Monthly Archives: December 2011

The Yonck Processor

Content Warning. Probable nonsense ahead.

I did quantum theory at University for 3 years and I loved it but understood about 10% of it. So move along now, nothing to see here.

One of my inventions, ahem, in the ‘definitely needs work’ category, was the Heisenberg resonator. Quantum computing is hard because keeping states from collapsing for any length of time is hard. The Heisenberg resonator is a device that quite deliberately observes the quantum state forcing it to collapse, but does so at a regular frequency, clocking it like a chip in a PC. By controlling the collapse, the idea is that it can be reseeded or re-established as it was prior to collapse in such a way that the uncertainty is preserved. Then the computation can continue longer.

You can build on this nicely, especially if you believe in parallel universe interpretations, like my friend Richard Yonck might do, in whose honour  this next invention is sometimes named. Suppose we can use quantum entanglement to link particles together, but only loosely. They are tangled in one universe and not in another. Circuits for computation in any universe could be set up using switches in a large array that are activated by various events that are subject to quantum uncertainty and may only happen in some universes. Unlike a regular quantum computer that uses qubits, this computer would have uncertain circuitry too, a large pool of components, some of which may be qubits, which may or may not be connected in any way at all. Sometimes they are, sometimes they aren’t, sometimes they might be and sometimes across universes. Ideally therefore, it would replicate an almost infinite number of possible computers simultaneously. Since those computers comprise pretty much the whole possible computer space, a Yonck computer would be able to undertake any task in hardware, instantly. Then the fun starts. One of the potential tasks it might address is to use trial and error and evolutionary algorithms to build a library of circuitry for machine consciousness. It would effectively bootstrap itself. So a Yonck computer could be conscious and supersmart and could spring into existence just by designing it. In one universe you may have bothered to build the damned thing and that is enough to make it work. It would figure out how to span the gulf and spawn into all the rest.

Well, I’d buy one. Happy Christmas Richard!

Sustainability and a fair world will sit on the shoulders of giants

This entry now forms a chapter in my book Total Sustainability, available from Amazon in paper or ebook form.

It is time for parallel governance

The world used to be dominated by geographical separation. Travel was difficult  and time consuming. Most people stayed pretty much where they were born. Imports were expensive.  Governments governed people within a well defined boundary. Things have changed. It is easy to travel anywhere, we can transport goods cheaply, and with the 3D printer in rapid evolution, imports and exports of some goods will soon be replaced by downloads and local manufacture. The media keep us informed on events around the world as they happen, with just a few zones where news is limited. And of course, progress in the EU in recent days shows how many people want to be part of a large union.

But I don’t. Most people don’t. 60% of Germans and 70% of French don’t want to be in the Euro. I haven’t seen recent UK figures but suspect they are also high. Most people in Europe don’t want to be a part of a United States of Europe, but their leaders insist they know best and are trying to rush ahead faster.

But you know what? If a lot of people want to do so, and a lot don’t, there really is no reason we can’t just live in the same countries as separate communities. We could share the same infrastructure, and share essential services that can’t be provided separately, such as defence, but choose which lifestyle we want to subscribe to from a short list and live with the consequences of it. There could be a USE and those that support it could live under it. The rest of us could opt out and share the same land under a different regime.

It isn’t obvious at first glance how many ‘flavours’ of parallel governance you should be able to choose from, so let’s just pick the ancient divide of liberal or conservative to start with.

So, given this simple choice, you decide you are a liberal at heart. In the new system, you would make that choice and it would be recorded. There would be a cost to change your decision, a price to belong, and associated benefits. You can’t draw the benefits of that system without paying its price, and if your system has made a mess, and you want to swap, you may have to pay to join the alternative, an investment for the new benefits, a contribution towards the investments that community has already made. Your rights to vote on certain issues, or how much your vote is worth on that issue, goes with the choice you make.

There are a few parties to choose from within the liberal camp, and they would all compete for votes, and one would be elected, and only liberals may vote in that election. Since your community elected them, they would rule over you and make the decisions that affect you. Someone living next door who chose conservative would be governed by their decisions.

The different communities need not have the same geographic boundaries. If liberals want a united Europe and Conservatives want the UK to stay united and outside the EU, that is perfectly feasible. Europe would have a range of conservative style parties, one in each country perhaps, whereas there would be only one liberal party for the whole of Europe.

I am strongly attracted to that kind of future. I have friends in all parts of the political spectrum. They are different ages, genders, races, and they have different religious and political persuasions. I am happy to agree or disagree with them, but they stay friends. We manage to coexist peacefully and fruitfully, while following different motivations and creeds. We have to share some things that are dictated by geography, but most things aren’t.

Take a few examples. I send my daughter to a private school, some of my friends send theirs to state schools. I have to pay a high fee direct to the school, they pay theirs via taxes. What I don’t like is that I have to pay for their kids’ educations, but they don’t have to make any contribution towards mine. In parallel governance, the two communities would make their own decisions separately. Liberals would share state schools, while Conservatives would probably use an education allowance that could be spent on any school. Each ensures that all children get access to well-funded education, but the payment mechanisms allow choice of provision mechanism. The same could apply to health care. I choose the NHS at the moment, but if I choose to pay for private care, I don’t get any refund on the state provision. Many people want to keep the NHS, but why should they not therefore pick up the bill, while those who want to provide their health care via insurance are free to do so? In parallel governance, you would only be entitled to NHS care if you subscribe to the liberal government. Conservatives would be forced to buy health insurance or demonstrate alternative ability to pay, but wouldn’t have to pay taxes for the state system.

I wouldn’t like my friends any less if they were governed by a different party. I wouldn’t suddenly want to wage war on them, though we’d tease each other remorselessly about the incompetence of our respective systems or governments.

On many issues, there is a simple polarisation along part lines. On others, there isn’t, so there is room for different parties to compete for power, and room for negotiation. On some things, we just don’t have a choice. If we don’t defend ourselves, we would be killed or enslaved. All people of all persuasions would have to contribute to defence, since all benefit from it.  There would be fierce arguments over the level of funding, and on policy, but that is what politics is all about. We negotiate and argue until we get some sort of agreement that we can all live with. The point of parallel governance is that it is entirely possible on some things to just agree to differ and each do our own thing.

In the UK, we already have demands for parallel governance of sorts. Some Muslims want Sharia Law to apply within their community. Some outside insist that the laws of the land should apply to all. Personally, I think that there should be some basic rights and responsibilities that apply to everyone, but after that, it should be down to your declared allegiance. In parallel governance it would be simple. If you choose to subscribe to Sharia Law, and you’d have to officially and freely register that you do, then you must pay for it and accept its consequences as well as reap its rewards.

In fact, this is a good model for how parallel governance might work. We must all have some basic rights, but there would actually be little disagreement on those. Basic rules of civilisation are shared by almost everyone. You wouldn’t be allowed to murder or torture or steal or deliberately damage and so on. We would still have some sort of common governance that implements basic civilisation, but under that, we’d have parallel communities sharing the same lands, living happily under different laws and rights.

Parallel governance requires mutual respect. It requires us all to accept that we are not all the same. We don’t all share the same goals or values. But there is no need to now. With the level of IT we have, it would be fairly easy to implement parallel governance and make it work. I believe it would be highly beneficial. I’d feel much happier not having to fund as many policies that I disagree with, and would be very happy to pick up the costs of those with which I do.

I don’t think it would end up with just two communities, liberal or conservative, though that is an easy (but simplistic) split to start with. I think it could evolve. There is no reason there couldn’t be sub-communities. So you could be under Sharia law and then under a Conservative government or liberal. There could be a choice of several flavours. Or you could have a single government laying down basic laws for everyone and pick and mix every policy separately from a price list.

The big advantages for everyone are not having to pay for someone else’s personal decision or lifestyle, and not having to live under a value set you don’t subscribe to. Ultimately this would give us all an increase in quality of life, whichever allegiance you declare. You’d feel you worked towards a goal you believed in. Your human dignity would be higher, regardless of whether other people agree with you.

It is time for parallel governance now. It is a better form of democracy, more democratic and less vulnerable to dictatorship of an elite. We have the means, the motive and the opportunity. I still won’t agree with you, but I promise to be a good neighbour. Bring it on.

Cellular automata, social jewellery, and the X Factor

I confess that I was among many who watched the x factor final last night. I know it’s not high culture, but it was fun. During one of the performances (Coldplay in this instance) the lights were dimmed and the cameras showed the effect of many people in the audience wearing glowing electronic bracelets. These were clearly centrally controlled and were either red or green (or was it yellow, can’t remember). There are lots of ways this might have been orchestrated. You can signal using the lights, or by radio, ultrasound, the web, or many other mechanisms. It doesn’t matter which they used, it was a nice touch and worked well. But it did make me realise how little people use electronic jewellery. I predicted LED jewellery particularly would take off many years ago and have been very disappointed how little it has. Apart from novelty Christmas accessories, you hardly ever see LEDs in jewellery. I don’t know why that is, but you can’t argue with the market. Maybe everyone just has less tacky taste than me.

Anyway, to the point.

It isn’t necessary to have central signalling to get nice pretty effects. If each person’s bracelet were to interact only with the nearest ones, you would still get interesting effects, with much more elaborate patterns than you would expect. In the early days of study of evolution in electronic systems, there was much talk of cellular automata. Stephen Wolfram showed that some seemingly complex natural shapes and behaviours could be explained if each cell made its development ‘decisions’ based simply on the properties of its nearest neighbours. If you aren’t familiar with cellular automata, it is worth checking it out on Google, you’ll find it very stimulating and it can easily suck up a day of your time. I loved that theory and greatly enjoyed exploring the patterns on my computer. It worked well. With my own background in finite element analysis it seemed obvious in hindsight, as many great insights do. But he had that insight, not me. I went on to apply it to hardware and network evolution based on digital hormone gradients, but that’s a different story and ancient history now. Since then, a lot of work has been done on the wider class of emergent behaviours, linking strongly to complexity and chaos theory.

I didn’t track down who makes the X Factor bracelets,so I don’t know their full functionality but let’s hope that they will bring out future versions that can talk direct to each other, assuming that these can’t yet. And obviously they could be hats, headbands, bracelets, rings, t-shirts or pretty much anything you can wear. As long as they are easily visible they could work well. It doesn’t even have to be a new piece of jewellery. It would work just as easily with a smartphone app, though I can’t be bothered to write one.

Emergent behaviours will produce interesting effects, many of which can’t be predicted. They could be programmed to behave out of the box with some basic cellular automata algorithms , e.g what is the state of the other devices I can hear best? That would already produce nice patterns to someone watching at a distance, with waves of colour change oscillating wildly around a community as people move around. Many of these would be biomimetic, precisely nature apparently uses similar algorithms. Or they could take manual inputs from their wearers. That would also be fascinating. Users might pick a particular emotional state they want to  project. Then the patterns and colours would evolve according to the social mood in the area. People could play games with the patterns, or use them as an elaborate form of tribal signalling and communication. In today’s age that could be in anything from parties and rock concerts to urban riots. Marketers are unlikely to ignore their potential too.

The X Factor may make debatably good TV, but social jewellery can certainly be good fun, and you can prove mathematically that its effects can’t all be predicted, so we’d get some surprises too. It might not take off, but I really hope it will. In times of economic gloom, we can do with some extra fun.



Do we need banks?

Every company should think often about the threats and opportunities facing it over the next few years. It is easy to be too narrowly focused, considering only how to protect or gain market share, so look sometimes at the big picture. What if changes mean your whole industry is in danger? When you next think through the future of your industry, one of the best questions you can ask is:

If it didn’t already exist, would we need to invent it?

If the answer is no, you shouldn’t be worrying about your market share, but about your escape plan.

Let’s address the question at banking, topical as The City is threatened by proposed changes in EU regulation and our government is rightfully fighting to protect the  income coming into the UK. Nevertheless, I think that if we didn’t already have the banks, we would have no need to invent them. Do we need banks? No.

Banking earns a lot of money, but ultimately it comes from other companies and individuals (though many are overseas). It is a drain on the rest of the economy, skimming off generous profits from everything it touches. Nice for bankers, but bad for everyone else. If we can find a way of providing banking services  without the high costs, most of us would be better off.

In fact it isn’t just banking but financial services generally that are affected. Banking, insurance, pensions and so on are all essential to today’s everyday life, but that doesn’t mean their current implementations are the best way to provide them. Financial services don’t directly add to overall global wealth, but they do facilitate many things that do.  They are valuable, even essential, but they could now be provided by alternative systems at much lower cost, so we could still get the services, but keep our money. With lower operating costs, the rest of the economy would benefit.

The UK is in a position that it benefits greatly from an industry that isn’t needed, but without which the world as a whole would be better off. The UK’s most cost effective (though selfish) strategy would be to delay its downfall and milk it while it lasts, while still encouraging its replacement within the UK.

All of the services that banks and other financial services provide today could be provided far more cheaply via social and business networks, transactions executed securely in the cloud. This ‘could’ is heading rapidly towards reality already with development of online payments, social networking sites, smartphones and expectation of secure connections.

With easy transfer of money or other financial tokens directly between devices, or across the cloud using Paypal or its descendants and competitors, we are on a good position now. Social networking allows communities to build for self banking or self insurance. It doesn’t take very much to add on the required security and integrate the electronic payments and databases. Secure social networks could then bypass banks for secure storage of money, record keeping, transactions, savings and investments. Linking people direct to others who can lend them cash is one thing, but someone needs to verify their trustworthiness. We should expect that such services will often be provided by the very fabric of the social network. If someone is a friend or a trusted friend of a friend, then you may be willing to take a risk on them. If you don’t know them, then this is a perfectly valid financial service that can be offered by freelance risk assessors and loss adjusters.

So we should watch out for social networks that are establishing networks that are based on trust and know identity. I wouldn’t consider lending to someone with an anonymous user ID. I need to know who they really are and how to get hold of them should anything go wrong. I suspect that in this role, derivatives of Google+ will fare far better than the likes of Facebook.

It won’t be easy to bypass the banks, but companies or web communities will find it easier and easier as the technology gradually develops over the next few years. Banks are in a good position for now, and there is no reason to leave them just for the sake of it. If they offer good service at reasonable price, some at least will probably stay in business. But complacency is never wise. They now do face real existential threats and should be preparing for new competition coming from outside their own community.

Whether we should protect banks or encourage companies to develop ways to bypass them is an interesting question. Competition doesn’t always deliver better services and no solution is ever without its problems. But although they may do a great job at least in some areas some of the time, banks do syphon off a great deal from the economy, and it is possible that we might be able to do something better with that cash. Personally, I really am not sure where the balance lies, but the possibilities are certainly intriguing.