Things that don’t work but could

You can spend lots of money on things that are a total waste of money – astrology, homeopathy, magnetic bracelets, magnetic petrol molecule aligner efficiency improvers and a very wide range of other magnet based devices … almost all anti-ageing creams (the bits that do work are the sunscreens they put in, so just buy one a sunscreen and spend the savings on chocolate). The list is endless.

But that’s not my point here. The point is that some stuff doesn’t work but sells anyway so can be inspiration for products based on real engineering and real science that could work and still sell. As a crude example, crystal balls. I have an electronic crystal ball, a recycled conference display. It is 30cm across and a fast-spinning LED array creates a nice digital display. It is programmed to display one of my technology timelines, as 10cm high text. So it is a sort of crystal ball, but this one actually works, to a point, though it can’t tell you anything it hasn’t been programmed with. With a better interface tapping in to a range of material from many futures sites, and maybe some  natural language processing, you could even talk to a future version and it would tell you what is likely to happen in most fields. I have a few glass crystal balls as ornaments too, but like the ones used by mystics and fortune tellers, they are little more use for telling the future than a baked bean.

But let’s start there for inspiration. What about fortune telling? By analysing your full DNA sequence, monitoring your blood chemistry, looking up your medical history (and your family’s), checking your retinal blood vessels, measuring skin conductivity and the absorption spectrum of your blood, and doing a variety of other medical tests, a very great deal of data about your body and it’s tendencies towards a particularly likely future can be gleaned. By adding in all the subscriptions to gym or magazines and checking your full spending patterns via credit card or bank statements, looking up all your Google history and cookies, checking your diary, messages and emails,a great deal more can be had. In total, a vast amount of data exists and can be found electronically about your health and lifestyle. Putting all that through a sophisticated risk assessment process would yield a lot of clues about your potential future. It would give some almost definites  by checking actual appointments, and a lot of probablies and maybes based on probabilistic biases revealed in the data. So you could do quite a lot of fairly accurate fortune telling. The again, this market is already well tapped as far as legally permitted by shops, banks, insurance companies and health care providers.

If I were to try to be charitable, I guess crystal balls may help fortune tellers build an atmosphere and encourage some people to reveal clues about their personality and lifestyle that they might not otherwise so maybe they are not entirely useless, but that is about the limit of their role – essentially placebo and entertainment value. Some clues to your lifestyle and bias towards elements of a possible future are sometimes obvious in how you are appear, how you talk and behave and what you say. If you tell them you are going on holiday, have wrinkly skin, and are wearing fake tan, they might reasonably guess that you will be heading somewhere sunny, and your dress might even reveal enough about your income to make guesses on the destination. But that sort of thing is their limit. Anyone can do that, but I guess some people are better at it than others. If they were honest about that as the basis of their trade, there would be less of an issue.

Mind reading is a close relative of fortune telling. Again, it can be entertaining, but nobody can actually read anyone else’s mind yet without using electronic gadgets. They can give a good impression of doing so, like fortune tellers, by reading the clues we all reveal in appearance and body language, what we say and how we respond. Professional ‘mind readers’ use a variety of variably clever magic tricks, and some are superb and convincing performers and entertainers, but they can’t actually read minds.

However… Already you can buy devices that can read electrical signals from your scalp, or even your fingertip, and by correlating the signals with those associated with certain thoughts or mental states, can recognise some simple thoughts. More sophisticated apparatus with lots of electrodes or internal scanning such as MRI can pick up more data so can recognise more. I recall a few years ago that someone demonstrated remote detection of thought processes using superconducting quantum interference devices (SQUIDs). So, we know mind reading is in demand, and gadgets can make some progress. But that markets is already being tapped for computer games, driving wheelchairs and so on.

Now, if you can recognise simple thoughts electronically, make some appropriate text, graphics of other media, and send it across a network, and play that media for a person at the other end, then you have a primitive form of mind to mind communication, albeit only in the crude interpretation that a TV puts stuff into your mind. If you have a retinal or aural implant, then it can be even more direct. It is likely that this will develop incrementally over time to a full duplex direct brain link and true telepathic communication will become possible by harnessing hugely advanced technology.

A simple extension of this allows us to make the Power of Positive Thinking and Visualisation work. Some people deludedly imagine that visualising something beforehand can make someone else behave the way you want, even without ever meeting them, using the ‘quantum interconnectedness of all things’ and ‘we haven’t discovered everything yet’ principles. Now, obviously your body language and tone of voice, your general manner all are influenced by your internal attitude, and therefore a positive attitude does have big effects on how other people will treat you face to face, but that’s not what they mean. They believe that just by sitting for a few minutes thinking about a parking space being available when you go to town, you can make a total stranger get in their car and vacate a parking space for you as you arrive. I find it scary that people can believe such things, but they do. In the far future, with thought recognition technology, and car parks with networked reservations systems, (we won’t be using our own cars much by then but that’s another issue altogether) it will be easy to book a space available just by thinking about it. There is no need for future human evolution or quantum interconnectedness or other lunacy. Other uses of positive thinking or visualisation will appear too once though recognition is just another component of the human-computer interface.

Still further mining the New Age seam, homoeopathy always amazes me by the number of otherwise intelligent people that believe in it. (If you believe in it, try this instead, it will work even better but be much cheaper: take a small bottle of seawater next time you go to a beach preferably not at a sewage outfall. Seawater is of course a highly diluted solution of anything that has ever flowed into it, including waste remedies from homoeopathists at the various stages of dilution so presumably every drop of it would work for all possible ailments that homoeopathy can be used for, except that one drop will cover all of them, so it’s far better. So add a single drop of your seawater to a glass of fresh water and drink. The glass of water must have the same molecular entanglement or quantum interconnectedness or magic or whatever it is as every possible homoeopathic remedy and therefore cure every possible thing that homoeopathy can cure. Treatment complete. Spend your savings on chocolate or on travel to a real doctor.)

Proper scientists agree that homoeopathy doesn’t work apart from the placebo effect, which apparently accounts for a third of the effects of most drugs. So why not get the health industry to come up with a harmless placebo pill but market it with government cooperation as a fantastic new discovery, a harmless wonder drug that can cure a wide range of ailments? People would take it for all sorts of things, and if the media coverage is convincing enough, many would experience a healthy placebo effect and spread the word about how great it is. Many people would feel healthier  the load on the health service would reduce, drug companies would gain an extra market, government would even reap a small popularity dividend. I do wonder if this is the real reason some government ministers seem to back homoeopathy  Maybe they know it is nonsense but want to use its existing popularity in this way. The trouble is, only idiots, sellers and some lawyers benefit at the moment (the lawyers being further evidence of the ongoing decline of our right to free speech).

Moving away from New Age stuff, mainstream religion offers up a lot of miracles, afterlife, and supernatural stuff generally. Some of it is very accessible to future technology. Regardless of any truth or otherwise in any religion, some of the ideas are perfectly feasible markets for future technology. Non-religious mythology and modern superhero stories build still further on some of these same ideas. Combined, this is another rich seam. Sorry for linking religion to superheroes – I mean no offence, but some of the ideas are shared and that’s my interest here.

We will be able to add lots of super-senses electronically, then connecting them into our nervous system. Future people will be able to buy extra senses such as being able to zoom their vision, see ultraviolet, radio, microwaves or other radiation. If technology can detect it, it will become available as an add-on sense for purchase.

Afterlife is a bit of an issue. Technology will allow such a close brain-machine link that most of your thinking in 50 years time will happen in the machine world, most of your memories will reside there too, and a lot of your sensory system. When your body eventually dies, you will lose some functions that still reside in it without external backup, but the bulk of your mind that is external to your body could live on. You might just buy another body and live on. Or choose to stay in cyberspace with occasional trips into the physical world.

Diversion: given that you will be able to choose for it any appearance, age, gender, race, even species, and to be able to change it when you want, what will your next body look like? Will you collect a wardrobe of bodies? Nothing to do with this blog entry, but an interesting diversion.

Being in two places at once, or even omnipresent will become feasible via network residence, networked sensing. Your electronic mind can live in the cloud, present in numerous parallel instances.

Nirvana and some other visions of kinds of heavens could be pretty simple technology adaptations from this field. Sharing a global consciousness, possessing someone else’s body (assuming proper policing and consent), being absorbed, being one with everything and everyone, being in a state of perpetual pleasure, made perfect, a new body and cleansed mind, communicating directly into someone’s mind just like prayer, appearing into global augmented reality just like an angel, any of those religious ideas could work fine with the right system architecture. It seems to me that atheists waste a lot of time trying to dismiss religion when they should instead take technological inspiration from it. Future technology can provide many of the things that people find appealing in their religions without any need for anything supernatural.

OK, maybe more on this stuff another time. I didn’t even get as far as the anti-ageing creams yet, so still lots more things to look at, but that’s more than enough for today.

3 responses to “Things that don’t work but could

  1. Terrific posting. I have retweeted it so that it appears on my Twitter feed on 21st Century Tech Blog.


  2. Very reasonable thinking – the question is “When will we see the benefits?”. Humans will really start to accelerate their development once ageing is sorted. The brain naturally ages and goes through learning stages. It would be ideal, if we could go through the earlier stages again and again. Our understanding and capabilities would develop forever – maybe. Until, irretrievable madness would overcome all.

    With such experimental opportunities we could generate exceptional people of any type we wished. We could choose the type of thinking – a more interesting prospect than the type of bodies we could choose – a concept most enjoyably described in “The Once and Future King” by T. H. White.


  3. Pingback: The benefits from things that don’t work « JOURNAL OF HUMANITARIAN AFFAIRS

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