The future of electronic cash and value

 

Picture first, I’m told people like to see pics in blogs. This one is from 1998; only the title has changed since.

future electronic cash

Every once in a while I have to go to a bank. This time it was my 5th attempt to pay off a chunk of my Santander Mortgage. I didn’t know all the account details for web transfer so went to the Santander branch. Fail – they only take cash and cheques. Cash and what??? So I tried via internet banking. Entire transaction details plus security entered, THEN Fail – I exceeded what Barclays allows for their fast transfers. Tried again with smaller amount and again all details and all security. Fail again, Santander can’t receive said transfers, try CHAPS. Tried CHAPS, said it was all fine, all hunkydory. Happy bunny. Double fail. It failed due to amount exceeding limit AND told me it had succeeded when it hadn’t. I then drove 12 miles to my Barclays branch who eventually managed to do it, I think (though I haven’t checked that it worked  yet).

It is 2015. Why the hell is it so hard for two world class banks to offer a service we should have been able to take for granted 20 years ago?

Today, I got tweeted about Ripple Labs and a nice blog that quote their founder sympathising with my experience above and trying to solve it, with some success:

http://www.wfs.org/blogs/richard-samson/supermoney-new-wealth-beyond-banks-and-bitcoin

Ripple seems good as far as it goes, which is summarised in the blog, but do read the full original:

Basically the Ripple protocol “provides the ability for humans to confirm financial transactions without a central operator,” says Larsen. “This is major.” Bitcoin was the first technology to successfully bypass banks and other authorities as transaction validators, he points out, “but our method is much cheaper and takes only seconds rather than minutes.” And that’s just for starters. For example, “It also leverages the enormous power of banks and other financial institutions.”

The power of the value web stems from replacing archaic back-end systems with all their cumbersome delays and unnecessary costs. 

That’s great, I wish them the best of success. It is always nice to see new systems that are more efficient than the old ones, but the idea is early 1990s. Lots of IT people looked at phone billing systems and realised they managed to do for a penny what banks did for 65 pennies at the time, and telco business cases were developed to replace the banks with pretty much what Ripple tries to do. Those were never developed for a variety of reasons, both business and regulatory, but the ideas were certainly understood and developed broadly at engineer level to include not only traditional cash forms but many that didn’t exist then and still don’t. Even Ripple can only process transactions that are equivalent to money such as traditional currencies, electronic cash forms like bitcoin, sea shells or air-miles.

That much is easy, but some forms require other tokens to have value, such as personalized tokens. Some value varies according to queue lengths, time of day, who is spending it to whom. Some needs to be assignable, so you can give money that can only be used to purchase certain things, and may have a whole basket of conditions attached. Money is also only one form of value, and many forms of value are volatile, only existing at certain times and places in certain conditions for certain transactors. Aesthetic cash? Play money? IOUs? Favours?These are  all a bit like cash but not necessarily tradable or exchangeable using simple digital transaction engines because they carry emotional weighting as well as financial value. In the care economy, which is now thankfully starting to develop and is finally reaching concept critical mass, emotional value will become immensely important and it will have some tradable forms, though much will not be tradable ever. We understood all that then, but are still awaiting proper implementation. Most new startups on the web are old ideas finally being implemented and Ripple is only a very partial implementation so far.

Here is one of my early blogs from 1998, using ideas we’d developed several years earlier that were no longer commercially sensitive – you’ll observe just how much banks have under-performed against what we expected of them, and what was entirely feasible using already known technology then:

Future of Money

 Ian Pearson, BT Labs, June 98

Already, people are buying things across the internet. Mostly, they hand over a credit card number, but some transactions already use electronic cash. The transactions are secure so the cash doesn’t go astray or disappear, nor can it easily be forged. In due course, using such cash will become an everyday occurrence for us all.

Also already, electronic cash based on smart cards has been trialled and found to work well. The BT form is called Mondex, but it is only one among several. These smart cards allow owners to ‘load’ the card with small amounts of money for use in transactions where small change would normally be used, paying bus fares, buying sweets etc. The cards are equivalent to a purse. But they can and eventually will allow much more. Of course, electronic cash doesn’t have to be held on a card. It can equally well be ‘stored’ in the network. Transactions then just require secure messaging across the network. Currently, the cost of this messaging makes it uneconomic for small transactions that the cards are aimed at, but in due course, this will become the more attractive option, especially since you no longer lose your cash when you lose the card.

When cash is digitised, it loses some of the restrictions of physical cash. Imagine a child has a cash card. Her parents can give her pocket money, dinner money, clothing allowance and so on. They can all be labelled separately, so that she can’t spend all her dinner money on chocolate. Electronic shopping can of course provide the information needed to enable the cash. She may have restrictions about how much of her pocket money she may spend on various items too. There is no reason why children couldn’t implement their own economies too, swapping tokens and IOUs. Of course, in the adult world this grows up into local exchange trading systems (LETS), where people exchange tokens too, a glorified babysitting circle. But these LETS don’t have to be just local, wider circles could be set up, even globally, to allow people to exchange services or information with each other.

Electronic cash can be versatile enough to allow for negotiable cash too. Credit may be exchanged just as cash and cash may be labelled with source. For instance, we may see celebrity cash, signed by the celebrity, worth more because they have used it. Cash may be labelled as tax paid, so those donations from cards to charities could automatically expand with the recovered tax. Alternatively, VAT could be recovered at point of sale.

With these advanced facilities, it becomes obvious that the cash needs to become better woven into taxation systems, as well as auditing and accounting systems. These functions can be much more streamlined as a result, with less human administration associated with money.

When ID verification is added to the transactions, we can guarantee who it is carrying out the transaction. We can then implement personal taxation, with people paying different amounts for the same goods. This would only work for certain types of purchase – for physical goods there would otherwise be a thriving black market.

But one of the best advantages of making cash digital is the seamlessness of international purchases. Even without common official currency, the electronic cash systems will become de facto international standards. This will reduce the currency exchange tax we currently pay to the banks every time we travel to a different country, which can add up to as much as 25% for an overnight visit. This is one of the justifications often cited for European monetary union, but it is happening anyway in global e-commerce.

Future of banks

 Banks will have to change dramatically from today’s traditional institutions if they want to survive in the networked world. They are currently introducing internet banking to try to keep customers, but the move to digital electronic cash, held perhaps by the customer or an independent third party, will mean that the cash can be quite separate from the transaction agent. Cash does not need to be stored in a bank if records in secured databases anywhere can be digitally signed and authenticated. The customer may hold it on his own computer, or in a cyberspace vault elsewhere. With digital signatures and high network security, advanced software will put the customer firmly in control with access to any facility or service anywhere.

In fact, no-one need hold cash at all, or even move it around. Cash is just bits today, already electronic records. In the future, it will be an increasingly blurred entity, mixing credit, reputation, information, and simply promises into exchangeable tokens. My salary may be just a digitally signed certificate from BT yielding control of a certain amount of credit, just another signature on a long list as the credit migrates round the economy. The ‘promise to pay the bearer’ just becomes a complex series of serial promises. Nothing particularly new here, just more of what we already have. Any corporation or reputable individual may easily capture the bank’s role of keeping track of the credit. It is just one service among many that may leave the bank.

As the world becomes increasingly networked, the customer could thus retain complete control of the cash and its use, and could buy banking services on a transaction by transaction basis. For instance, I could employ one company to hold my cash securely and prevent its loss or forgery, while renting the cash out to companies that want to borrow via another company, keeping the bulk of the revenue for myself. Another company might manage my account, arrange transfers etc, and deal with the taxation, auditing etc. I could probably get these done on my personal computer, but why have a dog and bark yourself.

The key is flexibility, none of these services need be fixed any more. Banks will not compete on overall package, but on every aspect of service. Worse still (for the banks), some of their competitors will be just freeware agents. The whole of the finance industry will fragment. The banks that survive will almost by definition be very adaptable. Services will continue and be added to, but not by the rigid structures of today. Surviving banks should be able to compete for a share of the future market as well as anyone. They certainly have a head start in many of the required skills, and have the advantage of customer lethargy when it comes to changing to potentially better suppliers. Many of their customers will still value tradition and will not wish to use the better and cheaper facilities available on the network. So as always, it looks like there will be a balance.

Firstly, with large numbers of customers moving to the network for their banking services, banks must either cater for this market or become a niche operator, perhaps specialising in tradition, human service and even nostalgia. Most banks however will adapt well to network existence and will either be entirely network based, or maintain a high street presence to complement their network presence.

High Street banking

 Facilities in high street banking will echo this real world/cyberspace nature. It must be possible to access network facilities from within the banks, probably including those of competitors. The high street bank may therefore be more like shops today, selling wares from many suppliers, but with a strongly placed own brand. There is of course a niche for banks with no services of their own at all who just provide access to services from other suppliers. All they offer in addition is a convenient and pleasant place to access them, with some human assistance as appropriate.

Traditional service may sometimes be pushed as a differentiator, and human service is bound to attract many customers too. In an increasingly machine dominated world, actually having the right kind of real people may be significant value add.

But many banks will be bursting with high technology either alongside or in place of people. Video terminals to access remote services, perhaps with translation to access foreign services. Biometric identification based on iris scan, fingerprints etc may be used to authenticate smart cards, passports or other legal documents before their use, or simply a means of registering securely onto the network. High quality printers and electronic security embedding would enable banks to offer additional facilities like personal bank notes, usable as cash.

Of course, banks can compete in any financial service. Because the management of financial affairs gives them a good picture of many customer’s habits and preferences, they will be able to use this information to sell customer lists, identify market niches for new businesses, and predict the likely success of customers proposing setting up businesses.

As they try to stretch their brands into new territories, one area they may be successful is in information banking. People may use banks as the publishers of the future. Already knowledge guilds are emerging. Ultimately, any piece of information from any source can be marketed at very low publishing and distribution cost, making previously unpublishable works viable. Many people have wanted to write, but have been unable to find publishers due to the high cost of getting to market in paper. A work may be sold on the network for just pennies, and achieve market success by selling many more copies than could have been achieved by the high priced paper alternative. The success of electronic encyclopedias and the demise of Encyclopedia Britannica is evidence of this. Banks could allow people to upload information onto the net, which they would then manage the resultant financial transactions. If there aren’t very many, the maximum loss to the bank is very small. Of course, electronic cash and micropayment technology mean that the bank is not necessary, but for many, it may smooth the road.

Virtual business centres

Their exposure to the detailed financial affairs of the community put banks in a privileged position in identifying potential markets. They could therefore act as co-ordinators for virtual companies and co-operatives. Building on the knowledge guilds, they could broker the skills of their many customers to existing virtual companies and link people together to address business needs not addressed by existing companies, or where existing companies are inadequate or inefficient. In this way, short-term contractors, who may dominate the employment community, can be efficiently utilised to everyone’s gain. The employees win by getting more lucrative work, their customers get more efficient services at lower cost, and the banks laugh to themselves.

Future of the stock market

 In the next 10 years, we will probably see a factor of 1000 in computer speed and memory capacity. In parallel with hardware development, there are numerous research forays into software techniques that might yield more factors of 10 in the execution speed for programs. Tasks that used to take a second will be reduced to a millisecond. As if this impact were not enough, software will very soon be able to make logical deductions from the flood of information on the internet, not just from Reuters or Bloomberg, but from anywhere. They will be able to assess the quality and integrity of the data, correlate it with other data, run models, and infer likely other events and make buy or sell recommendations. Much dealing will still be done automatically subject to human-imposed restrictions, and the speed and quality of this dealing could far exceed current capability.

Which brings problems…

Firstly, the speed of light is fast but finite. With these huge processing speeds, computers will be able to make decisions within microseconds of receiving information. Differences in distance from the information source become increasingly important. Being just 200m closer to the Bank of England makes one microsecond difference to the time of arrival of information on interest rates, the information, insignificant to a human, but of sufficient duration for a fast computer to but or sell before competitors even receive the information. As speeds increase further over following years, the significant distance drops. This effect will cause great unfairness according to geographic proximity to important sources. There are two obvious outcomes. Either there becomes a strong premium on being closest, with rises in property values nearby to key sources, or perhaps network operators could be asked to provide guaranteed simultaneous delivery of information. This is entirely technically feasible but would need regulation, otherwise users could simply use alternative networks.

Secondly, exactly simultaneous processing will cause problems. If many requests for transactions arrive at exactly the same moment, computers or networks have to give priority in some way. This is bound to be a source of contention. Also, simultaneous events can often cause malfunctions, as was demonstrated perfectly at the launch of Big Bang. Information waves caused by such events are a network phenomenon that could potentially crash networks.

Such a delay-sensitive system may dictate network technology. Direct transmission through the air by means of radio or infrared (optical wireless) would be faster than routing signals through fibres that take a more tortuous route, especially since the speed of light in fibre is only two third that in air.

Ultimately, there is a final solution if speed of computing increases so far that transmission delay is too big a problem. The processing engines could actually be shared, with all the deals and information processing taking place in a central computer, using massive parallelism. It would be possible to construct such a machine that treated each subscribing company fairly.

An interesting future side effect of all this is that the predicted flood of people into the countryside may be averted. Even though people can work from anywhere, their computers have to be geographically very close to the information centres, i.e. the City. Automated dealing has to live in the city, human based dealing can work from anywhere. If people and machines have to work together, perhaps they must both work in the City.

Consumer dealing

 The stock exchange long since stopped being a trading floor with scraps of paper and became a distributed computer environment – it effectively moved into cyberspace. The deals still take place, but in cyberspace. There are no virtual environments yet, but the other tools such as automated buying and selling already exist. These computers are becoming smarter and exist in cyberspace every bit the same as the people. As a result, there is more automated analysis, more easy visualisation and more computer assisted dealing. People will be able to see which shares are doing well, spot trends and act on their computer’s advice at a button push. Markets will grow for tools to profit from shares, whether they be dealing software, advice services or visualisation software.

However, as we see more people buying personal access to share dealing and software to determine best buys, or even to automatically buy or sell on certain clues, we will see some very negative behaviours. Firstly, traffic will be highly correlated if personal computers can all act on the same information at the same time. We will see information waves, and also enormous swings in share prices. Most private individuals will suffer because of this, while institutions and individuals with better software will benefit. This is because prices will rise and fall simply because of the correlated activity of the automated software and not because of any real effects related to the shares themselves. Institutions may have to limit private share transactions to control this problem, but can also make a lot of money from modelling the private software and thus determining in advance what the recommendations and actions will be, capitalising enormously on the resultant share movements, and indeed even stimulating them. Of course, if this problem is generally perceived by the share dealing public, the AI software will not take off so the problem will not arise. What is more likely is that such software will sell in limited quantities, causing the effects to be significant, but not destroying the markets.

A money making scam is thus apparent. A company need only write a piece of reasonably good AI share portfolio management software for it to capture a fraction of the available market. The company writing it will of course understand how it works and what the effects of a piece of information will be (which they will receive at the same time), and thus able to predict the buying or selling activity of the subscribers. If they were then to produce another service which makes recommendations, they would have even more notice of an effect and able to directly influence prices. They would then be in the position of the top market forecasters who know their advice will be self fulfilling. This is neither insider dealing nor fraud, and of course once the software captures a significant share, the quality of its advice would be very high, decoupling share performance from the real world. Only the last people to react would lose out, paying the most, or selling at least, as the price is restored to ‘correct’ by the stock exchange, and of course even this is predictable to a point. The fastest will profit most.

The most significant factor in this is the proportion of share dealing influenced by that companies software. The problem is that software markets tend to be dominated by just two or three companies, and the nature of this type of software is that their is strong positive reinforcement for the company with the biggest influence, which could quickly lead to a virtual monopoly. Also, it really doesn’t matter whether the software is on the visualisation tools or AI side. Each can have a predictability associated with it.

It is interesting to contemplate the effects this widespread automated dealing would have of the stock market. Black Monday is unlikely to happen again as a result of computer activity within the City, but it certainly looks like prices will occasionally become decoupled from actual value, and price swings will become more significant. Of course, much money can be made on predicting the swings or getting access to the software-critical information before someone else, so we may see a need for equalised delivery services. Without equalised delivery, assuming a continuum of time, those closest to the dealing point will be able to buy or sell quicker, and since the swings could be extremely rapid, this would be very important. Dealers would have to have price information immediately, and of course the finite speed of light does not permit this. If dealing time is quantified, i.e. share prices are updated at fixed intervals, the duration of the interval becomes all important, strongly affect the nature of the market, i.e. whether everyone in that interval pays the same or the first to act gain.

Also of interest is the possibility of agents acting on behalf of many people to negotiate amongst themselves to increase the price of a company’s shares, and then sell on a pre-negotiated time or signal.

Such automated  systems would also be potentially vulnerable to false information from people or agents hoping to capitalise on their correlated behaviour.

Legal problems are also likely. If I write, and sell to a company, a piece of AI based share dealing software which learns by itself how stock market fluctuations arise, and then commits a fraud such as insider dealing (I might not have explained the law, or the law may have changed since it was written), who would be liable?

 And ultimately

 Finally, the 60s sci-fi film, The Forbin Project, considered a world where two massively powerful computers were each assigned control of competing defence systems, each side hoping to gain the edge. After a brief period of cultural exchange, mutual education and negotiation between the machines, they both decided to co-operate rather than compete, and hold all mankind at nuclear gunpoint to prevent wars. In the City of the future, similar competition between massively intelligent supercomputers in share dealing may have equally interesting consequences. Will they all just agree a fixed price and see the market stagnate instantly, or could the system result in economic chaos with massive fluctuations. Perhaps we humans can’t predict how machines much smarter than us would behave. We may just have to wait and see.

End of original blog piece

 

 

The future of digital

Many things are cyclical. Some things are a one way street. Digitization covers some things that shouldn’t be reversed, and some that should and will. I started work early enough to experience using an analog computer. Analog computers use analogs of things to help simulating them. So for example, you can simulate heat flow through a wall by using a battery to provide a voltage as an analog of the temperature difference and a resistor  to be an analog of the wall’s insulation. If you want a better result, you could simulate the heat capacity of the wall using a capacitor. A well-designed analog will produce a useful result. The best thing about analogs is that in some cases they are infinitely fast. Imagine writing a computer simulation of the convection currents in a glass of water. You could build a supercomputer to simulate every atom’s behavior digitally. Your program could include local sources of heat, take account of viscosity, chemical reactions among the impurities and everything else you can think of etc. You might decide to account for the movement of the earth and the Coriolis forces it would generate on the water as the current make the water move. If you want ridiculously precise results you could simulate the effects of every planet in the solar system on atomic movements. You could account for magnetic forces, electrostatic ones and so on. By now, your biggest supercomputer would be able to simulate the glass of water for a few microseconds before it is replaced by an upgrade. You can do it, but it isn’t ideal. The analog alternative is to pour a glass of water and watch it. Every atom, every subatomic particle in that glass, will instantaneously and continually account for every physical interaction with every passing photon, and every other particle in the universe, taking full account of space-time geography and the distances of each particle. It would work pretty well, it would be a good analog, even though it’s probably a glass of different water from a different tap. It will give you a continuous model at almost zero cost that works perfectly and greatly outperforms the digital one. Analog wins.

If you want to add 2+2, an analog computer will give you a result of roughly 4. The next time, it will still be roughly 4 but will be slightly different. A  digital one will always give an answer of precisely 4, unless you’ve messed up badly somewhere. Digital wins.

It is obvious that digital has some advantages and analog does too. Analog is less reproducible, liable to drift, is not always transparent and has many other faults that eventually led to it being replaced for most purpose by digital computing. The truth remains that a glass of water has more processing power than all the digital computers every built put together, if you want to simulate water behavior.

Digital and analog processing are both used in nature. In vision, the retina sends an essentially digital stream of data to the brain. In IT, pretty much all communications is done digitally, as is storage of data. It is far easier to repair the degradation that occurs over time or transmission that way. If a signal level has shrunk slightly, it will still be clear whether it is a 1 or a 0 so it can be corrected, reset to the right level and re-transmitted or stored. For an analog signal, degradation just accumulates until the signal disappears. Digital wins in most of IT.

But back to analog. Much of the processing in many electronic circuits and systems is done in the analog domain before digital takes over for transmission or computation. Even computer motherboards, graphics cards, fans and power supplies have resistors, capacitors and even a transformer can be thought of as an analog device. So analog processing and devices are with us still, just hiding behind the scenes.

I think analog computing will make a comeback, albeit in certain niches. Imagine a typical number-crunching problem for supercomputers, such as simulating heat and force transfer. Imagine making an actual analog of it using some futuristic putty and exposing that putty to actual forces and heat. If there are nano-sensors embedded throughout, you could measure the transfer of forces and heat directly and  not have to calculate it. Again the speed advantage of analog would return. Now suppose a hybrid machine with some such analogs and some digital programming too. Those bit best left to digital could be done digitally and others where real analogs could be made could shortcut the number-crunching requirements tremendously. The overall speed might be dramatically improved without sacrificing integrity. Furthermore, the old problems of drift faced by analog systems could be reduced or almost eliminated by frequent cross referencing and calibration as the system goes on.

Finally, AI may well have a powerful place in consciousness and AI realization. Many people believe AI would be best done using adaptive analog neurons. Until today I was one of them. However, I am starting to doubt that, and this looking again at analog has made me realize a bit more about consciousness techniques, so I will divert from this piece forthwith to write more on conscious computing.

The future of cleaning

I’ve been thinking a bit about cleaning for various customers over the last few years. I won’t bother this time with the various self-cleaning fabrics, the fancy new ultrasonic bubble washing machines, or ultraviolet sterilization for hospitals, even though those are all very important areas.  I won’t even focus on using your old sonic toothbrush heads in warm water with a little detergent to clean the trickier areas of your porcelain collectibles, though that does work much better than I thought it would.

I will instead introduce a new idea for the age of internet of things.

When you put your clothes into a future washing machine, it will also debug, back up, update and run all the antivirus and other security routines to sanitize the IoT stuff in them.

You might also have a box with thew same functions that you can put your portable devices or other things that can’t be washed.

The trouble with internet of things, the new name for the extremely old idea of chips in everything, is that you can put chips in everything, and there is always some reason for doing so, even if it’s only for marking it for ownership purposes. Mostly there are numerous other reasons so you might even find many chips or functions running on a single object. You can’t even keep up with all the usernames and passwords and operating system updates for the few devices you already own. Having hundreds or thousands of them will be impossible if there isn’t an easy way of electronically sanitizing them and updating them. Some can be maintained via the cloud, and you’ll have some apps for looking after some subgroups of them. But some of those devices might well be in parts of your home where the signals don’t penetrate easily. Some will only be used rarely. Some will use batteries that run down and get replaced. Others will be out of date for other reasons. Having a single central device that you can use to process them will be useful.

The washing machine will likely be networked anyway for various functions such as maintenance, energy negotiations and program downloads for special garments. It makes sense to add electronic processing for the garments too. They will be in the machine quite a long time so download speed shouldn’t be a problem, and each part of the garment comes close to a transmitter or sensor each time it is spun around.

A simple box is easy to understand and easy to use too. It might need ports to plug into but more likely wireless or optical connections would be used. The box could electromagnetically shield the device from other interference or security infiltration during processing to make sure it comes out clean and safe and malware free as well as fully updated. A common box means only having to program your preferences once too.

There would still be some devices that can’t be processed either in a box or in a washing machine. Examples such as smart paints or smart light bulbs or smart fuses would all be easier to process using networked connections, and they may well be. Some might prefer a slightly more individual approach, so pointing a mobile device at them would single them out from others in the vicinity. This sort of approach would also allow easier interrogation of the current state, diagnostics or inspection.

Whatever way internet of things goes, cleaning will take on a new and important dimension. We already do it as routine PC maintenance but removing malware and updating software will soon become a part of our whole house cleaning routine.

The future of beetles

Onto B then.

One of the first ‘facts’ I ever learned about nature was that there were a million species of beetle. In the Google age, we know that ‘scientists estimate there are between 4 and 8 million’. Well, still lots then.

Technology lets us control them. Beetles provide a nice platform to glue electronics onto so they tend to fall victim to cybernetics experiments. The important factor is that beetles come with a lot of built-in capability that is difficult or expensive to build using current technology. If they can be guided remotely by over-riding their own impulses or even misleading their sensors, then they can be used to take sensors into places that are otherwise hard to penetrate. This could be for finding trapped people after an earthquake, or getting a dab of nerve gas onto a president. The former certainly tends to be the favored official purpose, but on the other hand, the fashionable word in technology circles this year is ‘nefarious’. I’ve read it more in the last year than the previous 50 years, albeit I hadn’t learned to read for some of those. It’s a good word. Perhaps I just have a mad scientist brain, but almost all of the uses I can think of for remote-controlled beetles are nefarious.

The first properly publicized experiment was 2009, though I suspect there were many unofficial experiments before then:

http://www.technologyreview.com/news/411814/the-armys-remote-controlled-beetle/

There are assorted YouTube videos such as

A more recent experiment:

http://www.wired.com/2015/03/watch-flying-remote-controlled-cyborg-bug/

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/science/science-news/11485231/Flying-beetle-remotely-controlled-by-scientists.html

Big beetles make it easier to do experiments since they can carry up to 20% of body weight as payload, and it is obviously easier to find and connect to things on a bigger insect, but obviously once the techniques are well-developed and miniaturization has integrated things down to single chip with low power consumption, we should expect great things.

For example, a cloud of redundant smart dust would make it easier to connect to various parts of a beetle just by getting it to take flight in the cloud. Bits of dust would stick to it and self-organisation principles and local positioning can then be used to arrange and identify it all nicely to enable control. This would allow large numbers of beetles to be processed and hijacked, ideal for mad scientists to be more time efficient. Some dust could be designed to burrow into the beetle to connect to inner parts, or into the brain, which obviously would please the mad scientists even more. Again, local positioning systems would be advantageous.

Then it gets more fun. A beetle has its own sensors, but signals from those could be enhanced or tweaked via cloud-based AI so that it can become a super-beetle. Beetles traditionally don’t have very large brains, so they can be added to remotely too. That doesn’t have to be using AI either. As we can also connect to other animals now, and some of those animals might have very useful instincts or skills, then why not connect a rat brain into the beetle? It would make a good team for exploring. The beetle can do the aerial maneuvers and the rat can control it once it lands, and we all know how good rats are at learning mazes. Our mad scientist friend might then swap over the management system to another creature with a more vindictive streak for the final assault and nerve gas delivery.

So, Coleoptera Nefarius then. That’s the cool new beetle on the block. And its nicer but underemployed twin Coleoptera Benignus I suppose.

 

The future of air

Time for a second alphabetic ‘The future of’ set. Air is a good starter.

Air is mostly a mixture of gases, mainly nitrogen and oxygen, but it also contains a lot of suspended dust, pollen and other particulates, flying creatures such as insects and birds, and of course bacteria and viruses. These days we also have a lot of radio waves, optical signals, and the cyber-content carried on them. Air isn’t as empty as it seems. But it is getting busier all the time.

Internet-of-things, location-based marketing data and other location-based services and exchanges will fill the air digitally with fixed and wandering data. I called that digital air when I wrote a full technical paper on it and I don’t intend to repeat it all now a decade later. Some of the ideas have made it into reality, many are still waiting for marketers and app writers to catch up.

The most significant recent addition is drones. There are already lots of them, in a wide range of sizes from insect size to aeroplane size. Some are toys, some airborne cameras for surveillance, aerial photography, monitoring and surveillance, and increasingly they are appearing for sports photography and tracking or other leisure pursuits. We will see a lot more of them in coming years. Drone-based delivery is being explored too, though I am skeptical of its likely success in domestic built up areas.

Personal swarms of follower drones will become common too. It’s already possible to have a drone follow you and keep you on video, mainly for sports uses, but as drones become smaller, you may one day have a small swarm of tiny drones around you, recording video from many angles, so you will be able to recreate events from any time in an entire 3D area around you, a 3D permasuperselfie. These could also be extremely useful for military and policing purposes, and it will make the decline of privacy terminal. Almost everything going on in public in a built up environment will be recorded, and a great deal of what happens elsewhere too.

We may see lots of virtual objects or creatures once augmented reality develops a bit more. Some computer games will merge with real world environments, so we’ll have aliens, zombies and various mythical creatures from any game populating our streets and skies. People may also use avatars that fly around like fairies or witches or aliens or mythical creatures, so they won’t all be AI entities, some will have direct human control. And then there are buildings that might also have virtual appearances and some of those might include parts of buildings that float around, or even some entire cities possibly like those buildings and city areas in the game Bioshock Infinite.

Further in the future, it is possible that physical structures might sometimes levitate, perhaps using magnets, or lighter than air construction materials such as graphene foam. Plasma may also be used as a building material one day, albeit far in the future.

I’m bored with air now. Time for B.

Five new states of matter, maybe.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_states_of_matter lists the currently known states of matter. I had an idea for five new ones, well, 2 anyway with 3 variants. They might not be possible but hey, faint heart ne’er won fair maid, and this is only a blog not a paper from CERN. But coincidentally, it is CERN most likely to be able to make them.

A helium atom normally has 2 electrons, in a single shell. In a particle model, they go round and round. However… the five new states:

A: I suspect this one is may already known but isn’t possible and is therefore just another daft idea. It’s just a planar superatom. Suppose, instead of going round and round the same atom, the nuclei were arranged in groups of three in a nice triangle, and 6 electrons go round and round the triplet. They might not be terribly happy doing that unless at high pressure with some helpful EM fields adjusting the energy levels required, but with a little encouragement, who knows, it might last long enough to be classified as matter.

B: An alternative that might be more stable is a quad of nuclei in a tetrahedron, with 8 electrons. This is obviously a variant of A so probably doesn’t really qualify as a separate one. But let’s call it a 3D superatom for now, unless it already has a proper name.

C: Suppose helium nuclei are neatly arranged in a row at a precise distance apart, and two orthogonal electron beams are fired past them at a certain distance on either side, with the electrons spaced and phased very nicely, so that for a short period at least, each of the nuclei has two electrons and the beam energy and nuclei spacing ensures that they don’t remain captive on one nucleus but are handed on to the next. You can do the difficult sums. To save you a few seconds, since the beams need to be orthogonal, you’ll need multiple beams in the direction orthogonal to the row,

D: Another cheat, a variant of C, C1: or you could make a few rows for a planar version with a grid of beams. Might be tricky to make the beams stay together for any distance so you could only make a small flake of such matter, but I can’t see an obvious reason why it would be impossible. Just tricky.

E: A second variant of C really, C2, with a small 3D speck of such nuclei and a grid of beams. Again, it works in my head.

Well, 5 new states of matter for you to play with. But here’s a free bonus idea:

The states don’t have to actually exist to be useful. Even with just the descriptions above, you could do the maths for these. They might not be physically achievable but that doesn’t stop them existing in a virtual world with a hypothetical future civilization making them. And given that they have that specific mathematics, and ergo a whole range of theoretical chemistry, and therefore hyperelectronics, they could therefore be used as simulated constructs in a Turing machine or actual constructs in quantum computers to achieve particular circuitry with particular virtues. You could certainly emulate it on a Yonck processor (see my blog on that). So you get a whole field of future computing and AI thrown in.

Blogging is all the fun with none of the hard work and admin. Perfect. And just in case someone does build it all, for the record, you saw it here first.

Technology 2040: Technotopia denied by human nature

This is a reblog of the Business Weekly piece I wrote for their 25th anniversary.

It’s essentially a very compact overview of the enormous scope for technology progress, followed by a reality check as we start filtering that potential through very imperfect human nature and systems.

25 years is a long time in technology, a little less than a third of a lifetime. For the first third, you’re stuck having to live with primitive technology. Then in the middle third it gets a lot better. Then for the last third, you’re mainly trying to keep up and understand it, still using the stuff you learned in the middle third.

The technology we are using today is pretty much along the lines of what we expected in 1990, 25 years ago. Only a few details are different. We don’t have 2Gb/s per second to the home yet and AI is certainly taking its time to reach human level intelligence, let alone consciousness, but apart from that, we’re still on course. Technology is extremely predictable. Perhaps the biggest surprise of all is just how few surprises there have been.

The next 25 years might be just as predictable. We already know some of the highlights for the coming years – virtual reality, augmented reality, 3D printing, advanced AI and conscious computers, graphene based materials, widespread Internet of Things, connections to the nervous system and the brain, more use of biometrics, active contact lenses and digital jewellery, use of the skin as an IT platform, smart materials, and that’s just IT – there will be similarly big developments in every other field too. All of these will develop much further than the primitive hints we see today, and will form much of the technology foundation for everyday life in 2040.

For me the most exciting trend will be the convergence of man and machine, as our nervous system becomes just another IT domain, our brains get enhanced by external IT and better biotech is enabled via nanotechnology, allowing IT to be incorporated into drugs and their delivery systems as well as diagnostic tools. This early stage transhumanism will occur in parallel with enhanced genetic manipulation, development of sophisticated exoskeletons and smart drugs, and highlights another major trend, which is that technology will increasingly feature in ethical debates. That will become a big issue. Sometimes the debates will be about morality, and religious battles will result. Sometimes different parts of the population or different countries will take opposing views and cultural or political battles will result. Trading one group’s interests and rights against another’s will not be easy. Tensions between left and right wing views may well become even higher than they already are today. One man’s security is another man’s oppression.

There will certainly be many fantastic benefits from improving technology. We’ll live longer, healthier lives and the steady economic growth from improving technology will make the vast majority of people financially comfortable (2.5% real growth sustained for 25 years would increase the economy by 85%). But it won’t be paradise. All those conflicts over whether we should or shouldn’t use technology in particular ways will guarantee frequent demonstrations. Misuses of tech by criminals, terrorists or ethically challenged companies will severely erode the effects of benefits. There will still be a mix of good and bad. We’ll have fixed some problems and created some new ones.

The technology change is exciting in many ways, but for me, the greatest significance is that towards the end of the next 25 years, we will reach the end of the industrial revolution and enter a new age. The industrial revolution lasted hundreds of years, during which engineers harnessed scientific breakthroughs and their own ingenuity to advance technology. Once we create AI smarter than humans, the dependence on human science and ingenuity ends. Humans begin to lose both understanding and control. Thereafter, we will only be passengers. At first, we’ll be paying passengers in a taxi, deciding the direction of travel or destination, but it won’t be long before the forces of singularity replace that taxi service with AIs deciding for themselves which routes to offer us and running many more for their own culture, on which we may not be invited. That won’t happen overnight, but it will happen quickly. By 2040, that trend may already be unstoppable.

Meanwhile, technology used by humans will demonstrate the diversity and consequences of human nature, for good and bad. We will have some choice of how to use technology, and a certain amount of individual freedom, but the big decisions will be made by sheer population numbers and statistics. Terrorists, nutters and pressure groups will harness asymmetry and vulnerabilities to cause mayhem. Tribal differences and conflicts between demographic, religious, political and other ideological groups will ensure that advancing technology will be used to increase the power of social conflict. Authorities will want to enforce and maintain control and security, so drones, biometrics, advanced sensor miniaturisation and networking will extend and magnify surveillance and greater restrictions will be imposed, while freedom and privacy will evaporate. State oppression is sadly as likely an outcome of advancing technology as any utopian dream. Increasing automation will force a redesign of capitalism. Transhumanism will begin. People will demand more control over their own and their children’s genetics, extra features for their brains and nervous systems. To prevent rebellion, authorities will have little choice but to permit leisure use of smart drugs, virtual escapism, a re-scoping of consciousness. Human nature itself will be put up for redesign.

We may not like this restricted, filtered, politically managed potential offered by future technology. It offers utopia, but only in a theoretical way. Human nature ensures that utopia will not be the actual result. That in turn means that we will need strong and wise leadership, stronger and wiser than we have seen of late to get the best without also getting the worst.

The next 25 years will be arguably the most important in human history. It will be the time when people will have to decide whether we want to live together in prosperity, nurturing and mutual respect, or to use technology to fight, oppress and exploit one another, with the inevitable restrictions and controls that would cause. Sadly, the fine engineering and scientist minds that have got us this far will gradually be taken out of that decision process.

Morality inversion. You will be an outcast before you’re old

I did my religious studies exams in 1970s Ireland. We were asked us to consider euthanasia and abortion and how relevant attitudes and laws might change during our lifetimes. Looking back, I’d say we’ve seen a full inversion in both.

My point in this blog isn’t right or wrong but how quickly the random walk of acceptability in modern Western society can take someone from proper to pariah.

I believe it is dangerous for society if its views on morality swing fully and quickly between extremes, especially since technology ensures that people can access decades-old material and records and views easily. What you do today may be judged today by today’s morality, but will also be judged by the very different morality of 2050. You could well become a pariah for activities or views that are perfectly acceptable and normal today. Today’s photos, videos, selfies, tweets, chat records and blogs will all still be easily searchable and they might damn you. The worst thing is you can’t reliably predict which values will invert, so nobody is safe.

Let’s looks at some examples, starting with the two examples we did for Religious Studies – abortion and euthanasia. Remember, the point is not whether something is right or wrong, it is that the perception of it being right or wrong has changed. i.e what is the ‘correct’ fashionable view to hold?

Abortion was legal in 1970s Great Britain, but was far from socially accepted. A woman who had an abortion back then may well have felt a social outcast. Today, it is ‘a woman’s right to choose’ and anyone wanting to restrain that right would be the social outcast.

Euthanasia was universally accepted as wrong in the 1970s. Today the UK’s NHS already implements it via ‘The Liverpool Care Pathway’, almost 1984’s Doublespeak in its level of inversion. Recently some regions have rolled euthanasia out still further, asking patients over 75 years old whether they want to be resuscitated. Euthanasia is not only accepted but encouraged.

Meanwhile, assisted suicide has also become accepted. Very clearly wrong in the 1970s, perfectly fine and understandable today.

Homosexuality in the 1970s forced people to hide deep in a closet. Today, it’s a job requirement for reality TV, chat show hosting and singing in the Eurovision Song Contest.

Gay marriage would have been utterly unimaginable in 1970s Ireland but it would be very brave indeed to admit being in the No camp in today’s referendum campaign there.

Casual sex had its inversion decades earlier of course, but a single person still a virgin at 20 feels ashamed today, whereas anyone having sex outside of marriage before the 1960s would be the one made to feel ashamed.

A committed Christian in the 1970s was the gold standard of morality. Today, being a Christian labels someone as a bigoted dinosaur who should be denied a career. By contrast, being Muslim generates many competing moral inversions that currently results in a net social approval.

The West in the 1970s was the accepted definition of civilization. Now, the West is responsible for all the World’s troubles. Even history is not immune, and the morality of old wars is often up for renewed debate.

Even humor isn’t immune. Some TV comedies of the 1970s are seen as totally unacceptable today. Comedians have to be very careful about topics in their jokes, with today’s restrictions very different from and often even opposite to 1970s restrictions.

These areas have all seen total inversions of social acceptability. Many others, such as drugs, smoking, drinking, gambling, hunting and vegetarianism, see more frequent swings, though not usually full inversion. Still more practices are simultaneously acceptable for some social groups but not for others, such as oppression of women, mutilation, violence, sexualization of children, and even pedophilia.

In every case, attitude change has been gradual. In most, there have been some successful pressure groups that have successfully managed to change the direction of shame, one case at a time. Orwell’s 1984 has proven superbly insightful, realizing how social interaction, the need to feel accepted and the desire for status, and even language can be manipulated to achieve a goal. So successful has that been that shame and doublespeak have become the weapons of choice in left-wing politics, though the right haven’t quite worked out how to use them yet.

With these forces of inversion proven to be highly effective, we must question where they might be used in the future. What do you do or say today that will make future generations despise you? What things are wrong that will become right? What things that are right will become wrong? And what will be the arguments?

In case, you haven’t read the preceding text, I am not condoning any of the following, merely listing them as campaigns we may well see in the next few decades that might completely invert morality and social acceptance by the 2050s.

Drugs in sport – not taking them once adverse health effects have been conquered could be seen as lack of commitment. It is your duty to achieve the best performance you can.

Genetic modification and selection for babies – If you don’t approve, you are forcing people to live a life less than they could, to be less than they should. If you don’t give your kids the best possible genetic start in life, you are an irresponsible parent.

Owning a larger house or car than you need – You are not successful and high status, you are a greedy, utterly selfish, environment destroyer denying poorer people a decent life and home.

Resisting theft – the thief obviously was deprived, almost certainly by an oppressive society. It is you who are stealing from them by preventing social disadvantage from being addressed. Your property should be confiscated and given to them.

Pedophilia – Based on the failed 1970s PIE campaign which may find the field is soon ready for a rematch, if you don’t support reducing the age of consent to 9 or even less, you may soon be portrayed as a bigot trying to prevent young people from experiencing love.

Eating meat – you are utterly without compassion for other lives that are just as valuable as yours. What makes you think nature gives you the right to torture another creature?

Making jokes – all humor comes from taking pleasure at someone else’s misfortune. Laughing is violence. Take that smile off your face. You are a contemptible Neanderthal!

Managing a company – employment is exploitation. All decent people work with others as equals. What makes you think you have the right to exploit other people? Shame on you!

Having a full-time job – don’t you know some people don’t have any work? Why can’t you share your job with someone else? Why should you get paid loads when some people hardly get anything? Why are you so special? You disgust me!

Polygamy – who made you God? If these people want to be together, who the hell are you to say they shouldn’t be? Geez! Go take your Dodo for a walk!

Getting old – you seem to think you are entitled to respect just because you haven’t died yet. Don’t you realize millions of babies are having to be aborted just because people like you so selfishly cling on to another few years of your worthless life? The sooner we get this new limit enforced at 50 the sooner we can get rid of nasty people like you.

Patriotism – all people are equal. You want to favor your country over others, protect your borders, defend your people, uphold your way of life? That is no more than thinly veiled excuse for oppression and racism. Your views have no place in a civilized society.

Well, by now I think you get the point. A free run of values with no anchor other than current fashion can take us anywhere, and in time such a free-wandering society may eventually encounter a cliff.

In modern atheistic Western society, right and wrong is decided, it is no longer absolute. Moral relativism is a highly effective lubricant for moral change. The debate will start from whatever is the existing state and then steered by anyone in an influential position highlighting or putting a new spin on any arbitrary cherry-picked case or situation to further any agenda they wish. Future culture is governed by the mathematics of chaos and though there are attractors, there are also regions of very high instability. As chaos dictates that a butterfly wing-beat can lead to a hurricane, so feeble attention seeking by any celebrity could set a chain of events in motion that inverts yet another pillar of acceptability.

A related question – for which I don’t have any useful insight – is how long moral stability can exist before another inversion becomes possible. If and when the pendulum does start to swing back, will it go as far, as fast, or further and faster?

 

 

 

 

 

Powering electric vehicles in the city

Simple stuff today just to stop my brain seizing up, nothing terribly new.

Grid lock is usually a term often used to describe interlocking traffic jams. But think about a canal lock, used to separate different levels of canal. A grid lock could be used to manage the different levels of stored and kinetic energy within a transport grid, keeping it local as far as possible to avoid transmission losses, and transferring it between different parts of the grid when necessary.

Formula 1 racing cars have energy recovery systems that convert kinetic energy to stored electrical energy during braking – Kinetic Energy Recovery System (KERS). In principle, energy could be shared between members of a race team by transmitting it from one car to another instead of simply storing it on board. For a city-wide system, that makes even more sense. There will always be some vehicles coasting, some braking, some accelerating and some stopped. Storing the energy on board is fine, but requires large capacitor banks or batteries, and that adds very significant cost. If an electrical grid allowed the energy to be moved around between vehicles, each vehicle would only need much smaller storage so costs would fall.

I am very much in favor of powering electric vehicles by using inductive pads on the road surface to transmit energy via coils on the car underside as the vehicles pass over them.  Again, this means that vehicles can manage with small batteries or capacitor banks. Since these are otherwise a large part of the cost, it makes electric transport much more cost-effective. The coils on the road surface could be quite thin, making them unattractive to metal thieves, and perhaps ultimately could be made of graphene once that is cheap to produce.

Moving energy among the many coils only needs conventional electrical grid technology. Peer to peer electrical generation business models are developing too to sell energy between households without the energy companies taking the lion’s share. Electricity can even be packetised by writing an address and header with details of the sender account and the quantity of energy in the following packet. Since overall energy use will fluctuate somewhat, the infrastructure also needs some storage to hold local energy surpluses and feed them back into accelerating vehicles as required, and if demand is too low, to store energy in local batteries. If even that isn’t sufficient capacity, then the grid might open grid locks to overflow larger surpluses onto other regions of the city or onto the main grid. Usually however, there would be an inflow of energy from the main grid to power all the vehicles, so transmission in the reverse direction would be only occasional.

Such a system keeps most energy local, reducing transmission losses and simplifying signalling, whilst allowing local energy producers to be included and enabling storage for renewable energy. As one traffic stream slows, another can recycle that same energy to accelerate. It reduces the environmental demands of running a transport system, so has both cost and environmental benefits.

 

 

Prejudice is an essential predictive tool

Prejudice has a bad name but it is an essential tool evolution has given us to help our survival. It is not a bad thing in itself, but it can cause errors of judgement and misuse so it needs to be treated with care. It’s worth thinking it through from first principles, so that you aren’t too prejudiced about prejudice.

I like a few people, dislike a few others, but don’t have any first hand opinion on almost everyone. With over 7 billion people, no-one can ever meet more than a tiny proportion. We see a few more on TV or other media and may form a narrow-channel opinion on some aspects of their character from what is shown in their appearances. Otherwise, any opinion we may have on anyone we have not actually met or spent any time with is prejudice – pre-judgment based on experiences we have had with people who share similarities.

Prejudice isn’t always a bad thing

Humans are good at using patterns and similarities as indicators, because it improves our chances of survival. If you see a flame, even though you have never encountered that particular flame before, you are prejudiced about how it might feel if you stick your hand in it. You don’t go all politically correct and assume that making such a pre-judgment is wrong and put your hand in it anyway, since it may well be a very nice flame that tickles and feels good. If you see a tiger running towards you, you probably won’t assume it just wants to cuddle you or get stroked. Prejudices keep us alive. Used correctly, they are a good thing.

Taking examples from human culture, if a salesman smiles at you, you may reasonably engage some filters rather than just treating the forthcoming conversation like any other. Similarly, if a politician promises you milk and honey, you may reasonable wonder who will pay for it, or what they are not telling you. Some salesmen and politicians don’t conform to the prejudice, but enough do to make it worthwhile engaging the filters.

Prejudices can be positive too. If you see some nice strawberries, you probably don’t worry too much that they have been poisoned. If someone smiles at you, you will probably feel warmer emotions towards them. We usually talk about prejudice when we are talking about race or nationality or religion but all prejudice is is pre-judgement of a person or object or situation based on any clues we can pick up. If we didn’t prejudge things at all we would waste a great deal of time and effort starting from scratch at every encounter.

Error sources

People interpret situations differently, and of course experience different situations, and therefore build up quite different prejudice databases. Some people notice things that others don’t. Then they allocate different weightings to all the different inputs they do notice. Then they file them differently. Some will connect experiences with others to build more complex mindsets and the quality of those connections will vary enormously. As an inevitable result of growing up, people make mental models of the world so that they can make useful predictions that enable them to take advantage of opportunities and avoid threats. The prejudices in those models are essentially equations, variables, weightings and coefficients. Some people will use poor equations that ignore some variables completely, use poor weightings for others and also assign poor quality coefficients to what they have left. (A bit like climate modelling really, it is common to give too high weightings to a few fashionable variables while totally ignoring others of equal importance.)

Virtues and dangers in sharing prejudices

People communicate and learn prejudices from each other too, good and bad. Your parents teach you about flames and tigers to avoid the need for you to suffer. Your family, friends, teachers, neighbors, celebrities, politicians and social media contacts teach you more. You absorb a varied proportion of what they tell you into your own mindset, and the filters you use are governed by your existing prejudices. Some inputs from others will lead to you editing some of your existing prejudices, for better or worse. So your prejudices set will be a complex mix of things you have learned from your own experiences and those learned from others, all processed and edited continually with the processing and editing processes themselves influenced by existing and inherited prejudices.

A lot of encounters in modern life are mediated by the media, and there is a lot of selective prejudice involved in choosing which media to be exposed to. Media messages are very often biased in favour of some groups and against others, but it is hard to avoid them being assimilated into the total experience used for our prejudice. People may choose to watch news channels that have a particular bias because it frames the news in terms they are more familiar with. Adverts and marketing generally also have huge influence, professionally designed to steer our prejudices in particular direction. This can be very successful. Thanks to media messages, I still think Honda makes good cars in spite of having bought one that has easily had more faults than all my previous cars combined. I have to engage my own rationality filters to prevent me considering them for my next car. Prejudice says they are great, personal experience says they are not.

So, modern life provides many sources of errors for our prejudice databases, and many people, companies, governments and pressure groups try hard to manipulate them in their favour, or against others.

Prejudice and wisdom

Accumulated prejudices are actually a large component of wisdom. Wisdom is using acquired knowledge alongside acquired experience to build a complex mental world model that reliably indicates how a hypothetical situation might play out. The quality of one’s mental world model hopefully improves with age and experience and acquired knowledge, though that is by no means guaranteed. People gain wisdom at different rates, and some seem to manage to avoid doing so completely.

So there is nothing wrong with prejudice per se, it is an essential survival shortcut to avoid the need to treat every experience and encounter with the same checks and precautions or to waste enormous extra time investigating every possible resource from scratch. A well-managed prejudice set and the mental world model built using it are foundation stones of wisdom.

Mental models

Mental models are extremely important to quality of personal analysis and if they are compromised by inaccurate prejudices we will find it harder to do understand the world properly. It is obviously important to protect prejudices from external influences that are not trustworthy. We need the friendly social sharing that helps us towards genuinely better understanding of the world around us, but we need to identify forces with other interests than our well-being so that we can prevent them from corrupting our mindsets and our mental models, otherwise our predictive ability will be damaged. Politicians and pressure groups would be top of the list of dubious influences. We also tend to put different weightings on advice from various friends, family, colleagues or celebrities, sensibly so. Some people are more easily influenced by others. Independent thought is made much more difficult when peer pressure is added. When faced with peer pressure, many people simply adopt what they believe to be the ‘correct’ prejudice set for ‘their’ ‘tribe’. All those inverted commas indicate that each of these is a matter of prejudice too.

Bad prejudices

Where we do find problems from prejudice is in areas like race and religion, mainly because our tribal identity includes identification with a particular race or religion (or indeed atheism). Strong tribal forces in human nature push people to favour those of their own tribe over others, and we see that at every level of tribe, whether it is a work group or an entire nation. So we are more inclined to believe good things about our own tribe than others. The number of experiences we have of other tribes is far higher than it was centuries ago. We meet far more people face to face now, and we see very many more via the media. The media exposure we get tends to be subject to bias, but since the media we choose to consume is self-selected, that tends to reinforce existing prejudices. Furthermore, negative representations are more likely to appear on the news, because people behaving normally is not news, whereas people doing bad things is. Through all those combined exposures, we may build extensive personal experience of many members of a group and it is easy to apply that experience to new encounters of others from that group who may not share the same faults or virtues. One way to reduce the problem is to fragment groups into subgroups so that you don’t apply prejudices from one subgroup incorrectly to another.

Inherited experiences, such as those of columnists, experts brought into news interviews or even the loaded questions of news presenters on particular channels are more dangerous since many of the sources are strongly biased or have an interest in changing our views. As a result of massively increased exposures to potentially biased representations of other groups in modern life, it is harder than ever to maintain an objective viewpoint and maintain a realistic prejudice set. It is very easy to accumulate a set of prejudices essentially determined by others. That is very dangerous, especially bearing in mind the power of peer pressure, since peers are also likely to have such corrupted prejudice sets. We call that group-think, and it is not only the enemy of free thought but also the enemy of accurate prediction, and ultimately of wisdom. A mental model corrupted by group-think and inherited biases is of poor quality.

Debugging Prejudices

Essential maintenance for good mental models includes checking prejudices regularly against reality. Meeting people and doing things is good practice of course, but checking actual statistics is surprisingly effective too. Many of us hold ideas about traits and behaviors of certain groups that are well away from reality. Governments collect high quality statistics on an amazing range of things. Pressure groups also do, but are far more likely to put a particular spin on their figures, or even bury figures that don’t give the message they want you to hear. Media also put spins on statistics, so it is far better to use the original statistics yourself than to trust someone else’s potentially biased analysis. For us Brits, http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/index.html is a good source of trustworthy official statistics, relatively free of government or pressure group spin, though finding the data can sometimes involve tricky navigation.

It is also a good idea to make sure you consume media and especially news from a variety of sources, some explicitly left or right wing or even from pressure groups. This ensures you see many sides of the same story, ensures you stay aware of stories that may not even appear via some channels, and helps train you to spot biases and filter them out when they are there. I read several newspapers every day. So should you. When I have time, I try to go to the original source of any data being discussed so I can get the facts without the spin. Doing this not only helps protect your own mental model, it allows you to predict how other people may see the same stories and how they might feel and react, so it also helps extend your model to include behaviour of other groups of people.

If you regularly debug your prejudices, then they will be far more useful and less of an error source. It will sometimes be obvious that other people hold different ones but as long as you know yours are based on reality, then you should not be influenced to change yours. If you are trying to work out how others might behave, then understanding their prejudices and the reasons they hold them is very useful. It makes up another section of the world model.

Looking at it from a modelling direction, prejudices are the equations, factors and coefficients in a agent-based model, which you run inside your head. Without them, you can’t make a useful model, since you aren’t capable of knowing and modelling over 7 billion individuals. If the equations are wrong, or the factors or coefficients, then the answer will be wrong. Crap in, crap out. If your prejudices are reasonably accurate representations of the behaviours and characteristics of groups as a whole, then you can make good models of the world around you, and you can make sounds predictions. And over time, as they get better, you might even become wise.