Daily Archives: February 5, 2014

It’s easy to solve power supply for smart wrist straps. Make them virtual instead.

Lots of smart wearable devices are starting to appear in corporate hype now. I am happy to a point, we were talking about most of them 20 years ago so it’s about time! However, it is a futurologist’s curse that you can never truly enjoy today because you know how good it might be tomorrow so it never quite measures up.

The pictures of the new wristbands look very nice, but they are too little, too late. Why not the whole forearm? Why a wristband and not active skin? But the big question is: why make them physical at all?

I invented the active contact lens in 1991, using one LED per pixel, rather like the Google proposal suggests – somehow they managed to patent the active contact lens in 2005, at least 12 years after the idea was first published outside BT. So much for the US Patent Office doing due diligence! I greatly improved on my initial design in 1995 when the micro-mirror was invented by Texas Instruments, immediately allowing full retina resolution displays with just 3 lasers and a micro-mirror.  Google engineers seem oblivious to that invention and persist on doing it the crap way with a far less scalable one-LED-per-pixel approach that will struggle to do any more than basic graphics.

Thankfully though, Google is just one IT company and there are many. I am not a gambling man but I would be greatly surprised if there isn’t some company out there right now working on doing a high resolution 3D augmented reality head up display properly. It doesn’t even have to be in a contact lens, a lightweight visor is fine. But we should expect at least to have both eyes used, for it to be a full semi-transparent overlay on the entire field of view rather than just a small region of the display here and there. The 3D bit is trivial if both eyes are available.

Once we have it, and it really can’t be very long, you won’t need a laptop or a pad or a smartphone or a wristband or a TV set. They can all be produced virtually on demand. Any kind of gadget, any kind of interface you like, anywhere, and size, any resolution. You can make any interface you’ve ever seen on any sci-fi movie, with no extra cost apart from any apps you have to buy. Apple are struggling with power supply for their wristband. If you have a head up display, the power requirement is the few microwatts to put the image on your retina. Everything else can be done in the cloud or on a portable gadget without the battery-size problems, perhaps worn on your belt.

The Fin interface that is doing the media rounds today is quite nice too. You wear it on your thumb and it uses image recognition to determine the gestures you make on your hand, and holds your ID and stuff and the battery lasts ages. You don’t really need it – you could do it all by image recognition from your contact lenses or a body-relative positioning system – but it looks nice and solves a multitude of problems easily and locally. So I won’t begrudge it a place.

That really sums up the difference. The wrist straps are mainly a display, which you really don’t need and offers no advantage over a head up display, while the Fin thing is an interfacing device, which still works outside your field of view, so has some merit.

Active skin will also have merit, its primary purpose being to interface between IT and the body. Anything you can do with the wrist strap or Fin can also be easily implemented with active skin, but active skin can also detect your health state, control your medication, detect, record, relay and replay emotions and sensations, act as smart makeup or a display or a video tattoo, as well as all the interface/security/ID stuff and can do some really cool stuff when linked to your or other people’s active contact lenses. With the right permissions, you could feel what someone else is feeling just by looking at their hand.

So, I’m bored with this wrist strap stuff. It may not even be on the shelves yet, but conceptually, it’s ancient history and I wish the future would hurry up and arrive.

Advertisements

Will population grow again after 2050? To 15Bn?

We’ve been told for decades now that population will level off, probably around 2050, and population after that will likely decline. The world population will peak around 2050 at about 9.5 Billion. That’s pretty much the accepted wisdom at the moment.

The reasoning is pretty straight forward and seems sound, and the evidence follows it closely. People are becoming wealthier. Wealthier people have fewer kids. If you don’t expect your kids to die from disease or starvation before they’re grown up, you don’t need to make as many.

But what if it’s based on fallacy? What if it is just plain wrong? What if the foundations of that reasoning change dramatically by 2050 and it no longer holds true? Indeed. What if?

Before I continue, let me say that my book ‘Total Sustainability’, and my various optimistic writings and blogs about population growth all agree with the view that population will level off around 2050 and then slowly decline, while food supply and resource use will improve thanks to better technologies, thereby helping us to restore the environment. If population may increase again, I and many others will have to rethink.

The reason I am concerned now is that I just made another cross-link with the trend of rising wealth, which will allow even the most basic level of welfare to be set at a high level. It is like the citizen payment that the Swiss voted on recently. I suggested it a couple of years ago myself and in my books, and am in favour of it. Everyone would receive the same monthly payment from the state whether they work or not. The taxes due would then be calculated on the total income, regardless of how you get it, and I would use a flat tax for that too. Quite simple and fair. Only wealthier people pay any tax and then according to how wealthy they are. My calculations say that by 2050, everyone in the UK could get £30,000 a year each (in today’s money) based on the typical level of growth we’ve seen in recent decades (ignoring the recession years). In some countries it would be even higher, in some less, but the cost of living is also less in many countries. In many countries welfare could be as generous as average wages are today.

So by 2050, people in many countries could have an income that allows them to survive reasonably comfortably, even without having a job. That won’t stop everyone working, but it will make it much easier for people who want to raise a family to do so without economic concerns or having to go out to work. It will become possible to live comfortably without working and raise a family.

We know that people tend to have fewer kids as they become wealthier, but there are a number of possible reasons for that. One is the better survival chances for children. That may still have an effect in the developing world, but has little effect in richer countries, so it probably won’t have any impact on future population levels in those countries. Another is the need to work to sustain the higher standard of living one has become used to, to maintain a social status and position, and the parallel reluctance to have kids that will make that more difficult. While a small number of people have kids as a means to solicit state support, but that must be tiny compared to the numbers who have fewer so that they can self sustain. Another reason is that having kids impedes personal freedom, impacts on social life and sex life and adds perhaps unwelcome responsibility. These reasons are all vulnerable to the changes caused by increasing welfare and consequential attitudes. There are probably many other reasons too. 

Working and having fewer kids allows a higher standard of living than having kids and staying at home to look after them, but most people are prepared to compromise on material quality of life to some degree to get the obvious emotional rewards of having kids. Perhaps people are having fewer kids as they get wealthier because the drop of standard of living is too high, or the risks too high. If the guaranteed basic level of survival is comfortable, there is little risk. If a lot of people choose not to work and just live on that, there will also be less social stigma in not working, and more social opportunities from having more people in the same boat. So perhaps we may reasonably deduce that making it less uncomfortable to stop work and have more kids will create a virtuous circle of more and more people having more kids.

I won’t go as far as saying that will happen, just that it might. I don’t know enough about the relative forces that make someone decide whether to have another child. It is hard to predetermine the social attitudes that will prevail in 2050 and beyond, whether people will feel encouraged or deterred from having more kids.

My key point here is that the drop in fertility we see today due to increasing wealth might only hold true up to a certain point, beyond which it reverses. It may simply be that the welfare and social floor is too low to offer a sufficient safety net for those considering having kids, so they choose not to. If the floor is raised thanks to improving prosperity, as it might well be, then population could start to rise quickly again. The assumption that population will peak at 9 or 9.5 billion and then fall might be wrong. It could rise to up to 15 billion, at which point other factors will start to reassert themselves. If our assumptions on age of death are also underestimates, it could go even higher.

Automation and the London tube strike

I was invited on the BBC’s Radio 4 Today Programme to discuss automation this morning, but on Radio 4, studio audio quality is a higher priority than content quality, while quality of life for me is a higher priority than radio exposure, and going into Ipswich greatly reduces my quality of life. We amicably agreed they should find someone else.

There will be more automation in the future. On one hand, if we could totally automate every single job right now, all the same work would be done, so the world would still have the same overall wealth, but then we’d all be idle so our newly free time could be used to improve quality of life, or lie on beaches enjoying ourselves. The problem with that isn’t the automation itself, it is mainly the deciding what else to do with our time and establishing a fair means of distributing the wealth so it doesn’t just stay with ‘the mill owners’. Automation will eventually require some tweaks of capitalism (I discuss this at length in my book Total Sustainability).

We can’t and shouldn’t automate every job. Some jobs are dull and boring or reduce the worker to too low a level of  dignity, and they should be automated as far as we can economically – that is, without creating a greater problem elsewhere. Some jobs provide people with a huge sense of fulfillment or pleasure, and we ought to keep them and create more like them. Most jobs are in between and their situation is rather more complex. Jobs give us something to do with our time. They provide us with social contact. They stop us hanging around on the streets picking fights, or finding ways to demean ourselves or others. They provide dignity, status, self-actualisation. They provide a convenient mechanism for wealth distribution. Some provide stimulation, or exercise, or supervision. All of these factors add to the value of jobs above the actual financial value add.

The London tube strike illustrates one key factor in the social decision on which jobs should be automated. The tube provides an essential service that affects a very large number of people and all their interests should be taken into account.

The impact of potential automation on individual workers in the tube system is certainly important and we shouldn’t ignore it. It would force many of them to find other jobs, albeit in an area with very low unemployment and generally high salaries. Others would have to change to another role within the tube system, perhaps giving assistance and advice to customers instead of pushing buttons on a ticket machine or moving a lever back and forward in a train cab. I find it hard to see how pushing buttons can offer the same dignity or human fulfillment as directly helping another person, so I would consider that sort of change positive, apart from any potential income drop and its onward consequences.

On the other hand, the cumulative impacts on all those other people affected are astronomically large. Many people would have struggled to get to work. Many wouldn’t have bothered. A few would suffer health consequences due to the extra struggle or stress. Perhaps a few small business on the edge of survival will have been killed. Some tourists won’t come back, a lot will spend less. A very large number of businesses and individuals will suffer significantly to let the tube staff make a not very valid protest.

The interests of a small number of people shouldn’t be ignored, but neither should the interests of a large number of people. If these jobs are automated, a few staff would suffer significantly, most would just move on to other jobs, but the future minor miseries caused to millions would be avoided.

Other jobs that should be automated are those where staff are give undue power or authority over others. Most of us will have had bad experiences of jobsworth staff, perhaps including ticketing staff, whose personal attitude is rather less than helpful and whose replacement by a machine would make the world a better place. A few people sadly seem to relish their power to make someone else’s life more difficult. I am pleased to see widespread automation of check-in at airports for that reason too. There were simply too many check-in assistants who gleefully stood in front of big notices saying that rudeness and abuse will not be tolerated from customers, while happily abusing their customers, creating maximum inconvenience and grief to their customers through a jobsworth attitude or couldn’t-care-less incompetence. Where people are in a position of power or authority, where a job offers the sort of opportunities for sadistic self-actualisation some people get by making other people’s lives worse, there is a strong case for automation to avoid the temptation to abuse that power or authority.

As artificial intelligence and robotics increase in scope and ability, many more jobs will be automated, but more often it will affect parts of jobs. Increasing productivity isn’t a bad thing, nor is up-skilling someone to do a more difficult and fulfilling job than they could otherwise manage. Some parts of any job are dull, and we won’t miss them, if they are replaced by more enjoyable activity. In many cases, simple mechanical or information processing tasks will be replaced by those involving people skills, emotional skills. By automating these bits where we are essentially doing machine work, high technology forces us to concentrate on being human. That is no bad thing.

While automation moves people away from repetitive,boring, dangerous, low dignity tasks, or those that give people too much opportunity to cause problems for others, I am all in favour. Those jobs together don’t add up to enough to cause major economic problems. We can find better work for those concerned.

We need to guard against automation going too far though. When jobs are automated faster than new equivalent or better jobs can be created, then we will have a problem. Not from the automation itself, but as a result of the unemployment, the unbalanced wealth distribution, and all the social problems that result from those. We need to automate sustainably.

Human + machine is better than human alone, but human alone is probably better than machine alone.