The future of land value

St BeesI don’t do investment advice much, and I am NOT an investment adviser of any kind, just a futurist doing some simple reasoning.

World population is around 7.7Bn.

It will increase, level off, then decline, then grow again.

Any projections you see are just educated guesswork. 9.8Bn figure is the UN global population estimate for 2050, and I won’t argue with that, it seems as good a guess as any. Everyone then expects it to level off and decline, as people have fewer kids. I’m not so sure. Read my blog five years ago that suggested it might grow again in the late century, perhaps reaching as high as 15Bn:

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2014/02/05/will-population-grow-again-after-2050-to-15bn/

I only say might, because there are pressures in both directions and it is too hard to be sure in a far future society which ones will be stronger and by how much. I’m just challenging the standard view that it will decline into the far future, and if I had to place a bet, it would be on resumed growth.

Population is one large influence on demand for land and ‘real estate’.

Another is population distribution. Today, all around the world, people are moving from the countryside to cities. I argue that urbanization will soon peak, and then start to reverse:

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2018/06/13/will-urbanization-continue-or-will-we-soon-reach-peak-city/

De-urbanization will largely be enabled by high technology and its impacts on work and social life. It will be caused by increasing wealth, coupled to the normal desire to live happier lives. Wealth is increasing quickly, varying place to place and year to year. It is reasonable, given positive feedback effects from AI and automation, to assume average real growth of 2%, including occasional recessions and booms. By 2100, that means global wealth will be 5 times today’s. Leaving aside the lack of understanding of exponential growth by teachers indoctrinating schoolkids to think of themselves as economic victims, taken advantage of by greedy Boomers, that means today’s and tomorrow’s kids will have one hell of a lot more money available to spend on property.

So, there will be more people, with more money, more able to live anywhere. Real estate prices will increase, but not uniformly.

Very many of them will choose to leave cities and with lots of money in the bank, will want somewhere really nice. A lovely beachfront property perhaps, or on a mountainside with a gorgeous view. Or even on a hill overlooking the city, or deep in a forest with a waterfall in the garden. Some might buy boring homes in boring estates surrounded by fields but it won’t be first choice very often. The high prices will go to large and pretty homes in pretty locations, as they do today, but with much higher differential, because supply and demand dictates that. We won’t build more mountains or valleys or coastline. Supply stays limited while demand and bank balances rockets, so prices will rocket too.

Other property won’t necessarily become cheaper, it just won’t become as expensive as fast. Many people will still like cities and choose to live there, do business there, socialize there. They also will be richer, and there may be a lot more of them if population does indeed grow again, but increasing congestion would just cause more de-urbanization. Prices may still rise, but the real money will be moving elsewhere.

Farmland will mostly stay as farmland. Farms are generally functional rather than pretty. Agricultural productivity will be double or triple what it is today, maybe even more. Some food will be made in factories or vertical farms, using tissue culturing or hydroponics, or using feed-stocks based on algae grown at sea, or insects, or fungi. The figures therefore suggest that demand for land to grow stuff will be lower than today, in spite of a larger population. Some will be converted to city, some to pretty villages, some given back to nature, to further increase the attractiveness of those ultra-expensive homes in the nice areas in the distance. Whichever way, that doesn’t suggest very rapid growth of value for most agricultural land, the obvious exception being where it happens to be in or next to a pretty area, in which case it will rocket in value.

As I said, all of this is educated guesswork. Don’t bet the farm on it until you’ve done your own analysis. But my guess is, city property will gain modest value, agricultural land will hold its value or even fall slightly, unless it is in a pretty location. Anywhere pretty will skyrocket in price, be it an existing property or a piece of land that can be built on and stay pretty.

As a final observation, you might argue that pretty isn’t everything. Surely some people will value being near to centers of power or major hubs too? Yes they will, but that is already factored into the urbanization era. That value is already banked. Then it follows the rules just like any other urban property.

 

Advertisements

Augmented reality will objectify women

Microsoft Hololens 2 Visor

The excitement around augmented reality continues to build, and I am normally  enthusiastic about its potential, looking forward to enjoying virtual architecture, playing immersive computer games, or enjoying visual and performance artworks transposed into my view of the high street while I shop.

But it won’t all be wonderful. While a few PR and marketing types may worry a little about people overlaying or modifying their hard-won logos and ads, a bigger issue will be some people choosing to overlay people in the high street with ones that are a different age or gender or race, or simply prettier. Identity politics will be fought on yet another frontier.

In spite of waves of marketing hype and misrepresentation, AR is really only here in primitive form outside the lab. Visors fall very far short of what we’d hoped for by now even a decade ago, even the Hololens 2 shown above. But soon AR visors and eventually active contact lenses will enable fully 3D hi-res overlays on the real world. Then, in principle at least, you can make things look how you want, with a few basic limits. You could certainly transform a dull shop, cheap hotel room or an office into an elaborate palace or make it look like a spaceship. But even if you change what things look like, you still have to represent nearby physical structures and obstacles in your fantasy overlay world, or you may bump into them, and that includes all the walls and furniture, lamp posts, bollards, vehicles, and of course other people. Augmented reality allows you to change their appearance thoroughly but they still need to be there somehow.

When it comes to people, there will be some battles. You may spend ages creating a wide variety of avatars, or may invest a great deal of time and money making or buying them. You may have a digital aura, hoping to present different avatars to different passers-by according to their profiles. You may want to look younger or thinner or as a character you enjoy playing in a computer game. You may present a selection of options to the AIs controlling the passer person’s view and the avatar they see overlaid could be any one of the images you have on offer. Perhaps some privileged people get to pick from a selection you offer, while others you wish to privilege less are restricted to just one that you have set for their profile. Maybe you’d have a particularly ugly or offensive one to present to those with opposing political views.

Except that you can’t assume you will be in control. In fact, you probably won’t.

Other people may choose not to see your avatar, but instead to superimpose one of their own choosing. The question of who decides what the viewer sees is perhaps the first and most important battle in AR. Various parties would like to control it – visor manufacturers, O/S providers, UX designers, service providers, app creators, AI providers, governments, local councils, police and other emergency services, advertisers and of course individual users. Given market dynamics, most of these ultimately come down to user choice most of the time, albeit sometimes after paying for the privilege. So it probably won’t be you who gets to choose how others see you, via assorted paid intermediary services, apps and AI, it will be the other person deciding how they want to see you, regardless of your preferences.

So you can spend all the time you want designing your avatar and tweaking your virtual make-up to perfection, but if someone wants to see their favorite celebrity walking past instead of you, they will. You and your body become no more than an object on which to display any avatar or image someone else chooses. You are quite literally reduced to an object in the AR world. Augmented reality will literally objectify women, reducing them to no more than a moving display space onto which their own selected images are overlaid. A few options become obvious.

Firstly they may just take your actual physical appearance (via a video camera built into their visor for example) and digitally change it,  so it is still definitely you, but now dressed more nicely, or dressed in sexy lingerie, or how you might look naked, using the latest AI to body-fit fantasy images from a porn database. This could easily be done automatically in real time using some app or other. You’ve probably already seen recent AI video fakery demos that can present any celebrity saying anything at all, almost indistinguishable from reality. That will soon be pretty routine tech for AR apps. They could even use your actual face as input to image-matching search engines to find the most plausible naked lookalikes. So anyone could digitally dress or undress you, not just with their eyes, but with a hi-res visor using sophisticated AI-enabled image processing software. They could put you in any kind of outfit, change your skin color or make-up or age or figure, and make you look as pretty and glamorous or as slutty as they want. And you won’t have any idea what they are seeing. You simply won’t know whether they are respectfully celebrating your inherent beauty, or flattering you by making you look even prettier, which you might not mind at all, or might object to strongly in the absence of explicit consent, or worse still, stripping or degrading you to whatever depths they wish, with no consent or notification, which you probably will mind a lot.

Or they can treat you as just an object on which to superimpose some other avatar, which could be anything or anyone – a zombie, favorite actress or supermodel. They won’t need your consent and again you won’t have any idea what they are seeing. The avatar may make the same gestures and movements and even talk plausibly, saying whatever their AI thinks they might like, but it won’t be you. In some ways this might not be so bad. You’d still be reduced to an object but at least it wouldn’t be you that they’re looking at naked. To most strangers on a high street most of the time, you’re just a moving obstacle to avoid bumping into, so being digitally transformed into a walking display board may worry you. Most people will cope with that bit. It is when you stop being just a passing stranger and start to interact in some way that it really starts to matter. You probably won’t like it if someone is chatting to you but they are actually looking at someone else entirely, especially if the viewer is one of your friends or your partner. And if your partner is kissing or cuddling you but seeing someone else, that would be a strong breach of trust, but how would you know? This sort of thing could and probably will damage a lot of relationships.

Most of the software to do most of this is already in development and much is already demonstrable. The rest will develop quickly once AR visors become commonplace.

In the office, in the home, when you’re shopping or at a party, you soon won’t have any idea what or who someone else is seeing when they look at you. Imagine how that would clash with rules that are supposed to be protection from sexual harassment  in the office. Whole new levels of harassment will be enabled, much invisible. How can we police behaviors we can’t even detect? Will hardware manufacturers be forced to build in transparency and continuous experience recording

The main casualty will be trust.  It will make us question how much we trust each of our friends and colleagues and acquaintances. It will build walls. People will often become suspicious of others, not just strangers but friends and colleagues. Some people will become fearful. You may dress as primly or modestly as you like, but if the viewer chooses to see you wearing a sexy outfit, perhaps their behavior and attitude towards you will be governed by that rather than reality. Increased digital objectification might lead to increase physical sexual assault or rape. We may see more people more often objectifying women in more circumstances.

The tech applies equally to men of course. You could make a man look like a silverback gorilla or a zombie or fake-naked. Some men will care more than others, but the vast majority of real victims will undoubtedly be women. Many men objectify women already. In the future AR world , they’ll be able to do so far more effectively, more easily.

 

Drones as parachute substitutes could create a new extreme sport

I just watched a nice video of drone surfing on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/feed/update/activity:6501182000831963136/

This video link might work:

https://dms.licdn.com/playback/C4D05AQHBkn2Q7ah0Dw/0569c9e7571c421395ae712fca70d222/feedshare-mp4_3300-captions-thumbnails/1507940147251-drlcss?e=1550142000&v=beta&t=asJRvnTV4StWbCrKGQho-3EO4osPS-ZHcNLk4hM_Dho

I immediately thought how drones powerful enough to ‘kite-surf’ would also be useful in new forms of parkour (free running), enabling stunts that wouldn’t be possible otherwise, or acting as a sort of safety net during practice to cushion any falls.

My second thought is that it might soon be feasible to use drones as a substitute for parachutes. Someone could jump out of a plane and the drone could slow their descent, or allow them to travel long horizontal distances during descent or to perform elaborate tricks. That could make a whole new kind of extreme sport, allowing the sorts of things people do in free-fall jumps over much longer times and distances and giving far better control of relative speed between jumpers.

Using auto-gyro effects, some stages of a fall could be used to recharge batteries to power rotors for the next phase.

Fun, though not for the faint-hearted perhaps.

If you’re looking for aliens visiting Earth, what might they look like?

I don’t believe stories about aliens capturing isolated nutters and probing them on their spaceships before bringing them home, but who don’t bother to make their presence known to anyone else. That makes no sense. I theorized many years ago that perhaps the main reason we don’t see aliens visiting is that by the time a civilization gets to the technology level that permits interstellar travel, they are most likely to eradicate themselves via high-tech weaponry, nanotech accidents or some other tech-enabled extinction route. I suggested that almost all civilizations would become extinct within 300 years of discovering radio.

I also wrote a blog about how genetically engineered fairies would make ideal space travelers, since they could be made very small, and therefore only need small and cheap space ships, but thanks to electronic brains or use of external IT as brain space, be just as smart as real people, and have wings to fly around zero gravity spaceships.

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2014/06/06/fairies-will-dominate-space-travel/

Extending that thought to what aliens might look like, they would likely have the same capability in genetic engineering, and face the same engineering constraints, so would likely come up with a similar solution.

Miniaturization could go much further, and it’s possible in principle to make tiny capsules, microns across, that contain all the data needed to make a human or android body, and a few nano-fabricators that could do the building of other fabricators that make the infrastructure, robots, androids and organisms once they land on another planet. Maybe an advanced civilization might have the technology to make small wormholes through which to fire these tiny capsules in many directions so as to rapidly explore and colonize a galaxy. Given reasonably expectable morality, they wouldn’t want to geoengineer planets that are already inhabited, so the capsules would only activate if they land on uninhabited planets.

So, given these two quite likely technology capabilities for an interstellar space-fairing civilizations, aliens would either be in a micron-sized capsule or two that could be anywhere on the planet, and therefore highly unlikely to ever be found… or they might look like fairies.

Many people through history claim to have seen fairies of various descriptions, and usually they have magical powers. Via Arthur C Clarke, we of course know that any sufficiently advanced technology looks like magic. So, although I don’t believe they exist or existed, and think that those who claim to have seen them probably have poor eyesight or overly vivid imaginations or are drugged or pissed, or hallucinating, there is a small but finite possibility that they have existed and were visiting aliens.

Maybe fairies, pixies and other magical tiny people were simply aliens from different star systems.

 

Who controls AI, controls the world

This week, the fastest supercomputer broke a world record for AI, using machine learning in climate research:

https://www.wired.com/story/worlds-fastest-supercomputer-breaks-ai-record/

I guess most readers thought this is a great thing, after all we need to solve climate change. That wasn’t my thought. The first thing my boss told me when I used a computer for the first time was: “shit in, shit out”. I don’t remember his name but I remember that concise lesson every time I read about climate models. If either the model or the data is garbage, or both, the output will also be garbage.

So my first thought reading about this new record was: will they let the AI work everything out for itself using all the raw, unadjusted data available about the environment, including all the astrophysics data about every kind of solar activity, human agricultural, industrial activities, air travel, all the unadjusted measurements of or proxies for surface, sea and air temperatures, ever collected, any empirical evidence for any corrections that might be needed on such data in any direction, and then let it make its own deductions, form its own models of how it might all connected and then watch eagerly as it makes predictions?

Or will they just input their own models, CO2 blinkering, prejudices and group-think, adjusted datasets, data omissions and general distortions of historical records into biased models already indoctrinated with climate change dogma, so that it will reconfirm the doom and gloom forecasts we’re so used to hearing, maximizing their chances of continued grants? If they do that, the AI might as well be a cardboard box with a pre-written article stuck on it. Shit in, shit out.

It’s obvious that the speed and capability of the supercomputer is of secondary important to who controls the AI, and its access to data, and its freedom to draw its own conclusions.

(Read my blog on Fake AI: https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2017/11/16/fake-ai/)

You may recall a week or two ago that IBM released a new face database to try to address bias in AI face recognition systems. Many other kinds of data could have biases for all sorts of reasons. At face value reducing bias is a good thing, but what exactly do we mean by that? Who decides what is biased and what is real? There are very many potential AI uses that are potentially sensitive, such as identifying criminals or distinguishing traits that correlate with gender, sexuality, race, religion, or indeed any discernible difference. Are all deductions by the AI permissible, or are huge swathes of possible deductions not permitted because they might be politically unacceptable? Who controls the AI? Why? With what aims?

Many people have some degree of influence on  AI. Those who provide funding, equipment, theoreticians, those who design hardware, those who design the learning and training mechanisms, those who supply the data, those who censor or adjust data before letting the AI see it, those who design the interfaces, those who interpret and translate the results, those who decide which results are permissible and how to spin them, and publish them.

People are often impressed when a big powerful computer outputs results of massive amounts of processing. Outputs may often be used to control public opinion and government policy, to change laws, to alter balance of power in society, to create and destroy empires. AI will eventually make or influence most decisions of any consequence.

As AI techniques become more powerful, running on faster and better computers, we must always remember that golden rule: shit in, shit out. And we must always be suspicious of those who might have reason to influence an outcome.

Because who controls AI, controls the world.

 

 

‘Party popper’ mines could save lives

War is never nice, but mines can carry on killing or maiming people long after a war is over.

Suppose instead of using powerful explosives and shrapnel that a tiny explosion ejected lots of strong streamers, like a big party popper. If the streamers are long and strong, made from silk or graphene for example, then they could entangle anyone caught in the blast and restrain or impede them for several minutes while they untangle themselves. If that is on a battlefield, it would give plenty of time to deal with the attacking soldiers, achieving a large part of the military purpose, but if the party popper mine is left after a conflict is over, the worst it would do is to waste a few minutes of someone’s life, rather than to destroy the rest of it or end it. It should be possible to make effective poppers that would not cause any major injury, even at very close range maybe bruising or a small wound at worst, while still ensnaring anyone withing several metres of the blast.

Such mines could also reduce the numbers of soldiers killed on a battlefield, making it possible to capture instead of killing.

It would be naive to believe we can avoid violent conflicts completely, but if we can head towards international treaties that replace conventional mines with party popper mines, that would surely be a valuable step, saving civilian and military lives. If killing and maiming enemies can be substituted more by capture and detainment, that would be better still.

Some attempts at this have been made. https://www.wired.com/2009/02/foam-based-vehi/ describes one such attempt – thanks to my friend Nick Colosimo for the link. Maybe time to have another go, especially as new materials like graphene silk threads should be appearing soon.

Future AI: Turing multiplexing, air gels, hyper-neural nets

Just in time to make 2018 a bit less unproductive, I managed to wake in the middle of the night with another few inventions. I’m finishing the year on only a third as many as 2016 and 2017, but better than some years. And I quite like these new ones.

Gel computing is a very old idea of mine, and I’m surprised no company has started doing it yet. Air gel is different. My original used a suspension of processing particles in gel, and the idea was that the gel would hold the particles in fixed locations with good free line of sight to neighbor devices for inter-device optical comms, while acting also as a coolant.

Air gel uses the same idea of suspending particles, but does so by using ultrasound, standing waves holding the particles aloft. They would form a semi-gel I suppose, much softer. The intention is that they will be more easily movable than in a gel, and maybe rotate. I imagine using rotating magnetic fields to rotate them, and use that mechanism to implement different configurations of inter-device nets. That would be the first pillar of running multiple neural nets in the same space at the same time, using spin-based TDM (time division multiplexing), or synchronized space multiplexing if you prefer. If a device uses on board processing that is fast compared to the signal transmission time to other devices (the speed of light may be fast but can still be severely limiting for processing and comms), then having the ability to deal with processing associated with several other networks while awaiting a response allows a processing network to be multiplied up several times. A neural net could become a hyper-neural net.

Given that this is intended for mid-century AI, I’m also making the assumption that true TDM can also be used on each net, my second pillar. Signals would carry a stream of slots holding bits for each processing instance. Since this allows a Turing machine to implement many different processes in parallel, I decided to call it Turing multiplexing. Again, it helps alleviate the potential gulf between processing and communication times. Combining Turing and spin multiplexing would allow a single neural net to be multiplied up potentially thousands or millions of times – hyper-neurons seems as good a term as any.

The third pillar of this system is that the processing particles (each could contain a large number of neurons or other IT objects) could be energized and clocked using very high speed alternating EM fields – radio, microwaves, light, even x-rays. I don’t have any suggestions for processing mechanisms that might operate at such frequencies, though Pauli switches might work at lower speeds, using Pauli exclusion principle to link electron spin states to make switches. I believe early versions of spin cubits use a similar principle. I’m agnostic whether conventional Turing machine or quantum processing would be used, or any combination. In any case, it isn’t my problem, I suspect that future AIs will figure out the physics and invent the appropriate IT.

Processing devices operating at high speed could use a lot of energy and generate a lot of heat, and encouraging the system to lase by design would be a good way to cool it as well as powering it.

A processor using such mechanisms need not be bulky. I always assumed a yogurt pot size for my gel computer before and an air gel processor could be the same, about 100ml. That is enough to suspend a trillion particles with good line of sight for optical interconnections, and each connection could utilise up to millions of alternative wavelengths. Each wavelength could support many TDM channels and spinning the particles multiplies that up again. A UV laser clock/power source driving processors at 10^16Hz would certainly need to use high density multiplexing to make use of such a volume, with transmission distances up to 10cm (but most sub-mm) otherwise being a strongly limiting performance factor, but 10 million-fold WDM/TDM is attainable.

A trillion of these hyper-neurons using that multiplexing would act very effectively as 10 million trillion neurons, each operating at 10^16Hz processing speed. That’s quite a lot of zeros, 35 of them, and yet each hyperneuron could have connections to thousands of others in each of many physical configurations. It would be an obvious platform for supporting a large population of electronically immortal people and AIs who each want a billion replicas, and if it only occupies 100ml of space, the environmental footprint isn’t an issue.

It’s hard to know how to talk to a computer that operates like a brain, but is 10^22 times faster, but I’d suggest ‘Yes Boss’.

 

Spiders in Space

A while back I read an interesting article about how small spiders get into the air to disperse, even when there is no wind:

Spiders go ballooning on electric fields: https://phys.org/news/2018-07-spiders-ballooning-electric-fields.html

If you don’t want to read it, the key point is that they use the electric fields in the air to provide enough force to drag them into the air. It gave me an idea. Why not use that same technique to get into space?

There is electric air potential right up to the very top of the atmosphere, but electric fields permeate space too. It only provides a weak force, enough to lift a 25mg spider using the electrostatic force on a few threads from its spinnerets.

25mg isn’t very heavy, but then the threads are only designed to lift the spider. Longer threads could generate higher forces, and lots of longer threads working together could generate significant forces. I’m not thinking of using this to launch space ships though. All I want for this purpose is to lift a few grams and that sounds feasible.

If we can arrange for a synthetic ‘cyber-spider’ to eject long graphene threads in the right directions, and to wind them back in when appropriate, our cyber-spider could harness these electric forces to crawl slowly into space, and then maintain altitude. It won’t need to stay in exactly the same place, but could simply use the changing fields and forces to stay within a reasonably small region. It won’t have used any fuel or rockets to get there or stay there, but now it is in space, even if it isn’t very high, it could be quite useful, even though it is only a few grams in weight.

Suppose our invisibly small cyber-spider sits near the orbit of a particular piece of space junk. The space junk moves fast, and may well be much larger than our spider in terms of mass, but if a few threads of graphene silk were to be in its path, our spider could effectively ensnare it, cause an immediate drop of speed due to Newtonian sharing of momentum (the spider has to be accelerated to the same speed as the junk, from stationary so even though it is much lighter, that would still cause a significant drop in junk speed)) and then use its threads as a mechanism for electromagnetic drag, causing it to slowly lose more speed and fall out of orbit. That might compete well as a cheap mechanism for cleaning up space junk.

Some organic spiders can kill a man with a single bite, and space spiders could do much the same, albeit via a somewhat different process. Instead of junk, our spider could meander into collision course with an astronaut doing a space walk. A few grams isn’t much, but a stationary cyber-spider placed in the way of a rapidly moving human would have much the same effect as a very high speed rifle shot.

The astronaut could easily be a satellite. Its location could be picked to impact on a particular part of the satellite to do most damage, or to cause many fragments, and if enough fragments are created – well, we’ve all watched Gravity and know what high speed fragments of destroyed satellites can do.

The spider doesn’t even need to get itself into a precise position. If it has many threads going off in various directions, it can quickly withdraw some of them to create a Newtonian reaction to move its center of mass fast into a path. It might sit many meters away from the desired impact position, waiting until the last second to jump in front of the astronaut/satellite/space junk.

What concerns me with this is that the weapon potential lends itself to low budget garden shed outfits such as lone terrorists. It wouldn’t need rockets, or massively expensive equipment. It doesn’t need rapid deployment, since being invisible, could migrate to its required location over days, weeks or months. A large number of them could be invisibly deployed from a back garden ready for use at any time, waiting for the command before simultaneously wiping out hundreds of satellites. It only needs a very small amount of IT attached to some sort of filament spinneret. A few years ago I worked out how to spin graphene filaments at 100m/s:

Spiderman-style silk thrower

If I can do it, others can too, and there are probably many ways to do this other than mine.

If you aren’t SpiderMan, and can accept lower specs, you could make a basic graphene silk thrower and associated IT that fits in the few grams weight budget.

There are many ways to cause havoc in space. Spiders have been sci-fi horror material for decades. Soon space spiders could be quite real.

 

 

The caravan and migration policy

20 years ago, fewer than half of the people in the world had ever made a phone call. Today, the vast majority of people have a smartphone with internet access, and are learning how people in other parts of the world live. A growing number are refusing to accept their poor luck of being born in poor, corrupt, or oppressive or war-torn countries. After all, nobody chooses their parents or where they are born, so why should people in any country have any more right to live there than anyone else?  Shouldn’t everyone start life with the right to live anywhere they choose? If they don’t like it where they were born, why shouldn’t someone migrate to another country to improve their conditions or to give their children a better chance? Why should that country be allowed to refuse them entry? I’d like to give a brief answer, but I don’t have time. So:

People don’t choose their parents, or where they are born, but nor did they exist to make that choice. The rights of the infinite number of non-existent people who could potentially be born to any possible combination of parents at any time, anywhere, under any possible set of circumstances is no basis for any policy. If lives were formed and then somehow assigned parents, the questions would be valid, but people don’t actually reproduce by choosing from some waiting list of would-be embryos. Even religious people don’t believe that their god has a large queue of souls waiting for a place and parents to be born to, assigning each in turn to happiness or misery. Actual people reproduce via actual acts in actual places in actual circumstances. They create a new life, and the child is theirs. They are solely responsible for bringing that life into existence, knowing the likely circumstances it would emerge into. The child didn’t choose its parents, but its parents made it. If they live in a particular country and choose to have a baby, that baby will be born with the rights and rules and all the other attributes of that country, the skin color, religion, wealth and status of its parents and so on. It will also be born in the prevailing international political and regulatory environment at that time. Other people in other countries have zero a priori political, social, economic or moral responsibility towards that child, though they and their country are free to show whatever compassion they wish, or to join international organisations that extend protection and human rights to all humans everywhere, and so a child anywhere may inherit certain internationally agreed rights, and countries will at some point have signed up to accept them. Those voluntary agreements or signings of international treaties may convey rights onto that child regarding its access to aid or  global health initiatives or migration but they are a matter for other sovereign bodies to choose to sign up to, or indeed to withdraw from. A poor child might grow up and decide to migrate, but it has no a priori right of entry to any country or support from it, legally or morally, beyond that which the people of that country or their ancestors choose to offer individually or via their government.

In short, people can’t really look any further than their parents to thank or blame for their existence, but other people and other countries are free to express and extend their love, compassion and support, if they choose to. Most of us would agree that we should.

Given that we want to help, but still don’t have the resources to help everyone on the planet to live in the standard they’d like, a better question might be: which people should we help first – those that bang loudly on our door, or those in the greatest need?

We love and value those close to us most, but most of us feel some love towards humans everywhere. Few people can watch the migrant caravan coverage without feeling sympathy for the parents trying to get to a better life. Many of those people will be innocent people running away from genuine oppression and danger, hoping to build a better future by working hard and integrating into a new culture. The proportion was estimated recently (Channel 4 News for those who demand sources for every stat they don’t like) at around 11% of the caravan. We know from UK migration from Calais that some will just say they are, advised by activists on exactly what phrases to use when interviewed by immigration officials to get the right boxes ticked. Additionally, those of us who aren’t completely naive (or suffering the amusingly named ‘Trump derangement syndrome’ whereby anything ‘Fake President’ Trump says or does must automatically be wrong even if Obama said or did the same), also accept that a few of those in the caravan are likely to be drug dealers or murderers or rapists or traffickers or other criminals running away from capture and towards new markets to exploit, or even terrorists trying to hide among a crowd. There is abundant evidence that European migrant crowds did conceal some such people, and we’ll never know the exact numbers, but we’re already living with the consequences. The USA would be foolish not to learn from these European mistakes. It really isn’t the simple ‘all saints’ or ‘all criminals’ some media would have us believe. Some may be criminals or terrorists – ‘some’ is a very different concept from ‘all’, and is not actually disproved by pointing the TV camera at a lovely family pushing a pram.

International law defines refugees and asylum seekers and makes it easy to distinguish them from other kinds of migrants, but activist groups and media often conflate these terms to push various political objectives. People fleeing from danger are refugees until they get to the first safe country, often the adjacent one. According to law, they should apply for asylum there, but if they choose to go further, they cease to be refugees and become migrants. The difference is very important. Refugees are fleeing from danger to safety, and are covered by protections afforded to that purpose. Migrants don’t qualify for those special protections and are meant to use legal channels to move to another country. If they choose to use non-legal means to cross borders, they become illegal immigrants, criminals. Sympathy and compassion should extend to all who are less fortunate, but those who are willing to respect the new nation and its laws by going through legal immigration channels should surely solicit more than those who demonstrably aren’t, regardless of how cute some other family’s children look on camera. Law-abiding applicants should always be given a better response, and law-breakers should be sent to the back of the queue.

These are well established attitudes to migration and refugees, but many seek to change them. In our competitive virtue signalling era, a narrative constructed by activists well practiced at misleading people to achieve their aims deliberately conflates genuine refugees and economic migrants to make their open borders policies look like simple humanitarianism. They harness the sympathy everyone feels for refugees fleeing from danger but and routinely mislabel migrants as refugees, hoping to slyly extend refugee rights to migrants, quickly moving on to imply that anyone who doesn’t want to admit everyone lacks basic human decency. Much of the media happily plays along with this deception, pointing cameras at the nice families instead of the much larger number of able young men, with their own presenters frequently referring to migrants as refugees. Such a narrative is deliberately dishonest, little more than self-aggrandizing disingenuous sanctimony. The best policy remains to maintain and protect borders and have well-managed legal immigration polices, offering prioritized help to refugees and extending whatever aid to other countries can be afforded. while recognizing that simple handouts and political interference can be sometimes counter-productive. Most people are nice, but some want to help those who need it most, in the best way. Moral posturing and virtue signalling are not only less effective but highly selfish, aimed at polishing the egos of the sanctimonious rather than the needy.

So, we want to help, but do it sensibly to maximize benefit. Selfishly, we also need some migration, and we already selfishlessly encourage those with the most valuable skills or wealth to migrate from other countries, at their loss (even after they have paid to educate them). Every skilled engineer or doctor we import from a poorer country represents a huge financial outlay being transferred from poor to rich. We need to fix that exploitation too. There is an excellent case for compensation to be paid.

Well-managed migration can and does work well. The UK sometimes feels a little overcrowded, when sitting in a traffic jam or a doctor waiting room, but actually only about 2% of the land is built on, the rest isn’t. It isn’t ‘full’ geographically, it just seems so because of the consequences of poor governance. Given sensible integration and economic policies, competently executed, immigration ought not to be a big problem. The absence of those givens is the main cause of existing problems. So we can use the UK as a benchmark for reasonably tolerable population density even under poor government. The UK still needs migrants with a wide range of skills and since some (mainly old) people emigrate, there is always room for a few more.

Integration is a growing issue, and should be a stronger consideration in future immigration policy. Recent (last 100 years) migrants and their descendants account for around 12% of the UK population, 1 in 8, still a smallish minority. Some struggle to integrate or to find acceptance, some don’t want to, many fit in very well. Older migrations such as the Normans and Vikings have integrated pretty well now. My name suggests some Viking input to my DNA, and ancestry research shows that my family goes back in England at least 500 years. Having migrated to Belfast as a child, and remigrated back 17 years later, I know how it feels to be considered an outsider for a decade or two.

What about the USA, with the migrant ‘caravan’ of a few thousand people on their way to claim asylum? The USA is large, relatively sparsely populated, and very wealthy. Most people in the world can only dream of living at US living standards and some of them are trying to go there. If they succeed, many more will follow. Trump is currently under fire from the left over his policy, but although Trump is certainly rather less eloquent, his policy actually closely echoes Obama’s. Here is a video of Obama talking about illegal immigration in 2005 while he was still a Senator:

https://www.c-span.org/video/?c4656370/sen-barack-obama-illegal-immigration

Left and right both agreed at least back then that borders should be protected and migrants should be made to use legal channels, presumably for all the same common sense reasons I outlined earlier. What if the borders were completely open, as many are now calling for? Here are a few basic figures:

Before it would get to UK population density, the USA has enough land to house every existing American plus every single one of the 422M South Americans, 42M Central Americans, 411M Middle Easterns, the 105M Philippinos and every African. Land area isn’t a big problem then. For the vast majority in these regions, the average USA standard of living would be a massive upgrade, so imagine if they all suddenly migrated there. The USA economy would suddenly be spread over 2.5Bn instead of 325M. Instead of $60k per capita, it would be $7.8k, putting the USA between Bolivia and Guatemala in the world wealth rankings, well below most of Central and South America (still 40% more than Honduras though). Additionally, almost all of the migrants, 87% of the total population would initially be homeless. All the new homes and other infrastructure would have to be paid for and built, jobs created, workforce trained etc. 

Even the most fervent open borders supporter couldn’t pretend they thought this was feasible, so they reject reasoning and focus on emotion, pointing cameras at young families with sweet kids, yearning for better lives. If the borders were open, what then would prevent vast numbers of would-be migrants from succumbing to temptation to better their lives before the inevitable economic dilution made it a worthless trip? Surely opening the borders would result in a huge mass of people wanting to get in while it is still a big upgrade? People in possession of reasoning capability accept that there need to be limits. Left and right, Obama and Trump agree that migration needs to be legal and well managed. Numbers must be restricted to a level that is manageable and sustainable.

So, what should be done about it. What policy principles and behaviors should be adopted. The first must be to stop  misuse of language, particularly conflating economic migrants and refugees. Activists and some media do that regularly, but deliberate misrepresentation is ‘fake news’, what we used to call lies.

Second, an honest debate needs to be had on how best to help refugees, whether by offering them residency or by building and resourcing adequate refugee camps, and also regarding how much we can widen legal immigration channels for migrants while sustaining our existing economy and culture. If a refugee wants to immigrate, that really ought to be a separate consideration and handled via immigration channels and rules. Dealing with them separately would immediately solve the problem of people falsely claiming refugee status, because all they would achieve is access to a refugee camp, and would still have to go through immigration channels to proceed further. Such false claims clog the courts and mean it takes far longer for true refugees to have their cases dealt with effectively.

Thirdly, that debate needs to consider that while countries naturally welcome the most economically and culturally valuable immigrants, there is also a good humanitarian case to help some more. Immigration policy should be generous, and paralleled with properly managed international aid.

That debate should always recognize that the rule of law must be maintained, and Obama made that argument very well. It still holds, and Trump agreeing with it does not actually make it invalid. Letting some people break it while expecting others to follow it invites chaos. Borders should be maintained and properly policed and while refugees who can demonstrate refugee status should be directed into refugee channels (which may take some time), others should be firmly turned away if they don’t have permission to cross, and given the information they need to apply via the legal immigration channels. That can be done nicely of course, and a generous country should offer medical attention, food, and transport home, maybe even financial help. Illegal immigration and lying about refugee status should be strongly resisted by detainment, repatriation and sending to the back of the queue, or permanently denying entry to anyone attempting illegal entry. No country wants to increase its population of criminals. Such a policy distinguishes well between legal and illegal, between refugees and migrants, and ensures that the flow into the country matches that which its government thinks is manageable.

The rest is basically ongoing Foreign Policy, and that does differ between different flavors of government. Sadly, how best to deal with problems in other countries is not something the USA is known to be skilled at. It doesn’t have a fantastic track record, even if it usually intends to make things better. Ditto the UK and Europe. Interference often makes things worse in unexpected ways. Handouts often feed corruption and dependence and support oppressive regimes, or liberate money for arms, so they don’t always work well either. Emergencies such as wars or natural catastrophes already have polices and appropriate agencies in place to deal with consequences, as well as many NGOs.

This caravan doesn’t fit neatly. A few can reasonably be directed into other channels, but most must be turned away. That is not heartless. The Mediterranean migration have led to far more deaths than they should because earlier migrants were accepted, encouraging others, and at one point it seemed to be the EU providing a safe pickup almost as soon as a trafficker boat left shore. The Australian approach seemed harsh, but probably saved thousands of lives by deterring others from risking their lives. My own solution to the Mediterranean crisis was:

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2015/04/19/the-mediterranean-crisis/ and basically suggested making a small island into a large refugee camp where anyone rescued )or captured if they managed to make the full trip) would be taken, with a free trip home once they realized they wouldn’t be transferred to mainland Europe. I still think it is the best approach, and could be replicated by the USA using a large refugee/migrant camp from which the only exit is back to start or a very lengthy wait from the back of the legal migration queue.

However:

My opening questions on the inequity of birth invite another direction of analysis. When people die, they usually leave the bulk of their estates to their descendants, but by then they will also have passed on a great deal of other things, such as their values, some skills, miscellaneous support, and attitudes to life, the universe and everything. Importantly, they will have conveyed citizenship of their country, and that conveys a shared inheritance of the accumulated efforts of the whole of that countries previous inhabitants. That accumulation may be a prosperous, democratic country with reasonable law and order and safety, and relatively low levels of corruption, like the USA or the UK, or it may be a dysfunctional impoverished dictatorship or anything between. While long-term residents are effectively inheriting the accumulated value (and problems) passed down through their ancestors, new immigrants receive all of that for free when they are accepted. It is hard to put an accurate value on this shared social, cultural and financial wealth, but most that try end up with values in the $100,000s. Well-chosen immigrants may bring in value (including their descendants’ contributions) greatly in excess of what they receive. Some may not. Some may even reduce it. Whether a potential immigrant is accepted or not, we should be clear that citizenship is very valuable.

Then analysis starts to get messier. It isn’t just simple inheritance. What about the means by which that happy inherited state was achieved? Is one country attractive purely because of its own efforts or because it exploited others, or some combination? Is another country a hell hole in part because of our external interference, as some would argue for Iraq or Syria? If so, then perhaps there is a case for reparation or compensation, or perhaps favored immigration status for its citizens. We ought not to shirk responsibility for the consequences of our actions. Or is it a hell hole in spite of our interference, as can be argued for some African countries. Is it a hell hole because its people are lazy or corrupt and live in the country they deserve, as is possible I guess, though I can’t think of any examples. Anyway, heredity is a complex issue, as is privilege, its twin sister. I did write a lengthy blog on privilege (and cultural appropriation). I probably believe much the same as you but in the hostile competitive offence-taking social media environment of today, it remains a draft.

Sorry it took so many words, but there is so much nonsense being spoken, it takes a lot of words to remind of what mostly used to be common sense. The right policy now is basically the same as it was decades ago. Noisy activism doesn’t change that.

 

The future of retail and the high street

Over 3 months since my last blog, because… reasons. Futurologists are often asked about the future of the high street and the future of retail, obviously strongly connected, because the high street as we knew it not long ago has already changed hugely and yet seemingly always under imminent threat of extinction. I have blogged on it, but am shocked that my last one was a few years ago, so time for an update I guess, especially with the news today that Debenhams may be closing 50 of its stores.

A few old blogs that are still relevant:

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2013/01/16/the-future-of-high-street-survival-the-6s-guide/

Just one of those Ss stood for Surprise, or serendipity if you prefer. The surprise aisles in Lidl and Aldi are among the biggest reasons for their success. There’s always something you never knew you wanted at a price you can’t resist, so they do well. Good luck to them! Not knowing what you want before you see it explains much of the attraction of charity shops too, it isn’t all about price.

My other Ss are also still proven well founded (socialising (including coffee shops & Facebook clubs), synergy (between online and physical), service, special, and ‘suck and see’ (try it out before you buy)).

Another blog addressed the balance between high street and out of town centres:

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2013/03/01/out-of-town-centres-are-the-most-viable-future-for-physical-shops/

A more recent one on possible reversal of urbanisation in the further future is also a bit relevant:

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2018/06/13/will-urbanization-continue-or-will-we-soon-reach-peak-city/

So, updating then…

Retailers all know that they must have an online presence, but it’s still surprising how little effort they put into making their IT work. I experimented with setting up accounts with some of the big retailers and the experience is shocking. This week, I tried to set up an Argos account, but couldn’t get any further than typing my email address and hitting continue, at which point I just got a message ‘unknown error’. I tried it from various links from emails and their Sainsbury’s owner site, and tried a few times on different days, same result. How can they win new customers online if nobody can set an account up? Does nobody actually ever check whether it still works?

I successfully set up a Next account ages ago, but never used it because it wouldn’t let me edit any of my data such as whether I wanted junk mail by various channels, or even how to spell my name (I’d used my initials ID and it insisted on calling me Id), the options either didn’t exist or were greyed out. I could phone up but why bother? A month ago it stopped working for several days, after which time it eventually said I didn’t have one. So I assumed it had evaporated during their IT changes due to never being used and set it up again, and it recovered all my data from its previous existence. I still won’t use it because it calls me Id, and I can’t change it to I D or even ID.

Very has the same IT trouble, can’t edit your name away from Id, and can’t change your preferences for receiving junk mail, but I only set it up as a test so don’t care.

These companies are among the biggest. If they can’t get it right, who can? I did try a few smaller ones to see if they were better but still got a mixture of some successes and some ‘unknown errors’, 404 messages and so on.

By contrast, I’ve never had an IT-related problem with Amazon or eBay and only a few minor ones with 7dayshop. So I shop there and ignore most other shops. They employ competent IT staff in sufficient numbers to make it work, and they thrive (though perhaps not as much due to IT as tax and rates advantages). Those shops whose poor IT annoys their customers enough  to go elsewhere deserve to do badly. 

Websites and apps are today’s platforms for extending high street presence into cyberspace. Augmented reality will provide those companies who are up to the job with massively superior platforms to do that. The web arose from converging just computing and telecoms. Augmented reality converges the whole of the real and virtual universes. Overlaying absolutely any form of computer-generated imagery, data or media onto anything in the real world, streets could be extra art gallery space, space for computer games, enabling digital architecture and avatar replacement of strangers, adding digital fauna and flora and aliens and cartoon characters and celebs and AI avatars anywhere they may be desired, making enticing imaginary worlds that add to the fun of actually going into town.

It won’t just be text, graphics and audio. Various haptic interfaces already exist, but soon active skin will link our peripheral nervous systems to our IT, allowing sensations to be recorded, associated with whatever caused them, and then reproducing those same sensations when something similar happens virtually. Tiny devices in among skin cells could simply record and reproduce the nerve signals. Each hand only generates about 2Mbit/s of data, only a little more than a basic TV channel, so it should be no big problem handling the data.

AI has really moved on since 2013 too. It’s still far from perfect, but you can use fairly normal English to ask an AI to find you something and it often will, so it’s heading in the right direction. Soon, with 3D life-sized augmented or virtual reality avatars to interface with, they’ll be more in touch with our emotional responses when we browse, getting signals from wearables and active skin, face and gesture recognition, gaze direction, blood flow, heart rates etc. An abundance of data will help future AI’s learn more and more about us and our desires and preferences until they can genuinely act as our agents, (as we already realised was the far future by 1990). It’s only a matter of time. In my estimation, AI is progressing about 30-40% more slowly than it ought, (I won’t write about why I think that is here) but it will still get there. As will VR and AR and active skin and active contact lenses, and various other also long overdue techs.

AI online will also be less impressed by all the distractions and adds humans are exposed to.  Functional shopping will be liable to AI substitution but recreational, social, emotional shopping will still be done by people themselves. 

AI links well to robotics, and at some point, robots will go out and do some of our shopping for us. They will have very different customer characteristics and ergonomic needs, and may be better suited to picking up from bleak warehouses than attractive high street stores with ‘surprise’ aisles.

Drone delivery is much spoken about but I don’t think it has a big future for domestic use except in areas with large back gardens and no pets, or mischievous kids. It will work well for rapid delivery to business delivery bays that have appropriate landing areas and H&S policies.

3D printing is much over-hyped, but will eventually replace a small proportion of shopping by home manufacture, or local 3D print shop for more complex production.

Self-driving and driverless cars will greatly reduce or even eliminate the huge problem of congestion that deters people from going to town, as well as eliminating the much-too-high cost of parking, but without incurring the current public transport penalties of waiting in poor weather, poor stop locations, lateness, sluggishness, discomfort, overcrowding, security, and exposure to disease and unwanted social pests. By collecting from home and delivering all the way to the destination in a suitable vehicle, they will also improve social inclusion for older and disabled people. Driverless cars using smart infrastructure could be achieved many times cheaper and earlier (given the will) than current self-driving approaches, but at the expense of virtually eliminating the car industry that hopes to continue to sell expensive cars that happen to self-drive rather the cheap ($300-500) public pods made of fibreglass that can be made without any need for engines, batteries, AI or sensors and would instead be propelled on factory-made and rapidly installed linear induction mats that switch each pod at each junction rather like routers switch internet data packets.

With easier and faster access to a high street that is made far more attractive by imaginative use of AR, companies sticking to the 6S guide would still be able to attract customers into the far future. While there, they would be able to browse much wider range of stock. A garment wouldn’t need to be stocked with lots of each size, but could just have one of a few sizes for people to see if the like the fabric etc before scanning it with an app or taking it to a till with their laser-scanned body measurements, to have it made in their exact size for delivery later by a rapid personalisation manufacturing industry. As well as having more stock present physically, augmented reality can also replace all the aisles of goods the customer isn’t interested in with ones that hold things available for online purchase from that shop or their allies, adding another virtual-physical synergy to improve revenue potential. Even a small store could potentially hold a vast range of stock to buy in an exciting and attractive personalized environment.

I guess I could go into far future services associated with shops, such as customising VR kit to people’s nervous systems, providing recharging for android shoppers or whatever, but this is already long enough.

So the high street isn’t going to become just coffee shops and charities. Even if some existing retailers don’t up their games and go under, many new ones will appear that understand how to use new technology to good effect, and they will make good profits from both high streets and out of town centres.