Ground up data is the next big data

This one sat in my draft folder since February, so I guess it’s time to finish it.

Big Data – I expect you’re as sick of hearing that term as I am. Gathering loads of data on everything you or your company or anything else you can access can detect, measure, record, then analyzing the hell out of it using data mining, an equally irritating term.

I long ago had a quick twitter exchange with John Hewitt, who suggested “What is sensing but the energy-constrained competition for transmission to memory, as memory is but that for expression?”. Neurons compete to see who gets listened too.  Yeah, but I am still not much wiser as to what sensing actually is. Maybe I need a brain upgrade. (It’s like magnets. I used to be able to calculate the magnetic field densities around complicated shaped objects – it was part of my first job in missile design – but even though I could do all the equations around EM theory, even general relativity, I still am no wiser how a magnetic field actually becomes a force on an object. I have an office littered with hundreds of neodymium magnets and I spend hours playing with them and I still don’t understand). I can read about neurons all day but I still don’t understand how a bunch of photons triggering a series of electro-chemical reactions results in me experiencing an image. How does the physical detection become a conscious experience?

Well, I wrote some while back that we could achieve a conscious computer within two years. It’s still two years because nobody has started using the right approach yet. I have to stress the ‘could’, because nobody actually intends to do it in that time frame, but I really believe some half-decent lab could if they tried.  (Putting that into perspective, Kurzweil and his gang at Google are looking at 2029.) That two years estimate relies heavily on evolutionary development, for me the preferred option when you don’t understand how something works, as is the case with consciousness. It is pretty easy to design conscious computers at a black box level. The devil is in the detail. I argued that you could make a conscious computer by using internally focused sensing to detect processes inside the brain, and using a sensor structure with a symmetrical feedback loop. Read it:

http://timeguide.wordpress.com/2013/12/28/we-could-have-a-conscious-machine-by-end-of-play-2015/

In a nutshell, if you can feel thoughts in the same way as you feel external stimuli, you’d be conscious. I think. The symmetrical feedback loop bit is just a small engineering insight.

The missing link in that is still the same one: how does sensing work? How do you feel?

At a superficial level, you point a sensor at something and it produces a signal in some sort of relationship to whatever it is meant to sense. We can do that bit. We understand that. Your ear produces signals according to the frequencies and amplitudes of incoming sound waves, a bit like a microphone. Just the same so far. However, it is by some undefined processes later that you consciously experience the sound. How? That is the hard problem in AI. It isn’t just me that doesn’t know the answer. ‘How does red feel?’ is a more commonly used variant of the same question.

When we solve that, we will replace big data as ‘the next big thing’. If we can make sensor systems that experience or feel something rather than just producing a signal, that’s valuable already. If those sensors pool their shared experience, another similar sensor system could experience that. Basic data quickly transmutes into experience, knowledge, understanding, insight and very quickly, value, lots of it. Artificial neural nets go some way to doing that, but they still lack consciousness. Simulated neural networks can’t even get beyond a pretty straightforward computation, putting all the inputs into an equation. The true sensing bit is missing. The complex adaptive analog neural nets in our brain clearly achieve something deeper than a man-made neural network.

Meanwhile, most current AI work barks up a tree in a different forest. IBM’s Watson will do great things; Google’s search engine AI will too. But they aren’t conscious and can’t be. They’re just complicated programs running on digital processors, with absolutely zero awareness of anything they are doing. Digital programs on digital computers will never achieve any awareness, no matter how fast the chips are.

However, back in the biological realm, nature manages just fine. So biomimetics offers a lot of hope. We know we didn’t get from a pool of algae to humans in one go. At some point, organisms started moving according to light, chemical gradients, heat, touch. That most basic process of sensing may have started out coupled to internal processes that caused movement without any consciousness. But if we can understand the analog processes (electrochemical, electronic, mechanical) that take the stimulus through to a response, and can replicate it using our electronic technology, we would already have actuator circuits, even if we don’t have any form of sensation or consciousness yet. A great deal of this science has been done already of course. The computational side of most chemical and physical processes can be emulated electronically by some means or another. Actuators will be a very valuable part of the cloud, but we already have the ability to make actuators by more conventional means, so doing it organically or biomimetically just adds more actuation techniques to the portfolio. Valuable but not a terribly important breakthrough.

Looking at the system a big further along the evolutionary timeline, where eyes start to develop, where the most primitive nervous systems and brains start, where higher level processing is obviously occurring and inputs are starting to become sensations, we should be able to what is changed or changing. It is the emergence of sensation we need to identify, even if the reaction is still an unconscious reflex. We don’t need to reverse engineer the human brain. Simple organisms are simpler to understand. Feeding the architectural insights we gain from studying those primitive systems into our guided evolution engines is likely to be far faster as a means to generating true machine consciousness and strong AI. That’s how we could develop consciousness in a couple of years rather than 15.

If we can make primitive sensing devices that work like those in primitive organisms, and can respond to specific sorts of sensory input, then that is a potential way of increasing the coverage of cloud sensing and even actuation. It would effectively be a highly distributed direct response system. With clever embedding of emergent phenomena techniques (such as cellular automata, flocking etc) , it could be a quite sophisticated way of responding to quite complex distributed inputs, avoiding some of the need for big data processing. If we can gather the outputs from these simple sensors and feed them into others, that will be an even better sort of biomimetic response system. That sort of direct experience of a situation is very different from a data mined result, especially if actuation capability is there too. The philosophical question as to whether that inclusion of that second bank of sensors makes the system in any way conscious remains, but it would certainly be very useful and valuable. The architecture we end up with via this approach may look like neurons, and could even be synthetic neurons, but that may be only one solution among many. Biology may have gone the neuron route but that doesn’t necessarily mean it is the only possibility. It may be that we could one day genetically modify bacteria to produce their own organic electronics to emulate the key processes needed to generate sensation, and to power them by consuming nutrients from their environment. I suggested smart yogurt based on this idea many years ago, and believe that it could achieve vast levels of intelligence.

Digitizing and collecting the signals from the system at each stage would generate lots of  data, and that may be used by programs to derive other kinds of results, or to relay the inputs to other analog sensory systems elsewhere. (It isn’t always necessary to digitize signals to transmit them, but it helps limit signal degradation and quickly becomes important if the signal is to travel far and is essential if it is to be recorded for later use or time shifting). However, I strongly suspect that most of the value in analog sensing and direct response is local, coupled to direct action or local processing and storage.

If we have these sorts of sensors liberally spread around, we’d create a truly smart environment, with local sensing and some basic intelligence able to relay sensation remotely to other banks of sensors elsewhere for further processing or even ultimately consciousness. The local sensors could be relatively dumb like nerve endings on our skin, feeding in  signals to a more connected virtual nervous system, or a bit smarter, like neural retinal cells, doing a lot of analog pre-processing before relaying them via ganglia cells, and maybe part of a virtual brain. If they are also capable of or connected to some sort of actuation, then we would be constructing a kind of virtual organism, with tendrils covering potentially the whole globe, and able to sense and interact with its environment in an intelligent way.

I use the term virtual not because the sensors wouldn’t be real, but because their electronic nature allows connectivity to many systems, overlapping, hierarchical or distinct. Any number of higher level systems could ‘experience’ them as part of its system, rather as if your fingers could be felt by the entire human population. Multiple higher level virtual organisms could share the same basic sensory/data inputs. That gives us a whole different kind of cloud sensing.

By doing processing locally, in the analog domain, and dealing with some of the response locally, a lot of traffic across the network is avoided and a lot of remote processing. Any post-processing that does occur can therefore add to a higher level of foundation. A nice side effect from avoiding all the extra transmission and processing is increased environmental friendliness.

So, we’d have a quite different sort of data network, collecting higher quality data, essentially doing by instinct what data mining does with huge server farms and armies of programmers. Cloudy, but much smarter than a straightforward sensor net.

… I think.

It isn’t without risk though. I had a phone discussion yesterday on the dangers of this kind of network. In brief, it’s dangerous.

The future of questions

The late Douglas Adams had many great ideas. One of the best was the computer Deep Thought, built to answer The question of ‘life, the universe and everything’ that took 6 million years to come up with the answer 42. It then had to design a far bigger machine to determine what the question actually was.

Finding the right question is often much harder than answering it. Much of observational comedy is based on asking the simplest questions that we just happen never to have thought of asking before.

A good industrial illustration is in network design. A long time ago I used to design computer communication protocols, actually a pretty easy job for junior engineers. While doing one design, I discovered a flaw in a switch manufacturer’s design that would allow data networks to be pushed into a gross overload situation and crashed repeatedly by a single phone call. I simply asked a question that hadn’t been asked before. My question was “can computer networks be made to resonate dangerously?” That’s the sort of question bridge designers have asked every time they’ve built a bridge since roman times, with the notable exception of the designers of London’s Millennium Bridge, who had to redesign their’s. All I did was apply a common question from one engineering discipline to another. I did that because I was trained as a systems engineer, not as a specialist. It only took a few seconds to answer in my head and a few hours to prove it via simulation, so it was a pretty simple question to answer (yes they can), but it had taken many years before anyone bothered to ask it.

More importantly, that question couldn’t have been asked much before the 20th century, because the basic knowledge or concept of a computer network wasn’t there yet. It isn’t easy to think of a question that doesn’t derive from existent culture (which includes the full extent of fiction of course). As new ideas are generated by asking and answering questions, so the culture gradually extends, and new questions become possible. But we don’t ask them all, only a few. Even with the culture and knowledge we already have at any point, it is possible to ask far more questions, and some of them will lead to very interesting answers and a few of those could change the world.

Last night I had a dream where I was after-dinner speaking to some wealthy entrepreneurs (that sort of thing is my day job). One of them challenged me that ideas were hard to come by and as proof of his point asked me why the wheel had never been reinvented (actually it is often reinvented, just like the bicycle – all decent engineers have reinvented the bicycle to some degree at some point, and if you haven’t yet, you probably will. You aren’t allowed to die until you have). Anyway, I invented the plasma caterpillar track there and then as my answer to show that ideas are ten a penny and that being an entrepreneur is about having the energy and determination to back them, not the idea itself. That’s why I stick with ideas, much less work. Dreams often violate causality, at least mine do, and one department of my brain obviously contrived that situation to air an idea from the R&D department, but in the dream it was still the question that caused the invention. Plasma caterpillar tracks are a dream-class invention. Once daylight appears, you can see that they need work, but in this case, I also can see real potential, so I might do that work, or you can beat me to it. If you do and you get rich, buy me a beer. Sorry, I’m rambling.

How do you ask the right question? How do you even know what area to ask the right question in? How do you discover what questions are possible to ask? Question space may be infinite, but we only have a map of a small area with only a few paths and features on it. Some tools are already known to work well and thousands of training staff use them every day in creativity courses.

One solution is to try to peel back and ask what it is you are really trying to solve. Maybe the question isn’t ‘what logo should we use?’ but ‘what image do we want to present?’, or is it ‘how can we appeal to those customers?’ or ‘how do we improve our sales?’ or ‘how do we get more profit?’ or ‘how can we best serve shareholders?’. Each layer generates different kinds of answers.

Another mechanism I use personally is to matrix solutions and industries, applying questions or solutions from one industry to another, or notionally combining random industries. A typical example: Take TV displays and ask why can’t makeup also change 50 times a second? If the answer isn’t obvious, look at how nature does displays, can some of those techniques be dragged into makeup? Yes, they can, and you could make smart makeup using similar micro-structures to those that butterflies and beetles use and use the self-organisation developing in materials science to arrange the particles automatically.

Dragging solutions and questions from one area to another often generates lots of ideas. Just list every industry sector you can think of (and nature), and all the techs or techniques or procedures they use and cross reference every box against every other. By the time you’ve filled in every box, it will be long overdue to start again because they’ll all have moved on.

But however effective they are, these mechanistic techniques only fill in some of the question space and some can be addressed at least partly by AI. There is still a vast area unexplored, even with existing knowledge. Following paths is fine, but you need to explore off-road too. Group-think and cultural immersion stand in the way of true creativity. You can’t avoid your mind being directed in particular directions that have been ingrained since birth, and some genetic.

That leads some people to the conclusion that you need young fresh minds rather than older ones, but it isn’t just age that determines creativity, it is susceptibility to authority too, essentially thinking how you’re told to think. Authority isn’t just parents and teachers, or government, but colleagues and friends, mainly your peer group. People often don’t see peers as authority but needing their approval is as much a force as any. I am frequently amused spotting young people on the tube that clearly think they are true individuals with no respect for authority. They stick out a mile because they wear the uniform that all the young people who are individuals and don’t respect authority wear. It’s almost compulsory. They are so locked in by the authority and cultural language of those they want to impress by being different that they all end up being the same. Many ‘creatives’ suffer the same problem, you can often spot them from a distance too, and it’s a fairly safe bet that their actual creativity is very bounded. The fact is that some people are mentally old before they leave school and some die of old age yet still young in mind and heart.

How do you solve that? Well, apart from being young, one aspect of being guided down channels via susceptibility to authority is understanding the rules. If you are too new in a field to know how it works, who everyone is, how the tools work or even most of the basic fundamental knowledge of the field, then you are in an excellent position to ask the right questions. Some of my best ideas have been when I have just started in a new area. I do work in every sector now so my mind is spread very thinly, and it’s always easy to generate new ideas when you aren’t prejudiced by in-depth knowledge. If I don’t know that something can’t work, that you tried it ages ago and it didn’t, so you put it away and forgot about it, then I might think of it, and the technology might well have moved on since then and it might work now, or in 10 years time when I know the tech will catch up. I forget stuff very quickly too and although that can be a real nuisance it also minimizes prejudices so can aid this ‘creativity via naivety’.

So you could make sure that staff get involved in other people’s projects regularly, often with those in different parts of the company. Make sure they go on occasional workshops with others to ensure cross-fertilization. Make sure you have coffee areas and coffee times that make people mix and chat. The coffee break isn’t time wasted. It won’t generate new products or ideas every day but it will sometimes.

Cultivating a questioning culture is good too. Just asking obvious questions as often as you can is good. Why is that there? How does it work? What if we changed it? What if the factory burned down tomorrow, how would we rebuild it? Why the hell am I filling in this form?

Yet another one is to give people ‘permission’ to think outside the box. Many people have to follow procedures in their jobs for very good reasons, so they don’t always naturally challenge the status quo, and many even pursue careers that tend to be structured and ordered. There is nothing wrong with that, each to their own, but sometimes people in any area might need to generate some new ideas. A technique I use is to present some really far future and especially seemingly wacky ones to them before making them do their workshop activity. Having listened to some moron talking probable crap and getting away with it gives them permission to generate some wacky ideas too, and some invariably turn out to be good ones.

These techniques can improve everyday creativity but they still can’t generate enough truly out of the box questions to fill in the map.

I think what we need is the random question generator. There are a few random question generators out there now. Some ask mathematical questions to give kids practice before exams. Some just ask random pre-written questions from a database. They aren’t the sort we need though. We won’t be catapulted into a new era of enlightenment by being asked the answer to 73+68 or ones that were already on a list. Maybe I should have explored more pages on google, but most seemed to bark up the wrong tree. The better approach might be to copy random management jargon generators. Tech jargon ones exist too. Some are excellent fun. They are the sort we need. They combine various words from long categorized lists in grammatically plausible sequences to come out with plausible sounding terms. I am pretty sure that’s how they write MBA courses.

We can extend that approach to use a full vocabulary. If a question generator asks random questions using standard grammatical rules and a basic dictionary attack, (a first stage filtration process) most of the questions filtering through would still not make sense (e.g, why are all moons square?). But now we have AI engines that can parse sentences and filter out nonsensical ones or ones that simply contradict known facts and the web is getting a lot better at being machine-comprehensible. Careful though, some of those facts might not be any more.

After this AI filtration stage, we’d have a lot of questions that do make sense. A next stage filtration could discover which ones have already been asked and which of those have also been answered, and which of those answers have been accepted as valid. These stages will reveal some questions still awaiting proper responses, or where responses are dubious or debatable. Some will be about trivia, but some will be in areas that might seem to be commercially or socially valuable.

Some of the potentially valuable ones would be suited to machines to answer too. So they could start using spare cycles on machines to increase knowledge that way. Companies already do this internally with their big data programs for their own purposes, but it could work just as well as a global background task for humanity as a whole, with the whole of the net as one of its data sources. Machines could process data and identify potential new markets or products or identify social needs, and even suggest how they could be addressed and which companies might be able to do them. This could increase employment and GDP and solve some social issues that people weren’t even aware of.

Many would not be suited to AI and humans could search them for inspiration. Maybe we could employ people in developing countries as part of aid programs. That provides income and utilizes the lack of prejudice that comes with unfamiliarity with our own culture. Another approach is to make the growing question database online and people would make apps that deliver randomly selected questions to you to inspire you when you’re bored. There would be enough questions to make sure you are usually the first to have ever seen it. When you do, you could rate it as meaningless, don’t care, interesting, or wow that’s a really good question, maybe some other boxes. Obviously you could also produce answers and link to them too. Lower markings would decrease their reappearance probability, whereas really interesting ones would be seen by lots of people and some would be motivated to great answers.

Would it work? How could this be improved? What techniques might lead us to the right questions? Well, I just asked those ones and this blog is my first attempt at an answer. Feel free to add yours.

 

 

The future of prying

Prying is one side of the privacy coin, hiding being the other side.

Today, lots of snap-chat photos have been released, and no doubt some people are checking to see if there are any of people they know, and it is a pretty safe bet that some will send links to compromising pics of colleagues (or teachers) to others who know them. It’s a sort of push prying isn’t it?

There is more innocent prying too. Checking out Zoopla to see how much your neighbour got for their house is a little bit nosy but not too bad, or at the extremely innocent end of the line, reading someone’s web page is the sort of prying they actually want some people to do, even if not necessarily you.

The new security software I just installed lets parents check out on their kids online activity. Protecting your kids is good but monitoring every aspect of their activity just isn’t, it doesn’t give them the privacy they deserve and probably makes them used to being snooped on so that they accept state snooping more easily later in life. Every parent has to draw their own line, but kids do need to feel trusted as well as protected.

When adults install tracking apps on their partner’s phones, so they can see every location they’ve visited and every call or message they’ve made, I think most of us would agree that is going too far.

State surveillance is increasing rapidly. We often don’t even think of it as such, For example, when speed cameras are linked ‘so that the authorities can make our roads safer’, the incidental monitoring and recording of our comings and goings collected without the social debate. Add that to the replacement of tax discs by number plate recognition systems linked to databases, and even more data is collected. Also ‘to reduce crime’, video from millions of CCTV cameras is also stored and some is high enough quality to be analysed by machine to identify people’s movements and social connectivity. Then there’s our phone calls, text messages, all the web and internet accesses, all these need to be stored, either in full or at least the metadata, so that ‘we can tackle terrorism’. The state already has a very full picture of your life, and it is getting fuller by the day. When it is a benign government, it doesn’t matter so much, but if the date is not erased after a short period, then you need also to worry about future governments and whether they will also be benign, or whether you will be one of the people they want to start oppressing. You also need to worry that increasing access is being granted to your data to a wider variety of a growing number of public sector workers for a widening range of reasons, with seemingly lower security competence, meaning that a good number of people around you will be able to find out rather more about you than they really ought. State prying is always sold to the electorate via assurances that it is to make us safer and more secure and reduce crime, but the state is staffed by your neighbors, and in the end, that means that your neighbors can pry on you.

Tracking cookies are a fact of everyday browsing but mostly they are just trying to get data to market to us more effectively. Reading every email to get data for marketing may be stretching the relationship with the customer to the limits, but many of us gmail users still trust Google not to abuse our data too much and certainly not to sell on our business dealings to potential competitors. It is still prying though, however automated it is, and a wider range of services are being linked all the time. The internet of things will provide data collection devices all over homes and offices too. We should ask how much we really trust global companies to hold so much data, much of it very personal, which we’ve seen several times this year may be made available to anyone via hackers or forced to be handed over to the authorities. Almost certainly, bits of your entire collected and processed electronic activity history could get you higher insurance costs, in trouble with family or friends or neighbors or the boss or the tax-man or the police. Surveillance doesn’t have to be real time. Databases can be linked, mashed up, analysed with far future software or AI too. In the ongoing search for crimes and taxes, who knows what future governments will authorize? If you wouldn’t make a comment in front of a police officer or tax-man, it isn’t safe to make it online or in a text.

Allowing email processing to get free email is a similar trade-off to using a supermarket loyalty card. You sell personal data for free services or vouchers. You have a choice to use that service or another supermarket or not use the card, so as long as you are fully aware of the deal, it is your lifestyle choice. The lack of good competition does reduce that choice though. There are not many good products or suppliers out there for some services, and in a few there is a de-facto monopoly. There can also be a huge inconvenience and time loss or social investment cost in moving if terms and conditions change and you don’t want to accept the deal any more.

On top of that state and global company surveillance, we now have everyone’s smartphones and visors potentially recording anything and everything we do and say in public and rarely a say in what happens to that data and whether it is uploaded and tagged in some social media.

Some companies offer detective-style services where they will do thorough investigations of someone for a fee, picking up all they can learn from a wide range of websites they might use. Again, there are variable degrees that we consider acceptable according to context. If I apply for a job, I would think it is reasonable for the company to check that I don’t have a criminal record, and maybe look at a few of the things I write or tweet to see what sort of character I might be. I wouldn’t think it appropriate to go much further than that.

Some say that if you have done nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear, but none of them has a 3 digit IQ. The excellent film ‘Brazil’ showed how one man’s life was utterly destroyed by a single letter typo in a system scarily similar to what we are busily building.

Even if you are a saint, do you really want the pervert down the road checking out hacked databases for personal data on you or your family, or using their public sector access to see all your online activity?

The global population is increasing, and every day a higher proportion can afford IT and know how to use it. Networks are becoming better and AI is improving so they will have greater access and greater processing potential. Cyber-attacks will increase, and security leaks will become more common. More of your personal data will become available to more people with better tools, and quite a lot of them wish you harm. Prying will increase geometrically, according to Metcalfe’s Law I think.

My defense against prying is having an ordinary life and not being famous or a major criminal, not being rich and being reasonably careful on security. So there are lots of easier and more lucrative targets. But there are hundreds of millions of busybodies and jobsworths and nosy parkers and hackers and blackmailers out there with unlimited energy to pry, as well as anyone who doesn’t like my views on a topic so wants to throw some mud, and their future computers may be able to access and translate and process pretty much anything I type, as well as much of what I say and do anywhere outside my home.

I find myself self-censoring hundreds of times a day. I’m not paranoid. There are some people out to get me, and you, and they’re multiplying fast.

 

 

 

The future of obsolescence

My regular readers will know I am not a big fan of ‘green’ policies. I want to protect the environment and green policies invariably end up damaging it. These policies normally arise by taking too simplistic a view – that all parts of the environmental system are independent of each other so each part can be addressed in isolation to improve the environment as a whole. As a systems engineer since graduation, I always look at the whole system over the whole life cycle and when you do that, you can see why green policies usually don’t work.

Tackling the problem of rapid obsolescence is one of the big errors in environmentalism. The error here is that rapid obsolescence is not necessarily  a problem. Although at first glance it may appear to cause excessive waste and unnecessary environmental damage, on deeper inspection it is very clear that it has actually driven technology through very rapid change to the point where the same function can often be realized now with less material, less energy use, less pollution and less environmental impact. As the world gets richer and more people can afford to buy more things, it is a direct result of rapid obsolescence that those things have a better environmental impact than they would if the engineering life cycle had run through fewer times.

A 150g smart-phone replaces 750kg of 1990s IT. If the green policy of making things last longer and not replacing them had been in force back then, some improvement would still have arisen, but the chances are you would not have the smart phone or tablet, would still use a plasma TV, still need a hi-fi, camera and you’d still have to travel in person to do a lot of the things your smartphone allows you to do wherever you are. In IT, rapid obsolescence continues, soon all your IT will be replaced by active contact lenses and a few grams of jewelry. If 7Bn people want to have a good quality of digitally enabled lifestyle, then letting them do so with 5 grams of materials and milliwatts of power use is far better than using a ton of materials and kilowatts of power.

Rapid engineering progress lets us build safer bridges and buildings with less material, make cars that don’t rust after 3 years and run on less fuel, given us fridges and washing machines that use less energy. Yes, we throw things away, but thanks again to rapid obsolescence, the bits are now easily recyclable.

Whether greens like it or not, our way of throwing things away after a relatively short life cycle has been one of the greatest environmental successes of our age. Fighting against rapid obsolescence doesn’t make you a friend of the earth, it makes you its unwitting enemy.

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 MBAs

I’ve reached M in my ‘the future of’ series. So, MBAs.

We have all had to sit through talks where the speaker thinks that using lots of points that start with the same letter is somehow impressive. During one such talk, I got bored and produced this one letter fully comprehensive MBA. Enjoy:

Corporate Cycle

The future of levitation

Futurologists are often asked about flying cars, and there already are one or two and one day there might be some, but they’ll probably only become as common as helicopters today. Levitating cars will be more common, and will hover just above the ground, like the landspeeders on Star Wars, or just above a lower layer of cars. I need to be careful here – hovercraft were supposed to be the future but they are hard to steer and to stop quickly and that is probably why they didn’t take over as some people expected. Levitating cars won’t work either if we can’t solve that problem.

Maglev trains have been around for decades. Levitating cars won’t use anti-gravity in my lifetime, so magnetic levitation is the only non-hovercraft means obvious. They don’t actually need metal roads to fly over, although that is one mechanism. It is possible to contain a cushion of plasma and ride on that. OK, it is a bit hovercrafty, since it uses a magnetic skirt to keep the plasma in place, but at least it won’t need big fans and drafts. The same technique could work for a skateboard too.

Once we have magnetic plasma levitation working properly, we can start making all sorts of floating objects. We’ll have lots of drones by then anyway, but drones could levitate using plasma instead of using rotor blades. With plasma levitation, compound objects can be formed using clusters of levitating component parts. This can be quieter and more elegant than messy air jets or rotors.

Magnetic levitation doesn’t have very many big advantages over using wheels, but it still seems futuristic, and sometimes that is reason enough to do it. More than almost anything else, levitating cars and skateboards would bring the unmistakable message that the future has arrived. So we may see the levitating robots and toys and transport that we have come to expect in sci-fi.

To do it, we need strong magnetic fields, but they can be produced by high electrical currents in graphene circuits. Plasma is easy enough to make too. Electron pipes could do that and could be readily applied as a coating to the underside of a car or any hard surface rather like paint. We can’t do that bit yet, but a couple of decades from now it may well be feasible. By then most new cars will be self-driving, and will drive very closely together, so the need to stop quickly or divert from a path can be more easily solved. One by one, the problems with making levitating vehicles will disappear and wheels may become obsolete. We still won’t have very many flying cars, but lots that float above the ground.

All in all, levitation has a future, just as we’ve been taught to expect by sci-fi.

 

Future democracy: sensible proportional representation

With the current state of UK politics, I believe this is an idea whose time has come.

The UK government comprises members who won the most votes in their constituency. It is a simple system, but it favors parties whose votes are concentrated in certain regions. Parties whose support is spread evenly rarely reach a majority anywhere so they get very few seats even if they have a large voter share. Those with low support usually don’t get any seats at all, but if their support is mostly from a single area, they can win a seat. Whatever the merits of such a system, and there are some, it certainly isn’t ‘fair’ in terms of equal representation. With some constituencies bigger than others, some voters get far better representation of their views than others.

My suggestion is very simple. Firstly, each MP in parliament should have the value of their vote on each issue scaled to the national proportion of people who voted for that party. Secondly, so that all significant parties are represented, each party with more than 1% of the national vote should get at least one MP, even if none achieved a majority anywhere. So to take real examples, if the Green Party gets 2% of votes, but only one seat out of 600, then their MP should be given 12 votes. If the Labour Party, with 30%, gets 45% of the seats, then each of their MPs should only get two thirds of a vote each. If Conservative win 35% of the seats with 35% of the vote, they would get one vote each. That way, there would still be a good mix of MPs and each would still represent a constituency, but every voter would have equal representation, very unlike the current system. Minority parties would benefit greatly, and the big parties would have to suffer only getting the power they actually represent.

With such a system, it ought also to be possible to divide your vote, giving some of it to one party and some to another. That would immediately remove the problem where if the left or right vote is divided, that the MP the fewest people support can win the seat. They would still win that seat, but the voting power would still go to all the parties according to their actual support.

Naturally, some people would like this system and others would hate it. It is quite normal to want to keep an unfair advantage and upsetting when it is removed. But it is surely time to make democracy so that every voter has an equal say in the running of the country.

Alcohol-free beer goggles

You remember that person you danced with and thought was wonderful, and then you met them the next day and your opinion was less favorable? That’s what people call beer goggles. Alcohol impairs judgment. It makes people chattier and improves their self confidence, but also makes them think others are more physically attractive and more interesting too. That’s why people get drunk apparently, because it upgrades otherwise dull people into tolerable company, breaking the ice and making people sociable and fun.

Augmented reality visors could double as alcohol-free beer goggles. When you look at someone  while wearing the visor, you wouldn’t have to see them warts and all. You could filter the warts. You could overlay their face with an upgraded version, or indeed replace it with someone else’s face. They wouldn’t even have to know.

The arms of the visor could house circuits to generate high intensity oscillating magnetic fields – trans-cranial magnetic stimulation. This has been demonstrated as a means of temporarily switching off certain areas of the brain, or at least reducing their effects. Among areas concerned are those involved in inhibitions. Alcohol does that normally, but you can’t drink tonight, so your visor can achieve the same effect for you.

So the nominated driver could be more included in drunken behavior on nights out. The visor could make people more attractive and reduce your inhibitions, basically replicating at least some of what alcohol does. I am not suggesting for a second that this is a good thing, only that it is technologically feasible. At least the wearer can set alerts so that they don’t declare their undying love to someone without at least being warned of the reality first.

The future of karma

This isn’t about Hinduism or Buddhism, just in case you’re worried. It is just about the cultural principle borrowed from them that your intent and actions now can influence what happens to you in future, or your luck or fate, if you believe in such things. It is borrowed in some computer games, such as Fallout.

We see it every day now on Twitter. A company or individual almost immediately suffers the full social consequences of their words or actions. Many of us are occasionally tempted to shame companies that have wronged us by tweeting our side of the story, or writing a bad review on tripadvisor. One big thing is so missing, but I suspect not for much longer: Who’s keeping score?

Where is the karma being tracked? When you do shame a company or write a bad review, was it an honest write-up of a genuine grievance, or way over the top compared to the magnitude of the offense, or just pure malice? If you could have written a review and didn’t, should your forgiving attitude be rewarded or punished, because now others might suffer similar bad service? I haven’t checked but I expect there are already a few minor apps that do bits of this. But we need the Google and Facebook of Karma.

So, we need another 17 year old in a bedroom to bring out the next blockbuster mash site linking the review sites, the tweets and blogs, doing an overall assessment not just of the companies being commented on, but on those doing the commenting. One that gives people and companies a karma score. As the machine-readable web continues to improve, it will even be possible to get some clues on average rates of poor service and therefore identify those of us who are probably more forgiving, those of us who deserve a little more tolerance when it’s our own mistake. (I am allegedly closer to the grumpy old man end of the scale).

I just did a conference talk on corporate credit assessment and have previously done others on private credit assessment. Financial trustworthiness is important, but when you do business, you also want to know whether it’s a nice company or one that walks all over people. That’s karma.

So, are you someone who presents a sweet and cheerful face, only to say nasty things about someone as soon as their face is turned. Do you always see the good side of everyone, or go to great effort to point out their bad points to everyone on the web? Well, it won’t be all that long before your augmented reality visor shows a karma score floating above people’s heads when you chat to them.