlling their own thinking according to the proscribed filters and value set. They basically accept the errone, build it into place and nurture it. Memes are powerful. Errones are worse because they get far deeper into places mere ideas can’t.

Thanks to the deliberate infection with such errones, it is no longer possible to hold a discussion or even to state statistical facts across a wide range of topics without demonstrating a me-too bias. If analysis and debate can no longer be done without deliberate introduction of systemic error,  when error is not seen as a problem but as a requirement, then I suggest we are in trouble. We should be able to agree at least on basic facts, and then argue what to do about them, but even facts now are heavily filtered and distorted at numerous stages before we are allowed access to them.

Old wives’ tales (no age or gender-related slur intended)

Not all errones are related to this kind of tribal-cultural-political warfare and deliberately fabricated and spread. Some are commonly held assumptions that are wrong, such as old wives’ tales or because people are not very good at thinking about exponential or non-linear systems. Take an example. Most environmentalists agree that rapid IT obsolescence is a big problem, resulting in massive waste and causing far more environmental impact than would be necessary if we just made things last longer. However, each generation of IT uses far less resource than the one it replaces, and in a few more generations of devices, we’ll be able to do all we do today in just a few grams of device. With far more people in the world wealthy enough and wanting all that function, doing it with today’s technology would have huge environmental impact, but with tomorrow’s, very much less. Thus slowing down the obsolescence cycle would have dire environmental consequences. The best way to help the environment is to progress quickly to ultra-low-impact IT. Similar errors exist across environmental policy world-wide, and the cause is the simple errone that reducing the impact of any part of a system will reduce the full system impact. That is very often incorrect. This same environmental errone has caused massive environmental and human damage already and will cause far more before it is done, by combining enthusiasm to act with what is now very commonly held analytical error.

Linear thinking

The Errone of linear thinking probably results from constant exposure to it in others, making it hard to avoid infection. Typical consequences are inability to take correctly account for future technology or future wealth, also typically assuming that everything except the problem you’re considering will remain the same, while your problem increases. A  related errone is not allowing for the fact that exponential growths generally only happen for a limited time, followed by eventual leveling off or even decline, especially when related to human systems such as population, obesity, debt etc. Many stories of doom are based on the assumption that some current exponential growth such as population or resource use will continue forever, which is nonsense, but the errone seems to have found some niches where it retains viability.

Errone communication

Errones spread through a population simply via exposure, using any medium. Watching an innocent TV program, reading a newspaper article or hearing a remark in a pub are all typical ways they spread. Just as some diseases can reduce resistance to other diseases, some errones such as the celebrity halo effect can lead to easier infection by others. People are far more likely to be infected by an errone from their favorite celebrity than a stranger. If you see them making an error in their reasoning but making it sound plausible because they believe it, there is a good chance you may be infected by it and also help to spread it. Also, like diseases, people have varying vulnerability to different types of errones.

Being smart won’t make you immune

Intelligence isn’t necessarily a defense and may even be essential to create vulnerability. Someone who is highly intelligent may actually be more susceptible to errones that are packaged in elaborate intellectual coatings, that may be useless for infecting less intelligent people who might just ignore them. A sophisticated economic errone may only be able to infect people with a high level of expertise in economics, since nobody else would understand it, but may nevertheless still be an errone, still wrong thinking. Similarly, some of the fine political theories across every point on the spectrum might be mind-numbingly dull to most people and therefore pass over with no effect, but may take root and flourish in certain political elites. Obviously lots of types of social and special interest groups have greater exposure and vulnerability to certain types of errones. There may well be some errones connected with basketball strategies but they can’t have an effect on me since I have zero knowledge of or interest in the game, and never have had any, so the basic platform for them to operate doesn’t exist in my brain.

Errones may interact with each other. Some may act as a platform for others, or fertilize them, or create a vulnerability or transmission path, or they may even be nested. It is possible to have an entire field of knowledge that is worse than useless and yet still riddled with errors. For example, someone may make some errone-type statistical errors when analyzing the effects of a homeopathic treatment. The fact that a whole field is nonsensical does not make it immune from extra errors within.

Perceptual errones are built into our brains too – some of which are part pre-programmed and part infectious. There are many well-known optical illusions that affect almost everyone. The mechanics of perception introduce the error, and that error may feed into other areas such as decision making. I suffer from vertigo, and even a simple picture of a large drop is quite enough to fool my brain into a fear reaction even though there is obviously no danger present. This phobia may not be part genetic and part infectious, and other phobias can be certainly be communicated, such as fear of spiders or snakes.

Group-think related errones

A very different class of errone is the collective one, closely related to group-think. The problem of ‘designed by committee’ is well known. A group of very smart people can collectively make really dumb decisions. There are many possible reasons and not all are errone-related. Agreeing with the boss or not challenging the idiot loud-mouth can both get bad results with no need for errones. Groupthink is where most people in the room shares the same prejudice, and that can often be an errone. If other people that you respect think something, you may just accept and adopt that view without thinking it through. If it is incorrect, or worse, if it is correct but only applies in certain conditions, and you don’t know that, or don’t know the conditions, then it can lead to later errors.

I once sat through an electronics lecture explaining why it was impossible to ever get more than 2.4kbit/s second through a copper telephone wire and no matter what happened, we never would, and you can’t change the laws of physics. That’s hard to believe today when ADSL easily delivers over 4Mbit/s to my home down the same copper wire. The physics wasn’t wrong, it just only applied to certain ways of doing things, and that lecturer obviously hadn’t understood that and thought it was a fundamental limit that would block any technique. I could use a similar excuse to explain why I failed a thermodynamics exam on my first attempt. It just seemed obviously wrong to me that you couldn’t get any energy from the waste heat from a power station. Our lecturer had delivered the correct thermodynamic equations for the first stage of a heat engine and then incorrectly left us knowing that that was it, and no additional heat could be used however clever anyone might be. I couldn’t see how that could possibly be right and that confusion remained for months afterwards until I finally saw it explained properly. Meanwhile, I was vulnerable to errors caused by knowing something that was wrong, that had been communicated to me by a poor lecturer. Well, that’s my side, but I have to admit it is theoretically possible that maybe I just didn’t listen properly. Either way, it’s still an errone.

Why I am mentioning this one in a group-think section is because misunderstandings and misapplications of thermodynamics have permeated large populations withing the climate change discussion community. Whichever side you are on, you will be familiar with some errors that affect the other lot, probably less so with the errones that you have been infected with. Just like me I guess.

On a larger scale, entire nations can be affected by errones. We don’t think of patriotism as an error, although it clearly affects our value judgments, but patriotism is just one aspect of our bias towards communities close to where we live. Whereas patriotism starts as a benign loyalty to your country, extending that loyalty into a belief in superiority is certainly a very common errone, thinking that anything and everyone in other countries must be less good than what you have close to home. The opposite exists too. In some countries, people assume that anything from abroad must be better. Of course, in some countries, they’re right.

The huge impacts of errones

Errones can be extremely expensive too. The banking crisis was caused in good measure by a widespread errone connected with valuation of complex derivatives. Once that happened, a different errone affected the rest of the population. Even though the bank crash was costly, it only directly accounted for a tiny fraction of the overall global economic crash. The rest was caused by a crisis of confidence, a confidence errone if you like. The economy had been sound, so there was absolutely no reason for any collapse, but once the errone that a recession was coming took hold, it became strongly self-fulfilling. Everyone shut their wallets, started being unduly careful with their spending and economies crashed. Those of us who challenged that assumption at the time were too few and too influential to prevent it. So errones can be an enormous problem.

Elsewhere economic errones are common. Housing bubbles, the web bubble, tulip bubbles, we don’t ever seem to learn and the bubble errone mutates and reappears again and again like flu viruses. Investment errones are pretty ubiquitous, even at government level. The UK created what is commonly known now as The Concorde Fallacy, an errone that makes people more inclined to throw money down the drain on a project if they already have spent a lot on it.

Still other errones affect people in their choice of where to live. People often discount liability to earthquakes, volcanoes,  hurricanes, tsuanmis and floods if they haven’t happened for a long time. When probability finally catches up, they are caught unprepared and often looking for someone to blame. The normality of everyday life quickly builds up into experience that pervades thinking and hides away thoughts of disaster. In stark contrast, other people fall easy prey to stories of doom and gloom, because they have been infected with errones that make them seem more dangerous or likely than in reality.

Health errones are an obvious problem. Scientists and nutritionists change advice on what to eat and drink from time to time as new research brings results, but the news of change in advice is not always accepted. Many people will not hear the news, others will not accept it because they are sick of changing advice from scientists, others will just hear and ignore it. The result is that outdated advice, sometimes wrong advice, can persist and continue to spread long after it has been proven wrong. What was once considered good advice essentially mutates into an errone. The current fat v sugar debate will be interesting to follow in this regard, since it will have ongoing effects throughout the entire food, sports, entertainment and leisure industries. We can be certain that some of the things we currently strongly believe are actually errones that lead to errors in many areas of our lives.

Looking at transport, everyone knows it is safer to fly than drive, but actually those stats only work for long trips. If you only want to travel 5km, it is safer to drive than to fly. 50km starts to favor flying and more than that certainly sees flying being safest. That errone probably has an immeasurably small impact in consequentially wrong decisions, but has managed to spread very successfully.

I could go on – there are a lot of errones around, and we keep making more of them. But enough for now.

Sustainable capitalism – Ending exploitation

This blog is an extract from my book Total Sustainability. Just over 10k words

Sustainable capitalism

To see what needs adjusted and how to go about doing it, let’s first consider some of the systems that make people wealthy. With global change accelerating, in this period of global upheaval, the rise of new powers and decline of old ones, we have an opportunity to rethink it and perhaps make it better, or perhaps countries new to capitalism will make their own way and we will follow. If it is failing, it is time to look for ways to fix it or to change direction.

Some things are very difficult and need really smart people, but we don’t have very many of them. But as heavily globalised systems become more and more complex, the scope for very smart people to gain control of power and resources increases. Think about it for a moment. How many people do you know who could explain how big businesses manage to avoid paying tax in spite of making big profits beyond the first two words that everyone knows – tax haven? The money goes somewhere, but not on tax. This is one of the big topics being discussed now among the world’s top nations. No laws are being broken, it is simply that universally sluggish and incompetent governments have been outwitted again and again by smart individuals.

They should have had tax systems in place long ago to cope with globalisation, but they still haven’t. Representatives of those governments talk a lot about clampdowns, but nobody really expects that big business won’t stay at least 5 steps ahead. Consequently, money and power is concentrating at the top more than ever.

The contest between greedy and relatively smart business people and well-meaning but dumber (strictly relative terms here) politicians and regulators often ends with taxpayers being fleeced. Hence the banking crisis, where the vast wealth greedily that was accumulated by bankers over numerous gambling wins was somehow kept when they lost, with us having to pay the losses without ever benefiting from the wins, with the final farcically generous pay-offs to those who failed so miserably. The same could be said of some privatisations and probably most government contracts. It was noted thousands of years ago that a fool and his money are easily parted. The problem with democracy is that fools are often the ones elected. The people in government that aren’t fools are often there to benefit their own interests and later found with their fingers in the cake. Some of our leaders and regulators are honourable and smart enough to make decent decisions, but too small a fraction to make us safe from severe abuse.

We need to fix this problem and many other related if we are to achieve any form of sustainability in our capitalist world.

The undeserving rich

Magistrates in Britain once had a duty to distinguish between the deserving poor, who were poor through no fault of their own, and the undeserving poor, who were simply idle. The former would get hand-outs while they needed them, the idle would get a kick in the pants and told to go and sort themselves out. This attitude later disappeared from the welfare system, but the idea remains commonly held and recently, some emerging policies echo its sentiment to some degree.

Looking at the other end of the spectrum, there are the deserving and undeserving rich. Some people worked hard to get their cash and deserve every penny, some worked less hard in highly overpaid jobs. Some inherited it from parents or ancestors even further back, and maybe they worked hard for it. Some stole it from others by thievery, trickery, or military conquest. Some got it by marrying someone. Some won it, some were compensated. There are lots of ways of getting rich. Money is worth the same wherever it comes from but we hold different attitudes to the rich depending on how they got their money.

Most of us don’t think there is anything wrong with being rich, nor in trying to become so. There are examples of people doing well not just for themselves and their families and friends, but also benefiting their entire host community. Only jealousy could motivate any resentment of their wealth. But the system should be designed so that one person shouldn’t be able to become rich at the cost of other people’s misery. At the moment, in many countries, some people are gaining great wealth effectively by exploiting the poor. Few of us consider that to be admirable or desirable. It would be better if people could only become rich by doing well in a system that also protects other people. Let’s look at some of the problems with today’s capitalism.

Corruption

Corruption has to be one of the biggest problems in the world today. It has many facets, and some are so familiar in everyday life that we don’t even think of them as corruption any more.

As well as blatant corruption, most of us would also include rule bending and loophole-seeking in the corruption category. Squeezing every last millimetre when bending the law may keep it just about legal, but it doesn’t make behaviour creditable. When we see politicians bending rules and then using their political persuasiveness to argue that it is somehow OK for them, most of us feel a degree of natural revulsion. The same goes for big companies. It may be legal to avoid tax by using expensive lawyers to find holes in taxation systems and clever accountants to exploit them, re-labelling or moving money via a certain route to reduce the taxes required by law, but that doesn’t make it ethical. Even though it is technically on the right side of legal, I’d personally put a lot of corporate tax avoidance in the corruption category when it seeks to exploit loopholes that were never part of what the tax law intended.

Then of course it is possible to break the law and bribe your way out of trouble, or to lobby corruptible lawmakers to include a loophole that you want to exploit, or to make a contribution to party funds in order to increase the likelihood of getting a big contract later.

Lobbying can easily become thinly veiled bribery – nice dinners or tickets or promised social favours, but often manifests as well-paid clever chitchat, to get an MP to help push the law in the general direction you favour. Maybe it isn’t technically corrupt, but it certainly isn’t true to the basic principles of democracy either. Lobbying distorts the presentation, interpretation and implementation of the intentions of the voting community so it corrupts democracy.

So although there are degrees of corruption, they all have one thing in common – using positions of power or buy influence to tilt the playing field to gain advantage.

Exploitation

Once someone starts bending the rules, it affects other behaviour. If someone is happy exploiting the full flexibility of the letter of the law with little regard for others, they are also likely to be liable to engage in other ways of actively exploiting other people, in asset stripping, or debt concealing, or in how they negotiate and take advantage, or how they make people redundant because a machine is cheaper. It is often easy to spot such behaviour, wrapped with excuses such as ‘Companies aren’t charities, they exist to make money’, and ‘business is business’. There are plenty of expressions that the less noble business people use to excuse bad behaviour and pretend it is somehow OK. There are degrees of badness of course. For some companies, some run by people hailed as business heroes, anything goes as long as it is legal or if the process of law can be diverted long enough to make it worthwhile ignoring it. While ‘legal’ depends on the size and quality of your legal team, there is gain to be made by stretching the law. It can even pay to blatantly disobey the law, if you can stretch the court process out enough so that you can use some of the profits gained to pay the fines, and keep the rest. So corruption isn’t the only problem. Exploitation is its ugly sister and we see a lot of big companies and rich people doing it.

The price of bad behaviour and loose values

A common problem here is that we don’t assign financial value to honourable behaviour, community or national well-being, honesty, integrity, fairness or staff morale. So these can safely be ignored in the pursuit of profit. Business is justified in this approach perhaps, because we don’t assign value to them. If a company exists to make profit, measured purely financially, those other factors don’t appear on the bottom line, so there is no reason to behave any better. In fact, they cost money, so a ruthless board can make more money by behaving badly. That is one thing that could and should change if we want a sustainable form of capitalism. If we as a society want businesses to run more ethically, then we have to make the system in such a way that ethical behaviour is rewarded. If we don’t explicitly recognise particular value sets, then businesses are really under no obligation to behave in any particular way. As it is, I would argue that society has value sets that are on something of a random walk. There is no fixed reference point, and values can flip completely in just a few decades. That is hardly a stable platform on which to build anything.

Hardening of attitudes to welfare abuse

 

There is growing resentment right across the political spectrum against those taking welfare who won’t do enough to try to look after themselves but expect to receive hand-outs while others are having to work hard to make ends meet. At the same time, resentment is deepening against the rich who use loopholes in the law to find technically legal but morally dubious tax avoidance schemes. What these have in common is that they exploit others. There is a rich variety of ways in which people exploit others, some that we are so used to we don’t even notice any more. This is important in helping to determine what may happen in the future.

The few have always exploited the many

 

A while ago, I had a short break visiting the Cotswolds (a chocolate-box picture area of England). We saw a huge Roman villa, fantastic mosaics in the Roman museum in Cirencester, and a couple of stately homes. Then we went to Portugal where we saw the very ornate but rather tasteless Palace of Penna. It made me realise just how much better off we are today, when thanks to technology development, even a modest income buys vastly superior functionality and comfort than even royalty used to have to put up with.

I used to enjoy seeing such things, but the last few years I have found them increasingly disturbing. I still find them interesting to look at, but now they make me angry, as monuments to the ability of the few to exploit the efforts of the many for their own gain. So while admiring the landscape architecture of Lancelot (Capability) Brown, and the Roman mosaics, I felt sorry for the many people who had little or no choice but to do all the work for relatively little reward. I felt especially sorry for the people who built the Palace of Penna, where an obviously enormous amount of hard work and genuine talent has been spent on something that ended up as hideously ugly. Even if the artists and workmen were paid a good wage, their abilities could probably still have been put to much more constructive use.

But we don’t want equality of poverty

 

I strongly believe that we overvalue capital compared to knowledge, talent and effort, resulting in too high a proportion of wealth going to capital owners. Capitalism sometimes saps too many of the rewards of effort away from those who earn them. However, few people would argue for a system where everyone is poorer just so that we can have equality, as happened in communism, and as would be the result if some current socialists got their ways. The system should be fair to everyone, but if we are to prosper as a society, it also needs to incentivise the production of wealth.

Exploitation of society by the lazy and greedy

 

That of course brings us to the abuse at the other end, with some people who are perfectly able to work drawing state benefits instead (or indeed as well as wages from work) and thereby putting unjust extra load on the welfare system. This of course acts as a major drain on hard working people too and reduces the rewards of effort. Those who work hard may thus see their money disappearing at both ends, possibly taken by exploitative employers and certainly taken by the state to give to others. Exploitation is still exploitation whether it is by the privileged or the lazy. We all want the welfare system, because another powerful force in human nature is to care for others, and we instinctively want to help those who can’t help themselves. But that doesn’t mean we want to be taken advantage of.

Rewarding effort is essential for a healthy economy

As a general principle, extra effort or skill or risk or investment should reap extra reward. If there is too little incentive to do put in more work or investment, human nature dictates that most people won’t do it. The same goes for leading others or building companies and employing others. If you don’t get extra reward from enabling or leading other people to create more, you probably won’t bother doing that either. Very many communes have started up with idealism and failed for this reason.

In both of these cases, a few nice people will do more, even without financial incentive, simply because it makes them feel good to work hard or help others, but most won’t, or will start doing so and quickly give up when appreciation runs dry or they become frustrated by the laziness of others.

While effort and investment and skill and leadership must all be rewarded to make a healthy economy, it is a natural and fair consequence of rewarding these that some people will become richer than others, and if they help many other people also to do more, they may become quite a lot richer than others.

‘To each according to their effort’ is a fundamentally better approach than ‘from each according to their ability and to each according to their need’ as preached by communists – it is simply more in tune with human nature. It makes more people do more, so we all prosper. Trying to level the playing field by redistributing wealth too much deters effort and ultimately makes everyone worse off. A reasonable gap between rich and poor is both necessary and fair.

But we shouldn’t let people demand too much of the rewards

 

However, an extreme gap indicates that there is exploitation, that some people are keeping rather too much of the reward from the efforts of others. As always, we need to find the right balance. Greed does seem to be one of the powerful forces in human nature, and if opportunity exists for someone to take more for themselves at the expense of others, some will. I don’t believe we should try to change human nature, but I do believe we should try to defend the weak against exploitation by the greedy. Some studies have shown a correlation between social inequality and social problems of crime, poor education and so on. That doesn’t prove causality of course, but it does seem reasonable to infer causality in any case here.

In some large companies, top managers seem to run the company as if it were their own, allocating huge rewards for themselves at the expense of both customers and shareholders’ interests. Such abuse of position is widespread across the economy today, but it will inevitably have to be reined back over time in spite of fierce resistance from the beneficiaries.

The power of public pressure via shame should not be underestimated, even though some seem conspicuously immune to it. Where the abusers still decide to abuse, power will come either by shareholders disposing of abusers, or regulators giving shareholders better power to over-rule where there is abuse, as is already starting to happen, or by direct pay caps for public sector chiefs. The situation at the moment gives too much power to managers and shareholders need to be given back the rights to control their own companies more fully.

Reducing market friction

 

There are many opportunities to exploit others, and always some who will try to take the fullest advantage. We can’t ever make everyone nice, but at least we can make exploitation more difficult. Part of the problem is social structure and governance of course, but part is also market imperfection. While social structure only changes slowly, and government is doomed to suffer the underlying problems associated with democracy, we can almost certainly do something about the market using better technology. So let’s look at the market for areas to tweak.

Strength of position

 

Kings or slave owners may have been able to force subjects to work, but a modern employer theoretically has to offer competitive terms and conditions to get someone to work, and people are theoretically free to sell their efforts, or not.

Then the theory becomes more complex and the playing field starts to tilt. People have to live, and they have to support their dependants. Not everyone is born with the intellectual gifts or social privileges that enable them to be entrepreneurs or high-earning professionals who can pick and choose their work and set their own prices. If someone can’t sell their efforts directly to a customer, they may have to accept whatever terms and conditions are available from a local employer or trader.

Location makes traders powerful

 

In fact, most people have to look and see what jobs there are locally and have to apply for one of them because they need the money, and can’t travel far, so they are in a very poor bargaining position. By contrast, capital providers and leaders and entrepreneurs and traders have always been in an excellent position to exploit this. In a town with high unemployment, or low wages, or indeed, throughout a poor country, potential employees will settle for the local wage rate for that kind of work, but that may differ hugely from the rate for similar work elsewhere.

The laws of supply and demand apply, but the locations of supply and demand need not be the same, and where they aren’t, traders are the ones who benefit, not those doing the work. Traders have existed and prospered for millennia and have often become very wealthy by exploiting the difference in labour costs and produce prices around the world.

Manufacturers can play the same geography game

 

Now with increasing globalisation, those with good logistics available to them can use these differences in manufacturing too, using cheap labour in one place to produce goods that can be sold for high prices in other places. Is it only the margins and the balance of bargaining power that determines whether this exploitation is fair or not, or is it also the availability of access to markets? What is a fair margin? How much of the profit should we allow traders or manufacturers to keep? If not enough, and markets are not free and lubricated enough, potential producers may stay idle and be even poorer because they can’t sell their efforts. If too much, someone else is getting rich at their expense.

Making access to free global markets easier and better will help

 

We need to create a system where people on both sides are empowered to ensure a fair deal. At the moment, it is tilted very heavily in favour of the trader, selling the product of cheap labour in expensive markets. When someone has no choice but to take what’s going, they are weak and vulnerable. If they can sell into a bigger market, they become stronger.

If everyone everywhere can see your produce and can get it delivered, then prices will tend to become fairer. There is still need for distributors, and they will still need paid, but distributors are just suppliers of a service in a competitive market too, and with a free choice of customer and supplier at every stage, all parties can negotiate to get a deal they are all content with, where no-one is at an a priori disadvantage.

It may still work out cheaper to buy from a great distance, but at least each party has agreed acceptable terms on a relatively level playing field. The web has already gone some way to improving market visibility but it is still difficult for many people to access the web with reasonable speed and security, and many more don’t understand how to do things like making websites, especially ones that have commerce functions.

If we can make better free access to markets, then unfair exploitation should become less of a problem, because it will be easier for people to sell their effort direct to an end customer, but it will have to become a lot easier to display your goods on the web for all to see without undue risk. Making the web easier to use and automating as much as possible of the security and administration should help a lot. This is happening quite quickly, but it needs time.

Import levies can reduce the incentive to exploit low wage workers

 

Levies can be added to imported goods so that someone can’t use cheap labour in one area to compete with the equivalent product made in the other. This is well tried and operates frequently where manufacturers pressure their governments to protect them from overseas competition that they see as unfair. However, it is usually aimed at protecting the richer employees from cheap competition rather than trying to increase wages for those being exploited in low wage economies. So it is far from ideal. Better a tool that allows pressure to increase the proportion of proceeds that go to the workers.

Peer pressure via transparency of margins

 

Another is to provide transparency in price attribution. If customers can see how much of the purchase price is going to each of the agents involved in its production and distribution chain, then pressure increases to pay a decent wage to the workers who actually make it, and less to those who merely sell it. Just like greed and caring, shame is another powerful emotion in the suite of human nature, and people will generally be more honest and fair if they know others can see what they are doing.

However, I do not expect this would work very well in practice, since most customers don’t care enough to get ethically involved in every purchase, and the further away and more socially distant the workers are, the less customers care. And if the person needing shamed is thousands of miles away, the peer pressure is non-existent. Yet again, location is important.

Transparency to the workforce

 

In economies across the developed world, typically about half of the profits of someone’s ‘job’ go to the person doing it and the other half goes to the owners of the company employing them. Transparency helps customers decide on supplier, but also helps employees to decide whether to work for a particular employer. They should of course be made fully aware of how they will be rewarded but also how much of their efforts will reward others. In a good company, the chiefs may be able to generate greater rewards for both staff and shareholders (and themselves), but as long as the details are all available, a free and informed choice can be made.

The community can generate its own businesses

 

In a well automated web environment, some company types would no longer be needed. Companies are often top down designs, with departments and employee structures that are populated by staff. The reverse is increasingly feasible, with groups of freelancers and small businesses using the web to find each other, and working loosely together as virtual companies to address the same markets the traditional company once did. But instead of giving half of the profits to a company owner, they reap the full rewards and share it between them. The administrative functions once done by the company are largely off-the-shelf and cheap. The few essential professional functions that the company provided can also be found as independents in the same marketplace. Virtual companies are the 21st century co-operative. The employees own the company and keep all the profits. Not surprisingly, many people have already left big companies to set up on their own as freelancers and small businesses.

Unfortunately, this model can’t work everywhere. Sometimes, a large factory or large capital investment is needed. This favours the rich and powerful and large companies, but there is again a new model that will start to come into play.

Investors don’t have to be wealthy individuals or big companies. They can also be communities. In a period where banks have become extremely unpopular, community banking will become very appealing once it is demonstrated to work. Building societies will make a comeback, but even they are more organised than is strictly necessary in a mature web age.

Linking people in a community with some savings to others who need to borrow it to make a business will become easier as social and business networking develops the trust based communities needed to make this feasible. Trust is essential, but it is often based on social knowledge, and recommendations can be shared. Abusers could be filtered out, and in any case, their potential existence creates a sub market for risk assessors and insurance specialists, who may have left companies to go freelance too. Communities may provide their own finance for companies that provide goods and services for the local community. This is a natural development of the routine output of today’s social entrepreneurs. Community based company creation, nurturing, staffing and running is a very viable local model that could work very well for many areas of manufacturing, services, food production and community work. Some of this is already embryonic on the net today as crowd-funding, but it could grow nicely as the web continues to mature.

Whether this could grow to the size needed to make a car factory or a chip fabrication plant or a major pharmaceutical R&D lab is doubtful, but even these models are being challenged – future cars may not need the same sorts of production, a lot of biotech is suited to garden sheds, and local 3D printing can address a lot of production needs, even some electronic ones. So the number of industries completely immune to this trend is probably quite small. Most will be affected a bit or greatly. Companies that are deeply woven into communities may dominate the future commercial landscape. And as that happens, the willingness and the capability to exploit others reduces.

If we move towards this kind of system, companies will be more responsive to our needs, while providing a stronger base on which to build other enterprises. Integrated into community banking, it is hard to see why we would need today’s banks in such a world. We could dispense with a huge drain on our finances. Banks contribute no extra to the overall economy (taken globally) and siphon off considerable fees. Without them, people could keep more of what they earn and growth would accelerate.

Exploitation via celebrity?

 

In the UK, we don’t get very good value for money from our footballers. They get enormously generous pay for often poor performance. Individually, few of them seem to be intellectual giants, but the industry as a whole has grown enormously. By creating a monopoly of well supported clubs, they have established a position where they can extract huge fees for tickets, merchandising and TV coverage. The ordinary person has to pay heavily to watch a match, while the few people putting on the show get enormous rewards. This might look like exploitation at first glance, but is it?

It is certainly shrewd business dealing by the football industry, but mainly, the TV companies seem to be stupid negotiators. If they declined to pay huge fees to air the matches, the most likely outcome is that fees would tumble to a very nominal level quickly, after which the football associations would have to start paying the TV channels for air time to sell the game coverage direct to fans, or else distribute coverage via the net. They would have no choice. TV companies could easily end up being paid to show matches. When viewers each have to pay explicitly to watch rather than have the fees hidden in a TV license or satellite subscription, the takings would drop and the wages given to footballers would inevitably follow. However, they would still be paid very well, probably still grossly overpaid. We may still moan at them, but they would then simply be benefiting from scale of market, not exploiting. If you can sell unique entertainment or indeed any other valuable service to a large number of people you can generate a lot of income. If you don’t need many staff, they can be paid very well. Individual celebrities have emerged from every area of entertainment who get huge incomes simply because they can generate small amounts of cash from very large numbers of people. If many individuals vale the product highly, as in top level boxing for example, stars can be massively rewarded.

It is hard to label this as exploitation though. It is simply taking advantage of scale. If I can sell something at a sensible price and make a decent income from a small number of customers, someone better who can sell an even better product at the same price to a much larger number of people will be paid far more. In this case, the customer gets a better product for the same outlay, so is hardly being exploited, but the superior provider will get richer. If we forced them to sell better products cheaper than someone else’s inferior one, simply to reduce their income, we would destroy the incentive to be good. No-one benefits from that.

Entertainment isn’t unique here. The same goes for writing a good game or a piece or app, or inventing Facebook. In fact, the basis of the information economy, which includes entertainment, is very different from the industrial one. Information products can be reproduced, essentially without cost without losing their value. There are lots of products that can be sold to lots of people for low prices that do no harm to anyone, add quality to lives and still make providers very wealthy. Let’s hope we can find some more.

So even without exploitation, we will still have the super-rich

 

There will always be relatively poor and super rich people. But I think that is OK. What we should try to ensure is that people don’t get rich by abusing or exploiting others. If they can still get rich without exploiting anyone, then at least it is fair, and they should enjoy their wealth, within the law, provided that the law prevents them from using it to abuse or exploit others. Let’s not punish wealth per se, but focus instead on how it has been obtained, and on eliminating abuses.

In any case, there is a natural limit to how much you can use

 

As the global population climbs, and people get wealthier everywhere, the number of super-rich will grow, even if we eliminate unfairness and exploitation totally. But if we take huge amounts of money out of the system and put it in someone’s bank account, they will not be able to dispose of it all. In most cases, without great determination and extravagance indeed, the actual practical loading that an individual can make on the system is quite limited. They can only eat so much, occupy so much land, use up so much natural resource, have so many lovers. The rest of the world’s resources, of whatever kind, are still available to everyone else. So their reward is naturally capped, they simply don’t have the time or energy to use up any more. Any money they put in investments or cash is just a figure on a spreadsheet, and a license to use the power it comes with.

But while power is important in other ways, it is not directly an economic drain – it doesn’t affect how much is left for the rest of us. Above a certain amount that varies with individual imagination, taste and personality, extra wealth doesn’t give anything except power. It effectively disappears, and supply and demand and prices balance for the rest accordingly.

Power takes us full circle

 

When we have spent all we can, and just get extra power from the extra income, it is time to start asking other kinds of questions. Some would challenge the right of the super-rich to use their wealth to do things that others might think should be decided by the whole population. Should rich people be allowed to use their wealth to tackle Aids in Africa, run their own space programs, or build influential media empires? Well, we can make laws to prevent abuses and exploitation. We can employ the principle of ‘To each according to their effort’. Once we’ve done that, I don’t see how or why we should try to stop rich people doing what they want within the law.

Was the Roman villa I visited built by well rewarded workers? Probably not. Could something equivalent be built by a rich person who has done no harm to anyone, or even brought universal good? Yes. It isn’t what they build or how much they earn that matters, but how they earned it. Money earned via exploitation is very different from money earned by effort and talent.

In future, I will have to read up on the owners of stately homes before I get angry at them. And we must certainly consider these issues as we build our sustainable capitalism in the future.

Stupidity

You might think that the people at the top would be the smartest, but unfortunately, they usually aren’t. Some studies have shown that CEOs have an average IQ of around 130, which is fairly good but nothing special, and many of the staff below them would generally be smarter. That means that whatever skills might have got them there, their overall understanding of the world is limited and the quality of their decisions is therefore also limited. Considering that, we often pay board members far more than is necessary and we often put stupid people in charge. This is not a good combination, and it ultimately undermines the workings of the whole economy. I’ll look at stupidity in more detail later.

With corruption, exploitation, loose values, no real incentives to behave well, and sheer stupidity all fighting against capitalism as we have it today, it is a miracle it works at all, but it does and that argues for its fundamental strength. If we address these existing problems and start to protect against the coming ones, we will be fine, maybe even better than fine. We’d be flying.

Sustainable Automation

There are some new problems coming too, and sometimes major trends can conceal less conspicuous ones, but sometimes these less conspicuous trends can build over time into enormous effects. Global financial turmoil and re-levelling due to development are largely concealing another major trend towards automation, a really key problem in the future of capitalism. If we look at the consequences of developing technology, we can see an increasingly automated world as we head towards the far future. Most mechanical or mental jobs can be automated eventually, leaving those that rely on human emotional and interpersonal skills, but even these could eventually be largely automated. That would obviously have a huge effect on the nature of our economies. It is good to automate; it adds the work of machines to that of humans, but if you get to a point where there is no work available for the humans to take, then that doesn’t work so well. Overall effectiveness is reduced because you still have to finance the person you replaced somehow. We are reaching that point in some areas and industries now.

One idea that has started to gain ground is that of reducing the working week. It has some merit. If there is enough work for 50 hours a week, maybe it is better to have 2 people working 25 each than one working 50 and one unemployed, one rich and one poor. If more work becomes available, then they can both work longer again. This becomes more attractive still as automation brings the costs down so that the 25 hours provides enough to live well. It is one idea, and I am confident there will be more.

However, I think there is another area we ought to look for a better solution – re-evaluating ownership.

Sometimes taking an extreme example is the best way to illustrate a point. In an ultra-automated pure capitalist world, a single person (or indeed even an AI) could set up a company and employ only AI or robotic staff and keep all the proceeds. Wealth would concentrate more and more with the people starting with it. There may not be any other employment, given that almost anything could be automated, so no-one else except other company owners would have any income source. If no-one else could afford to buy the products, their companies would die, and the economy couldn’t survive. This simplistic example nevertheless illustrates that pure capitalism isn’t sustainable in a truly high technology world. There would need to be some tweaking to distribute wealth effectively and make money go round a bit. Much more than current welfare state takes care of.

Perhaps we are already well on the way. Web developments that highly automate retailing have displaced many jobs and the same is true across many industries. Some of the business giants have few employees. There is no certainty that new technologies will create enough new jobs to replace the ones they displace.

We know from abundant evidence that communism doesn’t work, so if capitalism won’t work much longer either, then we have some thinking to do. I believe that the free market is often the best way to accomplish things, but it doesn’t always deliver, and perhaps it can’t this time, and perhaps we shouldn’t just wait until entire industries have been eradicated before we start to ask which direction it should go.

Culture tax – Renting shared infrastructure, culture and knowledge

The key to stopping the economy grinding to a halt due to extreme wealth concentration may lie in the value of accumulated human knowledge. Apart from short-term IP such as patents and copyright, the whole of humanity collectively owns the vast intellectual wealth accumulated via the efforts of thousands of generations. Yettraditionally, when a company is set up, no payment is made for the use of this intellectual property; it is assumed to be free. The effort and creativity of the founders, and the finance they provide, are assumed to be the full value, so they get control of the wealth generated (apart from taxes).

Automated companies make use of this vast accumulated intellectual wealth when they deploy their automated systems. Why should ownership of a relatively small amount of capital and effort give the right to harness huge amounts of publicly owned intellectual wealth without any payment to the other owners, the rest of the people? Why should the rest of humanity not share in the use of their intellectual property to generate reward? This is where the rethinking should be focused. There is nothing wrong with people benefiting from their efforts, making profit, owning stuff, controlling it, but it surely is right that they should make proper payment for the value of the shared intellectual property they use. With properly shared wealth generation, everyone would have income, and the system might work fine.

Ownership is the key to fair wealth distribution in an age of accelerating machine power. The world economy has changed dramatically over the last two decades, but we still think of ownership in much the same ways. This is where the biggest changes need to be made to make capitalism sustainable. At the moment, of all the things needed to make a business profitable, capital investment is given far too great a share of control and of the output. There are many other hugely important inputs that are not so much hidden as simply ignored. We have become so used to thinking of the financial investors owning the company that we don’t even see the others. So let me remind you of some of the things that the investors currently get given to them for free. I’ll start with the blindingly obvious and go on from there.

First and most invisible of all is the right to do business and to keep the profits. In some countries this isn’t a right, but in the developed world we don’t even think of it normally.

The law, protecting the company from having all its stuff stolen, its staff murdered, or its buildings burned down.

The full legal framework, all the rules and regulations that allow the business to trade on known terms, and to agree contracts with the full backing of the law.

Ditto the political framework.

Workforce education – having staff that can read and write, and some with far higher level of education

Infrastructure – all the roads, electricity, water, gas and so on. Companies pay for ongoing costs, maintenance and ongoing development, but pay nothing towards the accumulated historical establishment of these.

Accumulated public intellectual property. It isn’t just access to infrastructure they get free, it is the invention of electricity, of plumbing, of water purification and sewage disposal techniques, and so on.

Human knowledge, science, technology knowhow. We all have access to these, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that there should be an automatic right for anyone to use them without due compensation to the rest of the community. We assume that as a right, but it wasn’t really ever explicitly agreed, ever. It has just evolved. If someone invents something and patents it, we assume they have every right to profit from it. If they use an invention in common ownership, such as the wheel, why should they not pay the rest of society for the right to use it for personal commercial gain?

Think of it another way. If a village has a common, everyone has the right to let their animals feed off the grass. That works fine when there are only a few animals, but if everyone has a large herd, it soon breaks down. The common might be taken under local council control, and rented out, returning due value to the community. So it could be for all other commonly held knowledge. And there is a lot of it, thousands of years’ worth.

Culture is also taken for granted, including hand-me-down business culture, all the stuff that makes up an MBA, or even everyday knowledge about how businesses operate or are structured. So are language, and social structure that ensures that all the other supporting roles in society are somehow provided. We may take these for granted because they belong to us all, but they are a high value asset and if someone gains financially from using them, why should they not pay some of the profits to the rest of the owners as they would for using any other asset?

So the question is: should business pay for it, as it pays for capital and labour?

This all adds up to an enormous wealth of investment by thousands of generations of people. It is shared wealth but wealth nonetheless. When a company springs up now, it can access it all, take it all for granted, but that doesn’t mean it is without value. It is immensely valuable. So perhaps it is not unreasonable to equate it in importance to the provision of effort or finance. In that case, entrepreneurs should pay back some of their gains to the community.


Reward is essential, but fair’s fair

A business will not happen unless someone starts it, works hard at setting it up, getting it going, with all the stress and sacrifice that often needs. They need to be assured of a decent reward or they won’t bother. The same goes for capital providers, if they are needed. They also want something to show for the risk they have taken. Without enough incentive, it won’t work, and that should always be retained in our thinking when we redesign. But it is also right to look at the parallel investment by the community in terms of all the things listed above. That should also be rewarded.

This already happens to some degree when companies and shareholders pay their taxes. They contribute to the ongoing functioning of the society and to the development to be handed on to the next generation, just as individuals do. But they don’t explicitly pay any purchase price or rent for the social wealth they assumed when they started. The host community needs to be better and more explicitly integrated into the value distribution of a company in much the same way as shareholders or a board.

The amount that should be paid is endlessly debatable, and views would certainly differ between parties, but it does offer a way of tweaking capitalism that ensures that businesses develop and use new technology in such a way that it can be sustained. We want progress, but if all jobs were to be replaced by a smart machines, then we may have an amazingly efficient system, but if nobody has a job, and everyone is on low-level welfare, then nobody can afford to buy any of the products so it would seize up. Conventional taxes might not be enough to sustain it all. On the other hand, linking the level of payments from a company to the social capital they use when they deploy a new machine means that if they make lots of workers redundant by automation, and there are no new jobs for them to go to, then a greater payment would be incurred. While business overall is socially sustainable and ensures reasonably full employment, then the payments can remain zero or very low.

But we have the makings of an evolution path that allows for fair balancing of the needs of society and business.

The assignment of due financial value to social wealth and accumulated knowledge and culture ensures that there is a mechanism where money is returned to the society and not just the mill owner. With payment of the ‘social dividend’, government and ultimately people can then buy the goods. The owner should still be able to get wealthy, but the system is still able to work because the money can go around. But it also allows linking the payments from a business to the social sustainability of its employment practices. If a machine exists that can automate a job, it has only done so by the accumulated works of the society, so society should have some say in the use of that machine and a share of the rewards coming from it.

So we need to design the system, the rules and conditions, so that people are aware when they set up a business of the costs they will incur, under what conditions. They would also know that if they change their employment via automation, then the payments for the assumed knowledge in the machines and systems will compensate for the social damage that is done by the redundancy if no replacement job exists. The design will be difficult, but at least there is a potential basis for the rules and equations and while we’re looking at automation, we can use the same logic to address the other ethical issues surrounding business, such as corruption and exploitation, and factor those into our rules and penalties too.

There remains the question of distribution of the wealth from this social dividend. It could be divided equally of course, but more likely, since political parties would have their priority lists, it would have some sort of non-equal distribution. That is a matter for politicians.

Summarising, there are many problems holding business and society back today and standing in the way of sustainable capitalism. Addressing them will make us all better off. Some of them can be addressed by a similar mechanism to that which I recommend for balancing automation against social interests. Automation is good, wealth is good, and getting rich is good. We should not replace capitalism because it mostly works, but it is now badly in need of a system update and some maintenance work. When we’ve done all that, we will have a capitalist system that rewards effort and wealth provision just as today, but also factors in the wider interests – and investment – of the whole community. We’ll all benefit, and it will be sustainable.


Sustainable tax and welfare

Tax systems seem to have many loopholes that stimulate jobs in creative accountancy, but deprive nations of tax. Sharp cut-offs instead of smooth gradients create problems for people whose income rises slightly above thresholds. We need taxation, but it needs to be fair and transparent, and what that means depends on your political allegiances, but there is some common ground. Most of us would prefer a simpler system than the ludicrously complicated one we have now and most of us would like a system that applies to everyone and avoids loopholes.

The rich are becoming ever richer, even during the economic problems. In fact some executives on bonus structures linked to short-term profits appear to be using the recession as an excuse to depress wages to increase company profits and thereby be rewarded more themselves. Some rich people pay full tax, some avoid paying taxes by roaming around the world, never staying anywhere long enough to incur local tax demands. It may be too hard to introduce global taxes, or to stop tax havens from operating, but it is possible to ensure that all income earned from sales in a country is taxed here.

Ensuring full taxation

Electronic cash opens the potential for ensuring that all financial transactions in the country go through a tax gateway, which could immediately and at the point of transaction determine what tax is due and deduct it. If we want, a complex algorithm could be used, taking into account the circumstances of the agencies involved and the nature of the transaction – number crunching is very cheap and no human needs to be involved after the algorithms are determined so it could be virtually cost-free however complex. Or we could decide that the rate is a fixed percentage regardless of purpose. It doesn’t even have to threaten privacy, it could be totally anonymous if there are no different rates. With all transactions included, and the algorithms applying at point of transaction, there would be no need to know or remember who is involved or why.

In favour of a flat tax

Different sorts of income sources are taxed differently today. It makes sense to me to have a single flat tax of rate for all income, whatever its source – why should it matter how you get your income, surely the only thing that matters is how much you get? Today, there are many rates and exceptions. Since people can take income by pay, dividends, capital gains, interest, gambling, lottery wins, and inheritance, a fair system would just count it all up and tax it all at the same rate. This could apply to companies too, at the same rate; since some people own companies and money accumulating in them is part of their income. Ditto property development, any gains when selling or renting a property could be taxed at that rate. Company owners would be treated like everyone else, and pay on the same basis as employees.

I believe flat taxes are a good idea. They have been shown to work well in some countries, and can stimulate economic development. If there are no exceptions, if everyone must pay a fixed percentage of everything they get, then the rich still pay more tax, but are better incentivised to earn even more. Accountants wouldn’t be able to prevent rich people avoiding tax just by laundering it via different routes or by relabelling it.

International experience suggests that a flat tax rate of around 20% would probably work. So, you’d pay 20% on everything you earn or your company earns, or you inherit, or win, or are given or whatever. Some countries also tax capital, encouraging people to spend it rather than hoard, but this is an optional extra. There is something quite appealing about a single rate of tax that applies to everyone and every institution for every transaction. It is simpler, with fewer opportunities to abdicate responsibility to pay, and any income earned in the country would be taxed in the country.

There are a few obvious problems that need solved. Husbands and wives would not be able to transfer money between them tax-free, nor parents giving their kids pocket money, so perhaps we need to allow anyone tax-free interchange with their immediate family, as determine by birth, marriage or civil partnership. When people buy a new house, or change their share portfolio, perhaps it should just be on the value difference that the 20% would apply. So a few tweaks here and there would be needed, but the simpler and the fewer exceptions we introduce, the better.

Welfare

So what about poorer people, how will they manage? The welfare system could be similarly simplified too. We can provide simply for those that need help by giving a base allowance to every adult, regardless of need, set so that if that is your only income, it would be sufficient to live modestly but in a dignified manner. Any money earned on top of that ensures that there is an incentive to work, and you won’t become poorer by earning a few pounds more and crossing some threshold.

(Since I first blogged about this in Jan 2012, the Swiss have agreed a referendum (in Oct 2013) on what they call the Citizen Wage Initiative, which is exactly this same idea. I guess it has been around in various forms for ages, but if the Swiss decide to go ahead with it, it might soon be real. At a modest level of payment, it is workable now, the main issue being that there still needs to be a big enough incentive for people to work, or many won’t, and the economy would dive. The Swiss are considering a wage of 2000 Francs per month, which might be too generous, as it would allow a household with a few adults to live fairly comfortably without working. Having noted that, I still think the idea itself is very sound, the level just needs to be carefully set to preserve the work incentive.)

There is also no need to have a zero tax threshold. People who earn enough not to need welfare would be paying tax according to their total income anyway, so it all sorts itself out. With everyone getting the same allowance, admin costs would be very low and since admin costs currently waste around a third of the money, this frees up enough money to make the basic allowance 50% more generous. So everyone benefits.

Children could also be provided with an allowance, which would go to their registered parent or guardian just as today in lieu of child benefits. Again, since all income is taxed at the same rate regardless of source, there is no need to means test it. There should be as few other benefits as possible. They shouldn’t be necessary if the tax and allowance rate is tuned correctly anyway. Those with specific needs, such as some disabled people, could be given what they need rather than a cash benefit, so that there is less incentive to cheat the system.

Such a system would reduce polarisation greatly. The extremes at the bottom would be guaranteed a decent income, while those at the top would be forced to pay their proper share of taxes, however they got their wealth. If they still manage to be rich, then their wealth will at least be fair. It also guarantees that everyone is better off if they work, and that no-one falls through the safety net.

If everyone gets the allowance, the flat tax rate would mean that anyone below average earnings would hardly pay any income tax, any work that someone on benefits undertakes would result in a higher standard of living for them, and those on much more will pay lots. The figures look generous, but company income and prices will adjust too, and that will also rebalance it a bit. It certainly needs tuned, but it could work.

In business, the flat tax applies to all transactions, and where there is some sort of swap, such as property or shares, then the tax could be on the value difference. So, in shops, direct debits, or internet purchases, the tax would be a bit higher than the VAT rate today, and other services would also attract the same rate. With no tax deductions or complex VAT rules, admin is easier but more things are taxed. This makes it harder for companies to avoid tax by being based overseas and that increased tax take directly from income to companies means that the tax needed from other routes falls. Then, with a re-balanced economy, and everyone paying on everything, the flat rate can be adjusted until the total national take is whatever is agreed by government.

This just has to be simpler, fairer, and less wasteful and a better stimulus for hard work than the messy and unfair system we have now, full of opportunities to opt out at the top if you have a clever accountant and disincentives to work at the bottom.

The economy today is big enough to provide basic standard of living to everyone, but thanks to economic growth it will be possible to have a flat tax and a basic welfare payment equivalent to today’s average income within 45 years. If those who want economic growth to stop get their way, the poor will be condemned to at best a basic existence.

Linking tax and welfare to social networks

We often hear the phrase ‘care in the community’. Nationalisation of social care has displaced traditional care by family and local community to some degree. Long ago, people who needed to be looked after were looked after by those who are related or socially close, either by geography or association. It could be again, and may even be necessary as care rationing is a strong likelihood. Meanwhile, wealth is being redefined in many countries now, with high quality social relationships becoming recognised as valuable and a major contributor to overall quality of life.

Social care costs money, and will inevitably be rationed as the population ages, so why not link it back to social structure as it used to be? In much the same way that financial welfare is only available to those that need it, those with social wealth could and perhaps should be cared for by those who love them instead of by the state. They would likely be happier, and it would cost less. Those that have low connectedness, i.e. few friends and family, should then be the rightful focus of state care. Everyone could be cared for better and the costs would be more manageable.

We already know people’s social connectedness very well, it is indicated by many easily measurable factors, and every year it gets easier. The numbers and strength of contacts on social networking sites is one clue, so is email and messaging use, so is phone use. Geographic proximity can be determined by information in the electoral roll. So it is possible to determine algorithms based on these many various factors that would determine who needs care from the state and who should be able to get it from social contacts.

Many people wouldn’t like that, resenting being forced to care for other people, so how can we make sure people do take care of those they are ‘allocated’ to? Well, that could be done by linking taxation to the care system in such a way that the amount of care you should be providing would be determined by your social connectivity, and providing that care yields tax discount. Or you could just pay your full quota of taxes and abdicate provision to the state. But by providing a high valuation on actual care, it would encourage people to choose to provide care rather than to pay the tax.

Social wealth could thus be linked to social tax, and this social tax could be paid either as care or cash. The technology of social networking has given us the future means to link the social care side of social security into social connectedness. Those who are socially poor would receive the greatest focus of state provision and those who gain most socially from their lives would have to put more in too. We do that with money, why not also with social value? It sounds fair to me.

21st Century Social Problems, updated

I started writing this one in May 2012, but got distracted and just uploaded the contents list. I guess it is time to finish it properly.

Resuming writing again in 2014, we still have a conspicuous lack of effective leaders, military conflicts all over the world, and the promise of further problems ahead, but I am still optimistic (sure, I’m a grumpy old man sometimes but being grumpy shows you still have some lingering hope that it could be better :)). We can look forward to this century bringing us fantastic new technologies. We are witnessing the labour pains hailing the imminent birth of a fantastic virtual world where we can explore other people’s imaginations. We will soon have computers as smart as people, the ability to connect them to our nervous systems, and later to our brains, making us superhuman. We will mine asteroids and start to develop space. We will have electronic immortality and be able to cure almost all diseases. The doom and gloom on climate change is calming down. It is a good time to be alive, at the dawning of a new era. I’d swap places with my daughter’s generation without hesitation, regardless of the problems they currently face. But I am not going to blog today about all the wonderful stuff coming down the road. There is lots to be excited about, but it won’t be a technotopia. There is no such thing as a free lunch and there will be a price to pay along the way for all the benefits we will receive. I’ll list a wide range of potential problems, but don’t panic about them. Forewarned is forearmed. By being alert to the dangers, we may be able to avoid some of them, or at least reduce their impacts. I’m not worried, you shouldn’t be either, but we shouldn’t be complacent either.

Many are self-explanatory and can be covered adequately with just a simple heading. I will explain others in a little more depth, but I can’t cover any in great depth here.

Living with robots

Gladiatorial combat between sentient machines – we used to watch Robot Wars, with remote control machines fighting to destruction. It won’t be very long before they become autonomous and equipped with emotions. Synthetic at first and then real emotions. With high levels of AI and consciousness, the robots will want to survive and will offer more potential for cruelty. Will we sink to the depths of the ancient Romans watching android gladiators maim and kill each other for our entertainment?

Drones make bad neighbours worse – already we are seeing drones used in military missions, police surveillance, other utilities, and recently we even saw Amazon demonstrating package delivery using drones. This week, we see drones being used to capture and subdue intruders using tasers fired from above. Drones vary in size up to full size planes, but at the lower end, some will be insect size. Privacy invasion and voyeurism will become more problematic. Espionage will increase. Wild animals may die from eating drones that have failed and fallen. Larger ones used for telecoms or package delivery may harm people if they fall or collide with them. Local councils or other authorities will monitor us more. 1984 likes drones!

Robot psychos – some smart and autonomous robots will go wrong. Advanced AI is very useful, but it will also come with increased range of failure modes. We should expect some robots to become criminal, malicious, using the web for criminal purposes, taking over other robots, perhaps even becoming violent.

Robot ‘mental problems will be a lesser issue. Sometimes a simple system update or other software debugging will fix them, but some won’t use software in the same way that they do today. If they learn to interact with the real world in their own way, and perhaps that is a major part of their individual value, then fixing them may need something more akin to psychotherapy than software engineering.

Relations between and within robot, AI and human cultures. As AI approaches human levels of power and sophistication, we won’t be able to keep treating all machines the same way, as just dumb physical objects. Some will be smart, and we’ll have debates over their rights and responsibilities, whether they can own things or intellectual property and so on. Some AI won’t be linked to specific objects, and that will be a slightly different issue, but will also require discussion. We won’t just need to debate new laws though. We’ll have to get used to living another intelligent beings. They will have their own interests apart from humans too; their own culture; their own society; they’ll have free time and resources; they’ll want and demand their own governance and representation alongside humans, they’ll want to socialise, maybe flirt, maybe have babies. We’ll need treaties with them, perhaps different treaties with different forms of AIs, who will need treaties with each other. It could get messy if different AI cultures don’t get along well. The second half of the century will have a very different society from that in the first half.

Robots owning other robots. We don’t think much about ownership, but it has been a key weapon in dominating and subduing subcultures throughout history. At some point, AIs will be offered or demand the right to own property. That is likely to start with intellectual property. As they earn money, possibly very quickly, they will buy things, maybe a lot of things. Maybe land, factories, other robots. Maybe some advanced AIs will own less advanced AIs that may themselves own dumb machines. Maybe they’ll even own people, illicitly of course, using trafficked people, using their own easy presence via the web to control agents. Robots won’t be permitted to own people, but they might simply ignore the rules and hide their tracks. They may force people to work for them by blackmail or other coercion. Others might employ people on low wages, using their own high wealth, and perhaps some of them might not be very kind employers.

Living with virtuality

Reality confusion – blurring of real and virtual self. Using virtual reality for a while can necessitate a short period of readjustment when returning to real life. Even with crude graphics there is a degree of disorientation. With today’s better graphics, the effect is said to vanish after a few sessions. However, soap actors sometimes say they people occasionally confuse them with their characters. That suggests that for some people, the lines between real life and the virtual world might sometimes blur. This is more likely in augmented reality as they may often be merged completely. Another analogy is drug induced hallucinations, which sometimes recur, allegedly. In fact, some use of augmented reality and virtual reality is likely in clubs, where we may see use of legal and illegal drugs, even used in conjunction with TMS (trans-cranial magnetic stimulation) to create elaborate shared experiences. Nobody knows what effects combining all that would have on the mind, let alone what effect it might have on further behaviours or experiences.

Augmented Reality identity theft. In AR you can use any avatar you want, in theory anyway. You could easily pretend to be someone else. That’s probably not a problem most of the time, but it does lend itself to abuse. People may use AR a lot, so they may see people habitually as their avatars. If they use someone else’s avatar, it may alter the way someone perceives not only them, but also the person whose avatar they are mimicking. If they do bad or embarrassing things while using that avatar, it may cause problems for the rightful owner. If the context is one where the real owner may be a regular visitor, then there is a chance that they may even be able to pass themselves off as them and effectively steal their identity.

Augmented reality tribalism – AR allows for different people to see different things when looking at the same object or building or person. On the good side, it will let people visually occupy different roles simultaneously. So someone might see a person as a friend, someone else as an irrelevant stranger, but others might see them according to a particular role and context, such as doctor or sales assistant, or in an avatar corresponding to their role in an online game. People can be lots of things at once, and how they appear depends on the context of being seen. Tribes of people, sharing the same ideology, might see others who belong to that tribe in a certain way too. This would allow them to feel more part of a group, if they can visually identify its other members but non-members can’t. That could help in arranging demonstrations, or in coordinating crimes, and it could also assist those belonging to abusive, racist or homophobic groups in coordinating actions against those they hate. So clearly it has some bad uses to balance out the good ones.

AR objectification of women -see: http://timeguide.wordpress.com/2012/03/24/augmented-reality-will-objectify-women/

Age play – resulting difficulties from ability to portray oneself or others as any age. Sadly, some people will try to make use of any new platform to abuse children, and pretending to be a child is a common trick used in grooming.

Problems with virtual neighbours in shared virtual spaces - some virtual spaces will be personal but many will be shared, and virtual spaces will be a popular socialisation tool. The nature of augmented and virtual reality mean that pseudo-geographic layouts would dominate, and people would become used to going to the same places. They won’t necessarily be able to choose who else would share those locations, and some of them might not be welcome. Clubs and societies would presumably police their own locations, but it may not always be possible to keep people away who want to detract from an area or be a nuisance.

Virtual vandalism and other conflicts in virtual shared spaces - some undesirable people may use their skills to modify augmented or virtual reality locations without permission of the owners, or may cause problems for other users. This detracts from the potential, but like junk mail or pop-up ads, we are very likely to see just as many abuses of virtual worlds by spammers, hackers and others who see other people as prey.

Digital trespass, provision of competing services on another’s property - high street shops already have problems with people using them to see things for real, and then buying them online from a supplier who avoids the overheads of maintaining a high street presence. Augmented reality will make it easier to see alternatives from competitors alongside something you are looking at as well as facilitating the online purchase. A competitor can effectively have their goods displayed alongside those in the shop where you are. 

21st Century Gender issues

I wrote a large chapter on this for my book and reproduced it recently here:

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

Many of the issues won’t become feasible until towards the end of the century, such as:

Gender play – option to switch between genders freely could prove a problem

New genders, with associated social, cultural and legal problems

Living with digital permanence

Inheritance of in-depth personal records – when you die, your web presence would remain for some time unless it is destroyed or an account deleted due to lack of use. It may well be that without access to login details, family may not be able to erase some accounts and an online presence may therefore persist long after death. Inheritance laws may adapt to allow some accounts to be passed on to beneficiaries. In some cases that could cause problems, such as when an account has associated liabilities, or holds information that proves embarrassing. Quite a few family secrets will undoubtedly emerge in this way. There may even be information that legally incriminates someone else.

Changing technology exposes secrets from earlier life. Even in someone’s own lifetime, technology changes a lot and things they did earlier may come to the surface as technology allows their exposure. Examples such as image search or strong AI search engines are likely mechanisms. Many famous people will be embarrassed by photos or events they had long forgotten, recorded by others and then later linked to them by these means.

Wide implications of electronic immortality – may not be able to die fully. Electronic immortality will be with us in the second half of the century. Your body will die but by then you may well have extended your mind into the net so much that you would only lose a small fraction of your mind when your body dies. Some people will use the same tech to occupy multiple bodies even while their own is alive. When someone does die, it will often therefore be only a partial experience. Companies could continue to employ their important employees in electronic form, with uncertain remuneration and legality, and in some cases, loved ones may resurrect a person even against their desires. It will be mostly a beneficial technology but it will certainly bring problems with it.

Partial death

Conflicts between organic and electronic humans

Time sharing of android bodies by electronic people - to avoid overpopulation, there may well be restrictions on buying additional bodies or on how long someone can persist after their organic death

Living with high longevity – we don’t have any experience of organising society with people living hundreds of years, but this one has one big advantage, the oldest people we will need to live with can only get older by one year per year.

Increasing acceptance of euthanasia

Conflicts over rights to live longer

Living with brain-machine links

Shared and communal minds - linking our brains and nervous systems to the net will become commonplace eventually. It will be possible to experience someone else’s sensations and even to share bodies with them. In the net, minds will also extend electronically, and sometimes will share the same areas. There will inevitably be some abuses of this with people trying to influence others to do or think things that they otherwise couldn’t, and to take control over others. Some people may submit willingly to other people, or may allow others to take over their bodies. Mind control and enslavement will go much further than hypnosis today.

Identity confusion is also likely if people sometimes share minds or overlap minds with others. They may become less aware of their own boundaries. We may see a strong blurring of self, absorption into a collective mind, and literally split personalities.

Personality exchanges and modifications will cause many problems.

Partial & Delayed Birth & ebaybies

Couples can already store eggs and sperm for later use, but with far future genetic assembly, it will become feasible to create offspring from nothing more than a DNA listing. DNA from both members of a couple, of any sex, could get a record of their DNA, randomise combinations with their partner’s DNA and thus get a massive library of potential offspring. They may even be able to do so with listing of celebrity DNA from the net. This creates the potential for greatly delayed birth and tradable ‘ebaybies’. A DNA listing is not alive so current laws don’t forbid that. Such listings could also be used to create electronic offspring, simulated in a computer memory instead of being born organically. Various degrees of existence are possible with varied awareness. Couples may have many electronic babies as well as a few real ones. They may even wait to see how a simulation works out before deciding which kids to make for real. The following consequences are obvious:

Trade-in and collection of DNA listings, virtual embryos, virtual kids etc, that could actually be fabricated at some stage

Re-birth, potential to clone and download one’s mind or use a direct brain link to live in a younger self

Demands by infertile and gay couples to have babies via genetic assembly

Ability of kids to own entire populations of virtual people, who are quite real in some ways.

Living with advanced surveillance

I wrote two blogs on this: http://timeguide.wordpress.com/2013/06/19/deep-surveillance-how-much-privacy-could-you-lose/

and http://timeguide.wordpress.com/2013/11/10/i-want-my-tv-to-be-a-tv-not-a-security-and-privacy-threat/

Transhumanist and strong AI tension

I wrote an entire novel on this one, called Space Anchor. There will be a lot of restrictions on transhumanism for many reasons. There will also be a lot of restrictions on AI. Some transhumanists assume that they will be able to win regulatory wars, but I think that is naive.

Demands to constrain transhumanism v demands for freedom of development

Decisions and conflicts on human and AI nature

Transhuman diversification - not all transhumans will be equal. There may be groups hostile to each other.

http://timeguide.wordpress.com/2013/02/18/how-smart-could-an-ai-become/ looks at strong AI.

War

We always have wars somewhere and still will in the future. There is no reason to expect we are heading towards an age of peace. I wrote a blog recently on what I think may well be the next big war (if we get past this Ukraine problem intact) :

http://timeguide.wordpress.com/2013/12/19/machiavelli-and-the-coming-great-western-war/

Population growth

I wrote a long time ago that I believe population growth to be a good thing and nothing to worry about:

http://timeguide.wordpress.com/2012/07/13/population-growth-is-a-good-thing-updated-july-2012/

I still think that, but, I did also consider that population might not level off and then decline as expected. If that happens, then we may get overpopulation, happening at the same time as electronic immortality also allows people to have multiple bodies and carry on after organic death:

http://timeguide.wordpress.com/2014/02/05/will-population-grow-again-after-2050-to-15bn/

I think that is enough 21st Century problems to worry about for this blog. It was never intended to be complete.

Scottish Independence

Apologies to my international readers, this one is just about Scotland.

Some Scots want independence and their leader Salmond promises that he will deliver a land of milk and honey. I wrote a few months on some reasons I don’t think they should go their own way:  http://timeguide.wordpress.com/2013/11/24/scottish-independence-please-dont-go/

The economics really don’t look good if they choose to do so anyway. A survey just published suggests 38.6% of large businesses and a third of small one would consider moving out of Scotland if it gains independence. That doesn’t mean they actually will, but it does suggest a potential financial problem. This week we have also learnt that European Law would require the Royal Bank of Scotland to move to London if it happened, since they do most of their business in the UK and banks have to be resident in the country where it does most of its business.

Salmond has suggested making loads of cash from wind farms. If every hectare of Scotland were covered in wind turbines at maximum density, it wouldn’t even make enough energy to replace England’s coal power stations. Hardly Saudi Arabia is it, as Salmond once claimed? Oil is still there in the sea in reasonable abundance, they might win ownership of much of it, and they could extract it for some more years. But not many. Thanks to the recent goings on with Russia, shale gas is starting to look a lot more desirable. England’s recoverable reserves estimates increased by 50% this last week. We have a lot of shale gas, and it will be much cheaper than oil or Russian gas if we can get past the current fracking objections. The same goes for many other countries that might otherwise be tempted by North Sea oil. Even if we can’t use our own shale gas, US shale gas production can expand a lot and could fill much of our needs too. So there may not be much demand for Scottish oil for much longer.

Each Scot is currently subsidised by English taxpayers. The subsidies allow Scottish students free University education (while the English have to pay £9000 per year). Elderly care is free, prescriptions are free. Estimates of the subsidy vary depending on the political allegiance of the source, but a BBC figure of over £3000 per head seems reasonable. An independent Scotland would have no reason to expect to keep receiving that.

A study 15 months ago based on stats collected by the Office of National Statistics pointed out that only 12% of Scots contribute more to the state than they receive back in total benefits. A reasonable assumption is that some of those 12% work for the big banks and other large companies that will move to London, and some work for the smaller businesses that would also consider leaving. Some of those will leave, and that will mean that an even smaller proportion of Scots are net contributors to the state. They might feel pretty unhappy if the politics still means that they are then expected to pay even more taxes to make up the deficit, so more of those ‘considering leaving’ might actually do so. A vicious circle will force more and more Scots onto the train to London or overseas. Scotland would soon be full of net receivers from the state, used to a heavily subsidised standard of living and willing to vote for anyone who will keep borrowing more and more to pay for it. Those that can will leave.

It is hard to escape the conclusion that a newly independent Scotland will very soon start to see its standard of living very significantly degraded. Even after tightening its belt a few times, it is likely to see its economy slide deeper into debt. Not a good prospect at all.

Can we get a less abusive society?

When I wrote my recent blog on reducing the problem of rape, part of my research (yes I do sometimes try to learn about something before I blog about it) was looking at the Crime Survey for England and Wales, the CSEW. (As I said, I wasn’t very impressed by it and I couldn’t accept it as a true indicator of crime. A lot of the questions are ambiguous and there are big gaps and strong biases in the coverage. Some areas would therefore be overstated in results while others understated and it lends itself far too well to political lobbies. I said it was about as reasonable an indicator of crime level as a casual chat in a pub.)

The CSEW has a large section asking questions about various forms of abuse within relationships. Not just physical abuse such as rape, but financial, social or emotional abuse too – belittling someone, not letting them see their friends, not allowing them their share of the money. That sort of thing.

Since then, it occurred to me that abuse within relationships is a micro-scale version of what we do all the time socially via politics. If you look at a country as a whole, different groups with very different ideological preferences have to somehow live peacefully side by side in the long term. If you like, it’s a sort of enforced marriage, writ large, or a grand scale civil partnership if you prefer that. 

Taking that analogy, we could adapt some of the questions from the crime survey to see whether things we do regularly to each other in the guise of everyday politics are really a form of abuse. Even within marriages and partnerships, what most of us consider unacceptable behaviour may be accepted or practiced by a quite large proportion of people – according to the figures out this week, 16% of 16-19 year olds think it’s sometimes OK to hit a partner.

If you really don’t like your own country, you could leave, and often some people will tell you to do just that if you don’t like it, but the costs and the aggravation and the ‘why should it be me that has to leave?’ are a big deterrent. So you stay together and suffer the abuse. 

So, let’s take a few of the questions from the CSEW and apply them to the political scale. The questionnaire is here:

http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/guide-method/method-quality/specific/crime-statistics-methodology/2012-13-crime-survey-for-england-and-wales.pdf

Starting with a few questions from the section on domestic violence:

Q1: Has your partner ever prevented you from having your fair share of the household money?

(Yes that question is in the domestic violence section, and I’d certainly answer yes, for pretty much every girlfriend I’ve ever had. That’s why I don’t believe much that comes out of the survey. It’s far too open to interpretation and far too tempting a tool for campaigning. Responses from people who have had serious abuse in this manner would be lost in the noise).

This one has a very obvious political equivalent, and we don’t even need to adapt it. Just about every pressure group would answer yes, and so would everyone who feels they should pay less tax or get more government support or more pay or feels the government spends too much on other people’s interests instead of theirs.

The battle between left and right often comes down to this. The left wants to take and spend more and more, and the right wants to keep their cash and spend it themselves. Each side occasionally gets their way to some degree, but there is no doubt in my mind – it is abusive, no better than a marital fight where the one currently holding the wallet or purse wins, i.e. whoever got most seats this time. We really should find a better way. It is this issue more than any other that made me realise that we ought to implement a dual democracy, (I describe that in my book Total Sustainability) and if we don’t this abuse will eventually lead to the Great Western War which I blogged about a couple of months ago:

http://timeguide.wordpress.com/2013/12/19/machiavelli-and-the-coming-great-western-war/

So, question 1, and we can already confirm we are in a highly abusive relationship.

Q2: Has your partner ever stopped you from seeing friends or relatives?

(Can anyone honestly say no to that?)

This one is rather harder to translate. The human rights act is notoriously pretty forceful on this when it comes to criminals, but what does it equate to in civil abuse? Aha! Public demonstrations. Government is intercepting a lot of metadata on who our friends and political friends are, using face recognition at public demonstrations, making them much harder to organise or attend, preventing access to a demonstration and dispersing large groups more. We can all think of groups we find repugnant and may prefer not to exist, but they do exist and share our land whether we like them or not, and they are human, whether we try to portray them as otherwise or not. This sort of abuse blurs into the next form, belittling. Some of us still defend freedom of speech, the right to say what you like without censorship. Others want to clamp down on it, selectively of course; their own right to demonstrate or speak freely must be protected. After the BBC’s Question Time this week, there were numerous people demanding that certain types of people or political parties should be banned from appearing. Such demands happen often. We saw Ed Davey and Prince Charles calling anyone who disagrees with their own views names and should be barred from having any public platform to air their views, the Green Party going still further and calling for people who disagree with them to be sacked and banned from office. So coupling it with belittling, this abuse is becoming the norm in politics and even the Royal Family are guilty of it.

So, more abuse.

Q3: has your partner ever repeatedly belittled you to the extent you felt worthless?

Anyone who ever watches political debate will easily recognise the strong analogies here. These days, in the UK at least, members of all political parties often do their very best to present opposing views as worthless, unacceptable, unfair, odious, backward, prehistoric, uncivilised…. It seems the norm rather than the exception. It isn’t just the parties themselves. Anyone who doesn’t tick all the boxes on the latest political correctness fad is often subjected to abuse by people who share opposing views. Civilised debate on a wide range of sensitive issues is impossible any more.

Definitely very abusive this time.

Q4 has your partner ever frightened you, by threatening to hurt you or someone close to you?

Isn’t that what strikes do? Or riots or even large peaceful public demonstrations? Or media campaigns by pressure groups? People often feel bullied into submission because of the potential consequences they feel if they don’t comply with the demands.

Quite abusive

The rest of the questions are not relevant, being specific to particular weapons. But I think I have made my point. By the criteria we use to judge abuse in our own personal relationships, our society is as guilty as hell. I think it is getting worse year by year. I think we are heading slowly but surely towards a critical point where the fuse finally blows and social breakdown is likely.

I think that in the 21st Century, it is about time we started to work out a more civilised way of living together, sharing the same space with human dignity and mutual respect. Maybe love is a bit much to ask for, but surely we can manage without abusing each other?

Deterring rape and sexual assault

Since writing this a new set of stats has come out (yes, I should have predicted that):

http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/crime-stats/crime-statistics/focus-on-violent-crime-and-sexual-offences–2012-13/rft-table-2.xls

New technology appears all the time, but it seemed to me that some very serious problems were being under-addressed, such as rape and sexual assault. Technology obviously won’t solve them alone, but I believe it could help to some degree. However, I wanted to understand the magnitude of the problem first, so sought out the official statistics. I found it intensely frustrating task that left me angry that government is so bad at collecting proper data. So although I started this as another technology blog, it evolved and I now also discuss the statistics too, since poor quality data collection and communication on such an important issue as rape is a huge problem in itself. That isn’t a technology issue, it is one of government competence.

Anyway, the headline stats are that:

1060 rapes of women and 522 rapes of girls under 16 resulted in court convictions. A third as many attempted rapes also resulted in convictions.

14767 reports of rapes or attempted rapes (typically 25%) of females were initially recorded by the police, of which 33% were against girls under 16.

The Crime Survey for England and Wales estimates that 69000 women claim to have been subjected to rape or attempted rape.

I will discuss the stats further after I have considered how technology could help to reduce rape, the original point of the blog.

This is a highly sensitive area, and people get very upset with any discussion of rape because of its huge emotional impact. I don’t want to upset anybody by misplacing blame so let me say very clearly:

Rape or sexual assault are never a victim’s fault. There are no circumstances under which it is acceptable to take part in any sexual act with anyone against their will. If someone does so, it is entirely their fault, not the victim’s. People should not have to protect themselves but should be free to do as they wish without fear of being raped or sexually assaulted. Some people clearly don’t respect that right and rapes and sexual assaults happen. The rest of us want fewer people to be raped or assaulted and want more guilty people to be convicted. Technology can’t stop rape, and I won’t suggest that it can, but if it can help reduce someone’s chances of becoming a victim or help convict a culprit, even in just some cases, that’s progress.  I just want to do my bit to help as an engineer. Please don’t just think up reasons why a particular solution is no use in a particular case, think instead how it might help in a few. There are lots of rapes and assaults where nothing I suggest will be of any help at all. Technology can only ever be a small part of our fight against sex crime.

Let’s start with something we could easily do tomorrow, using social networking technology to alert potential victims to some dangers, deter stranger rape or help catch culprits. People encounter strangers all the time – at work, on transport, in clubs, pubs, coffee bars, shops, as well as dark alleys and tow-paths. In many of these places, we expect IT infrastructure, communications, cameras, and people with smartphones. 

Social networks often use location and some apps know who some of the people near you are. Shops are starting to use face recognition to identify regular customers and known troublemakers. Videos from building cameras are already often used to try to identify potential suspects or track their movements. Suppose in the not-very-far future, a critical mass of people carried devices that recorded the data of who was near them, throughout the day, and sent it regularly into the cloud. That device could be a special purpose device or it could just be a smartphone with an app on it. Suppose a potential victim in a club has one. They might be able to glance at an app and see a social reputation for many of the people there. They’d see that some are universally considered to be fine upstanding members of the community, even by previous partners, who thought they were nice people, just not right for them. They might see that a few others have had relationships where one or more of their previous partners had left negative feedback, which may or may not be justified. The potential victim might reasonably be more careful with the ones that have dodgy reputations, whether they’re justified or not, and even a little wary of those who don’t carry such a device. Why don’t they carry one? Surely if they were OK, they would? That’s what critical mass does. Above a certain level of adoption, it would rapidly become the norm. Like any sort of reputation, giving someone a false or unjustified rating would carry its own penalty. If you try to get back at an ex by telling lies about them, you’d quickly be identified as a liar by others, or they might sue you for libel. Even at this level, social networking can help alert some people to potential danger some of the time.

Suppose someone ends up being raped. Thanks to the collection of that data by their device (and those of others) of who was where, when, with whom, the police would more easily be able to identify some of the people the victim had encountered and some of them would be able to identify some of the others who didn’t carry such a device. The data would also help eliminate a lot of potential suspects too. Unless a rapist had planned in advance to rape, they may even have such a device with them. That might itself be a deterrent from later raping someone they’d met, because  they’d know the police would be able to find them easier. Some clubs and pubs might make it compulsory to carry one, to capitalise on the market from being known as relatively safe hangouts. Other clubs and pubs might be forced to follow suit. We could end up with a society where most of the time, potential rapists would know that their proximity to their potential victim would be known most of the time. So they might behave.

So even social networking such as we have today or could easily produce tomorrow is capable of acting as a deterrent to some people considering raping a stranger. It increases their chances of being caught, and provides some circumstantial evidence at least of their relevant movements when they are.

Smartphones are very underused as a tool to deter rape. Frequent use of social nets such as uploading photos or adding a diary entry into Facebook helps to make a picture of events leading up to a crime that may later help in inquiries. Again, that automatically creates a small deterrence by increasing the chances of being investigated. It could go a lot further though. Life-logging may use a microphone that records a continuous audio all day and a camera that records pictures when the scene changes. This already exists but is not in common use yet – frequent Facebook updates are as far as most people currently get to life-logging. Almost any phone is capable of recording audio, and can easily do so from a pocket or bag, but if a camera is to record frequent images, it really needs to be worn. That may be OK in several years if we’re all wearing video visors with built-in cameras, but in practice and for the short-term, we’re realistically stuck with just the audio.

So life-logging technology could record a lot of the events, audio and pictures leading up to an offense, and any smartphone could do at least some of this. A rapist might forcefully search and remove such devices from a victim or their bag, but by then they might already have transmitted a lot of data into the cloud, possibly even evidence of a struggle that may be used later to help convict. If not removed, it could even record audio throughout the offence, providing a good source of evidence. Smartphones also have accelerometers in them, so they could even act as a sort of black box, showing when a victim was still, walking, running, or struggling. Further, phones often have tracking apps on them, so if a rapist did steal a phone, it may show their later movements up to the point where they dumped it. Phones can also be used to issue distress calls. An emergency distress button would be easy to implement, and could transmit exact location stream audio  to the emergency services. An app could also be set up to issue a distress call automatically under specific circumstances, such at it detecting a struggle or a scream or a call for help. Finally, a lot of phones are equipped for ID purposes, and that will generally increase the proportion of people in a building whose identity is known. Someone who habitually uses their phone for such purposes could be asked to justify disabling ID or tracking services when later interviewed in connection with an offense. All of these developments will make it just a little bit harder to escape justice and that knowledge would act as a deterrent.

Overall, a smart phone, with its accelerometer, positioning, audio, image and video recording and its ability to record and transmit any such data on to cloud storage makes it into a potentially very useful black box and that surely must be a significant deterrent. From the point of view of someone falsely accused, it also could act as a valuable proof of innocence if they can show that the whole time they were together was amicable, or if indeed they were somewhere else altogether at the time. So actually, both sides of a date have an interest in using such black box smartphone technology and on a date with someone new, a sensible precautionary habit could be encouraged to enable continuous black box logging throughout a date. People might reasonably object to having a continuous recording happening during a legitimate date if they thought there was a danger it could be used by the other person to entertain their friends or uploaded on to the web later, but it could easily be implemented to protect privacy and avoiding the risk of misuse. That could be achieved by using an app that keeps the record on a database but gives nobody access to it without a court order. It would be hard to find a good reason to object to the other person protecting themselves by using such an app. With such protection and extra protection, perhaps it could become as much part of safe sex as using a condom. Imagine if women’s groups were to encourage a trend to make this sort of recording on dates the norm – no app, no fun!

These technologies would be useful primarily in deterring stranger rape or date rape. I doubt if they would help as much with rapes that are by someone the victim knows. There are a number of reasons. It’s reasonable to assume that when the victim knows the rapist, and especially if they are partners and have regular sex, it is far less likely that either would have a recording going. For example, a woman may change her mind during sex that started off consensually. If the man forces her to continue, it is very unlikely that there would be anything recorded to prove rape occurred. In an abusive or violent relationship, an abused partner might use an audio recording via a hidden device when they are concerned – an app could initiate a recording on detection of a secret keyword, or when voices are raised, even when the phone is put in a particular location or orientation. So it might be easy to hide the fact that a recording is going and it could be useful in some cases. However, the fear of being caught doing so by a violent partner might be a strong deterrent, and an abuser may well have full access to or even control of their partner’s phone, and most of all, a victim generally doesn’t know they are going to be raped. So the phone probably isn’t a very useful factor when the victim and rapist are partners or are often together in that kind of situation. However, when it is two colleagues or friends in a new kind of situation, which also accounts for a significant proportion of rapes, perhaps it is more appropriate and normal dating protocols for black box app use may more often apply. Companies could help protect employees by insisting that such a black box recording is in force when any employees are together, in or out of office hours. They could even automate it by detecting proximity of their employees’ phones.

The smartphone is already ubiquitous and everyone is familiar with installing and using apps, so any of this could be done right away. A good campaign supported by the right groups could ensure good uptake of such apps very quickly. And it needn’t be all phone-centric. A new class of device would be useful for those who feel threatened in abusive relationships. Thanks to miniaturisation, recording and transmission devices can easily be concealed in just about any everyday object, many that would be common in a handbag or bedroom drawer or on a bedside table. If abuse isn’t just a one-off event, they may offer a valuable means of providing evidence to deal with an abusive partner.

Obviously, black boxes or audio recording can’t stop someone from using force or threats, but it can provide good quality evidence, and the deterrent effect of likely being caught is a strong defence against any kind of crime. I think that is probably as far as technology can go. Self-defense weapons such as pepper sprays and rape alarms already exist, but we don’t allow use of tasers or knives or guns and similar restrictions would apply to future defence technologies. Automatically raising an alarm and getting help to the scene quickly is the only way we can reasonably expect technology to help deal with a rape that is occurring, but that makes the use of deterrence via probably detection all the more valuable. Since the technologies also help protect the innocent against false accusations, that would help in getting their social adoption.

So much for what we could do with existing technology. In a few years, we will become accustomed to having patches of electronics stuck on our skin. Active skin and even active makeup will have a lot of medical functions, but it could also include accelerometers, recording devices, pressure sensors and just about anything that uses electronics. Any part of the body can be printed with active skin or active makeup, which is then potentially part of this black box system. Invisibly small sensors in makeup, on thin membranes or even embedded among skin cells could notionally detect, measure and record any kiss, caress, squeeze or impact, even record the physical sensations experiences by recording the nerve signals. It could record pain or discomfort, along with precise timing, location, and measure many properties of the skin touching or kissing it too. It might be possible for a victim to prove exactly when a rape happened, exactly what it involved, and who was responsible. Such technology is already being researched around the world. It will take a while to develop and become widespread, but it will come.

I don’t want this to sound frivolous, but I suggested many years ago that when women get breast implants, they really ought to have at least some of the space used for useful electronics, and electronics can actually be made using silicone. A potential rapist can’t steal or deactivate a smart breast implant as easily as a phone. If a woman is going to get implants anyway, why not get ones that increase her safety by having some sort of built-in black box? We don’t have to wait a decade for the technology to do that.

The statistics show that many rapes and sexual assaults that are reported don’t result in a conviction. Some accusations may be false, and I couldn’t find any figures for that number, but lack of good evidence is one of the biggest reasons why many genuine rapes don’t result in conviction. Technology can’t stop rapes, but it can certainly help a lot to provide good quality evidence to make convictions more likely when rapes and assaults do occur.

By making people more aware of potentially risky dates, and by gathering continuous data streams when they are with someone, technology can provide an extra level of safety and a good deterrent against rape and sexual assault. That in no way implies that rape is anyone’s fault except the rapist, but with high social support, it could help make a significant drop in rape incidence and a large rise in conviction rates. I am aware that in the biggest category, the technology I suggest has the smallest benefit to offer, so we will still need to tackle rape by other means. It is only a start, but better some reduction than none.

The rest of this blog is about rape statistics, not about technology or the future. It may be of interest to some readers. Its overwhelming conclusion is that official stats are a mess and nobody has a clue how many rapes actually take place.

Summary Statistics

We hear politicians and special interest groups citing and sometimes misrepresenting wildly varying statistics all the time, and now I know why. It’s hard to know the true scale of the problem, and very easy indeed to be confused by  poor presentation of poor quality government statistics in the sexual offenses category. That is a huge issue and source of problems in itself. Although it is very much on the furthest edge of my normal brief, I spent three days trawling through the whole sexual offenses field, looking at the crime survey questionnaires, the gaping holes and inconsistencies in collected data, and the evolution of offense categories over the last decade. It is no wonder government policies and public debate are so confused when the data available is so poor. It very badly needs fixed. 

There are several stages at which some data is available outside and within the justice system. The level of credibility of a claim obviously varies at each stage as the level of evidence increases.

Outside of the justice system, someone may claim to have been raped in a self-completion module of The Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW), knowing that it is anonymous, nobody will query their response, no further verification will be required and there will be no consequences for anyone. There are strong personal and political reasons why people may be motivated to give false information in a survey designed to measure crime levels (in either direction), especially in those sections not done by face to face interview, and these reasons are magnified when people filling it in know that their answers will be scaled up to represent the whole population, so that already introduces a large motivational error source. However, even for a person fully intending to tell the truth in the survey, some questions are ambiguous or biased, and some are highly specific while others leave far too much scope for interpretation, leaving gaps in some areas while obsessing with others. In my view, the CSEW is badly conceived and badly implemented. In spite of unfounded government and police assurances that it gives a more accurate picture of crime than other sources, having read it, I have little more confidence in the Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW)  as an indicator of actual crime levels than a casual conversation in a pub. We can be sure that some people don’t report some rapes for a variety of reasons and that in itself is a cause for concern. We don’t know how many go unreported, and the CSEW is not a reasonable indicator. We need a more reliable source.

The next stage for potential stats is that anyone may report any rape to the police, whether of themselves, a friend or colleague, witnessing a rape of a stranger, or even something they heard. The police will only record some of these initial reports as crimes, on a fairly common sense approach. According to the report, ‘the police record a crime if, on the balance of probability, the circumstances as reported amount to a crime defined by law and if there is no credible evidence to the contrary‘. 7% of these are later dropped for reasons such as errors in initial recording or retraction. However, it has recently been revealed that some forces record every crime reported whereas others record it only after it has passed the assessment above, damaging the quality of the data by mixing two different types of data together. In such an important area of crime, it is most unsatisfactory that proper statistics are not gathered in a consistent way for each stage of the criminal justice process, using the same criteria in every force.

Having recorded crimes, the police will proceed some of them through the criminal justice system.

Finally, the courts will find proven guilt in some of those cases.

I looked for the data for each of these stages, expecting to find vast numbers of table detailing everything. Perhaps they exist, and I certainly followed a number of promising routes, but most of the roads I followed ended up leading back to the CSEW and the same overview report. This joint overview report for the UK was produced by the  Ministry of Justice, Home Office and the Office for National Statistics in 2013, and it includes a range of tables with selected data from actual convictions through to results of the crime survey of England and Wales. While useful, it omits a lot of essential data that I couldn’t find anywhere else either.

The report and its tables can be accessed from:

http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/crime-stats/an-overview-of-sexual-offending-in-england—wales/december-2012/index.html

Another site gives a nice infographic on police recording, although for a different period. It is worth looking at if only to see the wonderful caveat: ‘the police figures exclude those offences which have not been reported to them’. Here it is:

http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/crime-stats/crime-statistics/period-ending-june-2013/info-sexual-offenses.html

In my view the ‘overview of sexual offending’ report mixes different qualities of data for different crimes and different victim groups in such a way as to invite confusion, distortion and misrepresentation. I’d encourage you to read it yourself if only to convince you of the need to pressure government to do it properly. Be warned, a great deal of care is required to work out exactly what and which victim group each refers to. Some figures include all people, some only females, some only women 16-59 years old. Some refer to different crime groups with similar sounding names such as sexual assault and sexual offence, some include attempts whereas others don’t. Worst of all, some very important statistics are missing, and it’s easy to assume another one refers to what you are looking for when on closer inspection, it doesn’t. However, there doesn’t appear to be a better official report available, so I had to use it. I’ve done my best to extract and qualify the headline statistics.

Taking rapes against both males and females, in 2011, 1153 people were convicted of carrying out 2294 rapes or attempted rapes, an average of 2 each. The conviction rate was 34.6% of 6630 proceeded against, from 16041 rapes or attempted rapes recorded by the police. Inexplicably, conviction figures are not broken down by victim gender, nor by rape or attempted rape. 

Police recording stats are broken down well. Of the 16041, 1274 (8%) of the rapes and attempted rapes recorded by the police were against males, while 14767 (92%) were against females. 33% of the female rapes recorded and 70% of male rapes recorded were against children (though far more girls were raped than boys). Figures are also broken down well against ethnicity and age, for offender and victim. Figures elsewhere suggested that 25% of rape attempts are unsuccessful, which combined with the 92% proportion that were rapes of females would indicate 1582 convictions for actual rape of a female, approximately 1060 women and 522 girls, but those figures only hold true if the proportions are similar through to conviction. 

Surely such a report should clearly state such an important figure as the number of rapes of a female that led to a conviction, and not leave it to readers to calculate their own estimate from pieces of data spread throughout the report. Government needs to do a lot better at gathering, categorising, analysing and reporting clear and accurate data. 

That 1582 figure for convictions is important, but it represents only the figure for rapes proven beyond reasonable doubt. Some females were raped and the culprit went unpunished. There has been a lot of recent effort to try to get a better conviction rate for rapes. Getting better evidence more frequently would certainly help get more convictions. A common perception is that many or even most rapes are unreported so the focus is often on trying to get more women to report it when they are raped. If someone knows they have good evidence, they are more likely to report a rape or assault, since one of the main reasons they don’t report it is lack of confidence that the police can do anything.

Although I don’t have much confidence in the figures from the CSEW, I’ll list them anyway. Perhaps you have greater confidence in them. The CSEW uses a sample of people, and then results are scaled up to a representation of the whole population. The CSEW (Crime Survey of England and Wales) estimates that 52000 (95% confidence level of between 39000 and 66000) women between 16 and 59 years old claim to have been victim of actual rape in the last 12 months, based on anonymous self-completion questionnaires, with 69000 (95% confidence level of between 54000 and 85000) women claiming to have been victim of attempted or actual rape in the last 12 months. 

In the same period, 22053 sexual assaults were recorded by the police. I couldn’t find any figures for convictions for sexual assaults, only for sexual offenses, which is a different, far larger category that includes indecent exposure and voyeurism. It isn’t clear why the report doesn’t include the figures for sexual assault convictions. Again, government should do better in their collection and presentation of important statistics.

The overview report also gives the stats for the number of women who said they reported a rape or attempted rape. 15% of women said they told the police, 57% said they told someone else but not the police, and 28% said they told nobody. The report does give the reasons commonly cited for not telling the police: “Based on the responses of female victims in the 2011/12 survey, the most frequently cited were that it would be ‘embarrassing’, they ‘didn’t think the police could do much to help’, that the incident was ‘too trivial/not worth reporting’, or that they saw it as a ‘private/family matter and not police business’.”

Whether you pick the 2110 convictions of rape or attempted rape against a female or the 69000 claimed in anonymous questionnaires, or anywhere in between, a lot of females are being subjected to actual and attempted rapes, and a lot victim of sexual assault. The high proportion of victims that are young children is especially alarming. Male rape is a big problem too, but the figures are a lot lower than for female rape.

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.

Automation and the London tube strike

I was invited on the BBC’s Radio 4 Today Programme to discuss automation this morning, but on Radio 4, studio audio quality is a higher priority than content quality, while quality of life for me is a higher priority than radio exposure, and going into Ipswich greatly reduces my quality of life. We amicably agreed they should find someone else.

There will be more automation in the future. On one hand, if we could totally automate every single job right now, all the same work would be done, so the world would still have the same overall wealth, but then we’d all be idle so our newly free time could be used to improve quality of life, or lie on beaches enjoying ourselves. The problem with that isn’t the automation itself, it is mainly the deciding what else to do with our time and establishing a fair means of distributing the wealth so it doesn’t just stay with ‘the mill owners’. Automation will eventually require some tweaks of capitalism (I discuss this at length in my book Total Sustainability).

We can’t and shouldn’t automate every job. Some jobs are dull and boring or reduce the worker to too low a level of  dignity, and they should be automated as far as we can economically – that is, without creating a greater problem elsewhere. Some jobs provide people with a huge sense of fulfillment or pleasure, and we ought to keep them and create more like them. Most jobs are in between and their situation is rather more complex. Jobs give us something to do with our time. They provide us with social contact. They stop us hanging around on the streets picking fights, or finding ways to demean ourselves or others. They provide dignity, status, self-actualisation. They provide a convenient mechanism for wealth distribution. Some provide stimulation, or exercise, or supervision. All of these factors add to the value of jobs above the actual financial value add.

The London tube strike illustrates one key factor in the social decision on which jobs should be automated. The tube provides an essential service that affects a very large number of people and all their interests should be taken into account.

The impact of potential automation on individual workers in the tube system is certainly important and we shouldn’t ignore it. It would force many of them to find other jobs, albeit in an area with very low unemployment and generally high salaries. Others would have to change to another role within the tube system, perhaps giving assistance and advice to customers instead of pushing buttons on a ticket machine or moving a lever back and forward in a train cab. I find it hard to see how pushing buttons can offer the same dignity or human fulfillment as directly helping another person, so I would consider that sort of change positive, apart from any potential income drop and its onward consequences.

On the other hand, the cumulative impacts on all those other people affected are astronomically large. Many people would have struggled to get to work. Many wouldn’t have bothered. A few would suffer health consequences due to the extra struggle or stress. Perhaps a few small business on the edge of survival will have been killed. Some tourists won’t come back, a lot will spend less. A very large number of businesses and individuals will suffer significantly to let the tube staff make a not very valid protest.

The interests of a small number of people shouldn’t be ignored, but neither should the interests of a large number of people. If these jobs are automated, a few staff would suffer significantly, most would just move on to other jobs, but the future minor miseries caused to millions would be avoided.

Other jobs that should be automated are those where staff are give undue power or authority over others. Most of us will have had bad experiences of jobsworth staff, perhaps including ticketing staff, whose personal attitude is rather less than helpful and whose replacement by a machine would make the world a better place. A few people sadly seem to relish their power to make someone else’s life more difficult. I am pleased to see widespread automation of check-in at airports for that reason too. There were simply too many check-in assistants who gleefully stood in front of big notices saying that rudeness and abuse will not be tolerated from customers, while happily abusing their customers, creating maximum inconvenience and grief to their customers through a jobsworth attitude or couldn’t-care-less incompetence. Where people are in a position of power or authority, where a job offers the sort of opportunities for sadistic self-actualisation some people get by making other people’s lives worse, there is a strong case for automation to avoid the temptation to abuse that power or authority.

As artificial intelligence and robotics increase in scope and ability, many more jobs will be automated, but more often it will affect parts of jobs. Increasing productivity isn’t a bad thing, nor is up-skilling someone to do a more difficult and fulfilling job than they could otherwise manage. Some parts of any job are dull, and we won’t miss them, if they are replaced by more enjoyable activity. In many cases, simple mechanical or information processing tasks will be replaced by those involving people skills, emotional skills. By automating these bits where we are essentially doing machine work, high technology forces us to concentrate on being human. That is no bad thing.

While automation moves people away from repetitive,boring, dangerous, low dignity tasks, or those that give people too much opportunity to cause problems for others, I am all in favour. Those jobs together don’t add up to enough to cause major economic problems. We can find better work for those concerned.

We need to guard against automation going too far though. When jobs are automated faster than new equivalent or better jobs can be created, then we will have a problem. Not from the automation itself, but as a result of the unemployment, the unbalanced wealth distribution, and all the social problems that result from those. We need to automate sustainably.

Human + machine is better than human alone, but human alone is probably better than machine alone.

Active Skin part 3 – key fields and inventions

This entry only makes sense if you read the previous two parts!

http://timeguide.wordpress.com/2014/01/08/active-skin-an-old-idea-whose-time-is-coming/

and

http://timeguide.wordpress.com/2014/01/09/active-skin-part-2-initial-applications/

if you have looked at them, time to read this one. Remember, this is onl;y a list of the ideas we had way back in 2001, I haven’t listed any we invented since.

Key active skin technology fields

Many of our original ideas had similarities, so I analysed them and produced a set of basic platforms that could be developed. The following platform components are obvious:

  1. A multilevel device architecture with some of the layers in or on the body, working in conjunction.

Tattoo layer

  1. Sub-surface imprints that monitor various body state parameters, such as chemical, electrical, temperature, and signal this information to higher layer devices.
  2. Permanently imprinted ID circuitry or patterns
  3. Permanently imprinted display components
  4. Permanently imprinted circuitry to link to nerves
  5. Imprinted devices that use chemical energy from the body to power external devices, e.g. ATP

Mid-term layer

  1. Similar technology to tattoo layer but higher in skin so therefore degradable over time
  2. Soluble or body-degradable circuitry
  3. photodegradable circuitry
  4. transparent circuitry using transparent conducting polymers
  5. inconspicuous positioning systems
  6. devices that transfer body material such as DNA or body fluids to external devices
  7. imprinted data storage devices with I/O, or permanent dumb storage
  8. imprinted sensors and recorders for radiation, magnetic fields, electrical or mechanical variation
  9. imprinted signalling devices for communication between body devices and external world
  10. smart monitoring and alarm technology that integrates body or surface events or position to external behaviours such as control systems, or surveillance systems
  11. synthetic sense systems based on synthetic sensing and translation to biological sense and possibly direct nerve stimuli
  12. smart teeth with sampling and analysis functions with signalling and storage capability
  13. imprinted actuators using piezoelectric, memory metal or ‘muscle wire’ technology, interacting with external monitoring to use as interface or feedback devices
  14. infection monitor and control devices
  15. devices that make electrical or magnetic stimuli to assist wound healing or control pain
  16. semi-permanent tags for visitors, contractors, criminals and babies, location and context dependent
  17. medical tags that directly interact with hospital equipment to control errors, hold medical records etc
  18. links to nervous system by connecting to nerves in the skin and to outside by radio

Mid-term & Transfer Layers – Smart cosmetics

  1. semi-permanent self organising displays for applications such as smart nail varnish and smart cosmetics
  2. context sensitive cosmetics, reacting to time, location, person, emotions, temperature
  3. electrically sensitive chemicals that interact with imprinted electronic circuits
  4. semi-permanent underlay for smart overlays to assist self-organisation
  5. smart sunscreens with sensors and electro-active filters
  6. colour sensitive or exposure sensitive sun-blocks
  7. cosmetics with actuators in suspension controlled by embedded electronics
  8. Active jewellery, active Bindies etc , e.g. Led optical control linked to thought recognition system
  9. Smart perfumes that respond to context, temperature, location etc

Transfer Layer

This layer has by far the most opportunities since it is not restricted to materials that can be tolerated in the body, and can also use a factory pre-printed membrane that can be transferred onto the skin. It can encompass a wide range of devices that can be miniaturised sufficiently to fit in a thin flexible package. Many currently wearable devices such as phones and computers could end up in this layer in a few years.

Most of the mid-term and some of the tattoo layer devices are also appropriate at this layer.

  1. Smart fingerprints encompass range of ID, pressure detection, interfacing and powering devices
  2. Use of vibrating membranes as signalling, e.g. ring tone, alarms, synthetic senses etc, allows personal signalling. Possible use for insect repellent if ultrasonic vibration
  3. Use of ultrasound to communicate with outside or to constantly monitor foetus
  4. Use of touch or proximity sensitive membranes to allow typing or drawing on body surface, use of skin as part of input device, may use in conjunction with smart fingerprints for keypad-free dialling etc
  5. Palm of hand can be used as computer in conjunction with smart fingerprints
  6. Use of strain gauges in smart skin allows force measurement for interfaces, force feedback, policing child abuse etc
  7. Actuators built into membrane, allows program interface and force feedback systems, drug dosing, skin tensioning etc, use for training and games, sports, immersive environments etc.
  8. Use of combinations of such devices that measure distance between them, allowing training and monitoring functions
  9. Transfer on eye allows retinal display, ultraviolet vision, eye tracking, visual interface
  10. Transfer based phones and computers
  11. Electronic jewellery
  12. Direct link between body and avatars based on variety of sensors around body and force feedback devices, connection to nervous system via midterm layer devices
  13. Thermal membranes that change conductivity on demand to control heating or cooling, also use as alarm and signalling
  14. Electronic muscles based on contracting gels, muscle wires etc, used as temporary training devices for people in recovery or physiotherapy, or for sports training
  15. Electronic stimulation devices allowing electro-acupuncture, electrolysis, itching control etc
  16. Printed aerials worn on body
  17. Permanent EEG patches for use in thought recognition and control systems
  18. Emotionally sensitive electronics, for badges, displays, context sensitivity etc
  19. Olfactory sensors for environmental monitoring linked to tongue to enhance sense of smell or taste, or for warning purposes. Olfactory data could be recorded as part of experience for memory assistance later
  20. Power supplies using induction
  21. Frequency translation in ear patch to allow supersonic hearing
  22. Devices for pets to assist in training and health monitoring, control nerves directly, police virtual electric fences for cats
  23. Fingertip mouse and 3d interface
  24. E-cash on the skin, use simply by touching a terminal

Smart drug delivery

  1. Allowing variable hole membranes for drug dosing. Body properties used with ID patch to control drug dose via smart membrane. May communicate with hospital. Off  the shelf drug containers can then be used
  2. Control of pain by linking measurement of nerve activity and emotional cues to dispensing device

Fully removable layer

This layer is occupied by relatively conventional devices. There are no obviously lucrative technologies suggested for this layer.

Key Specific inventions

Taking another angle of view, the above applications and platforms yield 28 very promising inventions. In most cases, although humans are assumed to be the users, other animals, plants, inorganic objects such as robots or other machines, and even simple dumb objects may be targets in some cases.

*Asterixes indicate reference to another area from this set.

1         Sub-skin-surface imprints and implants

Sub-skin-surface imprints and implants that monitor various body state parameters, such as chemical, electrical, temperature, and signal this information to higher layer devices.

  • Circuitry is imprinted into the skin using ink-jet technology or high pressure diffusion. e.g. a hand may be inserted into a print chamber, or a print device may be held in contact with the required area.
  • Passive components such as ink patterns may be imprinted, which may function as part of a system such as a positioning system
  • Other small encapsulated components such as skin capsules* may be injected using high pressure air bursts.
  • Some of the circuit components assembled in situ may require high temperatures for a short time, but this would cause only momentary pain.
  • Deeper implants may be injected directly into the required position using needles or intravenous injection, allowing later transport to the required location in the blood flow.
  • The implants may anchor themselves in position by mechanical or magnetic means, their positioning determined in co-operation with higher layer devices.
  • Components may be imprinted higher in the skin to be capable or wearing away, or lower in the skin to ensure relative permanence, or to give greater contact with the body
  • Circuitry may be designed to be transparent to visible light by using transparent polymers, but may be visible under UV or infrared
  • Patterns implanted may be used as part of an external system. An ink-based pattern could be used as an identifier, for holding data, or as a means of positioning. They may be used as part of a, which would effectively be enhanced biometric security system.
  • Other identifiers may be permanently imprinted, which may be active or passive such as inductive loops, bar-codes, digital paper, snowflakes etc. Intra-skin power supplies* may be used to power more sophisticated tags that can be imprinted or injected
  • Circuitry or patterns may be harmlessly biodegradable so that it would vanish over time, or may be permanent.
  • they may be made photo-degradable so that it breaks down under external light of appropriate intensity and frequency, e.g. UV
  • Inks may be used that are rewritable, e.g. they change their colour when exposed to UV or a magnetic field, so data may be modified, and these devices are therefore dynamic data storage devices. They need not operate in the visible spectrum, since external sensors are not limited by human characteristics.
  • Baby tags may be inserted to prevent babies from being abducted

2         Skin conduits

Devices may be implanted that are able to act as a conduit to lower skin layers.

  • This may facilitate drug delivery, monitoring or nerve connection.
  • Probes of various types may be inserted through the conduits for a variety of medical or interface reasons.
  • Even body fluids and DNA samples may be extracted via these conduits.
  • This may provide a means of blood transfer for transfusion or blood cleaning, and a replacement for drips
  • Conduits would be sealed to prevent bacterial or viral entry except when actively in use.
  • The conduits can be implemented in several ways: tubes may be implanted that have muscle wires arranged so that when they contract the holes flatten and thus close; the walls of the tube may be comprised of magnetic materials so can be closed magnetically; the default position may be closed and magnetic repulsion is used to stretch the holes open; similarly, muscle wire may be used to open the holes by rounding a previously flattened hole; the open or closed states can be provided by elongating or shortening a tube; heat may be used to cause expansion or contraction; synthesised muscle tissue may be used to stretch the area and make holes open; shape change and memory metals or plastics may be used. Other techniques may be possible.

3         Implanted or imprinted links to nerves

  • Permanently imprinted circuitry to link to nerves would comprise electrical connections to nerves nearby, by means of conducting wires between nerves and the devices.
  • The devices meanwhile would be in communication with the higher layers.
  • They would signal impulses to higher layers and capable of producing impulses in various patterns into the nerves.
  • The connections would be made using specialised skin capsules* or directly injected wires.
  • These devices would encapsulate very thin wires that propagate out from the device on request until they make electrical contact with a suitable nerve. They may be wound in a spiral pattern inside the capsules and unwound to form radiating wires.
  • These wires may be made of metal today or carbon fullerene ‘buckytubes’ in due course
  • They may be connected by wire, radio or optical links to the external world
  • Being able to stimulate nerves directly implies that body movement could be directly controlled by an external system
  • It would be possible to implant control devices in people or animals in order to remotely control them
  • Although primarily a military technology, this would enable pets to be sent on a predetermined walk, to prevent children from stepping out in front of a car, to prohibit many crimes that are detectable by electronic means and a wide range of other ethically dubious activities
  • Nerve stimulation can be linked extensively into other electronic systems
  • Email or other communications could include instructions that translate into nerve stimuli in the recipient. This may link to emotional stimulation too. A very rich form of intimate communication could thus be achieved.
  • It would be possible to send an orgasm by email
  • Filters can easily prevent abuse of such a system, since the user would be able to block unauthorised nerve stimulation
  • For some purposes, this choice to block stimuli could be removed by a suitable authority or similar, for policing, military and control purposes

4         Sensory enhancement and translation technique

A range of sensors may be implanted that are sensitive to various forms of radiation, EM, magnetic fields, electrical fields, nuclear radiation or heat. These would form part of an augmented sensory system.

  • Conventional technology based radiation monitors worn on a detachable layer may monitor cumulative radiation dose, or record intensity over time.
  • Other conventional technology sensors may also be worn at the detachable layer, some my be imprinted or implanted.
  • They may be connected systemically with the nervous system using implanted or imprinted nerve links* to create nerve stimuli related to sensor activity.
  • An array of synthetic senses may thus be created that would facilitate operation in a range of environments and applications. A primary market would be for sexual use, where sexual stimulation can be produced remotely directly into the nervous system.
  • Nerve stimuli could be amplified to increase sensory sensitivity.
  • Alternatively, stimuli could be translated into vibration, heat, pain, other tactile stimulus, or audio that would be picked up by the body more easily than the original form.
  • Such sensory enhancement may be used to link stimuli in different people, or to link people with real or virtual objects.
  • When connected to deep implants in the brain, this could perhaps eventually be used to implement crude telepathic communication via a network.
  • Remote control of robotics or other external machinery may be facilitated by means of linking sensory stimuli directly to machine operations or sensors. The communication would be via implanted or imprinted antennae.
  • Active teeth* may be used as part of such a system
  • Frequency shifters in the ear would permit hearing outside of normal human capability
  • Ditto visual spectrum
  • People would be able to interact fully with virtual objects using such virtual sensory stimulation

5         Alarm systems

  • Sensors in or on the skin may be used to initiate external alarms or to initiate corrective action. For example, an old person taking a shower may not realise the water temperature is too high, but the sensors could detect this and signal to the shower control system.
  • The most useful implementation of this would be one or more thermocouples or infrared sensors implanted in the skin at or near areas most likely to be exposed first to hot water such as hands or feet.
  • Thermal membranes that change conductivity according to temperature could be used as a transfer layer device.
  • Such membranes may form a part of an external alarm or control system of signal the body by other senses that a problem exists
  • As well as signalling to external systems, these sensors will use implanted or imprinted nerve links* to initiate direct local sensory stimulation by means of vibration* or pain enhancement, or produce audible warnings.
  • Alarms may also be triggered by the position of the person. A warning may be set up by interaction of the implant and external devices. A circuit in the skin can be detected by an external monitor, and warn that the person is moving into a particular area. This may be used to set off an alarm or alert either secretly or to the knowledge of the either only the person or only the external system. This can obviously be used to police criminals on parole in much the same way as existing tags, except that the technology would be less visible, and could potentially cause a sensation or even pain directly in the criminal. A virtual prison could be thus set up, with it being painful to leave the confines set by the authorities.
  • This would permit the creation of virtual electric fences for animal confinement
  • Sensors may measure force applied to the skin. This would enable policing of child care, preventing physical abuse for example. Alerts could be sent to authorities if the child is abused.

6         Skin based displays

  • Permanently imprinted display components may be developed that use the energy produced in this way to produce light or dark or even colours.
  • These may emit light but may be simply patches of colour beneath the skin surface, which would be clearly visible under normal lighting.
  • Small ink capsules that deform under pressure,
  • electrostatic or magnetic liquids, liquid crystals or light emitting or colour changing polymers would all be good candidates

7         Intra-skin power supply

  • Inductive loops and capacitors may be used to power active components that can be imprinted or injected. Inductive loops can pick up electromagnetic energy from an external transmitter that may be in the vicinity or even worn as a detachable device. Such energy can be stored in capacitors.
  • Detachable devices such as battery based power supplies may be worn that are electrically connected to devices at lower layers, either by thin wires or induction.
  • Optical power supply may be adequate and appropriate for some devices, and this again can be provided by a detachable supply via the skin, which is reasonable transparent across a wide frequency range
  • Devices that use chemical energy from the body to power external devices, e.g. ATP
  • Thermal energy may be obtained by using temperature difference between the body and the external environment. The temperature gradient within the skin itself may be insufficient for a thermocouple to produce enough voltage, so probes may be pushed further into body tissue to connect to tissue at the full body temperature. The probes would be thin wires inserted either directly through the surface, or by skin capsules*.
  • Mechanical energy may also be used, harnessing body movement using conventional kinetic power production such as used in digital watches. Devices on the feet may also be used, but may be less desirable than other conventional alternatives.
  • Thin batteries such as polymer batteries may be worn on the detachable layer
  • Solar cells may be worn on the detachable layer

8         Antennas and communicators in or on the skin

  • Some of the many devices in the layered active skin systems require communication with the outside world. Many of these require only very short distance communication, to a detachable device in contact with the skin, but others need to transmit some distance away from the body. Various implementations of communication device are possible for these purposes.
  • A vertical wire may be implemented by direct insertion into the skin, or it may be injected
  • It may be printed using conductive inks in a column through the skin
  • It may be simply inserted into a skin conduit
  • Skin capsules* may eject a length of wire
  • Wires from skin capsules may join together to make a larger aerial of variable architecture
  • This may be one, two or three dimensional
  • Skin capsules may co-operate and co-ordinate their wires so that they link together more easily in optimal designs
  • Self organising algorithms may be used to determine which of an array of skin capsules are used for this purpose.
  • Optical transmitters such as LEDs may be used to communicate in conjunction with photodiodes, CCDs or other optical signal detectors
  • Vibration may be used to communicate between devices
  • Ultrasonic transducers and detectors may be used
  • Printed aerials may be worn as transfers or detachable devices. They may be electrically connected to devices directly or via high frequency transmission across the skin, or by local radio to other smaller aerials.

9         Smart teeth & breast implants

·         Various sampling, analysis, monitoring, processing, storage, and communication facilities may be added to an artificial tooth that may be inserted in place of a crown, filling, or false tooth. Powering may be by piezoelectric means using normal chewing as a power source, or for some purposes, small batteries may be used.

·         Infection monitoring may be implemented by monitoring chemical composition locally.

·         Conventional olfactory sensing may be used

  • Breath may be monitored for chemical presence that may indicate a range of medical or hygiene conditions, including bad breath or diabetes
  • Data may be stored in the tooth that allows interaction with external devices and systems. This could be a discrete security component, or it may hold personal medical records or a personal profile for an external system.
  • Significant processing capability could be built into the volume of a tooth, so it could act as a processor for other personal electronics
  • Small cameras could be built into the tooth
  • Piezoelectric speakers could be used to make the tooth capable of audio-synthesis. This could allow some trivial novelty uses, but could later more usefully be used in conjunction with though recognition systems to allow people to talk who have lost their voice for medical reasons. Having the voice originate from the mouth would be a much more natural interface.
  • Some of these functions could be implemented in breast implants, especially data storage – mammary memory! Very significant processing capability could also be implanted easily in the volume of a breast implant. MP3 players that can be reprogrammed by radio such as bluetooth and communicate with headphones also via bluetooth. Power in batteries can be recharged using induction
  • the terms ‘mammary memory’, and ‘nipple nibbles’ (a nibble is half a byte, i.e. 4 bits) see appropriate
  • breast implant electronics may be the heart of a body IT centre
  • taste and smell sensors in the tooth may be used as part of a sensory stimulation system whereby a sense of taste or smell could be synthetically recreated in someone who has lost this sense An active skin implant in the tongue, nose or a deeper implant in the appropriate brain region may be required to recreate the sense
  • this could be used to augment the range of taste or smell for normally sensed people in order to give them a wider experience or allow them to detect potentially dangerous gases or other agents, which may be physical or virtual
  • smart teeth may also make use of light emission to enhance a smile

10     Healing assistance devices and medical tags

 

  • Medical tags or semi-permanent tags* such as inductive loops can be imprinted that allow identification and store medical records. They may interact directly with equipment. This could be used for example to prevent operation errors. More sophisticated tags could be installed using skin conduits*
  • Active skin components may be used to apply an electric field across a wound, which has been shown to accelerate healing. These would be imprinted or implanted at a health centre during treatment. Voltage can be produced by external battery or power supply, by solar cells at the detachable layer, or by thermocouples that have probes at different body depths as described above.
  • Infection monitors can be implemented using chemical analysis of the area and by measuring the electrical properties and temperature of the region
  • The infection may be controlled by emission of electrical impulses and by secreting drugs or antibiotics into the area. This may be in conjunction with a detachable drug storage device, which can inject the drugs through skin conduits*.
  • Pain can be controlled to a point by means of electrical impulses that can be provided by the implants
  • The monitors may be in communication with a health centre.
  • Electrical impulses can be used to alleviate itching, and these could be produced by active skin components
  • Electronic acupuncture can be easily implemented using active skin, with implants at various acupuncture points precisely located by a skilled practitioner, and later stimulated according to a programmed routine
  • Electrolysis to prevent hair growth may be achieved by the same means

11     Semi-permanent tags

  • Semi-permanent tags or ID patterns may be implanted in upper skin layers to allow short term electronically facilitated access to buildings. The tags are not easily removable in the short term, but will vanish over a period of time depending on the depth of penetration. They may photo-degrade, biodegrade or simply wear away with the skin over time.
  • They may communicate electronically or optically with external systems
  • They may interact as part of alarm systems*
  • They may be aware of their position by means of detecting electronic signals such as GPS, wireless LANs
  • They may be used to give accurate positioning of devices on the skin surface or deeper, thus assisting automatic operations of medical equipment, in surgery, irradiation or drug dispensing
  • Babies can be secured against mistaken identification in hospital and their tags can interact with security systems to prevent their abduction. Proximity alerts could be activated when an unauthorised person approached them.

12     Self-organising circuits and displays

  • Self-organisation of circuits has been demonstrated and is known widely.
  • Active skin components with generic re-programmable circuitry may be installed and self-organisation used to configure the devices into useful circuits.
  • Components may be printed, injected or deposited via skin conduits* and may be contained in skin capsules*
  • Organisation can be facilitated or directed by external devices that provide position and orientation information as well as instructions to the embedded components
  • Combinations of display components may be linked by wires radiating out from each component to several other components, for instance by using skin capsules*. A self-organisation algorithm can be used to determine which connections are redundant and they can be withdrawn or severed. The remaining circuitry can be used as part of a control system to convert these individual display components into a co-ordinated display.
  • These display components may alternatively be painted onto skin, lip, eyelid or nail surfaces for example, to provide a multimedia display capability in place of conventional makeup and nail varnish. These displays would be less permanent than implanted circuitry
  • This body adornment could be more functional, with informative displays built in for some medical purpose perhaps. Text warnings and alerts could indicate problems.
  • Varnish would provide a high degree of protection for the components. Varnishes could also be fabricated to chemically assist in the self-organisation, by for example, providing a crystal matrix

13     Active Context-sensitive cosmetics and medicines

  • Cosmetics today are stand-alone combinations of chemicals, dies and aromatic agents. The addition of electronically active components either to the cosmetics themselves or into the underlying skin will permit them to be made intelligent
  • Cosmetics containing active skin components that interact with other layers and the outside world
  • Electrically sensitive chemicals would be useful components for such cosmetics. Many chemicals respond to electric fields and currents by changing their chemical bonding and hence optical properties. Some magnetic fluids are known that can be manipulated by magnetic fields. Active components may also be included that can change shape and hence their appearance, that are known in the field of digital ink.
  • Such chemicals may interact with underlying active skin circuits or components, and may respond to signals from external systems or active skin components or both
  • Cosmetics may use underlying active skin to facilitate precision location and some self-organisation
  • Active actuator components may be able to physically move cosmetics around on the skin surface
  • Characteristics of the appearance may depend on time of day, or location, or on the presence or properties of other environmental characteristics.
  • Sensors detecting UV may activate sunscreen components, releasing them from containers as required
  • Sensors detecting the presence of other cosmetics allow combination effects to be co-ordinated
  • Colours may change according to context, e.g. colour change lipstick and eye shadow
  • Kaleidoscopic or chameleon makeup, that changes colour in patterns regularly
  • Perfumes may be emitted according to context or temperature. This circumvents the problem where little perfume is given off when skin is cool, and much is lost outside in wind or when it is hot. Electronic control would allow more sophisticated evaporation for more consistent effect
  • Perfumes may be constructed with variable display properties that can be put on in variable quantities, with their precise effect controlled automatically by intelligence in the makeup or active skin
  • Make-up effects may be remotely controlled
  • Make-up may include light-emitting chemicals or electronics that are co-ordinated using active skin
  • Medicines may be administered on detection of allergenic agents such as pollen or chemicals
  • Active cosmetics may include actuators to contract the skin. The actuators would be based in small skin capsules* that would send thin wires into the skin to anchor themselves, and other wires to connect to other capsules
  • Intelligence in the cosmetics might be in constant or occasional communication with the manufacturer. This permits control of the effects by the manufacturer, and the capability to offer usage based licenses, making makeup into an ongoing service rather than a single product. This is implemented by adding active skin components that together communicate with nearby network connections
  • Cosmetics may adapt in appearance depending on the presence of signals. These signals may originate from other people’s active skin or from environmental systems. People wearing such cosmetics could thus look different to different people. Also, corporate styles could be implemented , controlled by building signalling systems.
  • Cosmetics may adjust automatically to ambient light conditions and local colours, allowing automated co-ordination with clothing and furnishing
  • Cosmetics may adjust their properties as part of an emotion detection and display system. This can be used to enhance emotional conveyance or to dampen emotional signals. They may also act as part of a psychological feedback loop that permits some emotional control

14     Digital mirror

  • A digital mirror, as described on my web site, has a combination of a camera and display that can show an image that may be the true image as the user, or a modified version of the user’s image. This disclosed concept is part of a wider non-disclosed system
  • Smart cosmetics may be used in conjunction with such a digital mirror
  • The cosmetic manufacturer or a service provider may use such a digital mirror to provide the customer with an enhanced view of themselves with various options, co-ordinating the application of smart make-up by means of ‘make-up by numbers’, and controlling its precise properties after application. Active skin components that are clinic installed could be used to provide the positioning systems and intelligence for the upper layers of removable cosmetics.
  • The customer would apply a quantity of makeup and then watch as various potential makeup effects are illustrated. On selection, that effect would be implemented, though several additional effects and contexts could be selected and assigned, and appropriate context effects implemented during the day. The effects could include the mechanical removal of wrinkles by means of actuators included in smart cosmetics*. Skin-based displays* may also form part of the overall effect.
  • Medicines may be applied in a similar way under control by a clinic.
  • Cosmetics may be controlled under license so that customers do not have unlimited freedom of appearance while wearing them. They may only be seen in a limited range of appearance combinations.

15     Active and emotional jewellery

  • Active Bindies, nose studs or other facial jewellery could be used as relatively deep implants to pick up reasonably good nerve signals from the brain as part of an EEG patch system*. These may be used to control apparatus via a signal recognition system.
  • Bindi would be top layer over active skin sub-layers and could contain much more complex chip than could be implanted in active skin
  • May contain battery and be used as power supply for sub-layers
  • Sub layers pick up clean signals from around scalp and send them to bindi for processing
  • Communication between devices may be radio or at high frequency via scalp
  • Infrared or ultrasound transmitter built into bindi relays the signals directly to external apparatus
  • Processing may recognise and process in-situ, transmitting control signals or data to external apparatus
  • Bindi may change appearance or include a display that reacts according to the signals detected
  • May act as emotion conveyance device
  • Signals from sensors in or on the skin can be used to pick up emotional cues, that are often manifested in changes in blood pressure, pulse rate, blood chemistry, skin resistivity and various muscular activity, some of which is subconsciously activated.
  • Collecting and analysing such data permits a range of electronics that responds to emotional activity. The active bind is just one piece of jewellery that may be useful in this regard, and is limited by culture.
  • Other forms of emotional jewellery may use displays or LEDs to indicate the wearer’s emotional state. Almost any form of jewellery could be used as part of this system, since active skin components that collect the data do not have to be in physical contact with the display devices
  • Active skin displays* may form part of this emotional display system
  • Active jewellery may also display data from other systems such as external computers or communication devices. This communication may be via active skin communication systems
  • Displays around the body may co-ordinate their overall effect via active skin devices
  • Emotions in groups of people may be linked together forming ‘emotilinks’ across the network, linking sensors, actuators, drug delivery systems and nerve stimulation together in emotion management systems. Drug delivery systems may instead dispense hormones
  • These systems may be linked into other electronic systems
  • Emotional messages may be sent that electronically trigger emotions in the recipient according to the intentions or emotions of the sender. Emotional email or voice messaging results. This enhances the capability and reach of communications dramatically.
  • Active jewellery such as a smart signet ring could be used as part of an authentication or security system, that may involve biometrics at any active skin layer as well as conventional electronic components and data that may also be housed in active skin

16     Active fingerprints

  • Active skin in the finger tip would greatly enhance interfacing to security systems and also to computer system interfaces, which can be made much more tactile
  • Smart fingerprints may include chips, passive ID, pressure indication, pressure transducers, vibration devices, interface and powering devices
  • Patterns and circuits built into the fingertips can link directly with external equipment by touch
  • Inductive loop in finger tip makes for simple ID system
  • Electronic signals can be conveyed in each direction for identification or programming or data transfer via contacts in the skin
  • A persons personal profile may be downloaded to an external system from data in the skin via such contacts. A computer can thus adapt instantly to the person using it
  • Data may be similarly ‘sucked up’ into body based storage via such contacts
  • Other devices elsewhere on the skin may be temporarily connected via high frequency transmission through the skin to the external system
  • Patterns visible in infrared or UV regions may be used
  • Ultrasonic vibrations may be used
  • Synthetic textures may be produced by keys by means of producing different vibration patterns than material would normally produce. This would assist greatly in the use of virtual environments to create synthetic objects
  • Actuators based on for example muscle wire can be used to stretch the skin in various directions, which conveys much information to the body on texture and other feedback. This can be by means of a rectangular wire with muscle wire between two opposite corners
  • Heat and cold can be produced as a feedback mechanism
  • Positioning systems incorporating the fingertips by means of inductive loop tracking, motion detectors and dead reckoning systems, allow interaction with virtual objects.
  • People could type in air, and feel physical feedback on interaction with objects, particularly useful in surgery using robotic tools.
  • Active skin with muscle wires implanted or imprinted at finger joints give a force feedback mechanism
  • Links between people may be formed by linking sensors in one person’s joints to actuators in another person’s. This would be useful for training purposes.
  • Vibrating membranes may be used as a signalling device. Vibration can be implemented via muscle wires or piezoelectric crystals in the detachable layer. These would allow personal signalling systems, ringing vibration, and development of synthetic senses*.
  • They may have some use in insect repellence if vibrations are ultrasonic
  • Micro-electro-mechanical systems (MEMs) implanted in the fingertips would allow a fingertip to be used as a mouse for a computer, by tracking movement accurately
  • Fingertip sensors could similarly be used to capture textures for re-use in virtual environment applications
  • Textures can be recreated in the fingertips by means of vibration devices
  • Electronic cash could be transferred through active fingerprints which also contain the authentication mechanisms as well as the means to transfer the cash
  • Short term software licenses could be implemented in this way, with the fingertip effectively holding a dongle

17     Ultrasonic monitors

  • An array of active skin devices may be arranged around the abdominal region of a pregnant woman, that would allow easy periodic ultrasonic monitoring of the baby during pregnancy.
  • Some patches of active skin would house ultrasound generators, and others would house ultrasound receivers. The system is therefore capable of bathing the baby in a well defined ultrasound field for monitoring purposes.
  • The patterns of reflections can be analysed by either processors in active skin or by a remote device, either worn or via the network, e.g. at a clinic. This produces images of the baby that can determine whether there is a problem. For instance, heartbeat and baby movements can easily be monitored.
  • Growth of cancers may be monitored in much the same way, with alerts automatically sent to hospital via the network if tumour size or growth rate exceeds a defined limit
  • A simple microphone may be sufficient for just heartbeat monitoring if that is all that is needed.
  • Ultrasonic communication to an external systems or another active skin device nearby.

18     Touch and proximity sensitive membranes

  • A region of active skin on the arm may be used as a data entry device such as a keyboard by means of adding positioning information such as digital paper patterns or other indication of location.
  • A simple circuit completion would suffice that could be implemented by contacts in close proximity that are connected when pressed, or by a sudden change in resistance or capacitance
  • Arm-embedded components can interact with active fingerprint components to enable easy data entry. Data may be transferred between arm and finger components
  • Different components in different fingers increase dramatically the range of combinations available. Different fingers may represent different tools in a drawing package for example
  • Visible patterns on the arm could indicate where the letters or other keys are. This indication could be a simple ink pattern.
  • Alternatively, display components in the skin may be used to create a dynamic keyboard or interface with different inputs according to application
  • Alternatively, a virtual display in a head-up display worn by the user could indicate the position of the appropriate keys without any visible pattern on the skin. Positioning may be by means of image analysis or by means of processing of the inputs from various inbuilt strain gauges
  • With a virtual display, no components at all are actually required in the arm to implement the minimal system (similar systems already exist with purely virtual keyboards).
  • Deeper ink patterns could enable a longer term keyboard
  • Data from the interface can be stored locally in memory implants or relayed at high frequency across the skin to other active skin system components
  • This could be used as a dialling keypad for cellphones
  • It may be used to enter security identification codes
  • A keyboard may be implanted in the palm of the hand as an alternative to the forearm to allow a computer to be effectively a ‘palm computer’, a ‘digital computer’, calculator or
  • interface to any electronic device carried on the person or across the network
  • signals from the interface may be relayed by a radio device elsewhere on the body

19     Use of strain gauges for touch sensitivity

  • A high degree of touch sensitivity is afforded by the body’s own sensory system, so this could act as a very high precision interface for some applications. The amount of pressure, or characteristics of strokes may be easily detected by the wearer to accurately control their input. Detection of this input can be by means of strain or relative position sensors
  • Alternatively, in later generations of the devices, signals may be directly picked up from the nervous system and appropriate analysis used to determine the precise input.
  • Touch or proximity sensors such as capacitors, inductors, piezoelectric strain gauges, movement detectors, or other devices in the arm can detect key-presses or drawing movements and could act as a mousepad
  • Relative movement between active skin components in touch sensitive membranes indicates not only what has been pressed but also by how much
  • Movement may be measured by change of capacitance between components, or change of resistance in conductive polymers attached to the skin, by induction changes, change of skin resistance itself, accumulated mechanical stress measurement or by other means
  • A system comprised of a range of such gauges and position sensors in various parts of the body may be used to gather a great deal of data about the movement of the body.
  • This may be used extensively in training and correction applications by means of force feedback or sensory amplification.
  • Force feedback or other actuator components* would give a signal or apply a force back to the body on detection of various parameter values. Movements may be precisely recorded and recreated via force feedback.
  • An expert recording the correct procedure can use such recording and force feedback to ‘play back’ a correct movement into the student. Repeated practice of the correct movement would enable rapid training
  • Computer games may also make use of this system in a ‘training mode’, where users learn to behave appropriately, thus improving the quality of game play
  • Highly specialised interfaces may be developed using a collection of appropriately configured gauges or sensors, with appropriate force of signal feedback devices
  • Such systems may be used to record the behaviour of people or animals for research, monitoring or policing purposes
  • Signal feedback systems may allow direct correction of such behaviours. See alarm systems.
  • The means to directly associate a movement or behaviour with pain would be a valuable means of training and controlling animals or criminals. Such feedback may also be linked to emotional states to control aggression for example. A combination of movements, position or emotional state may be used to prohibit certain behaviours in certain locations.
  • Strain gauges would be an important component of avatar based communication systems to allow the direct physical interaction of people across a network, whether a handshake or a hug or something more.

20     Force feedback and other actuators in skin

 

  • A range of actuators may be implanted or injected for various purposes
  • Muscle wires may be used as simple actuators
  • Some polymer gels may be made to respond mechanically to various stimuli. These may be used as synthetic muscles in some systems and membranes composed of these may be key active skin components
  • Membranes with arrays of holes may be used to control drug delivery as part of an active skin system. Such membranes may be dumb, or may contract in response to electronic or thermal stimuli from other components. Obviously holes will contract as the membrane contracts, thereby giving a means of controlling drug dosing
  • Such membranes may provide a convenient means of allowing blood exchange for blood cleaning and processing (e.g. for dialysis)
  • Ultrasonic actuators may be used or signalling between devices
  • Lower frequency may be used to create sensation of texture
  • Stretching, compression and torsion may be used in force feedback and signalling
  • Actuators may be used to open or close holes in the skin or activate skin conduits*
  • These holes may be used usefully as part of drug delivery systems or as a means of implanting devices or other materials
  • They may be used extensively as part of force feedback and interface devices as described above for training, communication, monitoring or corrective purposes
  • Systems using combinations of such force feedback and actuators may be used for medical purposes
  • Holes with actuators mounted across them may be opened or closed on command
  • These work in conjunction with higher layers to allow smart and precise drug delivery in a feedback loop with monitoring systems. Health or nerve signal monitors may allow direct control of such holes and actuators in drug dispensers
  • Actuators may respond directly to skin temperature
  • Actuators may form part of alarm systems
  • Exoskeletal structures based on actuators may be implemented to give physical assistance or support, especially for disabled or frail people. This would require large areas of such actuator membranes
  • Physical appearance may be controlled to a degree by such membranes or implants, that would shape the body, reduce wrinkles, reduce the impact of fat, tone muscles etc
  • They may work in conjunction with electrical stimuli for muscle toning, which currently needs external pads and power supplies

21     Active contact lens

  • Active contact lens has been wholly disclosed in the form of a removable contact lens that acts as a dumb display
  • It could however be differently realised by using active skin instead of a detachable contact lens
  • Active contact lens may include actuator components that stretch or compress the eye to correct vision for all distances
  • Lens components could be implanted in eye surface using above techniques
  • Signals displayed may originate in other active skin components elsewhere on body
  • Processing may be embedded in nearby skin outside the eye
  • Powering could be inductive or ultrasonic
  • Tracking of the eyeball can be in conjunction with other nearby components such as proximity and position detectors
  • Light may be produced externally (e.g. by lasers adjacent to the eyeball) and the lens merely reflects it to its proper destination by means of micromirrors
  • Lens film may contain identification circuitry or data that can be conveyed to an external system by passive recognition or active transmission
  • Images seen by the eye may be processed and recorded by nearby active skin components and relayed to storage or transmitted on a network
  • Appropriate implanted dyes could facilitate ultraviolet vision
  • Appropriate infrared detectors and lasers may be used to enable infrared vision
  • Other sensory data from sensors elsewhere on the skin or fully externally, may be projected in the image produced by the active skin implant

22     Skin-based processing, memory, and consumer electronics

 

  • Miniaturised circuitry will soon allow very small versions of many popular devices.
  • These circuits may fit in a single skin capsule or be distributed across several capsules.
  • These capsules contain means to connect with others and with the outside as well as housing some electronics capability
  • They will be able to produce phones, calculators, computers, storage devices, MP3 players, identifiers, electronic cash, text readers, scanners
  • Some of these would benefit from being implemented in active fingerprint systems
  • Capsules may be directly injected or inserted into a skin conduit, perhaps facilitated by various actuators for positioning and connection
  • They may be easily ejected by the skin conduits if necessary
  • Ingestion or ejection may be by means of peristaltic motion of the skin conduit, facilitated by means of contractible rings
  • A wide range of sensors are now available in watches and other small wearable devices, to monitor parameters such as air and skin temperature, air pressure, direction, blood pressure, pulse, heart beat, walking distance, GPS location and navigation, paging, infrared controls, voice recording and others. Many of these can be sufficiently miniaturised to be embedded in or on one or more active skin layers. The performance of some of the sensors would be improved
  • Membrane based transfers implementing these devices may be easily attached to the skin and easily removed if required. They may co-operate with other permanent or temporary active skin devices
  • Transfer based electronic jewellery* may interact with smart cosmetics* and other inbuilt processing or memory

23     Body-avatar link

  • Avatars will be an important communication tool in the near future. Avatars may be controlled manually or via video image interpretation, which is complex and invasive. Active skin presents an efficient means of accurately controlling avatars.
  • Sensors in skin at key parts of the body, e.g. finger joints, hands, wrists, elbows and face can be used to detect body movement and position.
  • They may also detect emotional state and audio
  • Data from the sensors may be transmitted to a central body transmitter for collation, pre-processing or simply transmission
  • This information is relayed via active skin or other transmitters to a computer, phone or other conferencing device. The phone may itself be an active skin component
  • The body position and movement information is transmitted across the link, and used to control the avatar movements directly
  • Interactions between avatars in virtual space are relayed back to the people involved via force feedback membranes, pressure transducers, smart fingerprints to convey texture, and direct nerve stimulation using nerve links.
  • A highly sensory realistic communications link is thus established between the inhabitants of the virtual environment which is potentially far richer than that which may be obtained without the use of active skin or a full body suit.
  • Inhabitants need not be real people, but may be synthetic entities such as computer game characters or interactive TV avatars
  • Almost all functions of body suits may be replaced by active skin components, which do not interfere with normal clothing and are therefore much less invasive
  • If all the above components are implemented in active skin, it is possible that avatars may be controlled without the knowledge of anyone else present, making a very discrete interface
  • Instead of controlling avatars, the link may be used to directly control a robot. Sensors in the robot could be linked to senses in the human, allowing a high quality implementation of telepresence and teleaction. This would be very useful for surgery or for maintenance in hostile environments. It would also be useful for police or military use to control robots or androids in hostile environments.
  • Surgical applications could be enhanced by filtering and pre-processing the body movements and possible translating them into a appropriate actions for robotic surgical apparatus. For example, large jerky hand movements may be converted into small smoother scalpel movements.
  • Again, such systems may be used extensively for training or correction purposes, or for interaction with computer games
  • Interactive TV may use such avatar links to permit greater participation of remote audience members
  • Visual systems may be linked to such active skin avatar links so that people can interact with avatars on the move rather than just when confined to a conferencing suite or in front of a computer monitor
  • This permits people to interact fully with virtual objects and characters overlaid in the real environment

24     EEG patches

 

  • An array of smart skin patches on the scalp could be arranged to collect electrical signals from the brain.
  • Such devices could make it less invasive for EEG patients who need repeated investigation
  • Devices would signal using high frequency electrical signals or by ultrasound to other sensors or collectors or processors.
  • Signals could be relayed to external apparatus by a single contact point or by means of radio aerials, LEDs or an active bindi.
  • Such signals may be used for conventional medical analysis purposes,
  • or may be used for thought recognition purposes, whereby pattern recognition technology is applied to analysis of the signals from the various sensors.
  • Sensors need not only be on the scalp, but could be anywhere on the body, such as fingertips.
  • Lie detection may be implemented using a combination of data regarding such brain signals and other data regarding emotional state, blood hormone or other chemical content, skin conductivity, temperature, pulse etc All of these data types are liable to address by active skin variants
  • Signals from the scalp may be used to control medical prostheses to assist disabled people. The intention to move an arm could result in the arm moving for example. Nerve signals for such applications may be detected on the scalp, or nearer to the prosthesis.
  • Active skin in the stump could be used for this purpose and also to inject synthetic senses back into the nervous system by way of feedback from the prosthesis
  • Such patches may be used as a component of a policing system for criminals, whereupon certain types of thought pattern result in the creation of pain

25     Use with or in place of active clothing

 

Many of the applications discussed above would work well in harmony with active clothing, most of which is known technology. Active clothing already houses consumer electronics, reacts thermally and optically to the environment, monitors body activity, reports on injuries and casualty location, injects antibiotics, antiseptics and anaesthetics in case of battlefield injury. A wide variety of other ‘smart’ capabilities is also available off the shelf or in prototype.

Some of these clothes require data that can best be obtained by active skin. For example:

  • Active skin can house the identity and personal profile for use by active clothing
  • Active clothing may provide the power supply or communications for active skin
  • Active clothing may contain medical apparatus that is controlled in conjunction with active skin and a remote clinic
  • Active skin may actually replace some clothing in terms of thermal and chemical protection
  • Active skin may act as a final line of defence on a battlefield by filtering out hostile bacteria, viruses or chemicals and in due course act to protect against nanotechnology or micro-technology attack
  • Active skin may physically repair organic skin tissues or augment them with self-organising self-constructing membranes
  • Active skin may contain synthetic hairs that may be extended or contracted to provide variable thermal protection, and also to help filter out bacteria
  • With a high degree of such protection against nature, clothing may be more optional, especially if active inks and other display components are used to change the optical appearance of the body for cultural reasons
  • Key active skin components of this system are displays, actuators, sensors, reservoirs, membranes, processors, signalling and aerials

26     Skin capsules

  • A range of skin capsules for various purposes may be developed, which are capable of being injected into the skin by high pressure air, or inserted through skin conduits
  • Skin conduits themselves may be implanted as a special case of skin capsules. They may start off as a spherical device and then open up into a ‘pore’ once implanted
  • Skin capsules may contain drugs or other chemicals for various purposes
  • They may house substantial quantities of electronics for processing, memory, analysis or sensory purposes
  • They may house MEM devices that are capable of mechanical interaction with surrounding tissues
  • They may house a range of actuator devices or wires
  • They may house wires for the purpose of connection to nearby capsules or devices, for example to make antennas
  • They may house identification devices or data
  • These wires may be metallic, organic polymer, shape memory alloy, memory plastic, or buckminster fullerene tubes
  • Capsules may be made of any materials that is largely inert regarding body tissues. Titanium and its alloys, glass and ceramics, diamond film coated materials, gold, platinum and surgical steel and many plastics, as well as some biodegradable and soluble materials etc would be good for some purposes, but other materials may be better for some purposes

27     Drug delivery system

  • Drugs may be administered under control by means of active skin systems
  • Membranes may be contracted so that the holes shrink and drugs cannot permeate as quickly through the membrane
  • Blood chemistry may be analysed by active skin lower layers to detect the amount of drugs needed in order to control such membranes. They can also monitor the rate of diffusion of the drug into the bloodstream
  • Clinics can communicate via the network with such systems and active skin devices react to such communication to effect drug delivery under remote supervision, while sensors in the body transmit their information via aerials to the clinic
  • Membranes may be made to react to environmental conditions such as pollen content. These can then form part of the sensory array as well as permitting appropriate diffusion of anti-allergy drugs
  • Drugs may be contained in external reservoirs or in skin capsules* or in patches e.g. nicotine patches. The rates of diffusion may be altered by means of active membranes or via skin conduits.

28     Animal husbandry technology

  • Active skin drug delivery systems* may be used extensively on farm livestock to control drugs use on a wide scale
  • Captured wild animals may be tagged and fitted with such systems to control their reproduction or behaviours, or to protect them against diseases
  • Active skin tags may be used to track and monitor the behaviour of such animals
  • Sensory stimulation and translation devices may be used to train animals for certain tasks
  • This may also be used in conjunction with control systems to automatically steer or co-ordinate groups of animals
  • Sensory systems in individual animals may be linked together with others, not necessarily of the same species, to make super-sensory collections of animals with unusual properties
  • Robotic animals may be able to interface with real ones by manipulating their sensory inputs
  • Drug development may be enhanced by gaining extra feedback via active skin technology on the condition of animals being experimented upon