Piezoelectric stepper to improve image resolution in digital cameras

Digital cameras are already pretty high resolution, but in good light, given the high sensitivity of the sensors, it would be possible to multiply the effective sensor resolution without changing the chip.camera enhancement

I had this idea a decade ago or so, but only just got around to drawing a nice pic. The CMOS sensor could obviously be swapped to any other imaging tech.

As a free afterthought, another piezo crystal on the back could also step the sensor forwards and backwards to make sure at least one image is in crystal-clear focus.

Video intercom, another ancient idea come true

Another ancient prediction come true. This one from June 1993, an idea I had and developed with my colleague Chris Winter. Simple idea, just link a video camera on the front door to the network so you can screen people remotely for entry.

Here’s the latest incarnation in today’s paper. Surprising that it has taken so long really. I was concerned in 1993 that it may have been too obvious:


Here’s my original description:

Videophone Intercom, 10 Jun 1993
Ian Pearson, Chris Winter

To summarise, the videophone intercom is a device located at a household front door. A caller would push the button, whereupon an autodialler would call up the resident at his remote location (e.g. at work). The resident would then be able to identify the caller, check ID, and then arrange access if appropriate.
The cost of video cameras on chips has fallen dramatically – in bulk, they can shortly be obtained for as little as £10. Many users will soon have videophones on their desks or at home. Autodiallers and intercom systems can also be made very cheaply. The whole system cost could therefore be quite low. Such devices would offer a much higher level of security than simple audio systems. The number to be dialled could be changed remotely.
Useful additions might be to add a video terminal or phone inside the house, perhaps even just on the inside of the door to give enhanced security before opening the door to a stranger. There need be no way of telling from the door whether the resident is using his home display or a remote videophone.
There are equivalent other industrial uses, such as remotely manning a salesroom or stores.
video intercom

The future of Jihad

Another in my ‘future of’ alphabetic series, finally managed to muster the energy to write something on J. ‘The future of jobs’ is just too dull to bother with, so is justice, but jihad is topical.

From Wikipedia:

Jihad (English pronunciation: /dʒɪˈhɑːd/; Arabic: جهاد jihād [dʒiˈhæːd]) is an Islamic term referring to the religious duty of Muslims to maintain the religion. In Arabic, the word jihād is a noun meaning “to strive, to apply oneself, to struggle, to persevere.”

The common everyday understanding of jihad is associated with holy war, proselytize Islam by peaceful or military means, e.g. Jihadi John and his ISIS colleagues, and that’s what this blog is about.

About 20 years ago or so, Europe decided on a ‘soft warfare’ approach to defense. It seemed quite clever at the time. Here in the UK, we were all watching Neighbours, an Australian soap, scheduled just before evening meal as a wind-down from work (that was before we all worked 8 to 6). As a result, many Brits wanted to emigrate to Oz. Without firing a single shot, Australia managed to get Britain to yearn for its ways of life and treat it with greater respect. If you think about it, that’s what war does. You kill enough of the enemy and cause the rest enough pain and suffering until they finally submit and accept your way of doing things. Neighbours might not have been intended as a soft warfare campaign, but it succeeded tremendously. That idea spread through the Euro-elite which decided that ‘winning hearts and minds’ were the way to go, basically being nice instead of shooting people, using foreign aid to propagate EU ideals of democracy instead of old-style colonization. It has stuck pretty well, and fits especially well with the left-wing mindset that dominates decisions in most of modern Europe. Hawks are out of fashion.

Since then, a few actual wars rather spoiled the purity of soft warfare, but even in the Middle East conflicts, the hearts-and-minds approach has a real presence. It undoubtedly saves a lot of lives on both sides.

However, let’s look at how ISIS and its nouveau jihad is also adopting that same idea.

I wrote recently that Islam is badly in need of modernization:


Well, ISIS gleefully makes good use of social media to recruit followers around the world, and understands well about influencing hearts and minds as part of their approach. It is ironic that the most medieval, anti-modern-world branch of Islamism is the most comfortable with modern technology and marketing (‘marketing’ is the word we use now for propaganda, when ‘education’ isn’t appropriate).

However, since I wrote that blog just 2 months ago, the world has changed substantially. Europe has shown utter incompetence in dealing with the migrant crisis (refugee crisis if you watch Channel 4 or the BBC). Our leaders totally ignored my advice on what was then merely the Mediterranean Crisis, but then again, it is extremely unlikely that they read my blog: https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2015/04/19/the-mediterranean-crisis/

Instead they made the problem a whole lot worse, greatly amplifying the numbers attempting the journey across the Med and thereby inadvertently causing more deaths by drowning as well as destroying much of the good will between countries that holds the EU together. The idiotic open doors policy advocated by Angela Merkel and Co. has broadcast a loud message to the entire developing world that anyone that would like to be richer but doesn’t want to bother with quaint ideas like law and order or applying for immigration can just pretend to be fleeing something, force their way past a few overwhelmed security guards, and will be given a free home, medical care, education, welfare and generally a life of relative milk and honey in the EU. All they have to do is throw away their papers and say they are from Syria or another war zone. The British approach of focusing on helping actual refugees instead of economic migrants has been widely condemned as utterly uncaring. Estimates vary wildly but anything up to 80% of those entering the EU are economic migrants. Many of the ones fleeing wars or  persecution have passed through perfectly safe countries on their way, so when they left those countries they stopped being asylum seekers or refugees and started being economic migrants. Few can genuinely claim that the EU is the first place of safety they have reached. But if the doors are wide open, why accept less than the best deal around?

ISIS are well aware of this, and have openly stated that they intend to use the mass migration to move ISIS terrorists into Europe, hidden among the crowds. Those terrorists, and those whom they infect with their ideology on arrival, are a direct part of their Jihad. They cause people to flee, and then hide among them. So that’s the first part of the nouveau jihad, the hard jihad, an actual invasion by the back door, with lots of help from useful idiots in government, media and assorted NGOs.

The second part of the Jihad is the Islamification of Europe via cultural aggression, soft warfare, soft Jihad. As often is the case in war, truth is the first casualty, and since Orwell, we know that language is the key to perception of truth. That insight has been harnessed in peacetime every bit as much as in war. By simple verbal inversion of morality that has been achieved in the last two decades, anything West (or Christian) is bad and anything anti-West is good. That has left Europe and America extremely vulnerable to this soft jihad. Moral equivalence and political correctness have eroded confidence in our own morality, even inverted some of it. Even when comparing with the worst atrocities of ISIS, many people will immediately raise anything the West has ever done that wasn’t 100% perfect as if it is absolutely equivalent. Harnessing language as a soft warfare tool, Islamist activists have managed to achieve the victory that to criticize anything coming from Islam is called Islamophobia to make it sound like the person doing the criticism is in the wrong. Furthermore, they have also manipulated the lack of cohesiveness in the Muslim community to conflate Islam and Islamism. The extremists use the whole Muslim population to demand protection for their smaller Islamist subsection, hiding among genuinely peace-loving people, masquerading as part of that ‘overwhelming majority of peace-loving Muslims’ while simultaneously preaching jihad. Even the police are so terrified of being called racist or Islamophobic that they have allowed crimes such as child abuse, rape and violence against women to flourish in some areas, suggesting it is just ‘cultural difference’. By capturing just a few words, Islamists have managed to get a free pass, with the police defending them instead of those they oppress. With a few more words, standards of animal welfare have been sacrificed and many food chains now only stock halal products. With a few more, dress codes in some areas are enforced. Desperate to protect the Muslim community against any retaliation, in London a significant rise of crime against Muslims was widely reported and condemned, whereas a far larger increase in crimes against Jews went almost unreported and unmentioned.

For reasons I don’t understand, media around Europe have tried to help government hide their incompetence in the migrant crisis by conflating the terms migrants and refugees and pretending that every one is deserving of help. Every report seems to use the word ‘desperate’ and every camera seems to be aimed at lovely families with adorable young children in genuine need of help rather than the healthy young men who comprise 80% of the migrants. Every report finds those most deserving of asylum and ignores the rest. Acts of violence by migrants are ignored. This almost universally welcoming message is seen by those everywhere who want a better life, and the fittest compete to get here before the doors close. Anyone wanting to escape justice, or wanting to bring Islamism or criminal enterprise to our countries, can hide in the throng and with many having no papers or false papers, they can be sure of escaping identification. Many that need help most won’t get it because someone less in need has already taken their place.

The jihad effects are already appearing. Germany is reportedly already facing problems, with crowds of young men causing problems, and widespread rape, women abuse and child abuse in migrant camps, with locals being told to cover up so as not to offend the Muslims in case of ‘misunderstandings’. Worse still, the police apparently adopted a policy of attempting to hide these problems, because they don’t want people to turn against Muslims. Even as the first wave has entered Germany, the resident population has been told firmly that it is they who must adapt to Islam, not the migrants who must adopt German values.

Here in the UK, it is a daily occurrence to hear of instances where something has been banned or a speaker refused permission to speak in case it might offend Muslims. The latest is Warwick university Student Union, refusing to allow Maryam Namazie, an ex-Muslim who escaped persecution in Iran, to speak there because she wanted to speak against such oppression. The excuse was because they didn’t want Muslims to be offended. Her own response is worth a read: http://freethoughtblogs.com/maryamnamazie/2015/09/27/wsu/

No reverse protection exists for those offended by Islamic values. They must remain quiet or be arrested as Islamophobic, even though, as Namazie clearly points out, it is not the person they hate but the belief.

That is the ‘soft warfare’ jihad. Capture the left, the media, the police, and finally the law. To ensure peace, Islam must be protected from criticism while anything in conflict must be adapted to Islamic values, because Islam won’t change to accommodate host society.

Our culture has a legally enforced Islamic diode. Unless that changes, jihad will be successful.

Soft jihad has already been extremely successful, and will be amplified further via migration, while the migrant crowds will bring the hard jihad hidden in their midst.

Ironically, the worst to suffer from this may be the 68% of Muslims who just want to live in peace and harmony with everyone else. They suffer just as badly from inevitable backlash and prejudice as the 32% who don’t, and often suffer directly from Islamist oppression too.


The future of immigration: rational v emotional response

People use emotions and rational thinking in parallel. There is a clear role for each. Emotions create a driving force towards a goal, and rational thinking works best to figure out the best strategy to achieve it. So, you see a delicious cake that you’d very much like to eat, emotional bit complete. Your rational thinking kicks in and works out that you need to enter the shop, indicate your choice, hand over some cash and then take the cake and bite into it. Your rational thinking also interrupts with some possibly relevant queries – is it good value compared to the one next to it that looks just as nice? Do you have your best suit on and is it likely to ruin it? How many calories might it be? That sort of thing is a typical everyday challenge we all face and a well-developed brain allows emotions and rationality to work in perfect harmony to add pleasure to our day within our means. Emotions and intellect should also work in harmony when we are faced with danger or unpleasant situations such as seeing others in danger or suffering.

This last few months, we’ve all seen the trauma suffered by millions of refugees from tribal and religious wars in the Middle East and Africa, and most of us want to help them. The photo of the drowned toddler this week made lots of people suddenly very emotional, but in response to their resultant wave of competitive emoting and sometimes quite sickening sanctimony, the rest of us might reasonably inquire firstly why these people didn’t care beforehand like the rest of us and secondly why they think that the best way to respond is to switch off their brains. People have been suffering years, not just this last week. One toddler death is very sad but so are the many thousands of deaths beforehand that didn’t get photographed. And the way to avoid future deaths isn’t necessarily to do the very first thing that pops into your head.

UK Rational Response

With its well-established values, the UK was culturally-emotionally driven to help and has done more to actually help so far than any other European country, including giving 50% more to help refugees so far than Germany. Cameron often makes idiotic decisions, but he is right this time that the best way to help is not to let everyone into Britain but instead to contribute heavily to making effective safe havens and refugee centers near the refugee sources, e.g Syria. This is by far the best policy for a number of reasons.

Doing that helps genuine refugees. The inhabitants of refugee camps are far more likely to be genuinely fleeing from danger and in need of protection, far less likely to be economic migrants.

They are also far less likely to be ISIS terrorists trying to get entry to Europe to cause trouble, or criminals fleeing from justice than those fighting their way through train stations and disobeying police.

Better still, the UK policy helps the most vulnerable refugees – the old and the frail and the too young or too afraid to make the journey all the way to Northern Europe. Some of the most vulnerable will be allowed to come to Britain from those refugee centres.

The UK policy also helps genuine refugees without contributing to ISIS and the other likely destinations of the people traffickers fees. Each migrant squeezed onto an unsafe boat is another £2000 to a terrorist or criminal group, making the problem worse.

Using refugee centers and safe havens near to their own country avoids some of the long term problems associated with immigration to a foreign land, such as cultural conflicts.

Best of all, the UK policy of taking people from the camps and refusing those that have made the long and perilous journey to demand entry discourages people from taking that risk and therefore reduces the problem. Fewer toddlers will drown if people realize that it is best for their family to stay put than to take a huge risk to travel to a closed door.

Emotional response

Contrast this with the policy advocated by those sanctimonious emoters screaming about how wonderful and loving they are and how heartless everyone else is – that we should let everyone in. If we adopted that policy the result would be increased death and misery:

More and more people would want to come if they realize that the door to a better life is wide open.

The number of deaths would sharply increase as more and more criminal gangs and terrorist groups start trafficking.

Greater revenue would flow to ISIS and other terrorist and criminal groups, increasing their power and consequent problems in the countries people are fleeing from.

Allowing in those that made the journey might look charitable but actually it protects the strong rather than the weak. The weak could not come. Why allow a fit young man entry and deny a pregnant mother who wasn’t able to make the trip? Surely the young man should have stayed to fight to protect his vulnerable compatriots instead of fleeing for his own safety?

The number of terrorists and criminals entering among ordinary migrants and refugees would greatly increase (ISIS has already stated its guidance to followers try to enter the UK to commit terrorist acts here) leading to greatly increased security problems here, and resulting in probable backlash against genuine refugees, making it worse here for genuine refugees as well as the rest of us. Levels of crime and terrorism would increase greatly. (One of the reasons Saudi Arabia and some other Middle Eastern countries have stated why they won’t accept refugees is because terrorists and criminals are likely to try to hide in their midst.) I have previously estimated the likely scale of ISIS type terrorism in the UK and it is a big potential problem indeed. Increasing the numbers of supporters, recruits and even actual terrorists won’t help.

The numbers of economic migrants would also greatly increase. If the sheer weight of numbers of migrants coupled to political pressure from emotional activists means that no clear distinction is made between genuine refuges and all the others, then most people in the developing world might soon consider Europe an attractive option. There is no upper limit to migrant numbers until Europe is reduced in attractiveness to levels similar to migrant countries of origin.

Low-paid workers in host countries would find even greater downward pressure on wages, resulting in greater unemployment and poverty. Homeless people would find it harder to get homes. Sick people would find it harder to get access to medical care. All citizens would see greater pressure on public services and infrastructure. There are already significant conflicts throughout Europe between immigrant communities and host societies due to resource competition, and these would increase greatly as immigrant numbers put high pressure on infrastructure, public services and welfare. Cultural conflict is increasing too, especially with Islamic immigrant communities. Racial and religious conflict would increase.

The result would be a broken society, with increased poverty, increased crime and terrorism, decreased safety and security for everyone, increased social conflict, greater racism, and the inevitable rise of extremist groups on both sides.

Managed Immigration and Asylum

We need immigrants. We don’t educate enough doctors or engineers (or many other worker groups) so we need to fill posts with people from overseas. That need won’t go away. However, with very limited spare capacity in our already overpopulated country, we should limit normal immigration to those people we need and just a few others.

On top of that, humanity demands that we do our best to help people in need elsewhere. Obviously we don’t have enough resources to make everyone in the world wealthy so we must do what we can using our foreign aid budget and personal donations to whatever charities we think do a good job. Where people are displaced due to conflict, we should do what we can to give them safe havens, preferably without building instability and making future problems worse. Using our own and allied military to provide no-fly zones can make swathes of a country safer. UN peacekeeping forces could also be used if need be to protect people in those zones. That allows people to stay in their own country or an adjacent one with similar culture. Costs of providing and managing safe havens could be shared across all the rich nations, reducing unwillingness of potential host nations to offer them.

It is not always necessary to offer full immigration to people just to give them safe haven. Asylum should be reserved for those who genuinely cannot stay where they are, and where a problem is temporary, such as conflict, asylum could also be temporary. There is no reason to confuse short term and long term solutions.

A refugee stops being a refugee once they have found a safe refuge. If they carry on beyond that because another country offers a higher standard of living, they become an economic migrant and should only retain refugee status in that first safe country. It is good policy to ensure that refugees register in the first safe country they come to and Europe should enforce that policy and Europe should choose where to house them, not allow or encourage people to shop around for the best deal. It is entirely possible for the costs of providing them with safe refuge could be distributed among richer nations, wherever they are actually placed. Where asylum in another country is appropriate, asylum seekers should be welcomed as far as socio-economic capacity allows. Few people object to hosting and welcoming genuine asylum seekers.

Economic migrants should apply for immigration according to normal procedures. Those trying to jump the queue by forcing their way in, demonstrating and resisting police, clearly have little respect for the laws and well-being of the countries they wish to enter and should be returned to where they came from and barred from future entry. Looking at the very high proportion of healthy young men among the occasional refugee family, women and children, it is clear that this group represents most of the number currently migrating. Most are not genuine refugees but economic migrants. It is easy to understand that they want a better and wealthier life, hard to see why they should be preferred as an immigrant over a law-abiding and highly skilled alternative. Queue-jumping should result in being put to the back of the queue.

With properly managed policy, safe havens would protect refugees. Those in need of asylum could be provided with it, the rest protected where they are, or even returned to safe havens if they do not properly qualify. With economic migrants turned away and barred from future entry, the numbers attempting the journey would reduce, and with it the number of deaths and the support for terrorist groups.

In closing, I don’t think I have said much that hasn’t been said many times, but adding to the weight of such comment offsets to a small degree to over-emotional and counter-productive sanctimony I see every night on the news. In short, we should do what we can do to help people in danger and distress, but we won’t do that by creating problems in our own country.

Knee-jerk emotional responses that are socially, economically and even militarily unsustainable such as tearing down national boundaries and letting everyone in who has made the journey to our door will make things a lot worse for everyone.

Open your heart and your wallet and help, like the UK has, but don’t switch your brain off, as Germany and others advocate. Germany is not for the first time making Europe a more dangerous place, ironically due to a national guilt trip on account of the previous occasions.

How nigh is the end?

“We’re doomed!” is a frequently recited observation. It is great fun predicting the end of the world and almost as much fun reading about it or watching documentaries telling us we’re doomed. So… just how doomed are we? Initial estimate: Maybe a bit doomed. Read on.

My 2012 blog https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2012/07/03/nuclear-weapons/ addressed some of the possibilities for extinction-level events possibly affecting us. I recently watched a Top 10 list of threats to our existence on TV and it was similar to most you’d read, with the same errors and omissions – nuclear war, global virus pandemic, terminator scenarios, solar storms, comet or asteroid strikes, alien invasions, zombie viruses, that sort of thing. I’d agree that nuclear war is still the biggest threat, so number 1, and a global pandemic of a highly infectious and lethal virus should still be number 2. I don’t even need to explain either of those, we all know why they are in 1st and 2nd place.

The TV list included a couple that shouldn’t be in there.

One inclusion was an mega-eruption of Yellowstone or another super-volcano. A full-sized Yellowstone mega-eruption would probably kill millions of people and destroy much of civilization across a large chunk of North America, but some of us don’t actually live in North America and quite a few might well survive pretty well, so although it would be quite annoying for Americans, it is hardly a TEOTWAWKI threat. It would have big effects elsewhere, just not extinction-level ones. For most of the world it would only cause short-term disruptions, such as economic turbulence, at worst it would start a few wars here and there as regions compete for control in the new world order.

Number 3 on their list was climate change, which is an annoyingly wrong, albeit a popularly held inclusion. The only climate change mechanism proposed for catastrophe is global warming, and the reason it’s called climate change now is because global warming stopped in 1998 and still hasn’t resumed 17 years and 9 months later, so that term has become too embarrassing for doom mongers to use. CO2 is a warming agent and emissions should be treated with reasonable caution, but the net warming contribution of all the various feedbacks adds up to far less than originally predicted and the climate models have almost all proven far too pessimistic. Any warming expected this century is very likely to be offset by reduction in solar activity and if and when it resumes towards the end of the century, we will long since have migrated to non-carbon energy sources, so there really isn’t a longer term problem to worry about. With warming by 2100 pretty insignificant, and less than half a metre sea level rise, I certainly don’t think climate change deserves to be on any list of threats of any consequence in the next century.

The top 10 list missed two out by including climate change and Yellowstone, and my first replacement candidate for consideration might be the grey goo scenario. The grey goo scenario is that self-replicating nanobots manage to convert everything including us into a grey goo.  Take away the silly images of tiny little metal robots cutting things up atom by atom and the laughable presentation of this vanishes. Replace those little bots with bacteria that include electronics, and are linked across their own cloud to their own hive AI that redesigns their DNA to allow them to survive in any niche they find by treating the things there as food. When existing bacteria find a niche they can’t exploit, the next generation adapts to it. That self-evolving smart bacteria scenario is rather more feasible, and still results in bacteria that can conquer any ecosystem they find. We would find ourselves unable to fight back and could be wiped out. This isn’t very likely, but it is feasible, could happen by accident or design on our way to transhumanism, and might deserve a place in the top ten threats.

However, grey goo is only one of the NBIC convergence risks we have already imagined (NBIC= Nano-Bio-Info-Cogno). NBIC is a rich seam for doom-seekers. In there you’ll find smart yogurt, smart bacteria, smart viruses, beacons, smart clouds, active skin, direct brain links, zombie viruses, even switching people off. Zombie viruses featured in the top ten TV show too, but they don’t really deserve their own category and more than many other NBIC derivatives. Anyway, that’s just a quick list of deliberate end of world solutions – there will be many more I forgot to include and many I haven’t even thought of yet. Then you have to multiply the list by 3. Any of these could also happen by accident, and any could also happen via unintended consequences of lack of understanding, which is rather different from an accident but just as serious. So basically, deliberate action, accidents and stupidity are three primary routes to the end of the world via technology. So instead of just the grey goo scenario, a far bigger collective threat is NBIC generally and I’d add NBIC collectively into my top ten list, quite high up, maybe 3rd after nuclear war and global virus. AI still deserves to be a separate category of its own, and I’d put it next at 4th.

Another class of technology suitable for abuse is space tech. I once wrote about a solar wind deflector using high atmosphere reflection, and calculated it could melt a city in a few minutes. Under malicious automated control, that is capable of wiping us all out, but it doesn’t justify inclusion in the top ten. One that might is the deliberate deflection of a large asteroid to impact on us. If it makes it in at all, it would be at tenth place. It just isn’t very likely someone would do that.

One I am very tempted to include is drones. Little tiny ones, not the Predators, and not even the ones everyone seems worried about at the moment that can carry 2kg of explosives or Anthrax into the midst of football crowds. Tiny drones are far harder to shoot down, but soon we will have a lot of them around. Size-wise, think of midges or fruit flies. They could be self-organizing into swarms, managed by rogue regimes, terrorist groups, or set to auto, terminator style. They could recharge quickly by solar during short breaks, and restock their payloads from secret supplies that distribute with the swarm. They could be distributed globally using the winds and oceans, so don’t need a plane or missile delivery system that is easily intercepted. Tiny drones can’t carry much, but with nerve gas or viruses, they don’t have to. Defending against such a threat is easy if there is just one, you can swat it. If there is a small cloud of them, you could use a flamethrower. If the sky is full of them and much of the trees and the ground infested, it would be extremely hard to wipe them out. So if they are well designed to cause an extinction level threat, as MAD 2.0 perhaps, then this would be way up in the top tem too, 5th.

Solar storms could wipe out our modern way of life by killing our IT. That itself would kill many people, via riots and fights for the last cans of beans and bottles of water. The most serious solar storms could be even worse. I’ll keep them in my list, at 6th place

Global civil war could become an extinction level event, given human nature. We don’t have to go nuclear to kill a lot of people, and once society degrades to a certain level, well we’ve all watched post-apocalypse movies or played the games. The few left would still fight with each other. I wrote about the Great Western War and how it might result, see


and such a thing could easily spread globally. I’ll give this 7th place.

A large asteroid strike could happen too, or a comet. Ones capable of extinction level events shouldn’t hit for a while, because we think we know all the ones that could do that. So this goes well down the list at 8th.

Alien invasion is entirely possible and could happen at any time. We’ve been sending out radio signals for quite a while so someone out there might have decided to come see whether our place is nicer than theirs and take over. It hasn’t happened yet so it probably won’t, but then it doesn’t have to be very probably to be in the top ten. 9th will do.

High energy physics research has also been suggested as capable of wiping out our entire planet via exotic particle creation, but the smart people at CERN say it isn’t very likely. Actually, I wasn’t all that convinced or reassured and we’ve only just started messing with real physics so there is plenty of time left to increase the odds of problems. I have a spare place at number 10, so there it goes, with a totally guessed probability of physics research causing a problem every 4000 years.

My top ten list for things likely to cause human extinction, or pretty darn close:

  1. Nuclear war
  2. Highly infectious and lethal virus pandemic
  3. NBIC – deliberate, accidental or lack of foresight (includes smart bacteria, zombie viruses, mind control etc)
  4. Artificial Intelligence, including but not limited to the Terminator scenario
  5. Autonomous Micro-Drones
  6. Solar storm
  7. Global civil war
  8. Comet or asteroid strike
  9. Alien Invasion
  10. Physics research

Not finished yet though. My title was how nigh is the end, not just what might cause it. It’s hard to assign probabilities to each one but someone’s got to do it.  So, I’ll make an arbitrarily wet finger guess in a dark room wearing a blindfold with no explanation of my reasoning to reduce arguments, but hey, that’s almost certainly still more accurate than most climate models, and some people actually believe those. I’m feeling particularly cheerful today so I’ll give my most optimistic assessment.

So, with probabilities of occurrence per year:

  1. Nuclear war:  0.5%
  2. Highly infectious and lethal virus pandemic: 0.4%
  3. NBIC – deliberate, accidental or lack of foresight (includes smart bacteria, zombie viruses, mind control etc): 0.35%
  4. Artificial Intelligence, including but not limited to the Terminator scenario: 0.25%
  5. Autonomous Micro-Drones: 0.2%
  6. Solar storm: 0.1%
  7. Global civil war: 0.1%
  8. Comet or asteroid strike 0.05%
  9. Alien Invasion: 0.04%
  10. Physics research: 0.025%

I hope you agree those are all optimistic. There have been several near misses in my lifetime of number 1, so my 0.5% could have been 2% or 3% given the current state of the world. Also, 0.25% per year means you’d only expect such a thing to happen every 4 centuries so it is a very small chance indeed. However, let’s stick with them and add them up. The cumulative probability of the top ten is 2.015%. Lets add another arbitrary 0.185% for all the risks that didn’t make it into the top ten, rounding the total up to a nice neat 2.2% per year.

Some of the ones above aren’t possible quite yet, but others will vary in probability year to year, but I think that won’t change the guess overall much. If we take a 2.2% probability per year, we have an expectation value of 45.5 years for civilization life expectancy from now. Expectation date for human extinction:

2015.5 + 45.5 years= 2061,

Obviously the probability distribution extends from now to eternity, but don’t get too optimistic, because on these figures there currently is only a 15% chance of surviving past this century.

If you can think of good reasons why my figures are far too pessimistic, by all means make your own guesses, but make them honestly, with a fair and reasonable assessment of how the world looks socially, religiously, politically, the quality of our leaders, human nature etc, and then add them up. You might still be surprised how little time we have left.

I’ll revise my original outlook upwards from ‘a bit doomed’.

We’re reasonably doomed.

The future of ISIS

I was going to write about the future of intelligence but I just saw a nice graphic by The Economist on the spread of ISIS:

so I’ll write about them instead.

The main Economist article is http://www.economist.com/news/middle-east-and-africa/21656690-islamic-state-making-itself-felt-ever-more-countries-how-much-influence

I won’t summarize their article about the current state of affairs; read it yourself. I can add a few comments to highlight the future though.

Surveys on Muslim attitudes to violence consistently show that most Muslims reject violence done in the name of Islam: 65-75%. That is the numeric range that describes the reality of ‘the vast overwhelming majority of peace-loving Muslims’ we see emphasized by politicians and media whenever an Islamic terrorist act occurs, two thirds to three quarters according to when and where the surveys have been done. The last high quality survey in the UK arrived at the figure 68%, comfortably in that range. The other side of the same statistics is that 32% of British Muslims stated some support for violence.

ISIS draws from that quarter or third of Muslims who are comfortable with using violent means to further or defend Islamic interests. Like the IRA in the Northern Ireland ‘Troubles’, with very similar support statistics, a small number of actual front-line terrorists can rely on about a third of their host population for their support, even though those most of those people will never actually join in the actual violence. The key factors in both situations are that a group feels aggrieved about something, and some people have stepped forward to fight under the banner against that something. For the IRA, it was perceived oppression of the Catholic republican community that wanted to return to a United Ireland. For ISIS, it is initially the perceived war against Islam, even if no-one else has admitted to there being one, amplified by the dream of producing a strict, fully Islamic state that can act as a hub for stricter Islamification of other regions.

Like the IRA, ISIS offers potential glory, a perverted form of status and glamour, excitement, and even a promise of paradise to young people with otherwise few opportunities in life who want to be someone. Picking up a gun and joining jihad compares favorably to some people to standing unemployed on a street corner, surrounded by a nation of people of whom almost all are doing better than you in life.

That lack of hope is abundant and growing, but in the UK at least, it is largely self-inflicted, since immigrant Muslim communities often separate themselves from the rest of their host society and thereby the opportunities otherwise on offer. Muslims who integrate with the rest of society cope happily, but many choose not to integrate and for them, it is a spiral downwards that provides a fertile ground for radicalization. Detecting and subduing radicalization is more difficult if the underlying causes are increasing.

The Middle East has huge problems, and many of them increase hostility to the West as well as between countries in the region. That also will increase. Current income from oil will reduce greatly in the next decades as the world moves away from oil towards shale gas, nuclear and renewables for energy. As income shrinks in an already unstable environment, the number of that third willing to turn to violence will increase. Add to that better communications, growing awareness of western freedoms and lifestyles and potential for new forms of government and those pressures are amplified further.

That will increase the supply for ISIS. it is easy to manipulate attitudes in a community and turn people to violence if an oppressor can be identified and blamed for all the problems, and pretty much the entire West ticks that box if the facts are cherry-picked or omitted, distorted and spun enough in the right way by skilled marketers. ISIS are good marketers.

Extreme violence by a large enough minority can force most peace-loving people into submission. ISIS have shown quite enough barbarity to scare many into compliance, terrifying communities and making them easier to conquer long before their forces’ arrival. Many of the hopeless young people in those newly conquered territories are willing to join in to gain status and rewards for themselves. Many others will join in to avoid punishment for themselves or their families. And so it rolls on.

The West’s approach to holding them back so far has been airstrikes on front lines and drone attacks on leaders. However, ISIS is something of a cloud based leadership. Although they have a somewhat centralized base in Iraq and Syria, they make their appeal to Islamists everywhere, cultivating support and initiating actions even before they enter an area. It is easy enough to kill a few leaders but every extremist preacher everywhere is another potential leader and if there is a steady stream of new recruits, some of those will be good leadership material too.

As the Economist says, ISIS have limited success so far outside of Iraq and Syria, but that could change swiftly if critical mass can be achieved in countries already showing some support. Worldwide, Muslim communities feel a strong disconnect from other cultures, which skilled manipulators can easily turn into a feeling of oppression. Without major modernization from within Islam, and of which there is little sign so far, that disconnect will greatly increase as the rest of the world’s population sees accelerating change technologically, economically, socially, culturally and politically. With so much apparently incompatible with Islamic doctrines as interpreted and presented by many of today’s Islamic leaders, it is hard to see how it could be otherwise from increasing disconnect. The gap between Islam and non-Islam won’t close, it will widen.

ISIS welcomes and encourages that growing gap. It provides much of the increasing pressure needed to convert a discontented young person into an Islamic extremist and potential recruit. It pushes a community closer to the critical mass or resentment and anger they need.

The rest of the world can’t change Islam. No matter how much politicians try to appease Islamists, offer concessions to Muslim communities, or indeed to repeatedly assert that Islamic violence has ‘nothing to do with Islam’, the gap will grow between strict Islamic values and everyone else’s. ISIS will be guaranteed a stream of enthusiastic recruits. Those Muslims to whom stricter interpretations of their religion appeal are diluted throughout Muslim populations, they are not separate groups that live apart, that can easily be identified and addressed with outreach campaigns or surveillance. Only by reducing advocacy of strict Islamic values can the gap stop widening and begin to close. That obviously can only be done by Muslim communities themselves. Any attempt to do so by those outside of Islam would simply add to perceived oppression and act as justification towards extremism. Furthermore, that reduction of advocacy of extremist interpretations of Islam would have to be global. If it persists anywhere, then that region will act as a source of violence and a draw to wannabe terrorists.

So like most other observers, it seems obvious to me that the solution to ISIS or any other extremist Islamic groups yet to emerge has to come from within Islam. Muslims will eventually have to adapt to the 21st century. They will have to modernize. That won’t be easy and it won’t happen quickly, but ISIS and its variants will thrive and multiply until that happens.

The future of holes

H already in my alphabetic series! I was going to write about happiness, or have/have nots, or hunger, or harassment, or hiding, or health. Far too many options for H. Holes is a topic I have never written about, not even a bit, whereas the others would just be updates on previous thoughts. So here goes, the future of holes.

Holes come in various shapes and sizes. At one extreme, we have great big holes from deep mining, drilling, fracking, and natural holes such as meteor craters, rifts and volcanoes. Some look nice and make good documentaries, but I have nothing to say about them.

At the other we have long thin holes in optical fibers that increase bandwidth or holes through carbon nanotubes to make them into electron pipes. And short fat ones that make nice passages through semi-permeable smart membranes.

Electron pipes are an idea I invented in 1992 to increase internet capacity by several orders of magnitude. I’ve written about them in this blog before: https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2015/05/04/increasing-internet-capacity-electron-pipes/

Short fat holes are interesting. If you make a fabric using special polymers that can stretch when a voltage is applied across it, then round holes in it would become oval holes as long as you only stretch it in one direction.  Particles that may fit through round holes might be too thick to pass through them when they are elongated. If you can do that with a membrane on the skin surface, then you have an electronically controllable means of allowing the right mount of medication to be applied. A dispenser could hold medication and use the membrane to allow the right doses at the right time to be applied.

Long thin holes are interesting too. Hollow fiber polyester has served well as duvet and pillow filling for many years. Suppose more natural material fibers could be engineered to have holes, and those holes could be filled with chemicals that are highly distasteful to moths. As a moth larva starts to eat the fabric, it would very quickly be repelled, protecting the fabric from harm.

Conventional wisdom says when you are in a hole, stop digging. End.

The future of God – Militant atheists shouldn’t behave like religious nuts

Another ‘we need to learn to get along‘ blog that fills G in my alphabetic ‘future of’ series.

Extremism hides in all sorts of places.

Atheism – not believing in the existence of a god – is a perfectly sound and rational assessment of the observable universe, a reasonable conclusion to come to, and I won’t say a word against it, but atheism isn’t the only reasonable conclusion available. Atheists don’t have a monopoly on rational thought. Sadly, some atheists have taken to being militant, started to make lots of regulatory demands and generally attacking and trying to oppress those who disagree with them. Militant atheists have always existed but their numbers have grown and they have been making a lot of noise lately. I am not alone in thinking that is not a healthy trend. Bigotry is unpleasant wherever it is found. Let’s be clear: atheism is perfectly reasonable but militant atheism is just another form of bigotry. Some militant atheists say they hate religious people because they are intolerant, without realizing the hypocrisy in such a statement. They compound bigotry with stupidity.

I won’t consider the virtues and faults of any belief set here, nor discuss my own stance, which has varied over time considerably. I will only argue against extremism and bigotry.

Although many have tried hard, and it is certainly easy to pour scorn on the idea, you can’t actually prove that there is no god. The observable universe can be explained without needing any reference to a creator but that doesn’t prove there wasn’t one. Personal religious experiences can be dismissed by citing possible psychological explanations, but they could be genuine. Without experiencing something first hand, it’s hard to know what you’re trying to explain away, or whether your explanation makes any sense. In the absence of proof, you make your own observations, listen to the arguments on both sides, you weigh up the sanity and intelligence and possible agendas of people claiming first hand religious experience and of those who have strong faith, and then you make up your mind which ones are most convincing to you. Then you sit on that side of the fence. You could decide to sit on the fence and be agnostic if you think there is a reasonable case for both sides, or if you don’t want to spend a lot of time and effort thinking through something that isn’t terribly important to you. You may even swap sides now and then. But what you can’t reasonably assume is that everyone who reaches a different conclusion from you is an idiot.

If a lot of smart people believe in something, they might all be wrong but there also just might be something in it. A superficial and contemptuous cherry-picking glance at their religion won’t tell you anything about its underlying truths. Lots of people have been atheists in the past, it’s hardly a new idea. Lots of them were strongly convinced they were right but were later converted to a faith. Believing there is no god ends up just as much a belief as believing that there is. You can fiercely argue on probabilities or about whether particular faiths are dumb, but it doesn’t change the fact that you simply can’t prove it either way. Atheism may not be a religious faith, but in the absence of proof and in the presence of the evidence of billions who genuinely believe the opposite, atheism is still just an unprovable belief.

Being an atheist is still perfectly reasonable, but it should therefore be accompanied by a degree of intellectual humility. The majority of atheists accept that it is possible to come reasonably to either conclusion about a god and manage to find the humility and to live alongside those of faith. Many people haven’t given the matter a great deal of thought and that’s fine too, provided they too live peacefully side by side with others who do believe something or nothing.

Sadly, this increasingly vocal minority of militants don’t want to live peacefully side by side with those who believe in a god. Militant atheism, where the humility is absent, is simply misplaced intellectual arrogance and bigotry. Assuming that you are smarter than all those people who believe, that you fully understand their belief mindset and can clearly see where and why they are mistaken, even though all those people can’t see it for themselves in spite of endless study – that is quite a conviction of your own intellectual superiority over the vast number of your fellow people. Some of those that believe probably have higher IQs than you, are better qualified, have been around more, investigated the religions more thoroughly, with less prejudice, some have read the various writings for themselves, and thought it all through in more depth. They haven’t all just listened to superficial mockery of things that may have been misrepresented or dragged out of context by someone with an agenda to push. They haven’t just blindly absorbed a celebrity tweet and joined in the oppression of believers so they can look cool and trendy without bothering to expend any effort thinking it through for themselves. With all that background, are you still sufficiently convinced that your intellect and judgment is so superior to all those people’s that you’re prepared to be a militant?

That’s quite a conviction to have. Most people who hold it shouldn’t and aren’t as smart as they think they are. Being atheist just means holding an honest and reasonable belief alongside billions of others holding theirs, but becoming a militant atheist renders you no more deserving of respect than those militant religious extremists you despise; your position and your behavior are essentially the same – I’m right, you’re wrong, therefore I should be in control and you should do as I say, and I have the right to walk all over your rights, because my beliefs are less primitive, more enlightened, more important than yours. That’s not a reasonable position. Religious militants have brought much misery to the world throughout history, but this new bunch of militant atheists are no better. They are just religious oppressors in different uniforms.

Atheism is a respectable faith that there is no god. Militant atheism is just another extremist faith followed mostly by people who think they are smarter than they are and by those who want to seen as fashionable but are too intellectually lazy to think for themselves so just parrot their favorite celeb. Neither is a laudable role.

Atheism is reasonable. Agnosticism is reasonable. Some religious faiths are reasonable. Militant religion isn’t. Militant atheism isn’t.

The future of feminism and fashion

Perhaps it’s a bit presumptive of me to talk about what feminists want or don’t want, but I will make the simplifying assumption that they vary somewhat and don’t all want the same things. When it comes to makeup, many feminists want to look how they want to look for their own pleasure, not specifically to appeal to men, or they may want to attract some people and not others, or they may not want to bother with makeup at all, but still be able to look nice for the right people.

Augmented reality will allow those options. AR creates an extra layer of appearance that allows a woman to present herself any way she wants via an avatar, and also to vary presented appearance according to who is looking at her. So she may choose to be attractive to people she finds attractive, and plain to people she’d rather not get attention from. This is independent of any makeup she might be wearing, so she may choose not to wear any at all and rely entirely on the augmented reality layer to replace makeup, saving a lot of time, effort and expense. She could even use skin care products such as face masks that are purely functional, nourishing or protecting her face, but which don’t look very nice. Friends, colleagues and particular subsections of total strangers would still see her as she wants to be seen and she might not care about how she appears to others.

It may therefore be possible that feminism could use makeup as a future activist platform. It would allow women to seize back control over their appearance in a far more precise way, making it abundantly clear that their appearance belongs to them and is under their control and that they control who they look nice for. They would not have to give up looking good for themselves or their friends, but would be able to exclude any groups currently out of favour.

However, it doesn’t have to be just virtual appearance that they can control electronically. It is also possible to have actual physical makeup that changes according to time, location, emotional state or circumstances. Active makeup does just that, but I’ve written too often about that. Let’s look instead at other options:

Fashion has created many different clothing accessories over the years. It has taken far longer than it should, but we are now finally seeing flexible polymer displays being forged into wrist watch straps and health monitoring bands as well as bendy and curvy phones. As 1920s era fashion makes a small comeback, it can’t be long before headbands and hair-bands come back and they would be a perfect display platform too. Hair accessories can be pretty much any shape and size, and be a single display zone or multiple ones. Some could even use holographic displays, so that the accessory seems to change its form, or have optional remote components seemingly hanging free in the nearby air. Any of these could be electronically controllable or set to adjust automatically according to location and the people present.

Displays would also make good forehead jewellery, such as electronic eyebrows, holographic jewels, smart bindis, forehead tattoos and so on. They could change colour or pattern according to emotions for example. As long as displays are small, skin flexing doesn’t present too big an engineering barrier.

In fact, small display particles such as electronic glitter could group together to appear as a single display, even though each is attached to a different piece of skin. Thus, flexing of the skin is still possible with a collection of rigid small displays, which could be millimetre sized electronic glitter. Electronic glitter could contain small capacitors that store energy harvested from temperature difference between the skin and the environment, periodically allowing a colour change.

However, it won’t be just the forehead that is available once displays become totally flexible. That will make the whole visible face an electronic display platform instead of just a place for dumb makeup. Smart freckles and moles could make a fashion reappearance. Lips and cheeks could change colour according to mood and pre-decided protocols, rather than just at the whim of nature.

Other parts of the body would likely house displays too. Fingernails and toenails could be an early candidate since they are relatively rigid. The wrist and forearm are also often exposed. Much of the rest of the body is concealed by clothing most of the time, but seasonal displays are likely when it is more often bare. Beach displays could interact with swimwear, or even substitute for it.

In fact, enabling a multitude of tiny displays on the face and around the body will undoubtedly create a new fashion design language. Some dialects could be secret, only understood by certain groups, a tribal language. Fashion has always had an extensive symbology and adding electronic components to the various items will extend its potential range. It is impossible to predict what different things will mean to mainstream and sub-cultures, as meanings evolve chaotically from random beginnings. But there will certainly be many people and groups willing to capitalise on the opportunities presented. Feminism could use such devices and languages to good effect.

Clothing and accessories such as jewellery are also obvious potential display platforms. A good clue for the preferred location is the preferred location today for similar usage. For example, many people wear logos, messages and pictures on their T-shirts, whereas other items of clothing remain mostly free of them. The T-shirt is therefore by far the most likely electronic display area. Belts, boots, shoes and bag-straps offer a likely platform too, not because they are used so much today, but because they again present an easy and relatively rigid physical platform.

Timescales for this run from historical appearance of LED jewellery at Christmas (which I am very glad to say I also predicted well in advance) right through to holographic plates that appear to hover around the person as they walk around. I’ve explained in previous blogs how actual floating and mobile plates could be made using plasma and electro-magnetics. But the timescale of relevance in the next few years is that of the cheaper and flexible polymer display. As costs fall and size increases, in parallel with an ever improving wireless and cloud infrastructure, the potential revenue from a large new sector combining the fashion and display industries will make this not so much likely as  inevitable.

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:


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