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.

The future of walled gardens

In the physical world, walled gardens are pretty places we visit, pay an entry fee, then enjoy the attractions therein. It is well understood that people often only value what they have to pay for and walled gardens capitalise on that. While there, we may buy coffees or snacks from the captive facilities at premium prices and we generally accept that premium as normal practice. Charging an entry fee ensures that people are more likely to stay inside for longer, using services (picnic areas, scenery, toilets etc) they have already paid for rather than similar ones outside that may be free and certainly instead of paying another provider as well.

In the content industry, the term applies to bundles of services from a particular supplier or available on a particular platform. There is some financial, psychological, convenience, time or other cost to enter and then to leave. Just as with the real thing, they have a range of attractions within that make people want to enter, and once there, they will often access local service variants rather than pay the penalty to leave and access perhaps better ones elsewhere. Our regulators started taking notice of them in the early days of cable TV, addressed the potential abuses and sometimes took steps to prevent telecoms or cable companies from locking customers in. More recently, operating system and device manufacturers have also fallen under the same inspection.

Commercial enterprises have an interest in keeping customers within their domain so that they can extract the most profit from them. What is less immediately obvious is why customers allow it. If people want to use a particular physical facility, such as an airport, or a particular tourist attraction such as a city, or indeed a walled garden, then they have to put up with the particular selection of shops and restaurants there, and are vulnerable to exploitation such as higher prices because of the lack of local choice. There is a high penalty in time and expense to find an alternative. With device manufacturers, the manufacturer is in an excellent position to force customers to use services from those they have selected, and that enables them to skim charges for transactions, sometimes from both ends. The customer can only avoid that by using multiple devices, which incurs a severe cost penalty. There may be some competition among apps within the same garden, but all are subject to the rules of the garden. Operating systems are also walled gardens, but the OS usually just goes with the choice of device. It may be possible to swap to an alternative, but few users bother; most just accept the one that it comes with.

Walled gardens in the media are common but easier to avoid. With free satellite and terrestrial TV as well as online video and TV services, there is now abundant choice, though each provider still tries to make cute little walled gardens if they can. Customers can’t get access to absolutely all content unless they pay multiple subscriptions, but can minimize outlay by choosing the most appropriate garden for their needs and staying in it.

The web has disappointed though. When it was young, many imagined it would become a perfect market, with suppliers offering services and everyone would see all the offerings, all the prices and make free decisions where to buy and deal direct without having to pay for intermediaries. It has so badly missed the target that Berners Lee and others are now thinking how it can be redesigned to achieve the original goals. Users can theoretically browse freely, but the services they actually want to use often become natural monopolies, and can then expand organically into other territories, becoming walled gardens. The salvation is that new companies can always emerge that provide an alternative. It’s impossible to monopolize cyberspace. Only bits of it can be walled off.

Natural monopolies arise when people have free access to everything but one supplier offers something unique and thus becomes the only significant player. Amazon wasn’t a walled garden when it started so much as a specialist store that grew into a small mall and is now a big cyber-city. Because it is so dominant and facilitates buying from numerous suppliers, it certainly qualifies as a walled garden now, but it is still possible to easily find many other stores. By contrast, Facebook has been a walled garden since its infancy, with a miniature web-like world inside its walls with its own versions of popular services. It can monitor and exploit the residents for as long as it can prevent them leaving. The primary penalties for leaving are momentarily losing contact with friends and losing interface familiarity, but I have never understood why so many people spend so much of their time locked within its walls rather than using the full range of web offerings available to them. The walls seem very low, and the world outside is obviously attractive, so the voluntary confinement is beyond my comprehension.

There will remain be a big incentive for companies to build walled gardens and plenty of scope for making diverse collections of unique content and functions too and plenty of companies wanting to make theirs as attractive as possible and attempt to keep people inside. However, artificial intelligence may well change the way that networked material is found, so the inconvenience wall may vanish, along with the OS and interface familiarity walls. Deliberate barriers and filters may prevent it gaining access to some things, but without deliberate obstruction, many walled gardens may only have one side walled, that of price for unique content. If that is all it has to lock people in, then it may really be no different conceptually from a big store. Supermarkets offer this in the physical world, but many other shops remain.

If companies try to lock in too much content in one place, others will offer competing packages. It would make it easier for competitors and that is a disincentive. If a walled garden becomes too greedy, its suppliers and customers will go elsewhere. The key to managing them is to ensure diversity by ensuring the capability to compete. Diversity keeps them naturally in check.

Network competition may well be key. If users have devices that can make their own nets or access many externally provided ones, the scope for competition is high, and the ease of communicating and dealing directly is also high. It will be easy for producers to sell content direct and avoid middlemen taking a cut. That won’t eliminate walled gardens, because some companies will still do exclusive deals and not want to deal direct. There are many attractive business models available to potential content producers and direct selling is only one. Also, as new streams of content become attractive, they are sometimes bought, and this can be the intended exit strategy for start-ups.

Perhaps that is where we are already at. Lots of content that isn’t in walled gardens exists and much is free. Much is exclusive to walled gardens. It is easy to be influenced by recent acquisitions and market fluctuations, but really, the nature of the market hasn’t really changed, it just adapts to new physical platforms. In the physical world, we are free to roam but walled gardens offer attractive destinations. The same applies to media. Walled gardens won’t go away, but there is also no reason to expect them to take over completely. With new networks, new business models, new entrepreneurs, new content makers, new viewing platforms, the same business diversity will continue. Fluctuating degrees of substitution rather than full elimination will continue to be the norm.

Or maybe I’m having an off-day and just can’t see something important. Who knows?

 

 

The future of Jelly Babies

Another frivolous ‘future of’, recycled from 10 years ago.

I’ve always loved Jelly Babies, (Jelly Bears would work as well if you prefer those) and remember that Dr Who used to eat them a lot too. Perhaps we all have a mean streak, but I’m sure most if us sometimes bite off their heads before eating the rest. But that might all change. I must stress at this point that I have never even spoken to anyone from Bassetts, who make the best ones, and I have absolutely no idea what plans they might have, and they might even strongly disapprove of my suggestions, but they certainly could do this if they wanted, as could anyone else who makes Jelly Babies or Jelly Bears or whatever.

There will soon be various forms of edible electronics. Some electronic devices can already be swallowed, including a miniature video camera that can take pictures all the way as it proceeds through your digestive tract (I don’t know whether they bother retrieving them though). Some plastics can be used as electronic components. We also have loads of radio frequency identity (RFID) tags around now. Some tags work in groups, recording whether they have been separated from each other at some point, for example. With nanotech, we will be able to make tags using little more than a few well-designed molecules, and few materials are so poisonous that a few molecules can do you much harm so they should be sweet-compliant. So extrapolating a little, it seems reasonable to expect that we might be able to eat things that have specially made RFID tags in them.  It would make a lot of sense. They could be used on fruit so that someone buying an apple could ingest the RFID tag on it without concern. And as well as work on RFID tags, many other electronic devices can be made very small, and out of fairly safe materials too.

So I propose that Jelly Baby manufacturers add three organic RFID tags to each jelly baby, (legs, head and body), some processing, and a simple communications device When someone bites the head off a jelly baby, the jelly baby would ‘know’, because the tags would now be separated. The other electronics in the jelly baby could then come into play, setting up a wireless connection to the nearest streaming device and screaming through the loudspeakers. It could also link to the rest of the jelly babies left in the packet, sending out a radio distress call. The other jelly babies, and any other friends they can solicit help from via the internet, could then use their combined artificial intelligence to organise a retaliatory strike on the person’s home computer. They might be able to trash the hard drive, upload viruses, or post a stroppy complaint on social media about the person’s cruelty.

This would make eating jelly babies even more fun than today. People used to spend fortunes going on safari to shoot lions. I presume it was exciting at least in part because there was always a risk that you might not kill the lion and it might eat you instead. With our environmentally responsible attitudes, it is no longer socially acceptable to hunt lions, but jelly babies could be the future replacement. As long as you eat them in the right order, with the appropriate respect and ceremony and so on, you would just enjoy eating a nice sweet. If you get it wrong, your life is trashed for the next day or two. That would level the playing field a bit.

Jelly Baby anyone?

The future of I

Me, myself, I, identity, ego, self, lots of words for more or less the same thing. The way we think of ourselves evolves just like everything else. Perhaps we are still cavemen with better clothes and toys. You may be a man, a dad, a manager, a lover, a friend, an artist and a golfer and those are all just descendants of caveman, dad, tribal leader, lover, friend, cave drawer and stone thrower. When you play Halo as Master Chief, that is not very different from acting or putting a tiger skin on for a religious ritual. There have always been many aspects of identity and people have always occupied many roles simultaneously. Technology changes but it still pushes the same buttons that we evolved hundred thousands of years ago.

Will we develop new buttons to push? Will we create any genuinely new facets of ‘I’? I wrote a fair bit about aspects of self when I addressed the related topic of gender, since self perception includes perceptions of how others perceive us and attempts to project chosen identity to survive passing through such filters:

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

Self is certainly complex. Using ‘I’ simplifies the problem. When you say ‘I’, you are communicating with someone, (possibly yourself). The ‘I’ refers to a tailored context-dependent blend made up of a subset of what you genuinely consider to be you and what you want to project, which may be largely fictional. So in a chat room where people often have never physically met, very often, one fictional entity is talking to another fictional entity, with each side only very loosely coupled to reality. I think that is different from caveman days.

Since chat rooms started, virtual identities have come a long way. As well as acting out manufactured characters such as the heroes in computer games, people fabricate their own characters for a broad range of kinds of ‘shared spaces’, design personalities and act them out. They may run that personality instance in parallel with many others, possibly dozens at once. Putting on an act is certainly not new, and friends easily detect acts in normal interactions when they have known a real person a long time, but online interactions can mean that the fictional version is presented it as the only manifestation of self that the group sees. With no other means to know that person by face to face contact, that group has to take them at face value and interact with them as such, though they know that may not represent reality.

These designed personalities may be designed to give away as little as possible of the real person wielding them, and may exist for a range of reasons, but in such a case the person inevitably presents a shallow image. Probing below the surface must inevitably lead to leakage of the real self. New personality content must be continually created and remembered if the fictional entity is to maintain a disconnect from the real person. Holding the in-depth memory necessary to recall full personality aspects and history for numerous personalities and executing them is beyond most people. That means that most characters in shared spaces take on at least some characteristics of their owners.

But back to the point. These fabrications should be considered as part of that person. They are an ‘I’ just as much as any other ‘I’. Only their context is different. Those parts may only be presented to subsets of the role population, but by running them, the person’s brain can’t avoid internalizing the experience of doing so. They may be partly separated but they are fully open to the consciousness of that person. I think that as augmented and virtual reality take off over the next few years, we will see their importance grow enormously. As virtual worlds start to feel more real, so their anchoring and effects in the person’s mind must get stronger.

More than a decade ago, AI software agents started inhabiting chat rooms too, and in some cases these ‘bots’ become a sufficient nuisance that they get banned. The front that they present is shallow but can give an illusion of reality. In some degree, they are an extension of the person or people that wrote their code. In fact, some are deliberately designed to represent a person when they are not present. The experiences that they have can’t be properly internalized by their creators, so they are a very limited extension to self. But how long will that be true? Eventually, with direct brain links and transhuman brain extensions into cyberspace, the combined experiences of I-bots may be fully available to consciousness just the same as first hand experiences.

Then it will get interesting. Some of those bots might be part of multiple people. People’s consciousnesses will start to overlap. People might collect them, or subscribe to them. Much as you might subscribe to my blog, maybe one day, part of one person’s mind, manifested as a bot or directly ‘published’, will become part of your mind. Some people will become absorbed into the experience and adopt so many that their own original personality becomes diluted to the point of disappearance. They will become just an interference pattern of numerous minds. Some will be so infectious that they will spread widely. For many, it will be impossible to die, and for many others, their minds will be spread globally. The hive minds of Dr Who, then later the Borg on Star Trek are conceptual prototypes but as with any sci-fi, they are limited by the imagination of the time they were conceived. By the time they become feasible, we will have moved on and the playground will be far richer than we can imagine yet.

So, ‘I’ has a future just as everything else. We may have just started to add extra facets a couple of decades ago, but the future will see our concept of self evolve far more quickly.

Postscript

I got asked by a reader whether I worry about this stuff. Here is my reply:

It isn’t the technology that worries me so much that humanity doesn’t really have any fixed anchor to keep human nature in place. Genetics fixed our biological nature and our values and morality were largely anchored by the main religions. We in the West have thrown our religion in the bin and are already seeing a 30 year cycle in moral judgments which puts our value sets on something of a random walk, with no destination, the current direction governed solely by media and interpretation and political reaction to of the happenings of the day. Political correctness enforces subscription to that value set even more strictly than any bishop ever forced religious compliance. Anyone that thinks religion has gone away just because people don’t believe in God any more is blind.

Then as genetics technology truly kicks in, we will be able to modify some aspects of our nature. Who knows whether some future busybody will decree that a particular trait must be filtered out because it doesn’t fit his or her particular value set? Throwing AI into the mix as a new intelligence alongside will introduce another degree of freedom. So already several forces acting on us in pretty randomized directions that can combine to drag us quickly anywhere. Then the stuff above that allows us to share and swap personality? Sure I worry about it. We are like young kids being handed a big chemistry set for Christmas without the instructions, not knowing that adding the blue stuff to the yellow stuff and setting it alight will go bang.

I am certainly no technotopian. I see the enormous potential that the tech can bring and it could be wonderful and I can’t help but be excited by it. But to get that you need to make the right decisions, and when I look at the sorts of leaders we elect and the sorts of decisions that are made, I can’t find the confidence that we will make the right ones.

On the good side, engineers and scientists are usually smart and can see most of the issues and prevent most of the big errors by using comon industry standards, so there is a parallel self-regulatory system in place that politicians rarely have any interest in. On the other side, those smart guys unfortunately will usually follow the same value sets as the rest of the population. So we’re quite likely to avoid major accidents and blowing ourselves up or being taken over by AIs. But we’re unlikely to avoid the random walk values problem and that will be our downfall.

So it could be worse, but it could be a whole lot better too.

 

The future of high quality TV

I occasionally do talks on future TV and I generally ignore current companies and their recent developments because people can read about them anywhere. If it is already out there, it isn’t the future. Companies make announcements of technologies they expect to bring in soon, which is the future, but they don’t tend to announce things until they’re almost ready for market so tracking those is no use for long term futurology.

Thanks to Pauline Rigby on Twitter, I saw the following article about Dolby’s new High Dynamic Range TV:

http://www.redsharknews.com/technology/item/2052-the-biggest-advance-in-video-for-ten-years-and-it-s-nothing-to-do-with-resolution

High dynamic range allows light levels to be reproduced across a high dynamic range. I love tech, terminology is so damned intuitive. So hopefully we will see the darkest blacks and the brightest lights.

It looks a good idea! But it won’t be their last development. We hear that the best way to predict the future is to invent it, so here’s my idea: textured pixels.

As they say, there is more to vision than just resolution. There is more to vision than just light too, even though our eyes can only make images from incoming photons and human eyes can’t even differentiate their polarisation. Eyes are not just photon detectors, they also do some image pre-processing, and the brain does a great deal more processing, using all sorts of clues from the image context.

Today’s TV displays mostly use red, blue and green LCD pixels back-lit by LEDs, fluorescent tubes or other lighting. Some newer ones use LEDs as the actual pixels, demonstrating just how stupid it was to call LCD TVs with LED back-lighting LED TVs. Each pixel that results is a small light source that can vary in brightness. Even with the new HDR that will still be the case.

Having got HDR, I suggest that textured pixels should be the next innovation. Texture is a hugely important context for vision. Micromechanical devices are becoming commonplace, and some proteins are moving into nano-motor technology territory. It would be possible to change the direction of a small plate that makes up the area of the pixel. At smaller scales, ridges could be created on the pixel, or peaks and troughs. Even reversible chemical changes could be made. Technology can go right down to nanoscale, far below the ability of the eye to perceive it, so matching the eye’s capabilities to discern texture should be feasible in the near future. If a region of the display has a physically different texture than other areas, that is an extra level of reality that they eye can perceive. It could appear glossy or matt, rough or smooth, warm or cold. Linking pixels together across an area, it could far better convey movement than jerky video frames. Sure you can emulate texture to some degree using just light, but it loses the natural subtlety.

So HDR good, Textured HDR better.

 

 

The future of gardens

It’s been weeks since my last blog. I started a few but they need some more thought so as a catch-up, here is a nice frivolous topic, recycled from 1998.

Surely gardens are a place to get back to nature, to escape from technology? Well, when journalists ask to see really advanced technology, I take them to the garden. Humans still have a long way to go to catch up with what nature does all the time. A dragonfly catching smaller flies is just a hint of future warfare, and every flower is an exercise in high precision marketing, let alone engineering. But we will catch up, and even the stages between now and then will be fun.

Advanced garden technology today starts and ends with robotic lawn trimmers. I guess you could add the special materials used in garden tools, advanced battery tech, security monitoring, plant medications and nutrition. OK, there are already lots of advanced technologies in gardens, they just aren’t very glamorous. The fact is that our gardens already use a wide range of genetically enhanced plants and flowers, state of the art fertilizers and soil conditioners, fancy lawnmowers and automatic sprinkler systems. So what can we expect next?

Fiber optic plants already  add a touch of somewhat tacky enchantment to a garden and can be a good substitute for more conventional lighting. Home security uses video cameras and webcams and some rather fun documentaries have resulted from videoing pets and wild animals during the night. There will soon be many other appliances in the future garden, including the various armies of robots and micro-bots  doing a range of jobs from cutting the grass every time a blade gets more than 3 cm long, weeding, watering, pollination or carrying individual grains of fertilizer to the plants that need it. Others will fight with bugs or tidy up debris, or remove dying flowers to keep the garden looking pristine. They could even assist in propagation, burying seeds in just the right places and tending them while they become established. The garden pond may have robot ducks or fish just for fun.

Various sensors may be inserted into the ground around the garden, or smart dust just sprinkled randomly. These would warn when the ground is getting too dry and perhaps co-ordinate automatic sprinklers. They could also monitor the chemical composition, advising the gardener where to add which type of fertilizer or conditioner. In fact, when the price and size falls sufficiently, electronic sensors might well be mixed in with fertilizer and other garden care products.

With all this robot assistance, the human may design the garden and then just let the robots get on with the construction and maintenance. Or maybe just download a garden plan if they’re really lazy, or get the AI to download one.

Another obvious potential impact comes in the shape of genetic engineering. While designing the genome for custom plants is not quite as simple as assembling Lego blocks, we will nevertheless be able to pick and choose from a wide variety of characteristics available from anywhere in the plant and animal kingdom. We are promised blue roses that smell of designer perfumes, grass that only needs cut once a year and ground cover plants that actually grow faster than weeds. By messing about with genes we can thus change the appearance and characteristics of plants enormously, and while getting a company logo to appear on a flower petal might be beyond us, the garden could certainly look much more kaleidoscopic than today’s. We are already in the era where genetics has become a hobbyist activity, but so far the limits are pretty simple gene transfers to add fun things like fluorescence or light emission. Legislation will hopefully prevent people using such clubs to learn how to make viruses or bacteria for terrorist use.

In the long term we are not limited by the Lego bricks provided by nature. Nanotechnology will eventually allow us to produce inorganic ‘plants’ . You might buy a seed and drop it in the required place and it would grow into a predetermined structure just like an organic seed, taking the materials from the soil or air, or perhaps from some additives. However, there is almost no theoretical limit to the type of ‘plant’ that could be produced this way. Flowers with logos are possible, but so are video displays built into the flowers, so are garden gnomes that wander around or that actually fish in the pond. A wide range of static and dynamic ornamentation could add fun to every garden. Nanotechnology has so many possibilities, there are almost no ultimate limits to what can be done apart from the fundamental physics of materials. Power supplies for these devices could use solar, wind or thermal power.

On the patio, there is more scope for video displays in the paving and walls, to add color or atmosphere, and also to provide a recharging base for the robots without their own independent power supplies. Flat speakers could also be built into the walls, providing birdsong or other natural sounds that are otherwise declining in our gardens. Appropriately placed large display panels could simulate being on a beach while sunbathing in Nottingham (for non-Brits, Nottingham is a city not renowned for its sunshine, and very far from a beach).

All in all, the garden could become a place of relaxation, getting back to what we like best in nature, without all the boring bits looking after it in our few spare hours. Even before we retire, we will be able to enjoy the garden, instead of just weeding and cutting the grass.

1998 is a long time ago and I have lots of new ideas for the garden now, but time demands I leave them for a later blog.

The future of planetary exploration robots

An article in Popular Science about explorer robots:

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

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

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

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

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

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