Monthly Archives: February 2013

Towards the singularity

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

Future reproduction for same-sex couples

My writing on the future of gender and same sex reproduction now forms a section of my new book You Tomorrow, Second Edition, on the future of humanity, gender, lifestyle and our surroundings. Available from Amazon as paper and ebook.


Super-tall (30km) carbon structures (graphene and nanotube mesh)

I recently blogged about a 200km moon-based structure. Here is my original earth-based concept, which could now be enhanced by filling columns with graphene foam

How about a 30km tall building? Using multilayered columns using rolled up or rippled graphene and nanotubes, in various patterned cross sections, it should be possible to make strong threads, ribbons and membranes, interwoven to make columns and arrange them into an extremely tall pyramid.

Super-tall structures for science and tourism

Think of a structure like the wood and bark of a tree, with the many tubular fine structures. Engineering can take the ideas nature gives us and optimise them using synthetic materials. Graphene and carbon nanotube will become routing architectural materials in due course. Many mesh designs and composites will be possible, and layering these to make threads, columns, cross members with various micro-structures will enable extremely strong columns to be made. If the outer layer is coated to withstand vacuum, then it will be possible to make the columns strong enough to withstand atmospheric pressure, but with an overall density the same as the surrounding air or less. Pressure is of course less of an issue higher up, so higher parts of the columns can therefore be lighter still.

We should be able to make zero weight structures in lower atmosphere, and still have atmospheric buoyancy supporting some of the weight as altitude increases.  Once buoyancy fails, the structure will have to be supported by the structure below, limiting the final achievable height.  Optimising the structures to give just enough strength at the various heights, with optimised mesh structure and maximal use of buoyancy, will enable the tallest possible structures. Very tall structures indeed could be made.

So, think of making such a structure, with three columns in a triangular cross-section meeting at 43 degrees at the top (this is the optimal angle for the strongest A frame in terms of load-bearing to weight ratio, though that is a simplistic calculation that ignores buoyancy effects, so it ‘needs more work’.

Making a wild guess, 30km tall structures may be feasible, but that is just a wild guess and I would welcome comments from any civil engineers or graphene architects. These would not be ideal for habitation, since most of the strength in the structure would be to support the upper parts of the structure itself and whatever platform loading is needed. The idea may be perfect for pressurised platforms at the top for scientific research, environmental monitoring, telescopes, space launches, tourism and so on. The extreme difference in temperature may have energy production uses too.

Getting the first 30km off the ground without needing any rocket fuel would greatly reduce space development costs, not to mention carbon and high altitude water emissions.

A simple addition to this would be to add balloons to the columns at various points to add extra buoyancy. I dare not try to calculate how much higher this would permit, but I suspect not all that much more since even with balloons, they cannot give much extra lift once the atmosphere is too thin.

How smart could an AI become?

I got an interesting question in a comment from Jim T on my last blog.

What is your opinion now on how powerful machine intelligence will become?

Funny, but my answer relates to the old question: how many angels can sit on the head of a pin?

The brain is not a digital computer, and don’t think a digital processor will be capable of consciousness (though that doesn’t mean it can’t be very smart and help make huge scientific progress). I believe a conscious AI will be mostly analog in nature, probably based on some fancy combo of adaptive neural nets. as suggested decades ago by Moravec.

Taking that line, and looking at how far miniaturisation can go, then adding all the zeros that arise from the shorter signal transmission paths, faster switching speeds, faster comms, and the greater number of potential pathways using optical WDM than electronic connectivity, I calculated that a spherical pinhead (1mm across) could ultimately house the equivalent of 10,000 human brains. (I don’t know how smart angels are so didn’t quite get to the final step). You could scale that up for as much funding, storage and material and energy you can provide.

However, what that quantifies is how many human equivalent AIs you could support. Very useful to know if you plan to build a future server farm to look after electronically immortal people. You could build a machine with the equivalent intelligence of the entire human race. But it doesn’t answer the question of how smart a single AI could ever be, or how powerful it could be. Quantity isn’t qualityYou could argue that 1% of the engineers produce 99% of the value, even with only a fairly small IQ difference. 10 billion people may not be as useful for progress as 10 people with 5 times the IQ. And look at how controversial IQ is. We can’t even agree what intelligence is or how to quantify it.

Just based on loose language, how powerful or smart or intelligent an AI could become depends on the ongoing positive feedback loop. Adding  more AI of the same intelligence level will enable the next incremental improvement, then using those slightly smarter AIs would get you to the next stage, a bit faster, ad infinitum. Eventually, you could make an AI that is really, really, really smart.

How smart is that? I don’t have the terminology to describe it. I can borrow an analogy though. Terry Pratchett’s early book ‘The Dark Side of the Sun’ has a character in it called The Bank. It was a silicon planet, with the silicon making a hugely smart mind. Imagine if a pinhead could house 10,000 human brains, and you have a planet of the stuff, and it’s all one big intellect instead of lots of dumb ones. Yep. Really, really, really smart.

How to make a conscious computer

The latest generation of supercomputers have processing speed that is higher than the human brain on a simple digital comparison, but they can’t think, aren’t conscious. It’s not even really appropriate to compare them because the brain mostly isn’t digital. It has some digital processing in the optics system but mostly uses adaptive analog neurons whereas digital computers use digital chips for processing and storage and only a bit of analog electronics for other circuits. Most digital computers don’t even have anything we would equate to senses.

Analog computers aren’t used much now, but were in fairly widespread use in some industries until the early 1980s. Most IT people have no first hand experience of them and some don’t seem to even be aware of analog computers, what they can do or how. But in the AI space, a lot of the development uses analog approaches. discusses some of my previous work on conscious computer design. I won’t reproduce it here.

I firmly believe consciousness, whether externally or internally focused, is the result of internally directed sensing, (sensing can be thought of as the solicitation of feeling) so that you feel your thoughts or sensory inputs in much the same way. The easy bit is figuring out how thinking can work once you have that, how memories can be relived, concepts built, how self-awareness, sentience, intelligence emerge. All those are easy once you have figured out how feeling works. That is the hard problem.

Detection is not the same as feeling. It is easy to build a detector or sensor that flips a switch or moves a dial when something happens or even precisely quantifies something . Feeling it is another layer on that. Your skin detects touch, but your brain feels it, senses it. Taking detection and making it feel and become a sensation, that’s hard. What is it about a particular circuit that adds sensation? That is the missing link, the hard problem, and all the writing available out there just echoes that. Philosophers and scientists have written about this same problem in different ways for ages, and have struggled in vain to get a grip on it, many end up running in circles. So far they don’t know the answer, and neither do I. The best any offer is elucidation of aspects of the problem and at occasionally some hints of things that they think might somehow be connected with the answer. There exists no answer or explanation yet.

There is no magic in the brain. The circuitry involved in feeling something is capable of being described, replicated and even manufactured. It is possible to find out how to make a conscious circuit, even if we still don’t know what consciousness is or how it works, via replication, reverse engineering or evolutionary development. We manage to make conscious children several times every second.

How far can we go? Having studied a lot of what is written, it is clear that even after a lot of smart people thinking a long time about it, there is a great deal of confusion out there, and at least some of it comes basically from trying to use too big words and some comes from trying to analyse too much at once. When it is so obvious that it is a tough problem, simplifying it will undoubtedly help.  So let’s narrow it down a bit.

Feeling needs to be separated out from all the other things going on. What is it that happens that makes something feel? Well, detecting something pre-empts feeling it, and interpreting it or thinking about it comes later. So, ignore the detection and interpretation and thinking bits for now. Even sensation can be modelled as solicitation of feeling, essentially adding qualitative information to it. We ought to be able to make an abstraction model as for any IT system, where feeling is a distinct layer, coming between the physical detection layer and sensation, well below any of the layers associated with thinking or analysis.

Many believe that very simple organisms can detect stimuli and react to them, but can’t feel,  but more sophisticated ones can. Logical deduction tells us either that feeling may require fairly complex neural networks but certainly well below human levels, or alternatively, feeling may not be fundamentally linked to complexity but may emerge from architectural differences that arose in parallel with increasing complexity but aren’t dependent on it. It is also very likely due to evolutionary mechanisms that feeling emerges from similar structures to detection, though not the same. Architectural modifications, feedbacks, or additions to detection circuits might be an excellent point to start looking.

So we don’t know the answer, but we do have some good clues. Better than nothing. Coming at it from a philosophical direction, even the smartest people quickly get tied in knots, but from an engineering direction, I think the problem is soluble.

If feeling is, as I believe, a modified detection system, then we could for example seed an evolutionary design system with detection systems. Mutating, restructuring and rearranging detection systems and adding occasional random components here and there might eventually create some circuits that feel. It did in nature, and would in an evolutionary design system, given time. But how would we know? An evolutionary design system needs some means of selection to distinguish the more successful branches for further development.

Using feedback loops would probably help. A system with built in feedback so that it feels that it is feeling something would be symmetrical, maybe even fractal. Self-reinforcement of a feeling process would also create a little vortex of activity. A simple detection system (with detection of detection) would not exhibit such strong activity peaks due to necessary lack of symmetry in detection of initial and processed stimuli. So all we need do is to introduce feedback loops in each architecture and look for the emergence of activity peaks. Possibly, some non-feeling architectures might also show activity peaks so not all peaks would necessarily show successes, but all successes would show peaks.

So, the evolutionary system would take basic detection circuits as input, modify them, add random components, then connect them in simple symmetrical feedback loops. Most results would do nothing. Some would show self-reinforcement, evidenced by activity peaks. Those are the ones we need.

The output from such an evolutionary design system would be circuits that feel (and some junk). We have our basic components. Now we can start to make a conscious computer.

Let’s go back to the gel computing idea and plug them in. We have some basic detectors, for light, sound, touch etc. Pretty simple stuff, but we connect those to our new feeling circuits, so now those inputs stop being just information and become sensations. We add in some storage, recording the inputs, again with some feeling circuits added into the mix, and just for fun, let’s make those recording circuits replay those inputs over and over, indefinitely. Those sensations will be felt again and again, the memory relived. Our primitive little computer can already remember and experience things it has experienced before. Now add in some processing. When a and b happen, c results. Nothing complicated. Just the sort of primitive summation of inputs we know neurons can do all the time. But now, when that processing happens, our computer brain feels it. It feels that it is doing some thinking. It feels the stimuli occurring, a result occurring. And as it records and replays it, an experience builds. It now has knowledge. It may not be the answer to life the universe and everything just yet, but knowledge it is. It now knows and remembers the experience that when it links these two inputs, it gets that output. These processes and recordings and replays and further processing and storage and replays echo throughout the whole system. The sensory echoes and neural interference patterns result in some areas of reinforcement and some of cancellation. Concepts form. The whole process is sensed by the brain. It is thinking, processing, reliving memories, linking inputs and results into concepts and knowledge, storing concepts, and most importantly, it is feeling itself doing so.

The rest is just design detail. There’s your conscious computer.

iwatch v a proper folding watch computer

Some people work hard to get rich. Some work hard so they can change the world. Some work hard to build political power. Some work hard to make their families proud of them. Some, because they simply enjoy it.

Me, I work hard because I love saying “I told you so”. When I were a lad… OK, in the early 90s when I was still a budding futurologist, I was writing about where PCs might go. Here is one of my imaginings from back then: a folding screen touch sensitive watch computer.

Watch computer

Folding Touch-Screen Watch Computer

The file has been dragged between so many computers now I can’t even find when I wrote it, but it is probably datable from the clip art, and when 28 Feb was a monday. Anyway, the idea is starting to become feasible now. The icons are for what we now think of as apps of course, a few of which I don’t even have yet on my iphone or Nexus 10.1. The display could easily be built now, and it would fold up into a watch. Lots of watches are quite big so it would be a decent size too. And the idea was that the strap would act as both battery and antenna. All of that is buildable. Now.

Compare with Apple’s latest dream:


I think Apple needs a better vision, but although it looks even more pants than mine it does more or less the same things, albeit via an iphone. I bet Samsung do the full folding watch one soon.

Hydrogen cars are the wrong solution says that the UK government has produced a report saying that 1.5 million hydrogen cars will be on UK roads by 2030.

Hydrogen cars are part of the future that falls firmly in the category of ‘can do but shouldn’t do’.

I don’t doubt that hydrogen could be manufactured and sold from special filling stations to be used as fuel for fuel cells to make electricity to drive cars, or maybe even used in a modified internal combustion engine, or directly burned to make steam for a steam engine. It can. I don’t even doubt that the government is entirely capable of legislating subsidies for ridiculously expensive and inappropriate solutions just to appease lunatic fringe pressure groups. They are already doing so for wind turbine farms and rooftop solar panels, so why not hydrogen cars. It would just be another shovelful of idiocy on what is already a huge pile. What I do doubt, because I am a futurologist and an engineer, is that it makes any sense.

Hydrogen was once seen in futurist circles as the fuel of the future, for a year or so anyway before anyone did the analysis properly. When they did, they noticed:

Burning hydrogen (even in a fuel cell) produces water as the main product. Water is a greenhouse gas, a much more powerful forcing agent than CO2. It may be condensed by the car, but even then, at least in dry weather,  the water will evaporate from the road surface and enter the water cycle. It acts as a greenhouse gas until it becomes rain again. If it is raining already, the water produced will probably be a harmless addition. Hydrogen cars will therefore have a small but possibly significant effect on the water cycle, weather and climate, just as regular cars do, and probably not that much different. They certainly can’t be assumed to be in any sense environmentally neutral.

Hydrogen needs special containment systems to make it safe, and these are likely to add significantly to the cost of a car.

Fuel cells are still very much more expensive than competing power sources and there is little sign of any imminent major progress.

Making hydrogen generally requires electricity, and it is really just a proxy for the electricity used in its manufacture. It would be just as easy, as cheap, and much safer to just deliver this electricity direct to the cars without going through the hydrogen stage. Electric cars will have batteries and some potential synergy using them as storage for intermittent renewable energy manufacturing such as wind farms. If we are going to have to put up with wind farms anyway, then the economics shift in favour of this approach.

Also, development of new materials and supercapacitors, together with new directed induction technology (that allows large distances between the inductive components), allow for a Scalextric approach to car powering. It is hard to see the point in using an intermediary like hydrogen when this would be a better solution.

I don’t know where the pressure has come for government to think down this path. But it is the wrong path and they should change direction before they waste yet more money on inappropriate, expensive and inefficient infrastructure.

Sainsbury’s marketing have lost the plot

This one is more of a rant against poor marketing, and isn’t about the future.

I won’t mention names, but I know a few marketing chiefs who think their staff are largely a waste of space. I don’t have any experience of working with Sainsbury’s marketing though so only have experience as a customer as evidence one way or another.

I am sure someone thinks their new campaign is fantastic. Lets run a TV campaign telling everyone that if they could have got stuff cheaper elsewhere, we will give them a voucher for the difference. It worked well for John Lewis didn’t it?

Well, yes it did, but John Lewis did it right. You did it the opposite of right.


So, if we’d shopped in one of their competitors, we would have paid less.  But they are kindly ‘making it this easy to claim the difference back’. So, if we are still dumb enough to go back to Sainsbury’s soon, knowing we had been overcharged, and remember to take this voucher with us, we can ask for a refund of the overcharge, but only as a discount of our next purchases, which presumably, being a similar basket, will also be overcharged, so we’ll get another voucher and be locked in forever into a cycle of being overcharged and having to juggle vouchers and keep shopping there to get a fair deal. But it is only £1.31, (it was only a small top-up shop of around £20) so we’ll cut our losses and shop in Tesco’s again, where according to Sainsbury’s, we’ll presumably save even more than that every time, since we normally pay rather more than £20.

Not quite John Lewis is it? They are ‘never knowingly undersold’. If they find a competitor would have charged less, they will charge you that or less, at least that’s what I have always assumed. Not give you a voucher that you have to take back and get a discount of another overcharged shopping trip.

Sainsbury’s, you are not being clever, locking people happily into forever shopping there. First, you are telling them you overcharged and then secondly, instead of just deducting it at the checkout at the time which would be easy and fair, you are making people additionally jump through hoops before you’ll give them a fair deal, while telling them where they can get one right away. Not clever. Not at all clever.