Daily Archives: January 27, 2012

Future sports

Training

Today it takes many years of training to get to the top of any field of sports. In the future it could be a whole lot faster thanks to progress in three areas of technology – biotech, nanotech and IT. Miniaturisation in IT, thanks to nanotechnology, will continue to the point where electronics can be printed onto the skin surface. So you may get a display on your arm, like a video tattoo, showing you how well you are doing, showing your heart rate, temperature, blood chemistry and so on and displaying any relevant warnings. Not long after that, electronics can be blasted into the skin, so that it is contact with blood capillaries and nerve endings. With this technology, called Active Skin, athletes could have their body condition monitored all the way through a session to help optimise the balance of effort over the duration of the event and to help them choose the right dietary supplements. So problems of giving too much or too little at a particular point could be identified and fixed. But more excitingly, nerve signals could also be recorded from individual nerve endings, and recreated by computer later. So, a novice golfer or tennis player would try to copy the swing that their pro is showing them, and a computer could create nerve inputs, creating discomfort when they deviate from the perfect movement. So the perfect swing with feel right and any other will feel wrong. As an extra aid, active contact lenses will be able to create 3d images directly into the athlete’s eyes, showing them exactly what they are doing and superimposing what they should be doing. They would be able to see their body position precisely, with any deviations highlighted and amplified with mild discomfort. With practice, doing what feels right will generate the right movement every time. With such training aids, progress from novice to expert could be a matter of weeks rather than years. This will certainly help people to quickly reach their potential, and to get more out of the sports they participate in, but it will also allow the top pros to extract every last bit of potential from their bodies. If they could do a little better by changing one tiny little thing, the computer will be able to help identify it, and help them address the imperfection. So professional sport will improve too.

We’ll also see computer game technology coming down the same route. Physiotherapists are already using Wii machines to treat stroke patients by helping them learn movement again through sports games. Taking this forward, we will certainly start seeing some hybrid sport evolve, with lots of top level physical activity in combination with the computer game. Top skiers would be able to practice different runs all the year round, with the computer recreating all the sensations of doing it for real as well as the full 3d video. So by the time they even get there, they will have had hours of computer assisted training on the run. Who knows, maybe the top level of sports in the future might not even take place on real snow, but in fantastic computer simulations of imaginary, more challenging environments

Nutrition

Top performance depends on a lot of things, and getting proper nutrition is one of the most important, both during training and right up to the main event. At the moment, athletes don’t get enough data on exactly what happens in their bodies while they are performing. New technologies in the biotech industry will change that soon. Already, special chips, developed for genetic analysis, can identify chemicals with just a couple of molecules. As ongoing development inevitably takes this level of monitoring capability into everyday training, athletes will soon be able to see exactly how their body behaved all the way through a session. Even during a session, if something is running low, they could be warned, and perhaps change their behaviour accordingly. Computers would be able to identify exactly what nutrition an athlete should take before a performance to put the body in perfect condition for the event.

The release of energy and nutrients over time varies enormously among foodstuffs as they break down at different rates. Athletes already take different foodstuffs to keep them going during different parts of an event. Again, new developments borrowed from the biotech industry will allow nutrients to be packaged in microcapsules that enter the blood during normal digestion, and which can then be ruptured on receiving a special signal from a computer, allowing a perfectly tailored delivery of nutrients into the blood just as the athlete needs them. Just how far such electronically assisted nutrition goes depends on regulation.

Making the right proteins and vitamins in the first place is also changing. Rather than producing batches of chemicals and pills, genetic modification is developing nicely, and already a commonplace technology and already a whole range of plants will be grown specifically to optimise particular protein or vitamin content. Athletes can also go to a clinic and have their genes tested, helping their doctors and trainers to identify a highly personalised regime to get exactly the right nutrition for that person and that event, even to the extent of tackling some medical conditions. They will then be able to commission foodstuffs grown to their own needs and personal specification. They will still have their own genetic limitations, but at least they can go all the way to the limits of their personal potential. And it is likely that in some events, there may be  handicap systems that take account of genetic limitations to allow athletes to compete on a level playing field. Sport would then become about reaching your natural limits, rather than just been born with some genetic advantages.

Personalised and optimised nutrition regime stands in stark contrast to today’s increasing obesity, but new foodstuffs promise to make dents in that too, as does the rising popularity of computer games that involve vigorous physical activity. Playing electronic sports on the net against other people could well be one of the next big social networking trends, maybe even becoming the 21st century version of the gym, or more probably being incorporated into gym technology to make it as much fun there as staying with the games console at home. Hopefully obesity will start levelling off soon and start to decline.

Psychology

With all the technology advances over the last few millennia, our psychology probably hasn’t changed much since we were cavemen. Sport appears to be a symbolic form of hunting or combat designed to demonstrate skill and bravery and to win a higher place in the pecking order, or bind a tribe together. At a deep level, people still want to win, to be top dog, to have the admiration of the crowd, to win prizes and to feel the close bonds of hunting or fighting together. I don’t think that is going to change, even with future technology. Better tools and better locations will only change the nature of the game, not the psychological incentives to perform heroically.

Future training equipment will include thought recognition and nervous system links to gather information on neurological and mental activity. If our champions are not giving it their all, it will show on the readout. And in the far future, when brain add-on devices can enhance people’s minds, even if they are not allowed in sporting events , they might be permitted during training. But none of this changes the fundamental nature of the person underneath. The degree of motivation they experience when faced with a challenge, the possibility of winning a prize, or the possibility of losing, goes deeper than technology can reach. These are part of the nature component in the formula, so as with physiology, it takes a good trainer with the right tools, in the right environment, to bring them fully to the surface. Champions are champions partly because their inner motivation is stronger and they will push themselves even harder than their competitors.

But I still think there is a missing component in the equation, the roar of the crowd. Champions will manage to find the last tiny bit of heroic effort only when the crowd demands it. At a live event with a big audience, there is no problem, but when the main crowd is only there via TV or the net, I suspect that the performance will be less. If we can somehow bring the crowd deeper into their perception while they compete, maybe they can perform better. But full sensory immersion technology can bring the crowd from the living room into the competitors’ presence.  Active contact lenses will allow athletes to see the crowd, ear implants will allow them to hear them roar. Then they will still feel the atmosphere even in an empty arena. Only then will the ancestral tribal motivations kick in fully.

Finally, we will one day see androids competing in sports, and though they will normally compete against each other, there will be demands to have humans compete with them. When this happens, our champions will want to win in defence of humankind, the ultimate crowd. I think we will be able to give androids emotions too. If we design them to be similar in physical performance, and give them similar psychology, maybe we could have a very interesting contest indeed.

Making a champion

People have debated for millennia what it is that makes a sporting hero into a real champion. How can people be compared when they competed in different sports, in different periods? Some of the equations hold some merit, other don’t. Here is my take, based on the above.

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Simplifying tax and welfare

Few people would argue that the UK tax system is either simple or fair. It seems to have many loopholes that stimulate jobs in creative accountancy, but deprive the nation of tax. It has sharp cut-offs instead of smooth gradients, creating problems for people whose income rises a few pounds above certain thresholds. We need taxation, but it needs to be fair and transparent, and what that means depends on your political allegiances, but there is some common ground. Most of us would prefer a simpler system than the ludicrously complicated one we have now and most of us would like a system that applies to everyone and avoids loopholes.

The rich are becoming ever richer, even during the economic problems  (in fact some even appear to be using the recession as an excuse to depress wages for junior staff to increase company profits and thereby be rewarded more themselves). Some rich people pay their dues properly, some avoid paying taxes by roaming around the world, never staying anywhere long enough to incur local tax demands. It may be too hard to introduce global taxes, or to stop tax havens from operating, but it is possible to ensure that all income earned from sales in the UK is taxed here.

Ensuring full taxation

Electronic cash opens the potential for ensuring that all financial transactions in the country go through a tax gateway, which could immediately and at the point of transaction determine what tax is due and deduct it. If we want, a complex algorithm could be used, taking into account the circumstances of the agencies involved and the nature of the transaction – number crunching is very cheap and no human needs to be involved after the algorithms are determined so it could be virtually cost-free however complex. Or we could decide that the rate is a fixed percentage regardless of purpose. It doesn’t even have to threaten privacy, it could be totally anonymous if there are no different rates. With all transactions included, and the algorithms applying at point of transaction, there would be no need to know remember who is involved or why.

In favour of a flat tax

Different sorts of income sources are taxed differently today. It makes sense to me to have a single flat tax of rate for all income, whatever its source – why should it matter how you earn your income? Today, there are many rates and exceptions. Since people can take income by pay, dividends, capital gains, interest, gambling, lotteries, and inheritance, a fair system would just count it all up and tax it all at the same rate. This could apply to companies too, at the same rate, since some people own companies and money accumulating in them is part of their income. Ditto property development, any gains when selling or renting a property could be taxed at that rate. Company owners would be treated like everyone else, and pay on the same basis as employees.

I believe flat taxes are a good idea. They have been shown to work well in some countries, and can stimulate economic development. If there are no exceptions, if everyone must pay a fixed percentage of everything they get, then the rich still pay more tax, but are better incentivised to earn even more. Accountants wouldn’t be able to prevent rich people avoiding tax just by laundering it via different routes or relabelling it.

International experience suggests that a rate of around 20% would probably work. So, you’d pay 20% on everything you earn or your company earns, or you inherit, or win, or are given or whatever.

Some countries also tax capital, encouraging people to spend it rather than hoard, but this is an optional extra.

There is something quite appealing about a single rate of tax that applies to everyone and every institution for every transaction. Accountants who play the international systems to minimise taxes would have fewer opportunities, and any income earned in the UK would be taxed in the UK.

There are a few obvious problems that need solved. Husbands and wives would not be able to transfer money between them tax-free, nor parents giving pocket money, so perhaps we need to allow anyone tax-free interchange with their immediate family, as determine by birth, marriage or civil partnership. When people buy a new house, or change their share portfolio, perhaps it should just be on the value difference that the 20% would apply.

But the simpler and the fewer exceptions, the better.

Welfare

So what about poorer people, how will they manage? The welfare system could be similarly simplified too. We can provide simply for those that need help  by giving a base allowance to every adult,  regardless of need, set so that if that is your only income, it would be sufficient to live modestly but in a dignified manner. Any money earned on top of that ensures that there is an incentive to work, and you won’t become poorer by earning a few pounds more and crossing some threshold.

There is also no need to have a zero tax threshold. People who earn enough not to need welfare would be paying tax according to their total income anyway, so it all sorts itself out. With everyone getting the same allowance, admin costs would be very low. This frees up more money so that the basic allowance can be more generous. Everyone benefits.

Children would also be provided with an allowance, which would go to their registered parent or guardian just as today. Again, since all income is taxed at the same rate regardless of source, there is no need to means test it.

There should be as few other benefits as possible. They shouldn’t be necessary if the tax and allowance rate is tuned correctly anyway. Those with specific needs, such as some disabled people, could be given what they need rather than a cash benefit, so that there is less incentive to cheat the system.

Such a system would reduce polarisation greatly. The extremes at the bottom would be guaranteed a decent income, while those at the top would be forced to pay their proper share of taxes, however they got their wealth. If they still manage to be rich, then their wealth will at least be fair. It also guarantees that everyone is better off if they work, and that no-one falls through the safety net.

If everyone gets the allowance, the flat tax rate would need to be set higher than 20%. Let’s play with a few numbers and set it at 25% to start. Let’s set the basic allowance at £8000. Someone out of work might get £8,000 per year. After tax at 25% that leaves £6000. Then they get a low paid job at £10,000 per year. Now on £18000 total, they end up with £13,500, a big incentive to take any work going. Mr Average, on £30,000 per year gets  £38,000 including the allowance so ends up on £28,500. Mr Manager on £60,000 salary ends up with £51,000. With these figures anyone below average earnings would hardly pay any income tax, and those on much more will pay lots. The figures look generous, but company income and prices will adjust too, and that will also rebalance it a bit. It certainly needs tuned, but it could work. 

In business, the 25% still applies to all transactions, and where there is some sort of swap, such as property or shares, then the tax would be on the value difference. So, in shops, direct debits, or internet purchases, that 25% would be rather higher than the VAT rate today, and other services would also attract the same rate. With no tax deductions or complex VAT rules, admin is easier but more things are taxed.  This makes it harder for companies to avoid tax by being based overseas and that increased tax take directly from income to companies means that the tax needed from other routes falls. Then, with a re-balanced economy, and everyone paying on everything, the flat rate can be adjusted until the total national take is whatever is agreed by government.

This just has to be simpler, fairer, less wasteful and a better stimulus for hard work than the messy and unfair system we have now, full of opportunities to opt out at the top if you have a clever accountant and disincentives to work at the bottom.

I feel sure I have ignored some major factors. It is my first cut and I’ll probably tweak it later.