Category Archives: Uncategorized

Future reproduction for same-sex couples

My writing on the future of gender and same sex reproduction now forms a section of my new book You Tomorrow, Second Edition, on the future of humanity, gender, lifestyle and our surroundings. Available from Amazon as paper and ebook.

or

http://www.amazon.co.uk/You-Tomorrow-humanity-belongings-surroundings/dp/1491278269

Revised comments policy

Now that my blog is getting more grown up, I should make a more sensible comments policy. I don’t provide a platform for every attention-seeking nutter out there. I welcome general comments, praise, criticisms, requests for clarifications and anything generally useful or reasonable. Most will still get published. I won’t publish some comments:

The comments are really thinly disguised ads;

a) The commenter obviously hasn’t shown me the courtesy of actually reading the entry they are supposedly commenting about’

b) The comments contain anything abusive, offensive, or illegal, such as  racist comments, incitement to violence etc

c) Comments whose main line of argument is ‘I would do it that way and that would be stupid, therefore you are stupid’;

d) The proposal that is clearly stated as being designed for x won’t work well in y, therefore is rubbish (irate New York bicycle riders please take note, some of you fall foul of a, c and d)

e) Comments that insist on citations for every point of my argument. I can use Google, so can you. Ditto comments demanding massive research projects. Give me a lab with generous staff and funding and we can chat.

Please note that while I have time to reply sometimes, I can’t always respond. Also, my blog articles are not intended to be of professional journal quality (I write those directly for the professional journals). Often they are just to introduce an idea at a superficial level, so I don’t aim for completeness or list citations.

Police commissioners. I just don’t see the point.

Rant warning: No futurology ahead, just rant.

What a fiasco! Who was the twit who decided we all must have police commissioners and worse still must all decide who they are, as if we haven’t enough to think about already? This isn’t Batman, I don’t live in Gotham City, except occasionally on my Xbox! We already have a well paid home secretary who is meant to get the well paid police to do what they are paid for. Why should we have a different kind of police in Suffolk to what they have in Essex. Surely nobody wants crime in their area, and nobody wants their police to spend all their time chasing twitter users rather than proper villains just because they are easier to catch. And I certainly don’t want the behaviour of police in my area decided by other people with some local axe to grind, I’d much rather have exactly the same as everywhere else in the country please. I just don’t get it, and neither do the 85% of the population who also didn’t bother to vote, and it is a safe bet many who did were only doing so out of some sense of democratic duty. I just hope that the people that voted aren’t just all the busybodies who want police interfering in everything. I don’t want a police commissioner and I feel sure we’d be better off without them.

What’s next? Do we vote on head of regional rail authority,  the head of the local post office, the head of cleaning staff at the local hospital, someone to decide on the decor on the bin lorries? I don’t see why policing is any different. If chief constables need to be told what they should be doing, they should be replaced by someone more competent.

Any local special priorities ought to be obvious to chief constables. They presumably live in the area and know how it differs from other regions, if at all. If the chief constable is showing a bias or a bias towards a particular political affiliation, gender, sexuality or ethnic group then they should be replaced. We shouldn’t need a commissioner to do that. The police on the telly always know what they are meant to be doing. Significant numbers of complaints to a local MP, escalated through the channels to home secretary if need be would work just fine. When government is meant to be struggling to decide over spending cut targets, we shouldn’t be creating yet more unnecessary but expensive public sector jobs.

Argh! Rant over.

How much choice should you have?

Like most people I can’t get through an hour without using Google. They are taking a lot of flak at the moment over privacy concerns, as are Apple, Facebook and other big IT companies. There are two sides to this though.

On one side, you need to know what is being done and want the option to opt out of personal information sharing, tracing and other big brothery types of things.

On the other, and we keep forgetting this, most people have no idea what they want. Ford noted that if you asked the customer what they wanted, they would say a faster horse. Sony’s Akio Morita observed that there was little point in doing customer surveys because customers have no idea what is possible. He went ahead and made the Walkman, knowing that people would buy it, even though no-one had asked for it. Great visions often live far ahead of customer desires. Sometimes it is best just to do it and then ask.

I think to a large extent, these big IT companies are in that same boat.

If your collective IT knows what you do all day (and by that I mean all your gadgets, and all the apps and web services and cloud stuff you use), and it knows a hell of a lot, then it is possible to make your life a lot easier by providing you with a very talented and benign almost telepathic personal assistant. Pretty much for free, at point of delivery anyway.

If we hold companies back with  too many legal barriers because of quite legitimate privacy concerns, this won’t happen properly. We will get a system with too much internal friction that fails frequently and never quite works.

But can we trust them? Apple, Google and Facebook all have far too much arrogance at the moment, so perhaps they do need to be put in their place. But they aren’t evil dictators. They don’t want to harm us at all, they just want to find new ways to help us because it’s on the back of those services that they can get even richer and more powerful. Is that good or bad?

I deleted and paused my web history on Google and keep my privacy settings tight on everything else. Maybe you do the same. But I actually can’t wait till they develop all the fantastic new services they are working on. As a technology futurologist I have a pretty good idea how it will be, I’ve been lecturing about Google’s new augmented reality headset since 3 years before Google existed. Once everyone else has taken all the risks and it’s all safely up and running, I’ll let them have it all. Trouble is, if we all do that it won’t happen.

Avatar 0.0

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

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

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

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

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

From their conference press release:

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

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

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

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

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

 

Simplifying tax and welfare

Few people would argue that the UK tax system is either simple or fair. It seems to have many loopholes that stimulate jobs in creative accountancy, but deprive the nation of tax. It has sharp cut-offs instead of smooth gradients, creating problems for people whose income rises a few pounds above certain 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 even appear to be using the recession as an excuse to depress wages for junior staff to increase company profits and thereby be rewarded more themselves). Some rich people pay their dues properly, 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 the UK 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 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 earn your income? Today, there are many rates and exceptions. Since people can take income by pay, dividends, capital gains, interest, gambling, lotteries, 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 relabelling it.

International experience suggests that a 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. Accountants who play the international systems to minimise taxes would have fewer opportunities, and any income earned in the UK would be taxed in the UK.

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 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.

But the simpler and the fewer exceptions, 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.

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. This frees up more money so that the basic allowance can be more generous. Everyone benefits.

Children would also be provided with an allowance, which would go to their registered parent or guardian just as today. 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 need to be set higher than 20%. Let’s play with a few numbers and set it at 25% to start. Let’s set the basic allowance at £8000. Someone out of work might get £8,000 per year. After tax at 25% that leaves £6000. Then they get a low paid job at £10,000 per year. Now on £18000 total, they end up with £13,500, a big incentive to take any work going. Mr Average, on £30,000 per year gets  £38,000 including the allowance so ends up on £28,500. Mr Manager on £60,000 salary ends up with £51,000. With these figures anyone below average earnings would hardly pay any income tax, 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 25% still applies to all transactions, and where there is some sort of swap, such as property or shares, then the tax would be on the value difference. So, in shops, direct debits, or internet purchases, that 25% would be rather 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, 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.

I feel sure I have ignored some major factors. It is my first cut and I’ll probably tweak it later.

Priorities for futurists

Like most people, I like to think and write about things that are interesting more than those that are important. Of course, we shouldn’t neglect important things just because they are dull. Futurists have their own views as to what is important, and are in a good position to know. Public surveys are useful to tell us what other people think, and we should also give them an appropriate weighting, biased as they are to the present and immediate future. This new one from Pewpoll is a nice easy one to understand, asking simply what are the top priorities for the US government to deal with.

Some of these are very specific to the USA, some are fairly universal. Thankfully, many futurists write loads about economies so I only occasionally cover economic issues. I write far too much about global warming though, because it is fun, but I should cut down on that, and devote more time to other environmental issues, education, medicine, crime, jobs, terrorism and so on. I am always wary of doing issues such as moral breakdown, religion and so on since such things are polarised and many people take offence too easily. I don’t mind offending people per se, but it does affect income to do so, so I do it sparingly. The others I think I do in more or less the right proportions.

So, kick in the pants taken. Next blog: terrorism

We need to rethink capitalism

Sometimes major trends can conceal less conspicuous ones, but sometimes these less conspicuous trends can build over time into enormous effects. I think that is the case now with automation versus economic turbulence. Global financial turmoil and re-levelling due to development are largely concealing another major trend towards automation. 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.

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.

Some argue that 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. 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. 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.

So here is the key issue: 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.Yet traditionally, 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? I think this is where the rethinking should be focused. I see 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 to everyone else or jointly share profits according to the value of the shared intellectual property they use. With properly shared wealth generation, everyone would have income, and the system might work fine.

There are many ways this could be organised, and I haven’t designed anything worth writing about yet. Raising the issue is enough for this blog.

Sustainability and a fair world will sit on the shoulders of giants

This entry now forms a chapter in my book Total Sustainability, available from Amazon in paper or ebook form.

It is time for parallel governance

The world used to be dominated by geographical separation. Travel was difficult  and time consuming. Most people stayed pretty much where they were born. Imports were expensive.  Governments governed people within a well defined boundary. Things have changed. It is easy to travel anywhere, we can transport goods cheaply, and with the 3D printer in rapid evolution, imports and exports of some goods will soon be replaced by downloads and local manufacture. The media keep us informed on events around the world as they happen, with just a few zones where news is limited. And of course, progress in the EU in recent days shows how many people want to be part of a large union.

But I don’t. Most people don’t. 60% of Germans and 70% of French don’t want to be in the Euro. I haven’t seen recent UK figures but suspect they are also high. Most people in Europe don’t want to be a part of a United States of Europe, but their leaders insist they know best and are trying to rush ahead faster.

But you know what? If a lot of people want to do so, and a lot don’t, there really is no reason we can’t just live in the same countries as separate communities. We could share the same infrastructure, and share essential services that can’t be provided separately, such as defence, but choose which lifestyle we want to subscribe to from a short list and live with the consequences of it. There could be a USE and those that support it could live under it. The rest of us could opt out and share the same land under a different regime.

It isn’t obvious at first glance how many ‘flavours’ of parallel governance you should be able to choose from, so let’s just pick the ancient divide of liberal or conservative to start with.

So, given this simple choice, you decide you are a liberal at heart. In the new system, you would make that choice and it would be recorded. There would be a cost to change your decision, a price to belong, and associated benefits. You can’t draw the benefits of that system without paying its price, and if your system has made a mess, and you want to swap, you may have to pay to join the alternative, an investment for the new benefits, a contribution towards the investments that community has already made. Your rights to vote on certain issues, or how much your vote is worth on that issue, goes with the choice you make.

There are a few parties to choose from within the liberal camp, and they would all compete for votes, and one would be elected, and only liberals may vote in that election. Since your community elected them, they would rule over you and make the decisions that affect you. Someone living next door who chose conservative would be governed by their decisions.

The different communities need not have the same geographic boundaries. If liberals want a united Europe and Conservatives want the UK to stay united and outside the EU, that is perfectly feasible. Europe would have a range of conservative style parties, one in each country perhaps, whereas there would be only one liberal party for the whole of Europe.

I am strongly attracted to that kind of future. I have friends in all parts of the political spectrum. They are different ages, genders, races, and they have different religious and political persuasions. I am happy to agree or disagree with them, but they stay friends. We manage to coexist peacefully and fruitfully, while following different motivations and creeds. We have to share some things that are dictated by geography, but most things aren’t.

Take a few examples. I send my daughter to a private school, some of my friends send theirs to state schools. I have to pay a high fee direct to the school, they pay theirs via taxes. What I don’t like is that I have to pay for their kids’ educations, but they don’t have to make any contribution towards mine. In parallel governance, the two communities would make their own decisions separately. Liberals would share state schools, while Conservatives would probably use an education allowance that could be spent on any school. Each ensures that all children get access to well-funded education, but the payment mechanisms allow choice of provision mechanism. The same could apply to health care. I choose the NHS at the moment, but if I choose to pay for private care, I don’t get any refund on the state provision. Many people want to keep the NHS, but why should they not therefore pick up the bill, while those who want to provide their health care via insurance are free to do so? In parallel governance, you would only be entitled to NHS care if you subscribe to the liberal government. Conservatives would be forced to buy health insurance or demonstrate alternative ability to pay, but wouldn’t have to pay taxes for the state system.

I wouldn’t like my friends any less if they were governed by a different party. I wouldn’t suddenly want to wage war on them, though we’d tease each other remorselessly about the incompetence of our respective systems or governments.

On many issues, there is a simple polarisation along part lines. On others, there isn’t, so there is room for different parties to compete for power, and room for negotiation. On some things, we just don’t have a choice. If we don’t defend ourselves, we would be killed or enslaved. All people of all persuasions would have to contribute to defence, since all benefit from it.  There would be fierce arguments over the level of funding, and on policy, but that is what politics is all about. We negotiate and argue until we get some sort of agreement that we can all live with. The point of parallel governance is that it is entirely possible on some things to just agree to differ and each do our own thing.

In the UK, we already have demands for parallel governance of sorts. Some Muslims want Sharia Law to apply within their community. Some outside insist that the laws of the land should apply to all. Personally, I think that there should be some basic rights and responsibilities that apply to everyone, but after that, it should be down to your declared allegiance. In parallel governance it would be simple. If you choose to subscribe to Sharia Law, and you’d have to officially and freely register that you do, then you must pay for it and accept its consequences as well as reap its rewards.

In fact, this is a good model for how parallel governance might work. We must all have some basic rights, but there would actually be little disagreement on those. Basic rules of civilisation are shared by almost everyone. You wouldn’t be allowed to murder or torture or steal or deliberately damage and so on. We would still have some sort of common governance that implements basic civilisation, but under that, we’d have parallel communities sharing the same lands, living happily under different laws and rights.

Parallel governance requires mutual respect. It requires us all to accept that we are not all the same. We don’t all share the same goals or values. But there is no need to now. With the level of IT we have, it would be fairly easy to implement parallel governance and make it work. I believe it would be highly beneficial. I’d feel much happier not having to fund as many policies that I disagree with, and would be very happy to pick up the costs of those with which I do.

I don’t think it would end up with just two communities, liberal or conservative, though that is an easy (but simplistic) split to start with. I think it could evolve. There is no reason there couldn’t be sub-communities. So you could be under Sharia law and then under a Conservative government or liberal. There could be a choice of several flavours. Or you could have a single government laying down basic laws for everyone and pick and mix every policy separately from a price list.

The big advantages for everyone are not having to pay for someone else’s personal decision or lifestyle, and not having to live under a value set you don’t subscribe to. Ultimately this would give us all an increase in quality of life, whichever allegiance you declare. You’d feel you worked towards a goal you believed in. Your human dignity would be higher, regardless of whether other people agree with you.

It is time for parallel governance now. It is a better form of democracy, more democratic and less vulnerable to dictatorship of an elite. We have the means, the motive and the opportunity. I still won’t agree with you, but I promise to be a good neighbour. Bring it on.