Category Archives: space

The future of nothing

Some light philosophical exploration for the weekend.

In everyday life, we all learn that an empty glass still is full of air. If you do it in space, when you remove the air, current physics says that even the vacuum is still supposedly full of virtual particles popping in and out of existence and some scientists are trying to harness vacuum energy to power spaceflight. So the meaning of nothing has changed quite a bit.

My own sci-fi Space Anchor invention uses this principle too, using stacks of Casimir combs that vibrate in such a way that virtual particles can pop into existence and are separated before they can annihilate. This locks the anchor onto the local space time fabric at a quantum level and the anchor then moves with the local space time or can lock on and pivot around a point in space. Dynamic changes in spacetime curvature caused by the movements of stars and planets are used to propel the spacecraft (called the C14). Well, it might work. Nature abhors a vacuum but it won’t let you steal it. You won’t ever see a ‘404 space not found’ error. There might be nothing of any substance in that particular bit of space, but when you prevent those virtual particles that pop up from annihilating and try to move them away, you can’t. The space anchor behaves as a space anchor.

Even in the space between Casimir plates, where virtual particles can’t form, there isn’t nothing. It still has coordinates. These might only be a human construct, but the emptiest space in nature still is full of mathematics, coordinates, equations, references, still potentially full of virtual worlds, in the new sense of virtual, the cyber sense.

To prevent that, the space would need to be virtual itself. It can’t be part of the physical universe, because then it would have a location and an address and coordinates. It needs to be a virtual one to have any chance.

So what about a place in virtual worlds? Can you make an empty box there? A cyberspace world has whatever physics the designers give it. Portal links places together in ways that aren’t possible with normal physics, but they are still navigable. You can work out a route from A to B. In the 1970s computer adventure game, Classic Adventure, you’d find yourself at some point lost in a Maze of Twisty Little Passages. Eventually you’d figure out that and the Twisty Little Maze of Passages and the Maze of Little Twisty Passages were all different locations, 16 in all, and you’d draw a map and escape. To be truly nothingness, it mustn’t be on a map or have any sort of coordinates, not even ‘close your eyes, spin round three times and click your heels’ coordinates.

So, our empty place full of nothing is virtual, in a virtual world, but you can’t get there using any kind of map, it mustn’t have any kind of reference or coordinates by which you might find it. It can be done. A game could randomly spawn random places on a strictly non-repeatable basis with one-time random algorithms, and nobody could ever find one except by accident because it isn’t connected in any way at all to anywhere else and there is nothing there, nothing at all. No light or darkness even, no visual descriptors, no smells, no texture, no temperature, no properties, no coordinates, no space-time. Nothing, absolutely nothing. That could be done.

So we could make nothing, in cyberspace. But you can’t describe it or imagine it and you could only find it by the most unlikely of accidents.

Like most philosophical problems, trying to solve it just causes more questions. If nothing exists but it can’t ever be found except by a rare accident, does it become the hottest property in existence, and does it cease to be nothing when you find it?

The future of planetary exploration robots

An article in Popular Science about explorer robots:

BwPQ4LWIcAAefKu (1)http://www.popsci.com/article/technology/weird-tumbleweed-robot-might-change-planetary-exploration?src=SOC&dom=tw

This is a nice idea for an explorer. I’m a bit surprised it is in Popular Science, unless it’s an old edition, since the idea first appeared ages ago, but then again, why not, it’s still a good idea. Anyway…

The most impressive idea I ever saw for an explorer robot was back in the 90s from Joe Michael of Robodyne Cybernetics, which used fractal cubes that could slide along each face, thereby rearranging into any shape. Once the big cubes were in place, smaller ones would rearrange to give fine structure. That was way before everyone and his dog new all about nanotech, his thinking was well ahead of his time. A huge array of fractal cubes could become any shape – a long snake to cross high or narrow obstacles, a thin plate to capture wind like a sail, a ball to roll around, or a dense structure to minimize volume or wind resistance.

NASA tends to opt for ridiculously expensive and complex landers with wheels and lots of gadgetry that can drive to where they want to be.

I do wonder though whether people are avoiding the simple ideas just because they’re simple. In nature, some tiny spiders get around just by spinning a length of thread and letting the wind carry them. Bubbles can float on the wind too, as can balloons. Where there’s an atmosphere, there is likely to be wind, and if simple exploration is the task, why not just let the winds carry you around? If not a thread, use a balloon that can be inflated and deflated, or a sail. Why not use a large cloud of tiny explorers using wind by diverse techniques instead of a large single robotic vehicle? Even if there is no atmosphere, surely a large cloud of tiny and diverse explorers is more capable and robust than a single one? The clue to solving the IT bits are that a physical cloud can also be an IT cloud. Why not let them use different shapes for different circumstances, so that they can float up, be blown around, and when they want to go somewhere interesting, then glide to where they want to be? Dropping from a high altitude is an easy way of gathering the kinetic energy for ground penetration too, you don’t have to carry sophisticated drills. Local atmosphere can be used as the gas source and ballast (via freezing atmospheric gases or taking some dust with you) for balloons and wind or solar can be the power supply. Obviously, people in all space agencies must have thought of these ideas themselves. I just don’t understand why they have thrown them away in favor of far more heavier and more expensive variants.

I’m not an expert on space. Maybe there are excellent reasons that each and every one of these can’t work. But I also have enough experience of engineering to know that one of the most likely reasons is that they just aren’t exciting enough and the complex, expensive, unreliable and less capable solutions simply look far more cool and trendy. Maybe it is simply that ego is more important than mission success.

Time – The final frontier. Maybe

It is very risky naming the final frontier. A frontier is just the far edge of where we’ve got to.

Technology has a habit of opening new doors to new frontiers so it is a fast way of losing face. When Star Trek named space as the final frontier, it was thought to be so. We’d go off into space and keep discovering new worlds, new civilizations, long after we’ve mapped the ocean floor. Space will keep us busy for a while. In thousands of years we may have gone beyond even our own galaxy if we’ve developed faster than light travel somehow, but that just takes us to more space. It’s big, and maybe we’ll never ever get to explore all of it, but it is just a physical space with physical things in it. We can imagine more than just physical things. That means there is stuff to explore beyond space, so space isn’t the final frontier.

So… not space. Not black holes or other galaxies.

Certainly not the ocean floor, however fashionable that might be to claim. We’ll have mapped that in details long before the rest of space. Not the centre of the Earth, for the same reason.

How about cyberspace? Cyberspace physically includes all the memory in all our computers, but also the imaginary spaces that are represented in it. The entire physical universe could be simulated as just a tiny bit of cyberspace, since it only needs to be rendered when someone looks at it. All the computer game environments and virtual shops are part of it too. The cyberspace tree doesn’t have to make a sound unless someone is there to hear it, but it could. The memory in computers is limited, but the cyberspace limits come from imagination of those building or exploring it. It is sort of infinite, but really its outer limits are just a function of our minds.

Games? Dreams? Human Imagination? Love? All very new agey and sickly sweet, but no. Just like cyberspace, these are also all just different products of the human mind, so all of these can be replaced by ‘the human mind’ as a frontier. I’m still not convinced that is the final one though. Even if we extend that to greatly AI-enhanced future human mind, it still won’t be the final frontier. When we AI-enhance ourselves, and connect to the smart AIs too, we have a sort of global consciousness, linking everyone’s minds together as far as each allows. That’s a bigger frontier, since the individual minds and AIs add up to more cooperative capability than they can achieve individually. The frontier is getting bigger and more interesting. You could explore other people directly, share and meld with them. Fun, but still not the final frontier.

Time adds another dimension. We can’t do physical time travel, and even if we can do so in physics labs with tiny particles for tiny time periods, that won’t necessarily translate into a practical time machine to travel in the physical world. We can time travel in cyberspace though, as I explained in

http://timeguide.wordpress.com/2012/10/25/the-future-of-time-travel-cheat/

and when our minds are fully networked and everything is recorded, you’ll be able to travel back in time and genuinely interact with people in the past, back to the point where the recording started. You would also be able to travel forwards in time as far as the recording stops and future laws allow (I didn’t fully realise that when I wrote my time travel blog, so I ought to update it, soon). You’d be able to inhabit other peoples’ bodies, share their minds, share consciousness and feelings and emotions and thoughts. The frontier suddenly jumps out a lot once we start that recording, because you can go into the future as far as is continuously permitted. Going into that future allows you to get hold of all the future technologies and bring them back home, short circuiting the future, as long as time police don’t stop you. No, I’m not nuts – if you record everyone’s minds continuously, you can time travel into the future using cyberspace, and the effects extend beyond cyberspace into the real world you inhabit, so although it is certainly a cheat, it is effectively real time travel, backwards and forwards. It needs some security sorted out on warfare, banking and investments, procreation, gambling and so on, as well as lot of other causality issues, but to quote from Back to the Future: ‘What the hell?’ [IMPORTANT EDIT: in my following blog, I revise this a bit and conclude that although time travel to the future in this system lets you do pretty much what you want outside the system, time travel to the past only lets you interact with people and other things supported within the system platform, not the physical universe outside it. This does limit the scope for mischief.]

So, time travel in fully networked fully AI-enhanced cosmically-connected cyberspace/dream-space/imagination/love/games would be a bigger and later frontier. It lets you travel far into the future and so it notionally includes any frontiers invented and included by then. Is it the final one though? Well, there could be some frontiers discovered after the time travel windows are closed. They’d be even finaller, so I won’t bet on it.

 

 

How the Space Anchor works

This is just an extract from my sci-fi book Space Anchor, about the adventures of Carbon Girl and her boyfriend Carbon Man. However, the Space Anchor itself is based on the Kasimir effect and warped space time, so has some similarities with NASA’s warp drive, but will be a lot easier to make and require very little energy. If their’s works, so will this. The space anchor will arrive first, and the most likely route to NASA getting their warp drive is using my space anchor to find another civilisation that already has a warp drive and buy one. Anyway, both remain scifi for a few decades. Just as well really. The Warp drive NASA are playing with will be used first as a weapon system to make ultra-high-lethality kinetic weapons. Let’s hope it doesn’t work. Looks pretty though, I’ll give them that.

From Space Anchor:

It was just a routine chat. G’din debriefed the General on the last trip, mapping out space currents. That often took him near planets and moons, and often meant he’d had to dodge asteroids. This one had been an unusually bad trip with several near misses.

Unfortunately, it was moving mass that created the ripples and currents in the space time fabric that the space anchor used. Without it, they’d have no means of ever getting much further than the solar system. Other techniques such as warp drives were still just science fiction. Nobody had any serious means of getting the speed without carrying massive engines and huge quantities of fuel. The space anchor cheated. The C14 didn’t use much fuel at all, and had fairly basic engines for local travel near Earth. The anchor locked on to the local space time fabric itself. There was no matter there, but it used stacked graphene Kasimir combs, each couple of combs interleaved to create a chamber where virtual particles could appear as the slats separated and be immediately separated from one another as the slats interleaved. High speed waves travelling along the combs opened and closed the gaps rapidly. The combs essentially harnessed the virtual particles’ fundamental need to annihilate by trying to physically prevent them from doing so. Creating a temporary barrier between them simply delayed their annihilation, creating a quantum annihilation pressure. Each frustrated annihilation only caused a tiny force measured at macro scales, but there were a lot of layers in the graphene stacks, and it added up nicely. Even though their lives were short, the strong forces the quantum annihilation pressures generated effectively locked the anchor onto that piece of space. Nature may abhor a vacuum, but it absolutely won’t let you steal it away. That would make holes in space time. Nature doesn’t allow holes in space time any more than it allows a tree in a forest to be replaced by an error message saying “tree not found”.

So the space anchor behaved exactly like an anchor should. It stayed where it was put, relative to the local space time. In future space battles, it would undoubtedly be useful for fighters to make rapid turns without using all their fuel. For now, thankfully without those space battles yet, they were happy to use it to make trips faster and shorter.

If the region of space at the anchor was expanding differently from the region where the ship was, which of course was the general idea, the anchor would create a huge force to pull the ship. So, just like a yacht using differences in the winds, the space anchor allowed the C14 to accelerate and brake. Like wind, vacuum energy was free and didn’t need fuel to be carried. The tether was long, but that wasn’t a problem in space. The trouble was, just like wind, it isn’t easy to spot a space current from far away, it is much easier to detect it by being there. Astro-physicists knew where to look for the best chance of finding stronger currents of course but the mapping was still needed. The forces had to be measured, the streams plotted. They had to know where they were, how strong they were, how they behaved. It was very new science and technology. Space-time turbulence had been discovered that could cause very severe vibration when an anchor was being used, although if the anchor was switched off, it would instantly become smooth again and the ship would coast.

One day, space travel would all be easy, but just a few decades in to manned interplanetary travel, it was still anything but routine.  Only a few ships were equipped with space anchors, they were not easy to make and were expensive. The C14 had the first one, since G’din had invented it, and it was still be best equipped ship to do this kind of work. It had three anchors now, improving manoeuvrability – on a good day, G’din could swing it around like a gibbon in the woods.

Space research, tourism, asteroid mining companies and of course the military of many countries all wanted the technology too. But without the other stuff – the Higgs filters, Heisenberg resonators and carbon fur, the anchor was as dangerous as it was useful, and few organisations had ships made out of the materials that could resist even the minor impacts. Most would be riddled with holes on the first trip. So only G’din and the military had them so far, the rest could wait till it was safer.

Fairies will dominate space travel

The future sometimes looks ridiculous. I have occasionally written about smart yogurt and zombies and other things that sound silly but have a real place in the future. I am well used to being laughed at, ever since I invented text messaging and the active contact lens, but I am also well used to saying I told you so later. So: Fairies will play a big role in space travel, probably even dominate it. Yes, those little people with wings, and magic wands, that kind. Laugh all you like, but I am right.

To avoid misrepresentation and being accused of being away with the fairies, let’s be absolutely clear: I don’t believe fairies exist. They never have, except in fairy tales of course. Anyone who thinks they have seen one probably just has poor eyesight or an overactive imagination and maybe saw a dragonfly or was on drugs or was otherwise hallucinating, or whatever. But we will have fairies soon. In 50 or 60 years.

In the second half of this century, we will be able to link and extend our minds into the machine world so well that we will effectively have electronic immortality. You won’t have to die to benefit, you will easily do so while remaining fully alive, extending your mind into the machine world, into any enabled object. Some of those objects will be robots or androids, some might well be organic.

Think of the film Avatar, a story based on yesterday’s ideas. Real science and technology will be far more exciting. You could have an avatar like in the film, but that is just the tip of the iceberg when you consider the social networking implications once the mind-linking technology is commoditised and ubiquitous part of everyday life. There won’t be just one or two avatars used for military purposes like in the film, but millions of people doing that sort of thing all the time.

If an animal’s mind is networked, a human might be able to make some sort of link to it too, again like in Avatar, where the Navii link to their dragon-like creatures. You could have remote presence in the animal. That maybe won’t be as fulfilling as being in a human because the animal has limited functionality, but it might have some purpose. Now let’s leave Avatar behind.

You could link AI to an animal to make it comparable with humans so that your experience could be better, and the animal might have a more interesting life too. Imagine chatting to a pet cat or dog and it chatting back properly.

If your mind is networked as well as we think it could be, you could link your mind to other people’s minds, share consciousness, be a part-time Borg if you want. You could share someone else’s sensations, share their body. You could exchange bodies with someone, or rent yours out and live in the net for a while, or hire a different one. That sounds a lot of fun already. But it gets better.

In the same timeframe, we will have mastered genetics. We will be able to design new kinds of organisms with whatever properties chemistry and physics permits. We’ll have new proteins, new DNA bases, maybe some new bases that don’t use DNA. We’ll also have strong AI, conscious machines. We’ll also be able to link electronics routinely to our organic nervous systems, and we’ll also have a wide range of cybernetic implants to increase sensory capability, memory, IQ, networking and so on.

We will be able to make improved versions of the brain that work and feel pretty much the same as the original, but are far, far smaller. Using synthetic electronics instead of organic cells, signals will travel between neurons at light speed, instead of 200m/s, that’s more than a million times faster. But they won’t have to go so far, because we can also make neurons physically far smaller, hundreds of times smaller, so that’s a couple more zeros to play with. And we can use light to interconnect them, using millions of wavelengths, so they could have millions of connections instead of thousands and those connections will be a billion times faster. And the neurons will switch at terahertz speeds, not hundreds of hertz, that’s also billions of times faster. So even if we keep the same general architecture and feel as the Mk1 brain, we could make it a millimetre across and it could work billions of times faster than the original human brain. But with a lot more connectivity and sensory capability, greater memory, higher processing speed, it would actually be vastly superhuman, even as it retains broadly the same basic human nature.

And guess what? It will easily fit in a fairy.

So, around the time that space industry is really taking off, and we’re doing asteroid mining, and populating bases on Mars and Europa, and thinking of going further, and routinely designing new organisms, we will be able to make highly miniaturized people with brains vastly more capable than conventional humans. Since they are small, it will be quite easy to make them with fully functional wings, exactly the sort of advantage you want in a space ship where gravity is in short supply and you want to make full use of a 3D space. Exactly the sort of thing you want when size and mass is a big issue. Exactly the sort of thing you want when food is in short supply. A custom-designed electronic, fully networked brain is exactly the sort of thing you want when you need a custom-designed organism that can hibernate instantly. Fairies would be ideally suited to space travel. We could even design the brains with lots of circuit redundancy, so that radiation-induced faults can be error-corrected and repaired by newly designed proteins.

Wands are easy too. Linking the mind to a stick, and harnessing the millions of years of recent evolution that has taught us how to use sticks is a pretty good idea too. Waving a wand and just thinking what they want to happen at the target is all the interface a space-fairy needs.

This is a rich seam and I will explore it again some time. But for now, you get the idea.

Space-farers will mostly be space fairies.

 

 

 

 

WMDs for mad AIs

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

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

Advanced AI

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zombies

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

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

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

Terraforming

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

Correlated traffic

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

Decryption

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

Space guns

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

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

Drone armies

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

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

Larger drones such as the ones I discussed in

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

I also recently blogged about the storm router

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

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

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

The future of mining

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

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

Robotics

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

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

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

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

NBIC

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

Deep Sea

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

Asteroid Mining

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

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

Population growth and resource need

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

Smarter Construction

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

IT efficiency v the Greens

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

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

Substitution will reduce demand for copper, neodymium, lithium

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

The Greens are the best friends of the mining industry

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

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

Carbon industry

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

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

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

3D printing the highest skyscraper? 600km tall structures may be feasible.

What would you do with a 600km high structure? That would be hundreds of times higher than the highest ever built so far. I think it is feasible. Here I will suggest super-light, super-strong building materials that can substitute for steel and concrete that can be grown up from the base using feasibly high pressures.

I recently proposed a biomimetic technique for printing graphene filaments to make carbon fur (- in this case, for my fictional carbon-obsessed super-heroine Carbon Girl. I am using the Carbon Trio as a nice fun way to illustrate a lot of genuine carbon-related concepts for both civil and military uses, since they could make a good story at some point. Don’t be put off by the fictional setting, the actual concepts are intended to be entirely feasible. Real science makes a better foundation for good science fiction. Anyway, this is the article on how to make carbon filaments, self-organised into fur, and hence her fur coat:)

http://carbondevices.com/2013/07/01/carbon-fur-biokleptic-warmth-and-protection/

Here is the only pic I’ve drawn so far of part of the filament print head face:

printing graphene filaments

Many print heads would be spread out biomimetically over a scalable area as sparsely or densely as needed, just like fur follicles. A strong foundation with this print head on top could feasibly form the base of a very tall vertical column. If the concept as described in the fur link is adapted slightly to print the filaments into a graphene foam medium, (obviously pushed through the space between the follicles that produce the filaments) a very lightweight foam structure with long binding filaments of graphene graphene foam would result, that would essentially grow from the ground up. This could be very strong both in compression and tension, like a very fine-grained reinforced concrete, but with a tiny fraction of the weight. Given the amazing strength of graphene, it could be strong enough for our target 600km. Graphene foam is described here:

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

Extruding the supporting columns of a skyscraper from the ground up by hydraulically growing reinforced graphene foam would certainly be a challenging project. The highest hydraulic pressures today are around 1400 bar, 1.427 tonnes per sq cm. However, the density of graphene foam with graphene filament reinforcement could be set at any required density from below that of helium (for graphene spheres of 0.014mm with vacuum inside), to that of solid carbon if the spheres are just solid particles with no vacuum core. I haven’t yet calculated the maximum size of hollow graphene spheres that would be able to resist production pressures of 1400 bar. That would determine the overall density of the material and hence the maximum height achievable. However, even solid carbon columns only weigh 227g per metre height per sq cm of cross-section, so even that pressure would allow 6.3km tall solid columns to be hydraulically extruded. Lower densities of foam would give potentially large multiples of that.

This concrete substitute would be nowhere near as strong as basic graphene, but has the advantage that it could be grown.

(The overall listed strength of solid graphene theoretically allows up to 600km tall, which would take you well into space, perfect for launching satellites or space missions such as asteroid mining. But that is almost irrelevant, since graphene will also permit construction of the space elevator, and that solves that problem far better still. Still, space elevators would be very costly so maybe there is a place for super-tall ground-supported structures.)

But let’s look again at the pressures and densities. I think we can do a lot better than 6km. My own proposal a while back suggests how 30km tall structures could be built using graphene tube composite columns structures. I did think we’d be able to grow those.

http://timeguide.wordpress.com/2013/02/22/super-tall-30km-carbon-structures-graphene-and-nanotube-mesh/

We’d need higher pressures to extrude higher than 6km if we extruding solid columns, but these tube-based columns with graphene filament reinforced graphene foam packing would have a far lower density. The print heads in the above diagram were designed to make fur filaments but I think it is possible (though I haven’t yet done it) to redesign the print heads so that they could print the tubular structures needed for our columns. Tricky, but probably possible. The internal column structures are based on what nature uses to make trees, so are also nicely biomimetic. If we can redesign the print heads, then printing low density columns using a composite of filament reinforced foam, in between graphene tubes should work fine, up to heights well above the 30km I originally suggested. An outer low pressure foam layer can be added as the column emerges. It doesn’t have to withstand any significant pressure so can be as light as helium and add the strength needed to prevent column buckling. With the right structure, perhaps the whole 600km can be achieved that way. Certainly the figures look OK superficially, and there’s no hurry. It’s certainly worth more detailed study.

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

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

Glyph

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Technology Convergence – What’s your Plan? Guest post by Rohit Talwar

Rohit is CEO of Fastfuture and a long-standing friend as well as an excellent futurist. He and I used to do a joint newsletter, and we have started again. Rohit sends it out to his mailing list as a proper newletter and because I don’t use mailing lists, I guest post it here. I’ll post my bit immediately after this one. I’m especially impressed since his bit ticks almost as many filing category boxes as it uses words.

Here is Rohit’s piece:

Technology Convergence – What’s your Plan?

I have just returned from South Korea where I was delivering a keynote speech to a cross-industry forum on how to prepare for and benefit from the opportunities arising from industry convergence. South Korea has made a major strategic commitment starting with government and running through the economy to be a leader in exploiting the potential opportunities arising from the convergence of industries made possible by advances in a range of disciplines. These include information and communications technology, biological and genetic sciences, energy and environmental sciences, cognitive science, materials science and nanotechnology.  From environmental monitoring, smart cars, and intelligent grids through to adaptive bioengineered materials and clothing-embedded wearable sensor device that monitor our health on a continuous basis – the potential is vast.

What struck me about the situation in Korea was how the opportunity is being viewed as a central component of the long-term future of Korea’s economy and how this is manifested in practice. Alongside a national plan, a government sponsored association has been established to drive and facilitate cross-industry collaboration to achieve convergence. In addition to various government-led support initiatives, a range of conferences are being created to help every major sector of the economy understand, explore, act on and realise the potential arising out of convergence.

I am fortunate to get the opportunity to visit 20-25 countries a year across all six continents and get to study and see a lot of what is happening to create tomorrow’s economy. Whilst my perspective is by no means complete, I am not aware of any country where such a systematic and rigorous approach is being taken to driving industry convergence. Those who study Korea know that this approach is nothing new for them – long term research and strategic planning are acknowledged to have played a major role in the evolution of its knowledge economy and rise of Korea and its technology brands on the global stage. Coming from the UK, where it seems that long term thinking and national policy are now long lost relatives, I wonder why it is that so few countries are willing to or capable of taking such a strategic approach.

Rohit on the Road

In the next few months Rohit will delivering speeches in Oslo, Paris, Vilnius, Warsaw, Frankfurt, Helsinki, Denver, Las Vegas, Oman, Leeds and London. Topics to be covered include human enhancement, the future of professional services, the future of HR, transformational forces in business, global drivers of change, how smart businesses create the future, the future technology timeline, the future of travel and tourism, the future of airlines and airports and the future of education. If you would like to arrange a meeting with Rohit in one of these cities or are interested in arranging a presentation or workshop for your organisation, please contact rohit@fastfuture.com