Category Archives: Uncategorized

Railgun water pistols

August is meant to be the silly season so here’s my contribution.

There is something about railguns that generates ‘I want one of those’ thoughts.

bae railgun

BAE Systems Railgun

 

See: http://www.popsci.com/article/technology/navy-wants-fire-its-ridiculously-strong-railgun-ocean

about the US Navy 5000mph projectile. Or:

http://www.guns.com/2014/04/08/u-s-navys-32-megajoule-rail-gun-one-step-closer-blue-water-video/

Most people have no idea how fast normal missiles go so it’s hard to visualise it, but many missiles travel below the speed of sound and only a few go faster than Mach 2. So 5000mph is pretty fast. Few bullets go faster than 1000mph.

Rail guns are not the old-fashioned big guns that used to be transported by rail. They are electromagnetic guns that send enormous currents down two rails and use a projectile or sled to electrically join the two rails. Magnetic forces propel the sled at high speed.

Anyway, I wondered whether you could make a better water pistol for domestic use using rail gun technology. If you attempt to get rid of a cat from your garden by squirting it with water from a water pistol such as the wonderful Super Soaker, it runs away as soon as it hears the hiss from the escaping water, or so I’ve heard. Please don’t do this – cats are probably nice gentle creatures at heart that have the utmost respect for bird life, always poo in the bushes and away from the flower beds and are probably innocent victims of specist slurs.

Rail guns use either the projectile itself or a sled as part of the conducting circuit. Salty water conducts, so a water jet might work a bit, but probably not enough. Nor milk, for much the same reason. I suspect that far too much of the electricity would be converted to heat and you’d risk scalding the cat, which would be cruel. However, using a sled within the water pistol to push the water out would probably work a lot better.

The Navy railgun uses 25MW of electricity to fire its projectile at 5000mph, with 32MJ of energy. That is  probably a bit over the top for a water pistol and it is also illegal in some countries to make one that could be used as a serious weapon unless you have a license. It would also make rather a mess of the cat. 55mph or 25m/s is probably adequate (according to http://www.tomsguide.com/us/water-gun-tests,review-1313-9.html, a Super Soaker only has a muzzle velocity of around 50 ft per second or 15m/s, so 25m/s is a LOT better, but still less than half the speed of a BB gun), and by the time the cat takes a soaking it would be much slower so wouldn’t hurt it. Even for the same mass, E=0.5MV^2 rule says that 55mph needs about 10,000 times less energy, but we also don’t need as much mass. Even 10ml (two teaspoonfuls) of water is enough to wet a cat enough that it won’t come back for a while and small enough volume to fit in compartment to fire as a package rather than as long feeble squirt. 0.5 x 0.01kg  x 25^2 = 3.125J, roughly one ten millionth as much as the navy gun. (Or you could discourage 10 million cats using the navy version).

The water has to reach that 25m/s in the 75cm that a reasonable water pistol sniper rifle could be so it has to accelerate at 33m/s^2, only about 3.5g. That all sounds very feasible to me. 0.75=-.5 x 33 t^2 gives the time t as 0.2s, which gives a power requirement of 15W. Easy.

A quick googling shows that you can easily get 18v, 3.0 amp hr lithium ion batteries for reasonable price (below $75) that produce over 50W for up to an hour. A superior water pistol could use rapid fire to issue three such water packets per second, 60% faster than a Super Soaker, and emptying a 300ml water tank in 10 seconds. So our superior rapid-fire water rail gun sniper rifle sounds entirely feasible. Far better than a Super Soaker, and still far safer than a BB gun.

I want one of those.

I guess in principle, it doesn’t really have to be a rail gun. It could just use some sort of chain to push out compartments of water at the same speed, with the same power limits. But that would just be boring. Sometimes style is as important as substance.

 

Future human evolution

I’ve done patches of work on this topic frequently over the last 20 years. It usually features in my books at some point too, but it’s always good to look afresh at anything. Sometimes you see something you didn’t see last time.

Some of the potential future is pretty obvious. I use the word potential, because there are usually choices to be made, regulations that may or may not get in the way, or many other reasons we could divert from the main road or even get blocked completely.

We’ve been learning genetics now for a long time, with a few key breakthroughs. It is certain that our understanding will increase, less certain how far people will be permitted to exploit the potential here in any given time frame. But let’s take a good example to learn a key message first. In IVF, we can filter out embryos that have the ‘wrong’ genes, and use their sibling embryos instead. Few people have a problem with that. At the same time, pregnant women may choose an abortion if they don’t want a child when they discover it is the wrong gender, but in the UK at least, that is illegal. The moral and ethical values of our society are on a random walk though, changing direction frequently. The social assignment of right and wrong can reverse completely in just 30 years. In this example, we saw a complete reversal of attitudes to abortion itself within 30 years, so who is to say we won’t see reversal on the attitude to abortion due to gender? It is unwise to expect that future generations will have the same value sets. In fact, it is highly unlikely that they will.

That lesson likely applies to many technology developments and quite a lot of social ones – such as euthanasia and assisted suicide, both already well into their attitude reversal. At some point, even if something is distasteful to current attitudes, it is pretty likely to be legalized eventually, and hard to ban once the door is opened. There will always be another special case that opens the door a little further. So we should assume that we may eventually use genetics to its full capability, even if it is temporarily blocked for a few decades along the way. The same goes for other biotech, nanotech, IT, AI and any other transhuman enhancements that might come down the road.

So, where can we go in the future? What sorts of splits can we expect in the future human evolution path? It certainly won’t remain as just plain old homo sapiens.

I drew this evolution path a long time ago in the mid 1990s:

human evolution 1

It was clear even then that we could connect external IT to the nervous system, eventually the brain, and this would lead to IT-enhanced senses, memory, processing, higher intelligence, hence homo cyberneticus. (No point in having had to suffer Latin at school if you aren’t allowed to get your own back on it later). Meanwhile, genetic enhancement and optimization of selected features would lead to homo optimus. Converging these two – why should you have to choose, why not have a perfect body and an enhanced mind? – you get homo hybridus. Meanwhile, in the robots and AI world, machine intelligence is increasing and we eventually we get the first self-aware AI/robot (it makes little sense to separate the two since networked AI can easily be connected to a machine such as a robot) and this has its own evolution path towards a rich diversity of different kinds of AI and robots, robotus multitudinus. Since both the AI world and the human world could be networked to the same network, it is then easy to see how they could converge, to give homo machinus. This future transhuman would have any of the abilities of humans and machines at its disposal. and eventually the ability to network minds into a shared consciousness. A lot of ordinary conventional humans would remain, but with safe upgrades available, I called them homo sapiens ludditus. As they watch their neighbors getting all the best jobs, winning at all the sports, buying everything, and getting the hottest dates too, many would be tempted to accept the upgrades and homo sapiens might gradually fizzle out.

My future evolution timeline stayed like that for several years. Then in the early 2000s I updated it to include later ideas:

human evolution 2

I realized that we could still add AI into computer games long after it becomes comparable with human intelligence, so games like EA’s The Sims might evolve to allow entire civilizations living within a computer game, each aware of their existence, each running just as real a life as you and I. It is perhaps unlikely that we would allow children any time soon to control fully sentient people within a computer game, acting as some sort of a god to them, but who knows, future people will argue that they’re not really real people so it’s OK. Anyway, you could employ them in the game to do real knowledge work, and make money, like slaves. But since you’re nice, you might do an incentive program for them that lets them buy their freedom if they do well, letting them migrate into an android. They could even carry on living in their Sims home and still wander round in our world too.

Emigration from computer games into our world could be high, but the reverse is also possible. If the mind is connected well enough, and enhanced so far by external IT that almost all of it runs on the IT instead of in the brain, then when your body dies, your mind would carry on living. It could live in any world, real or fantasy, or move freely between them. (As I explained in my last blog, it would also be able to travel in time, subject to certain very expensive infrastructural requirements.) As well as migrants coming via electronic immortality route, it would be likely that some people that are unhappy in the real world might prefer to end it all and migrate their minds into a virtual world where they might be happy. As an alternative to suicide, I can imagine that would be a popular route. If they feel better later, they could even come back, using an android.  So we’d have an interesting future with lots of variants of people, AI and computer game and fantasy characters migrating among various real and imaginary worlds.

But it doesn’t stop there. Meanwhile, back in the biotech labs, progress is continuing to harness bacteria to make components of electronic circuits (after which the bacteria are dissolved to leave the electronics). Bacteria can also have genes added to emit light or electrical signals. They could later be enhanced so that as well as being able to fabricate electronic components, they could power them too. We might add various other features too, but eventually, we’re likely to end up with bacteria that contain electronics and can connect to other bacteria nearby that contain other electronics to make sophisticated circuits. We could obviously harness self-assembly and self-organisation, which are also progressing nicely. The result is that we will get smart bacteria, collectively making sophisticated, intelligent, conscious entities of a wide variety, with lots of sensory capability distributed over a wide range. Bacteria Sapiens.

I often talk about smart yogurt using such an approach as a key future computing solution. If it were to stay in a yogurt pot, it would be easy to control. But it won’t. A collective bacterial intelligence such as this could gain a global presence, and could exist in land, sea and air, maybe even in space. Allowing lots of different biological properties could allow colonization of every niche. In fact, the first few generations of bacteria sapiens might be smart enough to design their own offspring. They could probably buy or gain access to equipment to fabricate them and release them to multiply. It might be impossible for humans to stop this once it gets to a certain point. Accidents happen, as do rogue regimes, terrorism and general mad-scientist type mischief.

And meanwhile, we’ll also be modifying nature. We’ll be genetically enhancing a wide range of organisms, bringing some back from extinction, creating new ones, adding new features, changing even some of the basic mechanism by which nature works in some cases. We might even create new kinds of DNA or develop substitutes with enhanced capability. We may change nature’s evolution hugely. With a mix of old and new and modified, nature evolves nicely into Gaia Sapiens.

We’re not finished with the evolution chart though. Here is the next one:

human evolution 3

Just one thing is added. Homo zombius. I realized eventually that the sci-fi ideas of zombies being created by viruses could be entirely feasible. A few viruses, bacteria and other parasites can affect the brains of the victims and change their behaviour to harness them for their own life cycle.

See http://io9.com/12-real-parasites-that-control-the-lives-of-their-hosts-461313366 for fun.

Bacteria sapiens could be highly versatile. It could make virus variants if need be. It could evolve itself to be able to live in our bodies, maybe penetrate our brains. Bacteria sapiens could make tiny components that connect to brain cells and intercept signals within our brains, or put signals back in. It could read our thoughts, and then control our thoughts. It could essentially convert people into remote controlled robots, or zombies as we usually call them. They could even control muscles directly to a point, so even if the zombie is decapitated, it could carry on for a short while. I used that as part of my storyline in Space Anchor. If future humans have widespread availability of cordless electricity, as they might, then it is far fetched but possible that headless zombies could wander around for ages, using the bacterial sensors to navigate. Homo zombius would be mankind enslaved by bacteria. Hopefully just a few people, but it could be everyone if we lose the battle. Think how difficult a war against bacteria would be, especially if they can penetrate anyone’s brain and intercept thoughts. The Terminator films looks a lot less scary when you compare the Terminator with the real potential of smart yogurt.

Bacteria sapiens might also need to be consulted when humans plan any transhuman upgrades. If they don’t consent, we might not be able to do other transhuman stuff. Transhumans might only be possible if transbacteria allow it.

Not done yet. I wrote a couple of weeks ago about fairies. I suggested fairies are entirely feasible future variants that would be ideally suited to space travel.

http://timeguide.wordpress.com/2014/06/06/fairies-will-dominate-space-travel/

They’d also have lots of environmental advantages as well as most other things from the transhuman library. So I think they’re inevitable. So we should add fairies to the future timeline. We need a revised timeline and they certainly deserve their own branch. But I haven’t drawn it yet, hence this blog as an excuse. Before I do and finish this, what else needs to go on it?

Well, time travel in cyberspace is feasible and attractive beyond 2075. It’s not the proper real world time travel that isn’t permitted by physics, but it could feel just like that to those involved, and it could go further than you might think. It certainly will have some effects in the real world, because some of the active members of the society beyond 2075 might be involved in it. It certainly changes the future evolution timeline if people can essentially migrate from one era to another (there are some very strong caveats applicable here that I tried to explain in the blog, so please don’t misquote me as a nutter – I haven’t forgotten basic physics and logic, I’m just suggesting a feasible implementation of cyberspace that would allow time travel within it. It is really a cyberspace bubble that intersects with the real world at the real time front so doesn’t cause any physics problems, but at that intersection, its users can interact fully with the real world and their cultural experiences of time travel are therefore significant to others outside it.)

What else? OK, well there is a very significant community (many millions of people) that engages in all sorts of fantasy in shared on-line worlds, chat rooms and other forums. Fairies, elves, assorted spirits, assorted gods, dwarves, vampires, werewolves, assorted furry animals, assorted aliens, dolls,  living statues, mannequins, remote controlled people, assorted inanimate but living objects, plants and of course assorted robot/android variants are just some of those that already exist in principle; I’m sure I’ve forgotten some here and anyway, many more are invented every year so an exhaustive list would quickly become out of date. In most cases, many people already role play these with a great deal of conviction and imagination, not just in standalone games, but in communities, with rich cultures, back-stories and story-lines. So we know there is a strong demand, so we’re only waiting for their implementation once technology catches up, and it certainly will.

Biotech can do a lot, and nanotech and IT can add greatly to that. If you can design any kind of body with almost any kind of properties and constraints and abilities, and add any kind of IT and sensing and networking and sharing and external links for control and access and duplication, we will have an extremely rich diversity of future forms with an infinite variety of subcultures, cross-fertilization, migration and transformation. In fact, I can’t add just a few branches to my timeline. I need millions. So instead I will just lump all these extras into a huge collected category that allows almost anything, called Homo Whateverus.

So, here is the future of human (and associates) evolution, for the next 150 years. A few possible cross-links are omitted for clarity

evolution

I won’t be around to watch it all happen. But a lot of you will.

 

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.