HS2 is world class stupidity

£106Bn is the new estimated cost of HS2, with a new delivery date of 2040

https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2020/jan/20/hs2-costs-government-review-west-midlands-manchester-leeds

We hear figures in the billions all the time, and I guess politicians especially lose their sense of what they really mean. A few billion here, another few billion there, so £106Bn just sounds like a decent sized public infrastructure project, equivalent to a few power stations, what’s the big deal? Let’s do some simple sums to find out and get some perspective.

The money has to come from tax and regardless of the diverse routes it takes, people ultimately pay all that tax. There are 66.5 million people in the UK, so that’s only £1600 each. Most of those people will never or hardly ever use HS2.

However, according to the Office of National Statistics, HMRC, only 31.2 million of those people pay income tax, so they contribute an average £3400 each. But actually the top 50% of those, 15.6 million people, pay 90% of the tax, so that means HS2 will effectively cost them £95.4Bn, a whopping £6115 each. I could go more sums but you get the point.

It’s a fair bet that the half of UK taxpayers paying over £6000 each for HS2 could write a long list of things they’d rather have than the option to buy an expensive rail ticket that might save some people, but probably not them, 20 minutes on a journey to London, but for most people might actually take them longer if they have first to get a slow train to one of the privileged HS2 stations.

6000 quid, each, 12k for a professional couple. For a slightly faster train? Remember, the original spec was for very fast trains, but they had to wind the speed down because it was discovered that trains might sometimes derail due to lethal combinations of aerodynamics and subsidence, so the realistic spec is about 150mph, compared to 125mph for a normal intercity.

This is the economics of the madhouse.

Trains are 19th and 20th century technology. 21st century technology allows driverless pod systems that would be far cheaper, far more versatile, far more socially inclusive, and far faster end to end. Pods could carry people or freight. Pod systems could start off mixing with conventional trains by grouping to make virtual trains. As antique old stock is gradually upgraded, along with stations, we would end up with a totally pod-based transport system. Pods could just as easily run on roads as on rails. The rails could be ripped up and recycled, railways tarmacked over, and public transport could seamlessly run on roads or the old railways. With potential occupancy of up to 95%, compared to the 0.4% typical of conventional rail, the old railways could carry 237 times more traffic! That wouldn’t eliminate congestion – there would still be some choke points – but it would make one hell of a dent in it. It would be faster because someone could have a pod pick them up at their home or office, maybe swap onto a shared one at a local node, and then go all the way to their destination at a good speed, with hardly any delays en-route, now waiting for the next scheduled train or having to make pointless journeys to get to a mainline station. They could simply go straight to where they want, and save much more time than HS2 would ever have saved.

Pod systems could serve the whole country, not just the lucky few living near the right stations. Fixing ‘the North-South divide’ still favours pod systems, not HS2. Everyone benefits from pods, hardly anyone benefits from HS2. Everyone saves money with pods, everyone is worse off with HS2. Why is the idea still flying?

The problem we have is that too few of our politicians or senior civil servants have any real understanding of technology and its potential. They are blinded by seeing figures in billions sever day, so have lost their understanding of just how much £100Bn is. They are terrified of pressure groups and always eager to be seen to be doing something, however stupid that something might be if they examined it.

HS2 is a stupid idea, world-class stupidity. It is 20th century technology, an old idea long past its use-by date. It locks in all the huge disadvantages and costs of old-style rail for several more decades We should leapfrog over it and go instead for a 21st century solution – cheap driverless pods. We’d save a fortune and have a far superior result.

 

 

The future of the car industry

I’ve blogged and lectured many times now on the future of cars, public transport, trains, and I’ve retained my view that private cars and public transport (taxis, buses and trains, apart from very high density systems like London’s Underground) will eventually be replaced by fleets of driverless pods or self-driving cars (most probably the pods in city areas and some self-driving cars for non-urban areas). It can’t happen overnight of course, and there are various routes to getting there, but now that we know Tesla is setting up a big factory in Germany, the fog has lifted a little on the near and mid-term future.

Tesla will make electric cars. They have always been the future, but efforts and laws to reduce CO2 emissions are significantly expediting the trend. For the purposes of analyzing the future of the industry, there are really three distinct parts to consider. Electric vehicles can be considered to be a chassis, that can be adapted and re-used across a wide range of vehicles, a cabin, with its more individual appeals and decor, physical comforts and luxuries, and all the electronics, intelligence, sensors, displays, comms, entertainment.

With expertise in all camps, Tesla can flourish, but its much greater global expertise in the battery industry puts it in pole position to make a few standard electric chassis models that can be marketed to other manufacturers. The existence of those standard chassis allows new small manufacturers to spring up to offer a wide range of vehicles customized for every niche. These manufacturers don’t need the range of expertise of the conventional car industry, with many decades of expertise making relatively dumb vehicles with combustion engines. They will only have to learn the skills of making the comfortable cabins to sit on those chassis. (Don’t you hate that word too, with no proper plural!)

The car industry is therefore finding that much of the value of its historic core skills is quickly evaporating while having to compete on fairly equal terms in a new market using new technology with new manufacturers.

An electric chassis can include the motors to drive each wheel, and could also be easily adapted if and when new energy delivery systems using inductive pickups from the road surface move into the market (already successfully demonstrated in buses), and if and when lithium batteries are substituted by super-capacitors. So companies like Tesla can carry on making their own high-spec electric cars/vans/lorries but also flourish in a parallel market selling chassis with built-in drives to other companies who just need to put a decent cabin on top. It’s good strategy to see competitors as a potential market. Co-opetition works too.

This could be devastating to most of the big car manufacturers. Where will their market differential lie? Basic everyday markets could use the standardized chassis. How could they differentiate a high performance car when Tesla already offer ones that go 0-60 in under 3 seconds? The various electronics and AI systems will not compete only with Tesla but with all the big IT companies who also see roles in these markets: Apple, Sony, Google already but likely Samsung, LG, Microsoft and Amazon following soon.

It is possible that some existing car manufacturers will adapt just fine. They’ve known for many years that this future was coming and those with good strategies will cope. It is very likely though that some won’t cope and that very many jobs will be lost from the existing vehicle manufacturing industry, already bleeding jobs thanks to automation. It’s certainly not an industry I’d want to invest in for a decade or so until the weaker players have been removed from the field.

The main uncertainty that remains is whether the new industry goes the self-driving vehicle route, with lots of expensive sensors and IT in every vehicle, or the dumb pod/smart infrastructure route, with cheap cabins and simple chassis powered and navigated by the infrastructure. The latter could be much cheaper in urban areas, while the former would be better outside towns. My guess is that in the far future, we’ll have both, with self-driving vehicles outside urban areas, and pod systems inside urban areas (self-driving vehicles can easily be made downwards compatible so that they can behave like pods when in town).

Apocalypse Tomorrow

This post was co-authored with Bronwyn Williams (details below)

I recently watched a documentary about the 1978 Jonestown Massacre, where 918 Peoples Temple followers died, many of them children, killed by their own parents. Before it even started, my own memories of it in the news made me realize that the current global socio-political climate makes such an ‘unthinkable’ event likely to happen again, possibly on a much bigger scale, perhaps even in several places at once.

The biggest factor by far is the global replacement of religion (mostly Christianity) by secular religion substitutes. These secular substitutes for the meaning, direction and purpose formerly provided by religion take many forms, from a revived interest in paganism, witchcraft, and general “no name brand” spiritualism and mysticism, through to a new almost religious fervor for political causes. Now, while finding solace for the horror of the human condition in crystals or astrology is relatively benign (unless you are getting into debt betting your children’s school fees on the stocks recommended in your daily horoscope app, for example); mass movements driven by tribes of True Believers, are far more concerning.

New converts to any mass movement – religious or secular – are invariably among the most passionate believers, so we now have a massive and global pool of people newly susceptible to the same forces that enabled Jim Jones to do what he did. Every day on social media we witness first hand that enthusiasm, driving the secular equivalent of the Spanish Inquisition and targeting anyone and everyone not devoutly following every detail of their new faith. Jones strongly policed his followers and strictly punished any rule breaking or heresy. That same practice is greatly amplified in social media, to billions of people instead of the thousand followers Jones had influence on.

I’ve written many times about the strong similarities between religion and belief in catastrophic climate change, environmentalism, woke doctrine, veganism, New Ageism, and others. All these triggers tap in to the same anchors in human nature, first of which makes people want to believe they are ‘good people’ on the right side of history; the second of which is tribalism, the basic human instinct of wanting to belong to a group of like-thinking people, while clearly marking the boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘them’. At the same time, as people are forced to decide which side to stand on, the gulf between the “us” and ‘them’ is always widening, amplifying both the fear of – and the real consequences of – being cut out of the circle of trust of their chosen tribe, just as Jim Jones did.

Importantly, the scientific truth and proven facts behind these causes are less important than how the causes make the new true believers feel; particularly when it comes to signalling the moral superiority of the in group compared to the infidel, unconverted out-group.  As Eric Hoffer wrote in The True Believer, for the adherents of most mass movements, “The effectiveness of a doctrine should not be judged by its profundity, sublimity or the validity of the truths it embodies, but by how thoroughly it insulates the individual from his self and the world as it is.”.

Now, these tribal drivers are immensely strong forces, the likes of which have underpinned crusades and wars since the days of ancient civilizations. Now that far fewer people believe in formal religions, many of those who previously would have been enthusiastic believers have turned instead to these secular substitutes that push the same psychological buttons. Another documentary this week on veganism shows exactly the same forces at play being harnessed as in religion – secular equivalent to sin, shaming sinners, fear of rejection, tribalism, and especially demonstrating the impact of a charismatic ‘priest’. Jones was highly charismatic, and a master at using these forces. Compare the influence today that a single person can have in pushing a particular agenda in the name of social justice or climate change action.

Fear was a very powerful weapon used constantly by Jones, and today’s climate catastrophists do all they can to ensure as many other people share their fear as possible. It seems that every negative news item is somehow tied to ‘climate change’. If the climate isn’t enough, rising seas, ocean acidification, plastic pollution are all linked in to enhance the total fear, exaggerating wildly while a scared media lets them get away with it. Millions of people now pressurize governments and social media, screaming and shrieking “DO SOMETHING, NOW!!!!!”. Jones enhanced fear by talking frequently about death, even using mock suicides to amplify the general climate of fear. Now, witness the frequent death cult demonstrations of animal rights protesters and climate change catastrophists. Extinction rebellion excel in this area, with their blood-red meta-religious uniforms. It is impossible not to see parallels with Jones’ cult followers.

Jones was also adept in creating fake news. He used fake healings and even a fake resurrection to amplify faith and ensure his reign as leader. Fake news in today’s work is virtually indistinguishable from reality, and worse still many people don’t care, as long as it backs up what they already believe.

Another strong parallel is socialism. Jones gift-wrapped his cult in socialism Utopianism. Most people won’t join a movement just from fear alone, there needs to be a strong attractor to get them to join up, and fear can keep them there afterwards. Today we see a new enthusiasm among young people (a gospel enthusiastically spread to young minds via their state school teachers) for socialism. Via skillful use of Orwell’s doublespeak, with activists redefining words over a decade or more, they are presented with all the wonderful Utopian claims of ‘fairness’, ‘equality’, ‘love’, ‘tolerance’ and so on, while non-believers are listed as ‘evil’, ‘deplorable’, ‘fascists’, and ‘deniers’. Even the USA is seeing strong enthusiasm for socialism and even communism, something that would have been impossible to imagine just 25 years ago.

Socialism, environmental catastrophism and religious fervor make a powerful trio. Promised salvation, status and utopia if you follow, doom and catastrophic punishment such as social ostracizing and career destruction on the light end, and complete civilizational and environmental collapse if you don’t.

Other forces still add to this. Generations raised on social media and social credit scores (both official and unofficial) are rewarded (in status and income) for narcissism and self-censorship and reversion to the group mean. This, of course, further reinforces echo-chamber group-think and a sincere, yet unfounded superiority complex, creating a tribal inter-generational hostility to older people that prevents them from accepting accumulated wisdom. They happily absorb emotional fake news and distortion as long as it massages their need for affirmation. Likes outweigh facts any day. Indeed, even holding a PhD is no longer an effective immunization against collective delusion, in a world where social scientists are punished with their careers for publishing results of scientific studies that falsify popular politically correct consensus opinions (As Eric Hoffer said, “There is an illiterate air about the most literate true believer.”)

Self-hate is another powerful trend; the dishonor of being born Western (or even more damningly, male) has strong Biblical parallels to man being born into sin; and the need to recognize, confess and atone for the sins of one’s birth and forefathers.

So where does this take us?

Jones was highly charismatic. He was a natural master of using strong emotional forces built into human nature. History has many examples of equally charismatic leaders (from Obama to Oprah), who used their charm and power for good. (Unfortunately, history also provides us with myriad of converse examples, from Hitler and Stalin to Jones). It likely that we will now see new leaders emerge to galvanize today’s new tribes of true believers. Whether the new leaders exploit the passion of the masses for good or ill; or march them to the Promised Land or into a catastrophic Great Leap forward into famine, disaster and mass death, only time will tell.

Already, we have heard many activists talk about how we need to greatly reduce human population. As an example, just days ago, The Guardian published this article. The radical vegan anti-natalist movement, advocating for the extinction of the human race as the only way to save planet Earth is growing in popularity around the (mostly Western) self-hating world. Some activists have even suggested mass-killing climate change deniers.

Similarly, controversially, there is a related emerging enthusiasm for abortion. Far beyond a woman’s right to choice and autonomy over her own body, the new celebration of abortion – not as a woman’s right, but as something actively encouraged and applauded by extreme environmentalists- marks a distinct turning point in society’s values towards human life in general.  Would-have-been parents claim they are so sure about climate doom that they can’t bear to bring a child into this world; similarly, young men are getting vasectomies as a sign of commitment to their cause (not unlike religious circumcision). It’s voluntary sterilization as virtue signalling, as a political message, sacrificing a child to make a point.  Abortion rates may well start to rise again after a long steady decline as Climatism makes its mark.

(Indeed, the anti-fertility campaigns of Western aid and health workers in low income African and Asian countries is symptomatic of how human life is increasingly perceived as a form of pestilence, to be minimized, if not eradicated (by its own kind if necessary); rather than something intrinsically valuable.)

Following along these lines, we can see echoes of Jonestown. At the end, Jones made sure that adults gave poison to their kids first before taking it themselves. He knew that if parents had deliberately killed their kids, they would be much more likely to kill themselves.

Imagine therefore that a new charismatic leader were to spring up, adept at social media and in manipulating language, emotions, and people. Imagine that they were to gain a large following across the English-speaking world. That they advocate reducing human population, targeting heretic ‘climate change deniers’, reducing carbon footprint via vegetarianism, veganism, giving reparations to developing countries for climate damage, supporting no-borders to allow anyone to immigrate as a ‘climate refugee’, encouraging abortion to reduce birth rate. Such a package would find a very large audience who demonstrably want to feel holy, that they are good while others are evil. A charismatic leader could thereby create a strong tribe. Using abundant funding from the membership, they might well build socialist Utopian towns. Maybe in a jungle like Jones, but just as likely out in the wilds in Canada, the USA, or Australia, a Scottish island, or all of these. Perhaps they could have hundreds of thousands of people join, with millions more online ‘associates’. Millions compared to Jonestown’s thousand.

And then perhaps, in the end, to force the rest of humanity to listen by means of a coordinated mass suicide, to go down in history as martyrs to the environment, saviors of the Earth.

Is an anti-civilizational suicide pact inevitable? No, not at all.

But imaginable, feasible, perhaps even likely? In my opinion, yes it is. And it could well happen in the next few years, while this perfect storm of forces is peaking.

About Bronwyn Williams

Bronwyn Williams is a futurist, economist and trend analyst, who consults to business and government leaders on how to understand the world we live in today and change the world’s trajectory for tomorrow. She is also a regular media commentator on African socio-economic affairs. For more, visit http://whatthefuturenow.com

 

 

Can you claim to be on the right side of history?

On several major issues, we all need to decide where we stand. We can obfuscate and waffle and use distractions and other tricks to avoid discussing them and perhaps having an argument, or losing friends if we make our position clear, but your conscience knows what you think, and whether you do anything about it or try to hide.

I’ve lost a lot of social media followers and quite a few former friends by repeatedly laying out my own opinions on controversial issues such as climate change, trans rights v women’s rights, antisemitism, capitalism v socialism, freedom of speech and what I often call the new dark age. I don’t have any grandchildren yet but hope one day I will, and if any of them ask me what I thought and said and did when big decisions were being made around now, I will either be proudly able to say I was on the right side of history, or – and we all must accept this is always a possibility – that I got it wrong, that I believed and said and did the wrong things.

We all live in different information environments. We have different friends, different educations, different personalities, and consume different media. Some of it is not our fault, some of it is results of personal choices. You can’t excuse yourself for not being aware of something if you choose to only ever read media that ignores that issue or always puts heavy spin on it. That’s your free choice (though it is certainly getting harder to find media without bias).

Elections are a time where such personal choices come to the fore.  Us Brits have to vote this week, my yank followers are deep in the very long run up to theirs. In both cases, the decisions are more about big moral issues and will have deeper consequences than most previous elections. Our choice counts, not just for this election, but for our future consciences, for the notional personal account we could give our descendants in the world we have helped architect (or opposed).

It’s not for me to tell you how to vote – it’s your decision and your conscience you’ll have to live with years down the line. My blogs and tweets lay out my own positions on the important issues frequently and my regular readers will know them. But this is my blog, so I’m happy to lay them out briefly again. Maybe it will help think more about your own positions.

Antisemitism: I don’t know if I know any Jews (I don’t know anyone who has told me they are), but I do know that antisemitism is wrong. The Holocaust was only possible because many people stood by and let it. I will not be one of them now. If anyone votes for an antisemitic party, they are complicit in antisemitism. If Jews feel they have to leave the UK because an antisemitic party gains power, that will be shameful for the UK, and anyone who helps them gain power should feel deeply ashamed. It has become very clear that Labour is currently an antisemitic party. I have voted for them several times before, but I will certainly never vote for them again while they are antisemitic.

Capitalism v socialism: Capitalism works. Socialism doesn’t. A socialist government would make it much more difficult for people to lead comfortable lives, including the poorest in our society, and would leave massive debts crippling our children and grandchildren. I don’t want that on my conscience.

Climate change: we have seen some warming in the last few decades. Some of that is likely caused by nature – mainly ocean and solar cycles, but some of it, an unknown amount, is probably caused by humans. CO2 emissions of course but also deforestation, pollution, industry, farming, and all of our personal lifestyle choices. I believe we should not be complacent about any of these, and should work towards a cleaner environment and better stewardship, including developing better forms of clean energy. However, although I want a cleaner world with better environmental stewardship, I most certainly do not agree we are in a ‘climate emergency’, that we are all doomed if we don’t dramatically change our way of life immediately. I believe much of the information we are presented with has been distorted and exaggerated, that the climate models predict too high levels for future warming, and that deeply reduces solar activity likely to last until around 2050 will provide a cooling effect that at least offsets warming, and perhaps even results in net cooling. Consequently, nature has effectively give us a few decades to carry on developing solar and fusion energy technology, that we can invest gradually as free markets incentivise development and reduce the costs, and that we do not need to spend massively right now, because the problem will essentially go away. By 2050, CO2 output will be a lot less than today, the real warming we see by then will be much smaller than is often predicted in the media and there is therefore no real reason to jeopardise our economies by massively overspending on CO2 reduction while the associated costs and lifestyle impacts are so high. Massively spending on scales wanted by XR, the Green party etc, would cause huge harm to our kids’ futures with no significant benefit. If we want to spend huge sums of money, we have a duty to aim for the biggest benefit and there are plenty of real problems such as poverty and disease that could use those funds better. Waste trillions on pointless virtue signalling, or make the world a better place? I know where I stand. None of my local candidates come out well here.

Trans rights v women’s rights: I support trans rights to a point, but we are quickly passing that point, and now eroding women’s rights. Women have had to fight long and hard to get where they are today. In my view, women being forced to accept former men competing with them in sports (or indeed in any field where biological men have an advantage) is unfair to biological women. Having to share changing rooms and lavatories with people who still have male genitalia is unfair to biological women. Deliberate conflation of sex and gender as a means to influencing debate or regulation is wrong. Encouraging young children to change gender and schools preventing parents from even knowing is going too far. Given the potential life consequences, great care should be exercised before gender change is considered and it seems that care is not always present. Making it illegal to discuss these issues is certainly going too far. If someone feels they are in the wrong body and wants hormone treatment or surgery, or if they want to cross-dress or call themselves by a different gender, I don’t object at all, and I’d even defend their right to do so, provided that doing so doesn’t undermine someone else’s rights. Women are a vulnerable group because of physical and historic disadvantages compared to men, and in conflict between trans rights and women’s rights, I think women’s rights should take priority. Good luck with finding a party that agrees.

Freedom of speech and the new dark age: I believe people should be able to say what they want and others should be able to challenge them. I believe in a few sensible restrictions – e.g shouting “FIRE” in a crowded cinema, or deliberate incitement to violence. I disagree with the concepts of hate speech and hate crime, invariably used to close down debate that is essential for a free and cohesive society. Making the law into a tool to restrict freedom of speech (and thought) has already resulted in harm, and has created a large and rapidly growing class of ‘truths’ that everyone must give lip service to even if they believe them to be wrong. They must also lie and state that they believe them if challenged or face punishment, by the law or social media mob. This is simply anti-knowledge. It inhibits genuine progress and the development of genuine knowledge and it therefore inhibits quality of life. Even naming such anti-knowledge is punishable, and it has already caused a high degree of self-censorship in journalism and blogging, so you must use your own judgement on what it includes. My censored thoughts on the new dark age are here: https://timeguide.files.wordpress.com/2017/06/the-new-dark-age.pdf. Again, most parties seem very happy to take us further into the dark age.

I could have picked many other policies and issues. Every reader has their own priorities. These are just some in my mind today.

I don’t think any of the parties come out well today. For many people, spoiling their vote is a valid alternative that officially says they’re not prepared to support any of those on offer on the ballot paper. Others will vote for who they see as the lesser of evils. Others will happily support a candidate and turn a blind eye to their associated moral issues.

Your conscience, your choice, your future memory of where you stood. Choose well.

 

Futurizon carbon emissions: approx zero

It seems to be very fashionable to do carbon audits, so even though I am heavily skeptical of anything related to ‘climate emergency’ and especially wary of anything ‘green’, unlike most ‘green’ organisations and individuals, Futurizon is actually highly environmentally responsible instead of just pretending to be, so I spent a few seconds calculating Futurizon’s:

Travel: Phone, email or Skype encouraged and used wherever possible for client meetings and consultancy. Otherwise, all public transport. 100% of trips are billed to clients, and all trip-related carbon emissions are equivalently clients’ responsibility.

Training, sales, management and other activity-related travel: zero

Waste: minimal paper use (~10 sheets per week) and all is recycled.

Approx 2 printer cartridges per year, recycled.

0.25 computers per year, re-used or recycled

Lighting: approx 98W for 10 hours per day = 0.98kWh/day. All contracted as nuclear or renewables

Computing & comms: total 150W, 10 hours per day, 1.5kWh per day

Heating: all offices are at home so no extra energy for heating

Total footprint is virtually zero, about 2.5kWh per day of energy, sourced from nuclear or renewables, and almost no waste that isn’t recycled. No additional heating or water requirements compared to not working.

Futurizon behaves environmentally responsibly, instead of just rabbiting on about it.

 

 

Optical computing

A few nights ago I was thinking about the optical fibre memories that we were designing in the late 1980s in BT. The idea was simple. You transmit data into an optical fibre, and if the data rate is high you can squeeze lots of data into a manageable length. Back then the speed of light in fibre was about 5 microseconds per km of fibre, so 1000km of fibre, at a data rate of 2Gb/s would hold 10Mbits of data, per wavelength, so if you can multiplex 2 million wavelengths, you’d store 20Tbits of data. You could maintain the data by using a repeater to repeat the data as it reaches one end into the other, or modify it at that point simply by changing what you re-transmit. That was all theory then, because the latest ‘hero’ experiments were only just starting to demonstrate the feasibility of such long lengths, such high density WDM and such data rates.

Nowadays, that’s ancient history of course, but we also have many new types of fibre, such as hollow fibre with various shaped pores and various dopings to allow a range of effects. And that’s where using it for computing comes in.

If optical fibre is designed for this purpose, with optimal variable refractive index designed to facilitate and maximise non-linear effects, then the photons in one data stream on one wavelength could have enough effects of photons in another stream to be used for computational interaction. Computers don’t have to be digital of course, so the effects don’t have to be huge. Analog computing has many uses, and analog interactions could certainly work, while digital ones might work, and hybrid digital/analog computing may also be feasible. Then it gets fun!

Some of the data streams could be programs. Around that time, I was designing protocols with smart packets that contained executable code, as well as other packets that could hold analog or digital data or any mix. We later called the smart packets ANTs – autonomous network telephers, a contrived term if ever there was one, but we wanted to call them ants badly. They would scurry around the network doing a wide range of jobs, using a range of biomimetic and basic physics techniques to work like ant colonies and achieve complex tasks using simple means.

If some of these smart packets or ANTs are running along a fibre, changing the properties as they go to interact with other data transmitting alongside, then ANTs can interact with one another and with any stored data. ANTs could also move forwards or backwards along the fibre by using ‘sidings’ or physical shortcuts, since they can route themselves or each other. Data produced or changed by the interactions could be digital or analog and still work fine, carried on the smart packet structure.

(If you’re interested my protocol was called UNICORN, Universal Carrier for an Optical Residential Network, and used the same architectural principles as my previous Addressed Time Slice invention, compressing analog data by a few percent to fit into a packet, with a digital address and header, or allowing any digital data rate or structure in a payload while keeping the same header specs for easy routing. That system was invented (in 1988) for the late 1990s when basic domestic broadband rate should have been 625Mbit/s or more, but we expected to be at 2Gbit/s or even 20Gbit/s soon after that in the early 2000s, and the benefit as that we wouldn’t have to change the network switching because the header overheads would still only be a few percent of total time. None of that happened because of government interference in the telecoms industry regulation that strongly disincentivised its development, and even today, 625Mbit/s ‘basic rate’ access is still a dream, let alone 20Gbit/s.)

Such a system would be feasible. Shortcuts and sidings are easy to arrange. The protocols would work fine. Non-linear effects are already well known and diverse. If it were only used for digital computing, it would have little advantage over conventional computers. With data stored on long fibre lengths, external interactions would be limited, with long latency. However, it does present a range of potentials for use with external sensors directly interacting with data streams and ANTs to accomplish some tasks associated with modern AI. It ought to be possible to use these techniques to build the adaptive analog neural networks that we’ve known are the best hope of achieving strong AI since Hans Moravek’s insight, coincidentally also around that time. The non-linear effects even enable ideal mechanisms for implementing emotions, biasing the computation in particular directions via intensity of certain wavelengths of light in much the same way as chemical hormones and neurotransmitters interact with our own neurons. Implementing up to 2 million different emotions at once is feasible.

So there’s a whole mineful of architectures, tools and techniques waiting to be explored and mined by smart young minds in the IT industry, using custom non-linear optical fibres for optical AI.

AI could use killer drone swarms to attack people while taking out networks

In 1987 I discovered a whole class of security attacks that could knock out networks, which I called correlated traffic attacks, creating particular patterns of data packet arrivals from particular sources at particular times or intervals. We simulated two examples to successfully verify the problem. One example was protocol resonance. I demonstrated that it was possible to push a system into a gross overload state with a single call, by spacing the packets precise intervals apart. Their arrival caused a strong resonance in the bandwidth allocation algorithms and the result was that network capacity was instantaneously reduced by around 70%. Another example was information waves, whereby a single piece of information appearing at a particular point could, by its interaction with particular apps on mobile devices (the assumption was financially relevant data that would trigger AI on the devices to start requesting voluminous data, triggering a highly correlated wave of responses, using up bandwidth and throwing the network into overload, very likely crashing due to initiation of rarely used software. When calls couldn’t get through, the devices would wait until the network recovered, then they would all simultaneously detect recovery and simultaneously try again, killing the net again, and again, until people were asked to turn  their devices off and on again, thereby bringing randomness back into the system. Both of these examples could knock out certain kinds of networks, but they are just two of an infinite set of possibilities in the correlated traffic attack class.

Adversarial AI pits one AI against another, trying things at random or making small modifications until a particular situation is achieved, such as the second AI accepting an image is acceptable. It is possible, though I don’t believe it has been achieved yet, to use the technique to simulate a wide range of correlated traffic situations, seeing which ones achieve network resonance or overloads, which trigger particular desired responses from network management or control systems, via interactions with the network and its protocols, commonly resident apps on mobile devices or computer operating systems.

Activists and researchers are already well aware that adversarial AI can be used to find vulnerabilities in face recognition systems and thereby prevent recognition, or to deceive autonomous car AI into seeing fantasy objects or not seeing real ones. As Noel Sharkey, the robotics expert, has been tweeting today, it will be possible to use adversarial AI to corrupt recognition systems used by killer drones, potentially to cause them to attack their controllers or innocents instead of their intended targets. I have to agree with him. But linking that corruption to the whole extended field of correlated traffic attacks extends the range of mechanisms that can be used greatly. It will be possible to exploit highly obscured interactions between network physical architecture, protocols and operating systems, network management, app interactions, and the entire sensor/IoT ecosystem, as well as software and AI systems using it. It is impossible to check all possible interactions, so no absolute defence is possible, but adversarial AI with enough compute power could randomly explore across these multiple dimensions, stumble across regions of vulnerability and drill down until grand vulnerabilities are found.

This could further be linked to apps used as highly invisible Trojans, offering high attractiveness to users with no apparent side effects, quietly gathering data to help identify potential targets, and simply waiting for a particular situation or command before signalling to the attacking system.

A future activist or terrorist group or rogue state could use such tools to make a multidimensional attack. It could initiate an attack, using its own apps to identify and locate targets, control large swarms of killer drones or robots to attack them, simultaneously executing a cyberattack that knocks out selected parts of the network, crashing or killing computers and infrastructure. The vast bulk of this could be developed, tested and refined offline, using simulation and adversarial AI approaches to discover vulnerabilities and optimise exploits.

There is already debate about killer drones, mainly whether we should permit them and in what circumstances, but activists and rogue states won’t care about rules. Millions of engineers are technically able to build such things and some are not on your side. It is reasonable to expect that freely available AI tools will be used in such ways, using their intelligence to design, refine, initiate and control attacks using killer drones, robots and self-driving cars to harm us, while corrupting systems and infrastructure that protect us.

Worrying, especially since the capability is arriving just as everyone is starting to consider civil war.

 

 

Pythagoras Sling update

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Moon landing mission, I updated my Pythagoras Sling a bit. It now uses floating parachutes so no rockets or balloons are needed at all and the whole thing is now extremely simple.

Introducing the Pythagoras Sling –

A novel means of achieving space flight

Dr I D Pearson & Prof Nick Colosimo

 

Executive Summary

A novel reusable means of accelerating a projectile to sub-orbital or orbital flight is proposed which we have called The Pythagoras Sling. It was invented by Dr Pearson and developed with the valuable assistance of Professor Colosimo. The principle is to use large parachutes as effective temporary anchors for hoops, through which tethers may be pulled that are attached to a projectile. This system is not feasible for useful sizes of projectiles with current materials, but will quickly become feasible with higher range of roles as materials specifications improve with graphene and carbon composite development. Eventually it will be capable of launching satellites into low Earth orbit, and greatly reduce rocket size and fuel needed for human space missions.

Specifications for acceleration rates, parachute size and initial parachute altitudes ensure that launch timescales can be short enough that parachute movement is acceptable, while specifications of the materials proposed ensure that the system is lightweight enough to be deployed effectively in the size and configuration required.

Major advantages include (eventually) greatly reduced need for rocket fuel for orbital flight of human cargo or potential total avoidance of fuel for orbital flight of payloads that can tolerate higher g-forces; consequently reduced stratospheric emissions of water vapour that otherwise present an AGW issue; simplicity resulting in greatly reduced costs for launch; and avoidance of risks to expensive payloads until active parts of the system are in place. Other risks such as fuel explosions are removed completely.

The journey comprises two parts: the first part towards the first parachute conveys high vertical speed while the second part converts most of this to horizontal speed while continuing acceleration. The projectile therefore acquires very high horizontal speed required for sub-orbital and potentially for orbital missions.

The technique is intended mainly for the mid-term and long-term future, since it only comes into its own once it becomes possible to economically make graphene components such as strings, strong rings and tapes, but short term use is feasible with lower but still useful specifications based on interim materials. While long term launch of people-carrying rockets is feasible, shorter term uses would be limited to smaller payloads or those capable of withstanding higher g-forces. That makes it immediately useful for some satellite or military launches, with others quickly becoming feasible as materials improve.

Either of two mechanisms may be used for drawing the cable – a drum based reel or a novel electromagnetic cable drive system. The drum variant may be speed limited by the strength of drum materials, given very high centrifugal forces. The electromagnetic variant uses conventional propulsion techniques, essentially a linear motor, but in a novel arrangement so is partly unproven.

There are also alternative methods available for parachute deployment and management. One is to make the parachutes from lighter-than-air materials, such as graphene foam, which is capable of making solid forms less dense than helium. The chutes would float up and be pulled into their launch positions. A second option is to use helium balloons to carry them up, again pulling them into launch positions. A third is to use a small rocket or even two to deploy them. Far future variants will probably opt for lighter-than-air parachutes, since they can float up by themselves, carry additional tethers and equipment, and can remain at high altitude to allow easy reuse, floating back up after launch.

There are many potential uses and variants of the system, all using the same principle of temporary high-atmosphere anchors, aerodynamically restricted to useful positions during launch. Not all are discussed here. Although any hypersonic launch system has potential military uses, civil uses to reduce or eliminate fuel requirements for space launch for human or non-human payloads are by far the most exciting potential as the Sling will greatly reduce the currently prohibitive costs of getting people and material into orbit. Without knowing future prices for graphene, it is impossible to precisely estimate costs, but engineering intuition alone suggests that such a simple and re-usable system with such little material requirement ought to be feasible at two or three orders of magnitude less than current prices, and if so, could greatly accelerate mid-century space industry development.

Formal articles in technical journals may follow in due course that discuss some aspects of the sling and catapult systems, but this article serves as a simple publication and disclosure of the overall system concepts into the public domain. Largely reliant on futuristic materials, the systems cannot reasonably be commercialised within patent timeframes, so hopefully the ideas that are freely given here can be developed further by others for the benefit of all.

This is not intended to be a rigorous analysis or technical specification, but hopefully conveys enough information to stimulate other engineers and companies to start their own developments based on some of the ideas disclosed.

Introductory Background

A large number of non-fuel space launch systems have been proposed, from Jules Verne’s 1865 Moon gun through to modern railguns, space hooks and space elevators. Rail guns convey moderately high speeds in the atmosphere where drag and heating are significant limitations, but their main limitation is requiring very high accelerations but still achieving too low muzzle velocity for even sub-orbital trips. Space-based tether systems such as space hooks or space elevators may one day be feasible, but not soon. Current space launches all require rockets, which are still fairly dangerous, and are highly expensive. They also dump large quantities of water vapour into the high atmosphere where, being fairly persistent, it contributes significantly to the greenhouse effect, especially as it drifts towards the poles. Moving towards using less or no fuel would be a useful step in many regards.

The Pythagoras Sling

In summary, having considered many potential space launch mechanisms based on high altitude platforms or parachutes, by far the best system is the Pythagoras Sling. This uses two high-altitude parachutes attached to rings, offering enough drag to act effectively as temporary slow-moving anchors while a tether is pulled through them quickly to accelerate a projectile upwards and then into a curve towards final high horizontal speed.

 

We called this approach the Pythagoras Sling due to its simplicity and triangular geometry. It comprises some ground equipment, two large parachutes and a length of string. The parachutes would ideally be made using lighter-than-air materials such as graphene foam, a foam of tiny graphene spheres containing vacuum, that is less dense than helium. They could therefore float up to the required altitude, and could be manoeuvred into place immediately prior to launch. During the launch process they would move so it would take a few hours to float back to their launch positions. They could remain at high altitude for long periods, perhaps permanently. In that case, as well as carrying the tether for the launch, additional tethers would be needed to anchor and manoeuvre the parachutes and to feed launch tether through in preparation for a new launch. It is easy to design the system so that these additional maintenance tethers are kept well out of the way of the launch path.

The parachutes could be as large as desired if such lightweight materials are used, but if alternative mechanisms such as rockets or balloons are used to carry them into place, they would probably be around 50m diameter, similar to the Mars landing ones.

Each parachute would carry a ring through which the launch tether is threaded, and the rings would need to be very strong, low friction, heat-resistant and good at dispersing heat. Graphene seems an ideal choice but better materials may emerge in coming years.

The first parachute would float up to a point 60-80km above the launch site and would act as the ‘sky anchor’ for the first phase of launch where the payload gathers vertical speed. The 2nd parachute would be floated up and then dragged (using the maintenance tether) as far away and as high as feasible, but typically to the same height and 150km away horizontally, to act as the fulcrum for the arc part of the flight where the speed is both increased and converted to horizontal speed needed for orbit.

Simulation will be required to determine optimal specifications for both human and non-human payloads.

Another version exists where the second parachute is deployed from a base with winding equipment 150km distant from the initial rocket launch. Although requiring two bases, this variant holds merit. However, using a single ground base for both chute deployments offers many advantages at the cost of using slightly longer and heavier tether. It also avoids the issue that before launch, the tether would be on the ground or sea surface over a long distance unless additional system details are added to support it prior to launch such as smaller balloons. For a permanent launch site, where the parachutes remain at high altitude along with the tethers, this is no longer an issue so the choice may be made on a variety of other factors. The launch principle remains exactly the same.

Launch Process

On launch, with the parachutes, rings and tethers all in place, the tether is pulled by either a jet engine powered drum or an electromagnetic drive, and the projectile accelerates upwards. When it approaches the first parachute, the tether is disengaged from that ring, to avoid collision and to allow the second parachute to act as a fulcrum. The projectile is then forced to follow an arc, while the tether is still pulled, so that acceleration continues during this period. When it reaches the final release position, the tether is disengaged, and the projectile is then travelling at orbital or suborbital velocity, at around 200km altitude. The following diagram summarises the process.

Two-base variant

This variant with two bases and using rocket deployment of the parachutes still qualifies as a Pythagoras Sling because they are essentially the same idea with just minor configurational differences. Each layout has different merits and simulation will undoubtedly show significant differences for different kinds of missions that will make the choice obvious.

Calculations based on graphene materials and their theoretical specifications suggest that this could be quite feasible as a means to achieve sub-orbital launches for humans and up to orbital launches for smaller satellites that can cope with 15g acceleration. Other payloads would still need rockets to achieve orbit, but greatly reduced in size and cost.

Exchanges of calculations between the authors, based on the best materials available today suggest that this idea already holds merit for use for microsatellites, even if it falls well below graphene system capabilities. However, graphene technology is developing quickly, and other novel materials are also being created with impressive physical qualities, so it might not be many years before the Sling is capable of launching a wide range of payload sizes and weights.

In closing

The Pythagoras Sling arose after several engineering explorations of high-altitude platform launch systems. As is often the case in engineering, the best solution is also by far the simplest. It is the first space launch system that treats parachutes effectively as temporary aerial anchors, and it uses just a string pulled through two rings held by those temporary anchors, attached to the payload. That string could be pulled by a turbine or an electromagnetic linear motor drive, so could be entirely electric. The system would be extremely safe, with no risk of fuel explosions, and extremely cheap compared to current systems. It would also avoid dumping large quantities of greenhouse gases into the high atmosphere. The system cannot be built yet, and its full potential won’t be realised until graphene or similarly high specification strings or tapes are economically available. However, it should be well noted that other accepted future systems such as the Space Elevator will also need such materials, but in vastly larger quantity. The Pythagoras Sling will certainly be achievable many years before a space elevator and once it is, could well become the safest and cheapest way to put a wide range of payloads into orbit.

Some trees just don’t get barked up

Now and then, someone asks me for an old document and as I search for it, I stumble across others I’d forgotten about. I’ve been rather frustrated that AI progress hasn’t kept up with its development rate in the 90s, so this was fun to rediscover, highlighting some future computing directions that offered serious but uncertain potential exactly 20 years ago, well 20 years ago 3 weeks ago. Here is the text, and the Schrodinger’s Computer was only ever intended to be silly (since renamed the Yonck Processor):

Herrings, a large subset of which are probably red

Computers in the future will use a wide range of techniques, not just conventional microprocessors. Problems should be decomposed and the various components streamed to the appropriate processing engines. One of the important requirements is therefore some means of identifying automatically which parts of a problem could best be tackled by which techniques, though sometimes it might be best to use several in parallel with some interaction between them.

 Analogs

We have a wider variety of components available to be used in analog computing today than we had when it effectively died out in the 80s. With much higher quality analog and mixed components, and additionally micro-sensors, MEMs, simple neural network components, and some imminent molecular capability, how can we rekindle the successes of the analog domain. Nature handles the infinite body problem with ease! Things just happen according to the laws of physics. How can we harness them too? Can we build environments with synthetic physics to achieve more effects? The whole field of non-algorithmic computation seems ripe for exploitation.

 Neural networks

  • Could we make neural microprocessor suspensions, using spherical chips suspended in gel in a reflective capsule and optical broadcasting. Couple this with growing wires across the electric field. This would give us both electrical and optical interconnection that could be ideal for neural networks with high connectivity. Could link this to gene chip technology to have chemical detection and synthesis on the chips too, so that we could have close high speed replicas of organic neural networks.
  • If we can have quantum entanglement between particles, might this affect the way in which neurons in the brain work? Do we have neural entanglement and has this anything to do with how our brain works. Could we create neural entanglement or even virtual entanglement and would it have any use?
  • Could we make molecular neurons (or similar) using ordinary chemistry? And then form them into networks. Might need nanomachines and bottom-up assembly.
  • Could we use neurons as the first stage filters to narrow down the field to make problems tractable for other techniques
  • Optical neurons
  • Magnetic neurons

Electromechanical, MEMS etc

  • Micromirror arrays as part of optical computers, perhaps either as data entry, or as part of the algorithm
  • Carbon fullerene balls and tubes as MEM components
  • External fullerene ‘décor’ as a form of information, cf antibodies in immune system
  • Sensor suspensions and gels as analog computers for direct simulation

Interconnects

  • Carbon fullerene tubes as on chip wires
  • Could they act as electron pipes for ultra-high speed interconnect
  • Optical or radio beacons on chip

Software

  • Transforms – create a transform of every logic component, spreading the functionality across a wide domain, and construct programs using them instead. Small perturbation is no longer fatal but just reduces accuracy
  • Filters – nature works often using simple physical effects where humans design complex software. We need to look at hard problems to see how we might make simple filters to narrow the field before computing final details and stages conventionally.
  • Interference – is there some form of representation that allows us to compute operations by means of allowing the input data to interact directly, i.e. interference, instead of using tedious linear computation. Obviously only suited to a subset of problems.

And finally, the frivolous

  • Schrodinger’s computer – design of computer and software, if any, not determined until box is opened. The one constant is that it destroys itself if it doesn’t finding the solution. All possible computers and all possible programs exist and if there is a solution, the computer will pop out alive and well with the answer. Set it the problem of answering all possible questions too, working out which ones have the most valuable answers and using up all the available storage to write the best answers.

Cable-based space launch system

A rail gun is a simple electromagnetic motor that very rapidly accelerates a metal slug by using it as part of an electrical circuit. A strong magnetic field arises as the current passes through the slug, propelling it forwards.

EM launch system

An ‘inverse rail gun’ uses the same principle, but rather than a short slug, the force acts on a small section of a long cable, which continues to pass through the system. As that section passes through, another takes its place, passing on the force and acceleration to the remainder of the cable. That also means that each small section only has a short and tolerable time of extreme heating resulting from high current.

This can be used either to accelerate a cable, optionally with a payload on the end, or via Newtonian reaction, to drag a motor along a cable, the motor acting as a sled, accelerating all along the cable. If the cable is very long, high speeds could result in the vacuum of space. Since the motor is little more than a pair of conductive plates, it can easily be built into a simple spacecraft.

A suitable spacecraft could thus use a long length of this cable to accelerate to high speed for a long distance trip. Graphene being an excellent conductor as well as super-strong, it should be able to carry the high electric currents needed in the motor, and solar panels/capacitors along the way could provide it.

With such a simple structure, made from advanced materials, and with only linear electromagnetic forces involved, extreme speeds could be achieved.

A system could be made for trips to Mars for example. 10,000 tons of sufficiently strong graphene cable to accelerate a 2 ton craft at 5g could stretch 6.7M km through space, and at 5g acceleration (just about tolerable for trained astronauts), would get them to 800km/s at launch, in 4.6 hours. That’s fast enough to get to Mars in 5-12 days, depending where it is, plus a day each end to accelerate and decelerate, 7-14 days total.

10,000 tons is a lot of graphene by today’s standards, but we routinely use 10,000 tons of steel in shipbuilding, and future technology may well be capable of producing bulk carbon materials at acceptable cost (and there would be a healthy budget for a reusable Mars launch system). It’s less than a space elevator.

6.7M km is a huge distance, but space is pretty empty, and even with gravitation forces distorting the cable, the launch phase can be designed to straighten it. A shorter length of cable on the opposite side of an anchor (attached to a Moon tower, or a large mass at a Lagrange point) would be used to accelerate the spacecraft towards the launch end of the cable, at relatively low speed, say 100km/s, a 20 hour journey, and the deceleration phase of that trip applies significant force to the cable, helping to straighten and tension it for the launch immediately following. The craft would then accelerate along the cable, travel to Mars at high speed, and there would need to be an intercept system there to slow it. That could be a mirror of the launch system, or use alternative intercept equipment such as a folded graphene catcher (another blog).

Power requirements would peak at the very last moments, at a very high 80GW. Then again, this is not something we could build next year, so it should be considered in the context of a mature and still fast-developing space industry, and 800km/s is pretty fast, 0.27% of light speed, and that would make it perfect for asteroid defense systems too, so it has other ways to help cost in. Slower systems would have lower power requirements or longer cable could be used.

Some tricky maths is involved at every stage of the logistics, but no more than any other complex space trip. Overall, this would be a system that would be very long but relatively low in mass and well within scales of other human engineering.

So, I think it would be hard, but not too hard, and a system that could get people to Mars in literally a week or two would presumably be much favored over one that takes several months, albeit it comes with some serious physical stress at each end. So of course it needs work and I’ve only hinted superficially at solutions to some of the issues, but I think it offers potential.

On the down-side, the spaceship would have kinetic energy of 640TJ, comparable to a small nuke, and that was mainly limited by the 5g acceleration astronauts can cope with. Scaling up acceleration to 1000s of gs military levels could make weapons comparable to our largest nukes.