Monthly Archives: October 2012

Street lights, quality of life, and the UK space industry

I wrote a long time ago about the problem caused by excessive street lighting and sky glow that prevented a whole generation from growing up with the experience of awe induced in anyone looking up at a clear night sky.

Well, we now have many councils turning off street lights as early as 9pm, to reduce CO2 emissions, making streets dark, to the annoyance of many people and the delight of others, including me.  Carbon emissions are one of the lesser problems facing us, and the carbon emissions this avoids will have an immeasurably small effect on the environment. But the law of unintended consequences this time acts in favour of science, and will even benefit the environment by a convoluted route nothing to do with the one intended.

Anyway, we can see stars again, and it’s wonderful. Hooray! Keep the lights off – not on motorways though, very different situation there.

When people look at the stars, and see a whole sky full of them, they can’t help but think about their place in the universe. They start to wonder what’s out there, whether we are alone, whether they matter and their place in the grand scheme of things, whether even humans matter. They wonder about going out there, visiting, their kids maybe being space travellers. There are very few science teachers who can match the raw inspiration of looking at a clear sky full of stars. Suddenly everyone is a Hawking or at least a Cox, or maybe even a budding Armstrong. Apart from that, seeing a rich clear sky directly improves our quality of life.

Turning off the lights will drag many people of the isolation induced by modern life. It will expand their minds and make them think further. It will encourage many kids to do science and engineering, helping our economy prosper. Some will be inspired to become scientists looking at nature, and will help the environment as a result. Many others will be made aware of the smallness and vulnerability of the Earth. Some will want to go into space, or become engineers developing space technology. Or entrepreneurs looking at the potential for exploration and commercial exploitation.

In short, although done for the wrong reasons, turning off the street lights will bring great rewards. It will make us happy, more curious about the universe, more concerned about the fragility of the Earth, more determined to protect it, but more aware of the external factors driving things. And it will act as a recruitment drive for a generation of space scientists and space engineers and even astronauts.

Turning off the street lights will greatly increase the number of awe and wonder experiences people feel, and could be the biggest boost to the UK space industry we’ve seen in a generation. It would be great if this was intentional and local governments knew what they were doing, but I very much doubt that. It is instead a very happy accident.

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The future of time travel: cheat

Time travel comes up frequently in science fiction, and some physicists think it might be theoretically possible, to some degree, within major constraints, at vast expense, between times that are in different universes. Frankly, my physics is rusty and I don’t have any useful contribution to make on how we might do physical time travel, nor on its potential. However, intelligence available to us to figure the full physics out will accelerate dramatically thanks to the artificial intelligence positive feedback loop (smarter machines can build even smarter ones even faster)  and some time later this century we will definitely work out once and for all whether it is doable in real life and how to do it. And we’ll know why we never meet time tourists. If it can be done and done reasonable economically and safely, then it will just be a matter of time to build it after that.

Well, stuff that! Not interested in waiting! If the laws of physics make it so hard that it may never happen and certainly not till at least towards the end of this century, even if it is possible, then let’s bypass the laws of physics. Engineers do that all the time. If you are faced with an infinitely tall impenetrable barrier so you can’t go over it or through it, then check whether the barrier is also very wide, because there may well be an easy route past the barrier that doesn’t require you to go that way. I can’t walk over tall buildings, but I still haven’t found one I couldn’t walk past on the street. There is usually a way past barriers.

And with time travel, that turns out to be the case. There is an easy route past. Physics only controls the physical world. Although physics certain governs the technologies we use to create cyberspace, it doesn’t really limit what you can do in cyberspace any more than in a dream, a costume drama, or a memory.

Cyberspace takes many forms, it is’t homogeneous or even continuous. It has many dimensions. It can be quite alien. But in some areas, such as websites, archives are kept and you can look at how a site was in the past. Extend that to social networking and a problem immediately appears. How can you communicate or interact with someone if the site you are on is just an historical snapshot and isn’t live? How could you go back and actually chat to someone or play a game against them?

The solution to this problem is a tricky technological one but it is entirely  possible, and it won’t violate any physics. If you want to go back in time and interact with people as they were, then all you need is to have an archive of those people. Difficult, but possible. In cyberspace.

Around 2050, we should be starting to do direct brain links, at least in the lab and maybe a bit further. Not just connections to the optic nerve or inner ear, or chips to control wheelchairs, we already have that. And we already have basic thought recognition. By 2050 we will be starting to do full links, that allow thoughts to pass both ways between man and machine, so that the machine world is effectively an extension of your brain.

As people’s thoughts, memories and even sensations become more cyberspace based, as they will, the physical body will become less relevant. (Some of my previous blogs have considered the implication of this for immortality). Once stuff is in the IT world, it can be copied, and backed up. That gives us the potential to make recordings of people’s entire lives, and capable of effectively replicating them at will. Today we have web archives that try to do that with web sites so you can access material on older versions of them. Tomorrow we’ll also be able to include people in that. Virtually replicating the buildings and other stuff would be pretty trivial by comparison.

In that world, it will be possible for your mind, which is itself an almost entirely online entity, to interact with historic populations, essentially to time travel. Right back to the date when they were started being backed up, some time after 2050. The people they would be dealing with would be the same actual people that existed then, exactly as they were, perfect copies. They would behave and respond exactly the same. So you could use this technique to time travel back to 2050 at the very best but no earlier. And for a proper experience it would be much later, say 2100.

And then it starts to get interesting. In an electronic timeline such as that, the interactions you have with those people in the last would have two options. They could be just time tourism  or social research, or other archaeology, which has no lasting effect, and any traces of your trip would vanish when you leave. Or they could be more effectual. The interactions you have when you visit could ripple all the way back through the timeline to your ‘present?’, or future? or was it the past when you were present in the future? (it is really hard to choose the right words tenses when you write about time travel!!). The computers could make it all real, running the entire society through its course, at a greatly accelerated speed. The interactions could therefore be quite real, and all the interactions and all the minds and the rippling social effects could all be implemented. But the possibilities branch again, because although that could be true, and the future society could be genuinely changed, that could also be done by entirely replicating the cyberworld, and implementing the effects only in the parallel new cyber-universe. Doing either of these effectual options might prove very expensive, and obviously dangerous. Replicating things can be done, but you need a lot of computer power and storage to do it with everything affected, so it might be severely restricted. And policed.

But importantly, this sort of time travel could be done – you could go back in time to change the present. All the minds of all the people could be changed by someone going back in the past cyberspace records and doing something that would ripple forwards through time to change those same minds. It couldn’t be made fully clean, because some people for example might choose not to have kids in the revised edition, and although the cyberspace presence of their minds could be changed or deleted, you’d still have to dispose of their physical bodies and tidy up other physical residual effects. But not being clean is one of the things we’d expect for time travel. There would be residues, mess, paradoxes, and presumably this would all limit the things you’d be allowed to mess with. And we will need the time cops and time detectives and licenses and time cleaners and administrators and so on. But in our future cyberspace world, TIME TRAVEL WILL BE POSSIBLE. I can’t shout that loud enough. And please don’t ignore the italics, I am absolutely not suggesting it will be doable in the real world.

Fun! Trouble is, I’m going to be 90 in 2050 so I probably won’t have the energy any more.

Casual displays

I had a new idea. If I was adventurous or an entrepreneur, I’d develop it, but I’m not, so I won’t. But you can, before Apple patents it. Or maybe they already have.

Many people own various brands of pads, but they are generally expensive, heavy, fragile and need far too much charging. That’s because they try to be high powered computers. Even e-book readers have too much functionality for some display purposes and that creates extra expense. I believe there is a large market for more casual displays that are cheap enough to throw around at all sorts of tasks that don’t need anything other than the ability to change and hold a display.

Several years ago, Texas Instruments invented memory spots, that let people add multimedia to everyday objects. The spots could hold a short video for example, and be stuck on any everyday object.These were a good idea, but one of very many good ideas competing for attention by development engineers. Other companies have also had similar ideas. However, turning the idea around, spots like this could be used to hold data for a  display, and could be programmed by a similar pen-like device or even a finger touch. Up to 2Mb/s can be transmitted through the skin surface.

Cheap displays that have little additional functionality could be made cheaply and use low power. If they are cheap enough, less than ten pounds say, they could be used for many everyday purposes where cards or paper are currently used. And since they are cheap, there could be many of them. With a pad, it has to do many tasks. A casual display would do only one. You could have them all over the place, as recipe cards, photos, pieces of art, maps, books, body adornment, playing cards, messages, birthday cards, instructions, medical advice, or anything. For example:

Friend cards could act as a pin-board reminder of a friend, or sit in a wallet or handbag. You might have one for each of several best friends. A touch of the spot would update the card with the latest photo or status from Facebook or another social site. Or it could be done via a smart phone jack. But since the card only has simple functionality  it would stay cheap. It does nothing that can’t also be done by a smartphone or pad, but the point is that it doesn’t have to. It is always the friend card. The image would stay. It doesn’t need anything to be clicked or charged up. It only needs power momentarily to change the picture.

There are displays that can hold pictures without power that are postcard sized, for less than £10. Adding a simple data storage chip and drivers shouldn’t add significantly to cost. So this idea should be perfectly feasible. We should be able to have lots of casual displays all over our houses and offices if they don’t have to do numerous other things. In the case of displays, less may mean more.