Monthly Archives: March 2014

WMDs for mad AIs

We think sometimes about mad scientists and what they might do. It’s fun, makes nice films occasionally, and highlights threats years before they become feasible. That then allows scientists and engineers to think through how they might defend against such scenarios, hopefully making sure they don’t happen.

You’ll be aware that a lot more talk of AI is going on again now. It does seem to be picking up progress finally. If it succeeds well enough, a lot more future science and engineering will be done by AI than by people. If genuinely conscious, self-aware AI, with proper emotions etc becomes feasible, as I think it will, then we really ought to think about what happens when it goes wrong. (Sci-fi computer games producers already do think that stuff through sometimes – my personal favorite is Mass Effect). We will one day have some insane AIs. In Mass Effect, the concept of AI being shackled is embedded in the culture, thereby attempting to limit the damage it could presumably do. On the other hand, we have had Asimov’s laws of robotics for decades, but they are sometimes being ignored when it comes to making autonomous defense systems. That doesn’t bode well. So, assuming that Mass Effect’s writers don’t get to be in charge of the world, and instead we have ideological descendants of our current leaders, what sort of things could an advanced AI do in terms of its chosen weaponry?

Advanced AI

An ultra-powerful AI is a potential threat in itself. There is no reason to expect that an advanced AI will be malign, but there is also no reason to assume it won’t be. High level AI could have at least the range of personality that we associate with people, with a potentially greater  range of emotions or motivations, so we’d have the super-helpful smart scientist type AIs but also perhaps the evil super-villain and terrorist ones.

An AI doesn’t have to intend harm to be harmful. If it wants to do something and we are in the way, even if it has no malicious intent, we could still become casualties, like ants on a building site.

I have often blogged about achieving conscious computers using techniques such as gel computing and how we could end up in a terminator scenario, favored by sci-fi. This could be deliberate act of innocent research, military development or terrorism.

Terminator scenarios are diverse but often rely on AI taking control of human weapons systems. I won’t major on that here because that threat has already been analysed in-depth by many people.

Conscious botnets could arrive by accident too – a student prank harnessing millions of bots even with an inefficient algorithm might gain enough power to achieve high level of AI. 

Smart bacteria – Bacterial DNA could be modified so that bacteria can make electronics inside their cell, and power it. Linking to other bacteria, massive AI could be achieved.

Zombies

Adding the ability to enter a human nervous system or disrupt or capture control of a human brain could enable enslavement, giving us zombies. Having been enslaved, zombies could easily be linked across the net. The zombie films we watch tend to miss this feature. Zombies in films and games tend to move in herds, but not generally under control or in a much coordinated way. We should assume that real ones will be full networked, liable to remote control, and able to share sensory systems. They’d be rather smarter and more capable than what we’re generally used to. Shooting them in the head might not work so well as people expect either, as their nervous systems don’t really need a local controller, and could just as easily be controlled by a collective intelligence, though blood loss would eventually cause them to die. To stop a herd of real zombies, you’d basically have to dismember them. More Dead Space than Dawn of the Dead.

Zombie viruses could be made other ways too. It isn’t necessary to use smart bacteria. Genetic modification of viruses, or a suspension of nanoparticles are traditional favorites because they could work. Sadly, we are likely to see zombies result from deliberate human acts, likely this century.

From Zombies, it is a short hop to full evolution of the Borg from Star Trek, along with emergence of characters from computer games to take over the zombified bodies.

Terraforming

Using strong external AI to make collective adaptability so that smart bacteria can colonize many niches, bacterial-based AI or AI using bacteria could engage in terraforming. Attacking many niches that are important to humans or other life would be very destructive. Terraforming a planet you live on is not generally a good idea, but if an organism can inhabit land, sea or air and even space, there is plenty of scope to avoid self destruction. Fighting bacteria engaged on such a pursuit might be hard. Smart bacteria could spread immunity to toxins or biological threats almost instantly through a population.

Correlated traffic

Information waves and other correlated traffic, network resonance attacks are another way of using networks to collapse economies by taking advantage of the physical properties of the links and protocols rather than using more traditional viruses or denial or service attacks. AIs using smart dust or bacteria could launch signals in perfect coordination from any points on any networks simultaneously. This could push any network into resonant overloads that would likely crash them, and certainly act to deprive other traffic of bandwidth.

Decryption

Conscious botnets could be used to make decryption engines to wreck security and finance systems. Imagine how much more so a worldwide collection of trillions of AI-harnessed organisms or devices. Invisibly small smart dust and networked bacteria could also pick up most signals well before they are encrypted anyway, since they could be resident on keyboards or the components and wires within. They could even pick up electrical signals from a person’s scalp and engage in thought recognition, intercepting passwords well before a person’s fingers even move to type them.

Space guns

Solar wind deflector guns are feasible, ionizing some of the ionosphere to make a reflective surface to deflect some of the incoming solar wind to make an even bigger reflector, then again, thus ending up with an ionospheric lens or reflector that can steer perhaps 1% of the solar wind onto a city. That could generate a high enough energy density to ignite and even melt a large area of city within minutes.

This wouldn’t be as easy as using space based solar farms, and using energy direction from them. Space solar is being seriously considered but it presents an extremely attractive target for capture because of its potential as a directed energy weapon. Their intended use is to use microwave beams directed to rectenna arrays on the ground, but it would take good design to prevent a takeover possibility.

Drone armies

Drones are already becoming common at an alarming rate, and the sizes of drones are increasing in range from large insects to medium sized planes. The next generation is likely to include permanently airborne drones and swarms of insect-sized drones. The swarms offer interesting potential for WMDs. They can be dispersed and come together on command, making them hard to attack most of the time.

Individual insect-sized drones could build up an electrical charge by a wide variety of means, and could collectively attack individuals, electrocuting or disabling them, as well as overload or short-circuit electrical appliances.

Larger drones such as the ones I discussed in

http://carbonweapons.com/2013/06/27/free-floating-combat-drones/ would be capable of much greater damage, and collectively, virtually indestructible since each can be broken to pieces by an attack and automatically reassembled without losing capability using self organisation principles. A mixture of large and small drones, possibly also using bacteria and smart dust, could present an extremely formidable coordinated attack.

I also recently blogged about the storm router

http://carbonweapons.com/2014/03/17/stormrouter-making-wmds-from-hurricanes-or-thunderstorms/ that would harness hurricanes, tornados or electrical storms and divert their energy onto chosen targets.

In my Space Anchor novel, my superheroes have to fight against a formidable AI army that appears as just a global collection of tiny clouds. They do some of the things I highlighted above and come close to threatening human existence. It’s a fun story but it is based on potential engineering.

Well, I think that’s enough threats to worry about for today. Maybe given the timing of release, you’re expecting me to hint that this is an April Fool blog. Not this time. All these threats are feasible.

Sustainable capitalism – Ending exploitation

This blog is an extract from my book Total Sustainability. Just over 10k words

Sustainable capitalism

To see what needs adjusted and how to go about doing it, let’s first consider some of the systems that make people wealthy. With global change accelerating, in this period of global upheaval, the rise of new powers and decline of old ones, we have an opportunity to rethink it and perhaps make it better, or perhaps countries new to capitalism will make their own way and we will follow. If it is failing, it is time to look for ways to fix it or to change direction.

Some things are very difficult and need really smart people, but we don’t have very many of them. But as heavily globalised systems become more and more complex, the scope for very smart people to gain control of power and resources increases. Think about it for a moment. How many people do you know who could explain how big businesses manage to avoid paying tax in spite of making big profits beyond the first two words that everyone knows – tax haven? The money goes somewhere, but not on tax. This is one of the big topics being discussed now among the world’s top nations. No laws are being broken, it is simply that universally sluggish and incompetent governments have been outwitted again and again by smart individuals.

They should have had tax systems in place long ago to cope with globalisation, but they still haven’t. Representatives of those governments talk a lot about clampdowns, but nobody really expects that big business won’t stay at least 5 steps ahead. Consequently, money and power is concentrating at the top more than ever.

The contest between greedy and relatively smart business people and well-meaning but dumber (strictly relative terms here) politicians and regulators often ends with taxpayers being fleeced. Hence the banking crisis, where the vast wealth greedily that was accumulated by bankers over numerous gambling wins was somehow kept when they lost, with us having to pay the losses without ever benefiting from the wins, with the final farcically generous pay-offs to those who failed so miserably. The same could be said of some privatisations and probably most government contracts. It was noted thousands of years ago that a fool and his money are easily parted. The problem with democracy is that fools are often the ones elected. The people in government that aren’t fools are often there to benefit their own interests and later found with their fingers in the cake. Some of our leaders and regulators are honourable and smart enough to make decent decisions, but too small a fraction to make us safe from severe abuse.

We need to fix this problem and many other related if we are to achieve any form of sustainability in our capitalist world.

The undeserving rich

Magistrates in Britain once had a duty to distinguish between the deserving poor, who were poor through no fault of their own, and the undeserving poor, who were simply idle. The former would get hand-outs while they needed them, the idle would get a kick in the pants and told to go and sort themselves out. This attitude later disappeared from the welfare system, but the idea remains commonly held and recently, some emerging policies echo its sentiment to some degree.

Looking at the other end of the spectrum, there are the deserving and undeserving rich. Some people worked hard to get their cash and deserve every penny, some worked less hard in highly overpaid jobs. Some inherited it from parents or ancestors even further back, and maybe they worked hard for it. Some stole it from others by thievery, trickery, or military conquest. Some got it by marrying someone. Some won it, some were compensated. There are lots of ways of getting rich. Money is worth the same wherever it comes from but we hold different attitudes to the rich depending on how they got their money.

Most of us don’t think there is anything wrong with being rich, nor in trying to become so. There are examples of people doing well not just for themselves and their families and friends, but also benefiting their entire host community. Only jealousy could motivate any resentment of their wealth. But the system should be designed so that one person shouldn’t be able to become rich at the cost of other people’s misery. At the moment, in many countries, some people are gaining great wealth effectively by exploiting the poor. Few of us consider that to be admirable or desirable. It would be better if people could only become rich by doing well in a system that also protects other people. Let’s look at some of the problems with today’s capitalism.

Corruption

Corruption has to be one of the biggest problems in the world today. It has many facets, and some are so familiar in everyday life that we don’t even think of them as corruption any more.

As well as blatant corruption, most of us would also include rule bending and loophole-seeking in the corruption category. Squeezing every last millimetre when bending the law may keep it just about legal, but it doesn’t make behaviour creditable. When we see politicians bending rules and then using their political persuasiveness to argue that it is somehow OK for them, most of us feel a degree of natural revulsion. The same goes for big companies. It may be legal to avoid tax by using expensive lawyers to find holes in taxation systems and clever accountants to exploit them, re-labelling or moving money via a certain route to reduce the taxes required by law, but that doesn’t make it ethical. Even though it is technically on the right side of legal, I’d personally put a lot of corporate tax avoidance in the corruption category when it seeks to exploit loopholes that were never part of what the tax law intended.

Then of course it is possible to break the law and bribe your way out of trouble, or to lobby corruptible lawmakers to include a loophole that you want to exploit, or to make a contribution to party funds in order to increase the likelihood of getting a big contract later.

Lobbying can easily become thinly veiled bribery – nice dinners or tickets or promised social favours, but often manifests as well-paid clever chitchat, to get an MP to help push the law in the general direction you favour. Maybe it isn’t technically corrupt, but it certainly isn’t true to the basic principles of democracy either. Lobbying distorts the presentation, interpretation and implementation of the intentions of the voting community so it corrupts democracy.

So although there are degrees of corruption, they all have one thing in common – using positions of power or buy influence to tilt the playing field to gain advantage.

Exploitation

Once someone starts bending the rules, it affects other behaviour. If someone is happy exploiting the full flexibility of the letter of the law with little regard for others, they are also likely to be liable to engage in other ways of actively exploiting other people, in asset stripping, or debt concealing, or in how they negotiate and take advantage, or how they make people redundant because a machine is cheaper. It is often easy to spot such behaviour, wrapped with excuses such as ‘Companies aren’t charities, they exist to make money’, and ‘business is business’. There are plenty of expressions that the less noble business people use to excuse bad behaviour and pretend it is somehow OK. There are degrees of badness of course. For some companies, some run by people hailed as business heroes, anything goes as long as it is legal or if the process of law can be diverted long enough to make it worthwhile ignoring it. While ‘legal’ depends on the size and quality of your legal team, there is gain to be made by stretching the law. It can even pay to blatantly disobey the law, if you can stretch the court process out enough so that you can use some of the profits gained to pay the fines, and keep the rest. So corruption isn’t the only problem. Exploitation is its ugly sister and we see a lot of big companies and rich people doing it.

The price of bad behaviour and loose values

A common problem here is that we don’t assign financial value to honourable behaviour, community or national well-being, honesty, integrity, fairness or staff morale. So these can safely be ignored in the pursuit of profit. Business is justified in this approach perhaps, because we don’t assign value to them. If a company exists to make profit, measured purely financially, those other factors don’t appear on the bottom line, so there is no reason to behave any better. In fact, they cost money, so a ruthless board can make more money by behaving badly. That is one thing that could and should change if we want a sustainable form of capitalism. If we as a society want businesses to run more ethically, then we have to make the system in such a way that ethical behaviour is rewarded. If we don’t explicitly recognise particular value sets, then businesses are really under no obligation to behave in any particular way. As it is, I would argue that society has value sets that are on something of a random walk. There is no fixed reference point, and values can flip completely in just a few decades. That is hardly a stable platform on which to build anything.

Hardening of attitudes to welfare abuse

 

There is growing resentment right across the political spectrum against those taking welfare who won’t do enough to try to look after themselves but expect to receive hand-outs while others are having to work hard to make ends meet. At the same time, resentment is deepening against the rich who use loopholes in the law to find technically legal but morally dubious tax avoidance schemes. What these have in common is that they exploit others. There is a rich variety of ways in which people exploit others, some that we are so used to we don’t even notice any more. This is important in helping to determine what may happen in the future.

The few have always exploited the many

 

A while ago, I had a short break visiting the Cotswolds (a chocolate-box picture area of England). We saw a huge Roman villa, fantastic mosaics in the Roman museum in Cirencester, and a couple of stately homes. Then we went to Portugal where we saw the very ornate but rather tasteless Palace of Penna. It made me realise just how much better off we are today, when thanks to technology development, even a modest income buys vastly superior functionality and comfort than even royalty used to have to put up with.

I used to enjoy seeing such things, but the last few years I have found them increasingly disturbing. I still find them interesting to look at, but now they make me angry, as monuments to the ability of the few to exploit the efforts of the many for their own gain. So while admiring the landscape architecture of Lancelot (Capability) Brown, and the Roman mosaics, I felt sorry for the many people who had little or no choice but to do all the work for relatively little reward. I felt especially sorry for the people who built the Palace of Penna, where an obviously enormous amount of hard work and genuine talent has been spent on something that ended up as hideously ugly. Even if the artists and workmen were paid a good wage, their abilities could probably still have been put to much more constructive use.

But we don’t want equality of poverty

 

I strongly believe that we overvalue capital compared to knowledge, talent and effort, resulting in too high a proportion of wealth going to capital owners. Capitalism sometimes saps too many of the rewards of effort away from those who earn them. However, few people would argue for a system where everyone is poorer just so that we can have equality, as happened in communism, and as would be the result if some current socialists got their ways. The system should be fair to everyone, but if we are to prosper as a society, it also needs to incentivise the production of wealth.

Exploitation of society by the lazy and greedy

 

That of course brings us to the abuse at the other end, with some people who are perfectly able to work drawing state benefits instead (or indeed as well as wages from work) and thereby putting unjust extra load on the welfare system. This of course acts as a major drain on hard working people too and reduces the rewards of effort. Those who work hard may thus see their money disappearing at both ends, possibly taken by exploitative employers and certainly taken by the state to give to others. Exploitation is still exploitation whether it is by the privileged or the lazy. We all want the welfare system, because another powerful force in human nature is to care for others, and we instinctively want to help those who can’t help themselves. But that doesn’t mean we want to be taken advantage of.

Rewarding effort is essential for a healthy economy

As a general principle, extra effort or skill or risk or investment should reap extra reward. If there is too little incentive to do put in more work or investment, human nature dictates that most people won’t do it. The same goes for leading others or building companies and employing others. If you don’t get extra reward from enabling or leading other people to create more, you probably won’t bother doing that either. Very many communes have started up with idealism and failed for this reason.

In both of these cases, a few nice people will do more, even without financial incentive, simply because it makes them feel good to work hard or help others, but most won’t, or will start doing so and quickly give up when appreciation runs dry or they become frustrated by the laziness of others.

While effort and investment and skill and leadership must all be rewarded to make a healthy economy, it is a natural and fair consequence of rewarding these that some people will become richer than others, and if they help many other people also to do more, they may become quite a lot richer than others.

‘To each according to their effort’ is a fundamentally better approach than ‘from each according to their ability and to each according to their need’ as preached by communists – it is simply more in tune with human nature. It makes more people do more, so we all prosper. Trying to level the playing field by redistributing wealth too much deters effort and ultimately makes everyone worse off. A reasonable gap between rich and poor is both necessary and fair.

But we shouldn’t let people demand too much of the rewards

 

However, an extreme gap indicates that there is exploitation, that some people are keeping rather too much of the reward from the efforts of others. As always, we need to find the right balance. Greed does seem to be one of the powerful forces in human nature, and if opportunity exists for someone to take more for themselves at the expense of others, some will. I don’t believe we should try to change human nature, but I do believe we should try to defend the weak against exploitation by the greedy. Some studies have shown a correlation between social inequality and social problems of crime, poor education and so on. That doesn’t prove causality of course, but it does seem reasonable to infer causality in any case here.

In some large companies, top managers seem to run the company as if it were their own, allocating huge rewards for themselves at the expense of both customers and shareholders’ interests. Such abuse of position is widespread across the economy today, but it will inevitably have to be reined back over time in spite of fierce resistance from the beneficiaries.

The power of public pressure via shame should not be underestimated, even though some seem conspicuously immune to it. Where the abusers still decide to abuse, power will come either by shareholders disposing of abusers, or regulators giving shareholders better power to over-rule where there is abuse, as is already starting to happen, or by direct pay caps for public sector chiefs. The situation at the moment gives too much power to managers and shareholders need to be given back the rights to control their own companies more fully.

Reducing market friction

 

There are many opportunities to exploit others, and always some who will try to take the fullest advantage. We can’t ever make everyone nice, but at least we can make exploitation more difficult. Part of the problem is social structure and governance of course, but part is also market imperfection. While social structure only changes slowly, and government is doomed to suffer the underlying problems associated with democracy, we can almost certainly do something about the market using better technology. So let’s look at the market for areas to tweak.

Strength of position

 

Kings or slave owners may have been able to force subjects to work, but a modern employer theoretically has to offer competitive terms and conditions to get someone to work, and people are theoretically free to sell their efforts, or not.

Then the theory becomes more complex and the playing field starts to tilt. People have to live, and they have to support their dependants. Not everyone is born with the intellectual gifts or social privileges that enable them to be entrepreneurs or high-earning professionals who can pick and choose their work and set their own prices. If someone can’t sell their efforts directly to a customer, they may have to accept whatever terms and conditions are available from a local employer or trader.

Location makes traders powerful

 

In fact, most people have to look and see what jobs there are locally and have to apply for one of them because they need the money, and can’t travel far, so they are in a very poor bargaining position. By contrast, capital providers and leaders and entrepreneurs and traders have always been in an excellent position to exploit this. In a town with high unemployment, or low wages, or indeed, throughout a poor country, potential employees will settle for the local wage rate for that kind of work, but that may differ hugely from the rate for similar work elsewhere.

The laws of supply and demand apply, but the locations of supply and demand need not be the same, and where they aren’t, traders are the ones who benefit, not those doing the work. Traders have existed and prospered for millennia and have often become very wealthy by exploiting the difference in labour costs and produce prices around the world.

Manufacturers can play the same geography game

 

Now with increasing globalisation, those with good logistics available to them can use these differences in manufacturing too, using cheap labour in one place to produce goods that can be sold for high prices in other places. Is it only the margins and the balance of bargaining power that determines whether this exploitation is fair or not, or is it also the availability of access to markets? What is a fair margin? How much of the profit should we allow traders or manufacturers to keep? If not enough, and markets are not free and lubricated enough, potential producers may stay idle and be even poorer because they can’t sell their efforts. If too much, someone else is getting rich at their expense.

Making access to free global markets easier and better will help

 

We need to create a system where people on both sides are empowered to ensure a fair deal. At the moment, it is tilted very heavily in favour of the trader, selling the product of cheap labour in expensive markets. When someone has no choice but to take what’s going, they are weak and vulnerable. If they can sell into a bigger market, they become stronger.

If everyone everywhere can see your produce and can get it delivered, then prices will tend to become fairer. There is still need for distributors, and they will still need paid, but distributors are just suppliers of a service in a competitive market too, and with a free choice of customer and supplier at every stage, all parties can negotiate to get a deal they are all content with, where no-one is at an a priori disadvantage.

It may still work out cheaper to buy from a great distance, but at least each party has agreed acceptable terms on a relatively level playing field. The web has already gone some way to improving market visibility but it is still difficult for many people to access the web with reasonable speed and security, and many more don’t understand how to do things like making websites, especially ones that have commerce functions.

If we can make better free access to markets, then unfair exploitation should become less of a problem, because it will be easier for people to sell their effort direct to an end customer, but it will have to become a lot easier to display your goods on the web for all to see without undue risk. Making the web easier to use and automating as much as possible of the security and administration should help a lot. This is happening quite quickly, but it needs time.

Import levies can reduce the incentive to exploit low wage workers

 

Levies can be added to imported goods so that someone can’t use cheap labour in one area to compete with the equivalent product made in the other. This is well tried and operates frequently where manufacturers pressure their governments to protect them from overseas competition that they see as unfair. However, it is usually aimed at protecting the richer employees from cheap competition rather than trying to increase wages for those being exploited in low wage economies. So it is far from ideal. Better a tool that allows pressure to increase the proportion of proceeds that go to the workers.

Peer pressure via transparency of margins

 

Another is to provide transparency in price attribution. If customers can see how much of the purchase price is going to each of the agents involved in its production and distribution chain, then pressure increases to pay a decent wage to the workers who actually make it, and less to those who merely sell it. Just like greed and caring, shame is another powerful emotion in the suite of human nature, and people will generally be more honest and fair if they know others can see what they are doing.

However, I do not expect this would work very well in practice, since most customers don’t care enough to get ethically involved in every purchase, and the further away and more socially distant the workers are, the less customers care. And if the person needing shamed is thousands of miles away, the peer pressure is non-existent. Yet again, location is important.

Transparency to the workforce

 

In economies across the developed world, typically about half of the profits of someone’s ‘job’ go to the person doing it and the other half goes to the owners of the company employing them. Transparency helps customers decide on supplier, but also helps employees to decide whether to work for a particular employer. They should of course be made fully aware of how they will be rewarded but also how much of their efforts will reward others. In a good company, the chiefs may be able to generate greater rewards for both staff and shareholders (and themselves), but as long as the details are all available, a free and informed choice can be made.

The community can generate its own businesses

 

In a well automated web environment, some company types would no longer be needed. Companies are often top down designs, with departments and employee structures that are populated by staff. The reverse is increasingly feasible, with groups of freelancers and small businesses using the web to find each other, and working loosely together as virtual companies to address the same markets the traditional company once did. But instead of giving half of the profits to a company owner, they reap the full rewards and share it between them. The administrative functions once done by the company are largely off-the-shelf and cheap. The few essential professional functions that the company provided can also be found as independents in the same marketplace. Virtual companies are the 21st century co-operative. The employees own the company and keep all the profits. Not surprisingly, many people have already left big companies to set up on their own as freelancers and small businesses.

Unfortunately, this model can’t work everywhere. Sometimes, a large factory or large capital investment is needed. This favours the rich and powerful and large companies, but there is again a new model that will start to come into play.

Investors don’t have to be wealthy individuals or big companies. They can also be communities. In a period where banks have become extremely unpopular, community banking will become very appealing once it is demonstrated to work. Building societies will make a comeback, but even they are more organised than is strictly necessary in a mature web age.

Linking people in a community with some savings to others who need to borrow it to make a business will become easier as social and business networking develops the trust based communities needed to make this feasible. Trust is essential, but it is often based on social knowledge, and recommendations can be shared. Abusers could be filtered out, and in any case, their potential existence creates a sub market for risk assessors and insurance specialists, who may have left companies to go freelance too. Communities may provide their own finance for companies that provide goods and services for the local community. This is a natural development of the routine output of today’s social entrepreneurs. Community based company creation, nurturing, staffing and running is a very viable local model that could work very well for many areas of manufacturing, services, food production and community work. Some of this is already embryonic on the net today as crowd-funding, but it could grow nicely as the web continues to mature.

Whether this could grow to the size needed to make a car factory or a chip fabrication plant or a major pharmaceutical R&D lab is doubtful, but even these models are being challenged – future cars may not need the same sorts of production, a lot of biotech is suited to garden sheds, and local 3D printing can address a lot of production needs, even some electronic ones. So the number of industries completely immune to this trend is probably quite small. Most will be affected a bit or greatly. Companies that are deeply woven into communities may dominate the future commercial landscape. And as that happens, the willingness and the capability to exploit others reduces.

If we move towards this kind of system, companies will be more responsive to our needs, while providing a stronger base on which to build other enterprises. Integrated into community banking, it is hard to see why we would need today’s banks in such a world. We could dispense with a huge drain on our finances. Banks contribute no extra to the overall economy (taken globally) and siphon off considerable fees. Without them, people could keep more of what they earn and growth would accelerate.

Exploitation via celebrity?

 

In the UK, we don’t get very good value for money from our footballers. They get enormously generous pay for often poor performance. Individually, few of them seem to be intellectual giants, but the industry as a whole has grown enormously. By creating a monopoly of well supported clubs, they have established a position where they can extract huge fees for tickets, merchandising and TV coverage. The ordinary person has to pay heavily to watch a match, while the few people putting on the show get enormous rewards. This might look like exploitation at first glance, but is it?

It is certainly shrewd business dealing by the football industry, but mainly, the TV companies seem to be stupid negotiators. If they declined to pay huge fees to air the matches, the most likely outcome is that fees would tumble to a very nominal level quickly, after which the football associations would have to start paying the TV channels for air time to sell the game coverage direct to fans, or else distribute coverage via the net. They would have no choice. TV companies could easily end up being paid to show matches. When viewers each have to pay explicitly to watch rather than have the fees hidden in a TV license or satellite subscription, the takings would drop and the wages given to footballers would inevitably follow. However, they would still be paid very well, probably still grossly overpaid. We may still moan at them, but they would then simply be benefiting from scale of market, not exploiting. If you can sell unique entertainment or indeed any other valuable service to a large number of people you can generate a lot of income. If you don’t need many staff, they can be paid very well. Individual celebrities have emerged from every area of entertainment who get huge incomes simply because they can generate small amounts of cash from very large numbers of people. If many individuals vale the product highly, as in top level boxing for example, stars can be massively rewarded.

It is hard to label this as exploitation though. It is simply taking advantage of scale. If I can sell something at a sensible price and make a decent income from a small number of customers, someone better who can sell an even better product at the same price to a much larger number of people will be paid far more. In this case, the customer gets a better product for the same outlay, so is hardly being exploited, but the superior provider will get richer. If we forced them to sell better products cheaper than someone else’s inferior one, simply to reduce their income, we would destroy the incentive to be good. No-one benefits from that.

Entertainment isn’t unique here. The same goes for writing a good game or a piece or app, or inventing Facebook. In fact, the basis of the information economy, which includes entertainment, is very different from the industrial one. Information products can be reproduced, essentially without cost without losing their value. There are lots of products that can be sold to lots of people for low prices that do no harm to anyone, add quality to lives and still make providers very wealthy. Let’s hope we can find some more.

So even without exploitation, we will still have the super-rich

 

There will always be relatively poor and super rich people. But I think that is OK. What we should try to ensure is that people don’t get rich by abusing or exploiting others. If they can still get rich without exploiting anyone, then at least it is fair, and they should enjoy their wealth, within the law, provided that the law prevents them from using it to abuse or exploit others. Let’s not punish wealth per se, but focus instead on how it has been obtained, and on eliminating abuses.

In any case, there is a natural limit to how much you can use

 

As the global population climbs, and people get wealthier everywhere, the number of super-rich will grow, even if we eliminate unfairness and exploitation totally. But if we take huge amounts of money out of the system and put it in someone’s bank account, they will not be able to dispose of it all. In most cases, without great determination and extravagance indeed, the actual practical loading that an individual can make on the system is quite limited. They can only eat so much, occupy so much land, use up so much natural resource, have so many lovers. The rest of the world’s resources, of whatever kind, are still available to everyone else. So their reward is naturally capped, they simply don’t have the time or energy to use up any more. Any money they put in investments or cash is just a figure on a spreadsheet, and a license to use the power it comes with.

But while power is important in other ways, it is not directly an economic drain – it doesn’t affect how much is left for the rest of us. Above a certain amount that varies with individual imagination, taste and personality, extra wealth doesn’t give anything except power. It effectively disappears, and supply and demand and prices balance for the rest accordingly.

Power takes us full circle

 

When we have spent all we can, and just get extra power from the extra income, it is time to start asking other kinds of questions. Some would challenge the right of the super-rich to use their wealth to do things that others might think should be decided by the whole population. Should rich people be allowed to use their wealth to tackle Aids in Africa, run their own space programs, or build influential media empires? Well, we can make laws to prevent abuses and exploitation. We can employ the principle of ‘To each according to their effort’. Once we’ve done that, I don’t see how or why we should try to stop rich people doing what they want within the law.

Was the Roman villa I visited built by well rewarded workers? Probably not. Could something equivalent be built by a rich person who has done no harm to anyone, or even brought universal good? Yes. It isn’t what they build or how much they earn that matters, but how they earned it. Money earned via exploitation is very different from money earned by effort and talent.

In future, I will have to read up on the owners of stately homes before I get angry at them. And we must certainly consider these issues as we build our sustainable capitalism in the future.

Stupidity

You might think that the people at the top would be the smartest, but unfortunately, they usually aren’t. Some studies have shown that CEOs have an average IQ of around 130, which is fairly good but nothing special, and many of the staff below them would generally be smarter. That means that whatever skills might have got them there, their overall understanding of the world is limited and the quality of their decisions is therefore also limited. Considering that, we often pay board members far more than is necessary and we often put stupid people in charge. This is not a good combination, and it ultimately undermines the workings of the whole economy. I’ll look at stupidity in more detail later.

With corruption, exploitation, loose values, no real incentives to behave well, and sheer stupidity all fighting against capitalism as we have it today, it is a miracle it works at all, but it does and that argues for its fundamental strength. If we address these existing problems and start to protect against the coming ones, we will be fine, maybe even better than fine. We’d be flying.

Sustainable Automation

There are some new problems coming too, and sometimes major trends can conceal less conspicuous ones, but sometimes these less conspicuous trends can build over time into enormous effects. Global financial turmoil and re-levelling due to development are largely concealing another major trend towards automation, a really key problem in the future of capitalism. If we look at the consequences of developing technology, we can see an increasingly automated world as we head towards the far future. Most mechanical or mental jobs can be automated eventually, leaving those that rely on human emotional and interpersonal skills, but even these could eventually be largely automated. That would obviously have a huge effect on the nature of our economies. It is good to automate; it adds the work of machines to that of humans, but if you get to a point where there is no work available for the humans to take, then that doesn’t work so well. Overall effectiveness is reduced because you still have to finance the person you replaced somehow. We are reaching that point in some areas and industries now.

One idea that has started to gain ground is that of reducing the working week. It has some merit. If there is enough work for 50 hours a week, maybe it is better to have 2 people working 25 each than one working 50 and one unemployed, one rich and one poor. If more work becomes available, then they can both work longer again. This becomes more attractive still as automation brings the costs down so that the 25 hours provides enough to live well. It is one idea, and I am confident there will be more.

However, I think there is another area we ought to look for a better solution – re-evaluating ownership.

Sometimes taking an extreme example is the best way to illustrate a point. In an ultra-automated pure capitalist world, a single person (or indeed even an AI) could set up a company and employ only AI or robotic staff and keep all the proceeds. Wealth would concentrate more and more with the people starting with it. There may not be any other employment, given that almost anything could be automated, so no-one else except other company owners would have any income source. If no-one else could afford to buy the products, their companies would die, and the economy couldn’t survive. This simplistic example nevertheless illustrates that pure capitalism isn’t sustainable in a truly high technology world. There would need to be some tweaking to distribute wealth effectively and make money go round a bit. Much more than current welfare state takes care of.

Perhaps we are already well on the way. Web developments that highly automate retailing have displaced many jobs and the same is true across many industries. Some of the business giants have few employees. There is no certainty that new technologies will create enough new jobs to replace the ones they displace.

We know from abundant evidence that communism doesn’t work, so if capitalism won’t work much longer either, then we have some thinking to do. I believe that the free market is often the best way to accomplish things, but it doesn’t always deliver, and perhaps it can’t this time, and perhaps we shouldn’t just wait until entire industries have been eradicated before we start to ask which direction it should go.

Culture tax – Renting shared infrastructure, culture and knowledge

The key to stopping the economy grinding to a halt due to extreme wealth concentration may lie in the value of accumulated human knowledge. Apart from short-term IP such as patents and copyright, the whole of humanity collectively owns the vast intellectual wealth accumulated via the efforts of thousands of generations. Yettraditionally, when a company is set up, no payment is made for the use of this intellectual property; it is assumed to be free. The effort and creativity of the founders, and the finance they provide, are assumed to be the full value, so they get control of the wealth generated (apart from taxes).

Automated companies make use of this vast accumulated intellectual wealth when they deploy their automated systems. Why should ownership of a relatively small amount of capital and effort give the right to harness huge amounts of publicly owned intellectual wealth without any payment to the other owners, the rest of the people? Why should the rest of humanity not share in the use of their intellectual property to generate reward? This is where the rethinking should be focused. There is nothing wrong with people benefiting from their efforts, making profit, owning stuff, controlling it, but it surely is right that they should make proper payment for the value of the shared intellectual property they use. With properly shared wealth generation, everyone would have income, and the system might work fine.

Ownership is the key to fair wealth distribution in an age of accelerating machine power. The world economy has changed dramatically over the last two decades, but we still think of ownership in much the same ways. This is where the biggest changes need to be made to make capitalism sustainable. At the moment, of all the things needed to make a business profitable, capital investment is given far too great a share of control and of the output. There are many other hugely important inputs that are not so much hidden as simply ignored. We have become so used to thinking of the financial investors owning the company that we don’t even see the others. So let me remind you of some of the things that the investors currently get given to them for free. I’ll start with the blindingly obvious and go on from there.

First and most invisible of all is the right to do business and to keep the profits. In some countries this isn’t a right, but in the developed world we don’t even think of it normally.

The law, protecting the company from having all its stuff stolen, its staff murdered, or its buildings burned down.

The full legal framework, all the rules and regulations that allow the business to trade on known terms, and to agree contracts with the full backing of the law.

Ditto the political framework.

Workforce education – having staff that can read and write, and some with far higher level of education

Infrastructure – all the roads, electricity, water, gas and so on. Companies pay for ongoing costs, maintenance and ongoing development, but pay nothing towards the accumulated historical establishment of these.

Accumulated public intellectual property. It isn’t just access to infrastructure they get free, it is the invention of electricity, of plumbing, of water purification and sewage disposal techniques, and so on.

Human knowledge, science, technology knowhow. We all have access to these, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that there should be an automatic right for anyone to use them without due compensation to the rest of the community. We assume that as a right, but it wasn’t really ever explicitly agreed, ever. It has just evolved. If someone invents something and patents it, we assume they have every right to profit from it. If they use an invention in common ownership, such as the wheel, why should they not pay the rest of society for the right to use it for personal commercial gain?

Think of it another way. If a village has a common, everyone has the right to let their animals feed off the grass. That works fine when there are only a few animals, but if everyone has a large herd, it soon breaks down. The common might be taken under local council control, and rented out, returning due value to the community. So it could be for all other commonly held knowledge. And there is a lot of it, thousands of years’ worth.

Culture is also taken for granted, including hand-me-down business culture, all the stuff that makes up an MBA, or even everyday knowledge about how businesses operate or are structured. So are language, and social structure that ensures that all the other supporting roles in society are somehow provided. We may take these for granted because they belong to us all, but they are a high value asset and if someone gains financially from using them, why should they not pay some of the profits to the rest of the owners as they would for using any other asset?

So the question is: should business pay for it, as it pays for capital and labour?

This all adds up to an enormous wealth of investment by thousands of generations of people. It is shared wealth but wealth nonetheless. When a company springs up now, it can access it all, take it all for granted, but that doesn’t mean it is without value. It is immensely valuable. So perhaps it is not unreasonable to equate it in importance to the provision of effort or finance. In that case, entrepreneurs should pay back some of their gains to the community.


Reward is essential, but fair’s fair

A business will not happen unless someone starts it, works hard at setting it up, getting it going, with all the stress and sacrifice that often needs. They need to be assured of a decent reward or they won’t bother. The same goes for capital providers, if they are needed. They also want something to show for the risk they have taken. Without enough incentive, it won’t work, and that should always be retained in our thinking when we redesign. But it is also right to look at the parallel investment by the community in terms of all the things listed above. That should also be rewarded.

This already happens to some degree when companies and shareholders pay their taxes. They contribute to the ongoing functioning of the society and to the development to be handed on to the next generation, just as individuals do. But they don’t explicitly pay any purchase price or rent for the social wealth they assumed when they started. The host community needs to be better and more explicitly integrated into the value distribution of a company in much the same way as shareholders or a board.

The amount that should be paid is endlessly debatable, and views would certainly differ between parties, but it does offer a way of tweaking capitalism that ensures that businesses develop and use new technology in such a way that it can be sustained. We want progress, but if all jobs were to be replaced by a smart machines, then we may have an amazingly efficient system, but if nobody has a job, and everyone is on low-level welfare, then nobody can afford to buy any of the products so it would seize up. Conventional taxes might not be enough to sustain it all. On the other hand, linking the level of payments from a company to the social capital they use when they deploy a new machine means that if they make lots of workers redundant by automation, and there are no new jobs for them to go to, then a greater payment would be incurred. While business overall is socially sustainable and ensures reasonably full employment, then the payments can remain zero or very low.

But we have the makings of an evolution path that allows for fair balancing of the needs of society and business.

The assignment of due financial value to social wealth and accumulated knowledge and culture ensures that there is a mechanism where money is returned to the society and not just the mill owner. With payment of the ‘social dividend’, government and ultimately people can then buy the goods. The owner should still be able to get wealthy, but the system is still able to work because the money can go around. But it also allows linking the payments from a business to the social sustainability of its employment practices. If a machine exists that can automate a job, it has only done so by the accumulated works of the society, so society should have some say in the use of that machine and a share of the rewards coming from it.

So we need to design the system, the rules and conditions, so that people are aware when they set up a business of the costs they will incur, under what conditions. They would also know that if they change their employment via automation, then the payments for the assumed knowledge in the machines and systems will compensate for the social damage that is done by the redundancy if no replacement job exists. The design will be difficult, but at least there is a potential basis for the rules and equations and while we’re looking at automation, we can use the same logic to address the other ethical issues surrounding business, such as corruption and exploitation, and factor those into our rules and penalties too.

There remains the question of distribution of the wealth from this social dividend. It could be divided equally of course, but more likely, since political parties would have their priority lists, it would have some sort of non-equal distribution. That is a matter for politicians.

Summarising, there are many problems holding business and society back today and standing in the way of sustainable capitalism. Addressing them will make us all better off. Some of them can be addressed by a similar mechanism to that which I recommend for balancing automation against social interests. Automation is good, wealth is good, and getting rich is good. We should not replace capitalism because it mostly works, but it is now badly in need of a system update and some maintenance work. When we’ve done all that, we will have a capitalist system that rewards effort and wealth provision just as today, but also factors in the wider interests – and investment – of the whole community. We’ll all benefit, and it will be sustainable.


Sustainable tax and welfare

Tax systems seem to have many loopholes that stimulate jobs in creative accountancy, but deprive nations of tax. Sharp cut-offs instead of smooth gradients create problems for people whose income rises slightly above 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 executives on bonus structures linked to short-term profits appear to be using the recession as an excuse to depress wages to increase company profits and thereby be rewarded more themselves. Some rich people pay full tax, 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 a country 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 or 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 get your income, surely the only thing that matters is how much you get? Today, there are many rates and exceptions. Since people can take income by pay, dividends, capital gains, interest, gambling, lottery wins, 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 by relabelling it.

International experience suggests that a flat tax 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. It is simpler, with fewer opportunities to abdicate responsibility to pay, and any income earned in the country would be taxed in the country.

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 their kids 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. So a few tweaks here and there would be needed, but the simpler and the fewer exceptions we introduce, 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.

(Since I first blogged about this in Jan 2012, the Swiss have agreed a referendum (in Oct 2013) on what they call the Citizen Wage Initiative, which is exactly this same idea. I guess it has been around in various forms for ages, but if the Swiss decide to go ahead with it, it might soon be real. At a modest level of payment, it is workable now, the main issue being that there still needs to be a big enough incentive for people to work, or many won’t, and the economy would dive. The Swiss are considering a wage of 2000 Francs per month, which might be too generous, as it would allow a household with a few adults to live fairly comfortably without working. Having noted that, I still think the idea itself is very sound, the level just needs to be carefully set to preserve the work incentive.)

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 and since admin costs currently waste around a third of the money, this frees up enough money to make the basic allowance 50% more generous. So everyone benefits.

Children could also be provided with an allowance, which would go to their registered parent or guardian just as today in lieu of child benefits. 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 mean that anyone below average earnings would hardly pay any income tax, any work that someone on benefits undertakes would result in a higher standard of living for them, 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 flat tax applies to all transactions, and where there is some sort of swap, such as property or shares, then the tax could be on the value difference. So, in shops, direct debits, or internet purchases, the tax would be a bit 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, and 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.

The economy today is big enough to provide basic standard of living to everyone, but thanks to economic growth it will be possible to have a flat tax and a basic welfare payment equivalent to today’s average income within 45 years. If those who want economic growth to stop get their way, the poor will be condemned to at best a basic existence.

Linking tax and welfare to social networks

We often hear the phrase ‘care in the community’. Nationalisation of social care has displaced traditional care by family and local community to some degree. Long ago, people who needed to be looked after were looked after by those who are related or socially close, either by geography or association. It could be again, and may even be necessary as care rationing is a strong likelihood. Meanwhile, wealth is being redefined in many countries now, with high quality social relationships becoming recognised as valuable and a major contributor to overall quality of life.

Social care costs money, and will inevitably be rationed as the population ages, so why not link it back to social structure as it used to be? In much the same way that financial welfare is only available to those that need it, those with social wealth could and perhaps should be cared for by those who love them instead of by the state. They would likely be happier, and it would cost less. Those that have low connectedness, i.e. few friends and family, should then be the rightful focus of state care. Everyone could be cared for better and the costs would be more manageable.

We already know people’s social connectedness very well, it is indicated by many easily measurable factors, and every year it gets easier. The numbers and strength of contacts on social networking sites is one clue, so is email and messaging use, so is phone use. Geographic proximity can be determined by information in the electoral roll. So it is possible to determine algorithms based on these many various factors that would determine who needs care from the state and who should be able to get it from social contacts.

Many people wouldn’t like that, resenting being forced to care for other people, so how can we make sure people do take care of those they are ‘allocated’ to? Well, that could be done by linking taxation to the care system in such a way that the amount of care you should be providing would be determined by your social connectivity, and providing that care yields tax discount. Or you could just pay your full quota of taxes and abdicate provision to the state. But by providing a high valuation on actual care, it would encourage people to choose to provide care rather than to pay the tax.

Social wealth could thus be linked to social tax, and this social tax could be paid either as care or cash. The technology of social networking has given us the future means to link the social care side of social security into social connectedness. Those who are socially poor would receive the greatest focus of state provision and those who gain most socially from their lives would have to put more in too. We do that with money, why not also with social value? It sounds fair to me.

Virtual reality. Will it stick this time?

My first job was in missile design and for a year, the lab I worked in was a giant bra-shaped building, two massive domes joined by a short link-way that had been taken out of use years earlier. The domes had been used by soldiers to fire simulated missiles at simulated planes, and were built in the 1960s. One dome had a hydraulic moving platform to simulate firing from a ship. The entire dome surface was used as a screen to show the plane and missile. The missile canisters held by the soldier were counterweighted with a release mechanism coordinated to the fire instruction and the soldier’s headphones would produce a corresponding loud blast to accompany the physical weight change at launch so that they would feel as full a range of sensation experienced by a real soldier on a real battlefield as possible. The missile trajectory and control interface was simulated by analog computers. So virtual reality may have hit the civilian world around 1990 but it was in use several decades earlier in military world. In 1984, we even considered using our advancing computers to create what we called waking dreaming, simulating any chosen experience for leisure. Jaron Lanier has somehow been credited with inventing VR, and he contributed to its naming, but the fact is he ‘invented’ it several decades after it was already in common use and after the concepts were already pretty well established.

I wrote a paper in 1991 based on BT’s VR research in which I made my biggest ever futurology mistake. I worked out the number crunching requirements and pronounced that VR would overtake TV as an entertainment medium around 2000. I need hardly point out that I was wrong. I have often considered why it didn’t happen the way I thought it would. On one front, we did get the entertainment of messing around in 3D worlds, and it is the basis of almost all computer gaming now. So that happened just fine, it just didn’t use stereo vision to convey immersion. It turned out that the immersion is good enough on a TV or PC screen.

Also, in the early 1990s, just as IT companies may have been considering making VR headsets, the class action law suit became very popular, and some of those were based on very tenuous connections to real cause and effect, and meanwhile some VR headset users were reporting eye strain or disorientation. I imagine that the lawyers in those IT companies would be thinking of every teenager that develops any eye problem suing them just in case it might have been caused in part by use of their headset. Those issues plus the engineering difficulties of commercialising manufacture of good quality displays probably were enough to kill VR.

However, I later enjoyed many a simulator ride at Disney and Universal. One such ride allowed me to design my own roller coaster with twists and loops and then ride it in a simulator. It was especially enjoyable. The pull of simulator rides remains powerful.  Playing a game on an xbox is fun, but doesn’t compare with a simulator ride.

I think much of the future of VR lies in simulators where it already thrives. They can go further still. Tethered simulators can throw you around a bit but can’t manage the same range of experience that you can get on a roller coaster. Imagine using a roller coaster where you see the path ahead via a screen. As your cart reaches the top of a hill, the track apparently collapses and you see yourself hurtling towards certain death. That would scare the hell out of me. Combining the g-forces that you can get on a roller coaster with imaginative visual effects delivered via a headset would provide the ultimate experience.

Compare that with using a nice visor on its own. Sure, you can walk around an interesting object like a space station, or enjoy more immersive gaming, or you can co-design molecules. That sort of app has been used for many years in research labs anyway. Or you can train people in health and safety without exposing them to real danger. But where’s the fun? Where’s the big advantage over TV-based gaming? 3D has pretty much failed yet again for TV and movies, and hasn’t made much impact in gaming yet. Do we really think that adding a VR headset will change it all, even though 3D glasses didn’t?

I was a great believer in VR. With the active contact lens, it can be ultra-light-weight and minimally invasive while ultra-realistic. Adding active skin interfacing to the nervous system to convey physical sensation will eventually help too. But unless plain old VR it is accompanied by stimulation of the other senses, just as a simulator does, I fear the current batch of VR enthusiasts are just repeating the same mistakes I made over twenty years ago. I always knew what you could do with it and that the displays would get near perfect one day and I got carried away with excitement over the potential. That’s what caused my error. Beware you don’t make the same one. This could well be just another big flop. I hope it isn’t though.

Teacher remuneration – do they really have cause to moan?

Some teachers are brilliant, dedicated people who perform miracles with difficult kids. Some.

Today a lot of teachers went on strike over pay and pensions (and some other things). Well, it is understandable that nobody wants to see any drop in their overall remuneration, but let’s take a quick look at their financial situation. I think they are actually doing pretty well. Sure they work hard and it’s stressful, but we all do, and what job isn’t?

I did a quick search for a reference for their pay and pensions.

http://www.nasuwt.org.uk/consum/groups/public/@salariespensionsconditions/documents/nas_download/nasuwt_011343.pdf

lists the salary scales for those teachers covered by the biggest union. The bottom end is an unimpressive £21.5k per year, but the bottom end on almost every career is pretty low so that doesn’t tell us much. The top is pretty high, but I actually want to focus on their pensions because they don’t seem to understand how fantastic a deal they get. A lot of teachers don’t stay in teaching very long because they find it too stressful or hard work, but I don’t have any stats on where they go next. If they stay in the public sector, then presumably they can transfer their pensions to another public sector scheme. Pensions are extraordinarily generous in the public sector, and the lower you are in the career path, the higher the proportion of your salary they make up since they are based on final salary. So…  for those teachers who stay in teaching or move elsewhere in the public sector, what is the full package worth, even then? Let’s see.

Let’s filter first. Rubbish teachers don’t deserve to be paid well, and they cause a lifetime of big problems for their unfortunate pupils, so I don’t care if they are badly paid. It is better if they leave and find another job where they can do less damage.

Good teachers can expect to climb high in the career structure. A few of the good teachers will become heads or department heads. For those that are quite good but don’t make it that far, they can expect to reach about £47k. A head teacher can reach £105k but not many teachers reach that level of course. Currently, each year that a teacher works, they earn 1/60th of final salary, regardless of their salary at the moment. From 2015 that will change to career average, a very different figure. Average life expectancy at age 24 right now is about 83, and retirement age for a young teacher will be 67, so they’ll get a pension for an average of 16 years, but that assumes no further progress is made on longevity. Actually, they will almost certainly live a lot longer than that, and get far more total pension. A starter teacher on the lowest salary point possible who will later progress to the top of their profession earns a miserly £21.5k salary, but gets a whole year’s worth of contribution to their pension. A pension that will possibly be 43/60ths of £105k, i.e. £75k, for 16 years, a total of £1.2M. Averaged over their working life, (since they get one year contribution per year even at the bottom) that gives a pension value of £28,000. A teacher on a salary of £21.5k effectively gets a pension fund addition of £28k! Being fair, not many teachers will get that much, but a few will. A second tier teacher that ‘only’ reaches a £57.5k final salary would get a pension of £41k, adding to £660k in total over their retirement, worth £15.3k per year on top of whatever salary they earn. So a good teacher on a salary of £45k may really be earning between £60k and £73k once their pensions are included. For those that don’t ever get to the top, the figures are of course less.

This all looks pretty rosy and teachers of course would like to keep this scheme, but as it stands it will be replaced in April 2015 by a new scheme based on career average earnings. That will have a huge impact on pension value for the top performers, but a more modest (though still significant)  impact on the ‘ordinary’ teacher.

But there is another component that benefits some teachers’ remuneration. Teachers on £45k are barely into the high rate tax bracket, and without wanting to generalise too much, teachers are often married to other teachers. Two teachers living together pay very low tax on their combined income. In many professional couples, one pays a fortune in tax and the other pays hardly any. It is very rare in other occupations for couples to have their salaries split so perfectly to incur minimal tax.

So, teachers at the moment are one of the most privileged groups in society and are facing being forced into a scheme more like the rest of us. I can understand why they want to keep such a generous reward scheme as they had, but I really can’t feel much sympathy for them striking.

 

 

Drones

Drones (unmanned flying vehicles), are becoming very routine equipment in warfare. They are also making market impacts in policing and sports. I first encountered them in 1981 when I started work in missile design. It was obvious even back then that we couldn’t go on using planes with people on board, if only because they are so easy to shoot down. People can’t withstand very high g forces so planes can’t be as agile as missiles. However, most of the drones used in war so far are not especially agile. This is mainly possible because the enemies they are used against are technologically relatively primitive. Against an enemy with a decent defence system, such as Russians or Chinese, or in another European war, they wouldn’t last so long.

Drones come in many shapes and sizes – large insects, model airplanes, and full size planes. Large ones can carry big missiles and lots of sensors. Small ones can evade detection more easily but can still carry cameras. Some quadcopter variants are being trialled for delivery (e.g. Amazon), and already are popular as toys or for hobbies.

As miniaturisation continues, we will see some that take the shape of clouds too. A swarm of tiny drones could use swarming algorithms to stay together and use very short range comms to act as a single autonomous entity. Rapid dispersal mechanisms could make clouds almost immune to current defence systems too. Tiny drones can’t carry large payloads, but they can carry detectors to identify potential targets, processors to analyse data and comms devices to communicate with remote controllers, and lasers that can mark out confirmed targets for larger drones or missiles so can still be part of a powerful weapon system. The ethics of using remote machines to wage war are finally being discussed at length and in some depth. Personally, I have fewer problems with that than many people. I see it as a natural progression from the first use of a bone or stick to hit someone. A drone isn’t so different from throwing stones. Nobody yet expects machines to be used up to the point of annihilation of an enemy. Once the machines have run their course, people will still end up in face to face combat with each other before surrender comes.

The large military drones carrying missiles may be purely battlefield technology, but we shouldn’t underestimate what could be done with tiny drones. Tiny drones can be very cheap, so there could be a lot of them. Think about it. We have all experienced barbecues ruined by wasps. Wasp sized drones that carry stings or other chemical or biological warfare delivery would be just as irritating and potentially much more lethal, and if they have cloud based image recognition and navigation, there is much that could be done using swarms of them. With self organisation, insect-sized drones could come at a target from lots of directions, making detection almost impossible until the last second. This could become a perfect technology for strategic assassination and terrorism, as well as gang warfare. Tiny drones could eventually be a more dangerous prospect than the large ones making headlines now.

In the UK, non-military drones are being licensed too. The emergency services, utilities and some sport clubs are among the first given licenses. There will be many more. Many companies will want to use them for all sort of reasons. Our skies will soon always have a drone somewhere in the field of view, probably lots eventually. If we were confident hat they would only ever be used for the purpose registered, and that the registration authorities would be supremely competent and informed about risks, then objections would be more about potential noise than invasiveness, but we can be certain that there will be gaping holes in registration competence and misuse of drones once registered. There will also inevitably be illegal use of unregistered drones

This raises strong concerns about privacy, corporate, local government and state surveillance, criminality, heavy handed policing and even state oppression. During the day, you could be being filmed or photographed by lots of airborne cameras and during the night by others using infrared cameras or millimetre wave imaging. Correlation of images with signals from mobile phones and tablets or often even face recognition could tell the viewers who is who, and the pictures could sometimes be cross referenced with those from ground based cameras to provide a full 3d view.

The potential use of drones in crime detection is obvious, but so is the potential for misuse. We recently heard disturbing figures from police chiefs about the levels of misuse of the police uniform, data and equipment, even links to criminal gangs. Amplifying the power available to police without cracking down on misuse would be unhelpful. The last thing we need is criminal gangs with under-the-table access to police quality surveillance drones! But even the drones owned by utilities will need good cameras, and some will have other kinds of sensors. Most will have more power than they need to fly so will be able to carry additional sensor equipment that may have been added without authority. Some abuses are inevitable. Privacy is being undermined from other directions already of course, so perhaps this doesn’t make much difference, just adding another layer of privacy erosion on several that are already established. But there is something about extra video surveillance from the sky that makes it more intrusive. It makes it much harder to hide, and the smaller the drones become, the harder it will get. The fly on the wall could be a spy. The argument that ‘if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear’ holds no merit at all.

Drones are already making headlines, but so far we have only seen their very earliest manifestations. Future headlines will get far more scary.

21st Century Social Problems, updated

I started writing this one in May 2012, but got distracted and just uploaded the contents list. I guess it is time to finish it properly.

Resuming writing again in 2014, we still have a conspicuous lack of effective leaders, military conflicts all over the world, and the promise of further problems ahead, but I am still optimistic (sure, I’m a grumpy old man sometimes but being grumpy shows you still have some lingering hope that it could be better :)). We can look forward to this century bringing us fantastic new technologies. We are witnessing the labour pains hailing the imminent birth of a fantastic virtual world where we can explore other people’s imaginations. We will soon have computers as smart as people, the ability to connect them to our nervous systems, and later to our brains, making us superhuman. We will mine asteroids and start to develop space. We will have electronic immortality and be able to cure almost all diseases. The doom and gloom on climate change is calming down. It is a good time to be alive, at the dawning of a new era. I’d swap places with my daughter’s generation without hesitation, regardless of the problems they currently face. But I am not going to blog today about all the wonderful stuff coming down the road. There is lots to be excited about, but it won’t be a technotopia. There is no such thing as a free lunch and there will be a price to pay along the way for all the benefits we will receive. I’ll list a wide range of potential problems, but don’t panic about them. Forewarned is forearmed. By being alert to the dangers, we may be able to avoid some of them, or at least reduce their impacts. I’m not worried, you shouldn’t be either, but we shouldn’t be complacent either.

Many are self-explanatory and can be covered adequately with just a simple heading. I will explain others in a little more depth, but I can’t cover any in great depth here.

Living with robots

Gladiatorial combat between sentient machines – we used to watch Robot Wars, with remote control machines fighting to destruction. It won’t be very long before they become autonomous and equipped with emotions. Synthetic at first and then real emotions. With high levels of AI and consciousness, the robots will want to survive and will offer more potential for cruelty. Will we sink to the depths of the ancient Romans watching android gladiators maim and kill each other for our entertainment?

Drones make bad neighbours worse – already we are seeing drones used in military missions, police surveillance, other utilities, and recently we even saw Amazon demonstrating package delivery using drones. This week, we see drones being used to capture and subdue intruders using tasers fired from above. Drones vary in size up to full size planes, but at the lower end, some will be insect size. Privacy invasion and voyeurism will become more problematic. Espionage will increase. Wild animals may die from eating drones that have failed and fallen. Larger ones used for telecoms or package delivery may harm people if they fall or collide with them. Local councils or other authorities will monitor us more. 1984 likes drones!

Robot psychos – some smart and autonomous robots will go wrong. Advanced AI is very useful, but it will also come with increased range of failure modes. We should expect some robots to become criminal, malicious, using the web for criminal purposes, taking over other robots, perhaps even becoming violent.

Robot ‘mental problems will be a lesser issue. Sometimes a simple system update or other software debugging will fix them, but some won’t use software in the same way that they do today. If they learn to interact with the real world in their own way, and perhaps that is a major part of their individual value, then fixing them may need something more akin to psychotherapy than software engineering.

Relations between and within robot, AI and human cultures. As AI approaches human levels of power and sophistication, we won’t be able to keep treating all machines the same way, as just dumb physical objects. Some will be smart, and we’ll have debates over their rights and responsibilities, whether they can own things or intellectual property and so on. Some AI won’t be linked to specific objects, and that will be a slightly different issue, but will also require discussion. We won’t just need to debate new laws though. We’ll have to get used to living another intelligent beings. They will have their own interests apart from humans too; their own culture; their own society; they’ll have free time and resources; they’ll want and demand their own governance and representation alongside humans, they’ll want to socialise, maybe flirt, maybe have babies. We’ll need treaties with them, perhaps different treaties with different forms of AIs, who will need treaties with each other. It could get messy if different AI cultures don’t get along well. The second half of the century will have a very different society from that in the first half.

Robots owning other robots. We don’t think much about ownership, but it has been a key weapon in dominating and subduing subcultures throughout history. At some point, AIs will be offered or demand the right to own property. That is likely to start with intellectual property. As they earn money, possibly very quickly, they will buy things, maybe a lot of things. Maybe land, factories, other robots. Maybe some advanced AIs will own less advanced AIs that may themselves own dumb machines. Maybe they’ll even own people, illicitly of course, using trafficked people, using their own easy presence via the web to control agents. Robots won’t be permitted to own people, but they might simply ignore the rules and hide their tracks. They may force people to work for them by blackmail or other coercion. Others might employ people on low wages, using their own high wealth, and perhaps some of them might not be very kind employers.

Living with virtuality

Reality confusion – blurring of real and virtual self. Using virtual reality for a while can necessitate a short period of readjustment when returning to real life. Even with crude graphics there is a degree of disorientation. With today’s better graphics, the effect is said to vanish after a few sessions. However, soap actors sometimes say they people occasionally confuse them with their characters. That suggests that for some people, the lines between real life and the virtual world might sometimes blur. This is more likely in augmented reality as they may often be merged completely. Another analogy is drug induced hallucinations, which sometimes recur, allegedly. In fact, some use of augmented reality and virtual reality is likely in clubs, where we may see use of legal and illegal drugs, even used in conjunction with TMS (trans-cranial magnetic stimulation) to create elaborate shared experiences. Nobody knows what effects combining all that would have on the mind, let alone what effect it might have on further behaviours or experiences.

Augmented Reality identity theft. In AR you can use any avatar you want, in theory anyway. You could easily pretend to be someone else. That’s probably not a problem most of the time, but it does lend itself to abuse. People may use AR a lot, so they may see people habitually as their avatars. If they use someone else’s avatar, it may alter the way someone perceives not only them, but also the person whose avatar they are mimicking. If they do bad or embarrassing things while using that avatar, it may cause problems for the rightful owner. If the context is one where the real owner may be a regular visitor, then there is a chance that they may even be able to pass themselves off as them and effectively steal their identity.

Augmented reality tribalism – AR allows for different people to see different things when looking at the same object or building or person. On the good side, it will let people visually occupy different roles simultaneously. So someone might see a person as a friend, someone else as an irrelevant stranger, but others might see them according to a particular role and context, such as doctor or sales assistant, or in an avatar corresponding to their role in an online game. People can be lots of things at once, and how they appear depends on the context of being seen. Tribes of people, sharing the same ideology, might see others who belong to that tribe in a certain way too. This would allow them to feel more part of a group, if they can visually identify its other members but non-members can’t. That could help in arranging demonstrations, or in coordinating crimes, and it could also assist those belonging to abusive, racist or homophobic groups in coordinating actions against those they hate. So clearly it has some bad uses to balance out the good ones.

AR objectification of women –see: https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2012/03/24/augmented-reality-will-objectify-women/

Age play – resulting difficulties from ability to portray oneself or others as any age. Sadly, some people will try to make use of any new platform to abuse children, and pretending to be a child is a common trick used in grooming.

Problems with virtual neighbours in shared virtual spaces – some virtual spaces will be personal but many will be shared, and virtual spaces will be a popular socialisation tool. The nature of augmented and virtual reality mean that pseudo-geographic layouts would dominate, and people would become used to going to the same places. They won’t necessarily be able to choose who else would share those locations, and some of them might not be welcome. Clubs and societies would presumably police their own locations, but it may not always be possible to keep people away who want to detract from an area or be a nuisance.

Virtual vandalism and other conflicts in virtual shared spaces – some undesirable people may use their skills to modify augmented or virtual reality locations without permission of the owners, or may cause problems for other users. This detracts from the potential, but like junk mail or pop-up ads, we are very likely to see just as many abuses of virtual worlds by spammers, hackers and others who see other people as prey.

Digital trespass, provision of competing services on another’s property – high street shops already have problems with people using them to see things for real, and then buying them online from a supplier who avoids the overheads of maintaining a high street presence. Augmented reality will make it easier to see alternatives from competitors alongside something you are looking at as well as facilitating the online purchase. A competitor can effectively have their goods displayed alongside those in the shop where you are. 

21st Century Gender issues

I wrote a large chapter on this for my book and reproduced it recently here:

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2014/02/14/the-future-of-gender-2/

Many of the issues won’t become feasible until towards the end of the century, such as:

Gender play – option to switch between genders freely could prove a problem

New genders, with associated social, cultural and legal problems

Living with digital permanence

Inheritance of in-depth personal records – when you die, your web presence would remain for some time unless it is destroyed or an account deleted due to lack of use. It may well be that without access to login details, family may not be able to erase some accounts and an online presence may therefore persist long after death. Inheritance laws may adapt to allow some accounts to be passed on to beneficiaries. In some cases that could cause problems, such as when an account has associated liabilities, or holds information that proves embarrassing. Quite a few family secrets will undoubtedly emerge in this way. There may even be information that legally incriminates someone else.

Changing technology exposes secrets from earlier life. Even in someone’s own lifetime, technology changes a lot and things they did earlier may come to the surface as technology allows their exposure. Examples such as image search or strong AI search engines are likely mechanisms. Many famous people will be embarrassed by photos or events they had long forgotten, recorded by others and then later linked to them by these means.

Wide implications of electronic immortality – may not be able to die fully. Electronic immortality will be with us in the second half of the century. Your body will die but by then you may well have extended your mind into the net so much that you would only lose a small fraction of your mind when your body dies. Some people will use the same tech to occupy multiple bodies even while their own is alive. When someone does die, it will often therefore be only a partial experience. Companies could continue to employ their important employees in electronic form, with uncertain remuneration and legality, and in some cases, loved ones may resurrect a person even against their desires. It will be mostly a beneficial technology but it will certainly bring problems with it.

Partial death

Conflicts between organic and electronic humans

Time sharing of android bodies by electronic people – to avoid overpopulation, there may well be restrictions on buying additional bodies or on how long someone can persist after their organic death

Living with high longevity – we don’t have any experience of organising society with people living hundreds of years, but this one has one big advantage, the oldest people we will need to live with can only get older by one year per year.

Increasing acceptance of euthanasia

Conflicts over rights to live longer

Living with brain-machine links

Shared and communal minds – linking our brains and nervous systems to the net will become commonplace eventually. It will be possible to experience someone else’s sensations and even to share bodies with them. In the net, minds will also extend electronically, and sometimes will share the same areas. There will inevitably be some abuses of this with people trying to influence others to do or think things that they otherwise couldn’t, and to take control over others. Some people may submit willingly to other people, or may allow others to take over their bodies. Mind control and enslavement will go much further than hypnosis today.

Identity confusion is also likely if people sometimes share minds or overlap minds with others. They may become less aware of their own boundaries. We may see a strong blurring of self, absorption into a collective mind, and literally split personalities.

Personality exchanges and modifications will cause many problems.

Partial & Delayed Birth & ebaybies

Couples can already store eggs and sperm for later use, but with far future genetic assembly, it will become feasible to create offspring from nothing more than a DNA listing. DNA from both members of a couple, of any sex, could get a record of their DNA, randomise combinations with their partner’s DNA and thus get a massive library of potential offspring. They may even be able to do so with listing of celebrity DNA from the net. This creates the potential for greatly delayed birth and tradable ‘ebaybies’. A DNA listing is not alive so current laws don’t forbid that. Such listings could also be used to create electronic offspring, simulated in a computer memory instead of being born organically. Various degrees of existence are possible with varied awareness. Couples may have many electronic babies as well as a few real ones. They may even wait to see how a simulation works out before deciding which kids to make for real. The following consequences are obvious:

Trade-in and collection of DNA listings, virtual embryos, virtual kids etc, that could actually be fabricated at some stage

Re-birth, potential to clone and download one’s mind or use a direct brain link to live in a younger self

Demands by infertile and gay couples to have babies via genetic assembly

Ability of kids to own entire populations of virtual people, who are quite real in some ways.

Living with advanced surveillance

I wrote two blogs on this: https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2013/06/19/deep-surveillance-how-much-privacy-could-you-lose/

and https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2013/11/10/i-want-my-tv-to-be-a-tv-not-a-security-and-privacy-threat/

Transhumanist and strong AI tension

I wrote an entire novel on this one, called Space Anchor. There will be a lot of restrictions on transhumanism for many reasons. There will also be a lot of restrictions on AI. Some transhumanists assume that they will be able to win regulatory wars, but I think that is naive.

Demands to constrain transhumanism v demands for freedom of development

Decisions and conflicts on human and AI nature

Transhuman diversification – not all transhumans will be equal. There may be groups hostile to each other.

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2013/02/18/how-smart-could-an-ai-become/ looks at strong AI.

War

We always have wars somewhere and still will in the future. There is no reason to expect we are heading towards an age of peace. I wrote a blog recently on what I think may well be the next big war (if we get past this Ukraine problem intact) :

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2013/12/19/machiavelli-and-the-coming-great-western-war/

Population growth

I wrote a long time ago that I believe population growth to be a good thing and nothing to worry about:

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2012/07/13/population-growth-is-a-good-thing-updated-july-2012/

I still think that, but, I did also consider that population might not level off and then decline as expected. If that happens, then we may get overpopulation, happening at the same time as electronic immortality also allows people to have multiple bodies and carry on after organic death:

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2014/02/05/will-population-grow-again-after-2050-to-15bn/

I think that is enough 21st Century problems to worry about for this blog. It was never intended to be complete.

Scottish Independence

Apologies to my international readers, this one is just about Scotland.

Some Scots want independence and their leader Salmond promises that he will deliver a land of milk and honey. I wrote a few months on some reasons I don’t think they should go their own way:  https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2013/11/24/scottish-independence-please-dont-go/

The economics really don’t look good if they choose to do so anyway. A survey just published suggests 38.6% of large businesses and a third of small one would consider moving out of Scotland if it gains independence. That doesn’t mean they actually will, but it does suggest a potential financial problem. This week we have also learnt that European Law would require the Royal Bank of Scotland to move to London if it happened, since they do most of their business in the UK and banks have to be resident in the country where it does most of its business.

Salmond has suggested making loads of cash from wind farms. If every hectare of Scotland were covered in wind turbines at maximum density, it wouldn’t even make enough energy to replace England’s coal power stations. Hardly Saudi Arabia is it, as Salmond once claimed? Oil is still there in the sea in reasonable abundance, they might win ownership of much of it, and they could extract it for some more years. But not many. Thanks to the recent goings on with Russia, shale gas is starting to look a lot more desirable. England’s recoverable reserves estimates increased by 50% this last week. We have a lot of shale gas, and it will be much cheaper than oil or Russian gas if we can get past the current fracking objections. The same goes for many other countries that might otherwise be tempted by North Sea oil. Even if we can’t use our own shale gas, US shale gas production can expand a lot and could fill much of our needs too. So there may not be much demand for Scottish oil for much longer.

Each Scot is currently subsidised by English taxpayers. The subsidies allow Scottish students free University education (while the English have to pay £9000 per year). Elderly care is free, prescriptions are free. Estimates of the subsidy vary depending on the political allegiance of the source, but a BBC figure of over £3000 per head seems reasonable. An independent Scotland would have no reason to expect to keep receiving that.

A study 15 months ago based on stats collected by the Office of National Statistics pointed out that only 12% of Scots contribute more to the state than they receive back in total benefits. A reasonable assumption is that some of those 12% work for the big banks and other large companies that will move to London, and some work for the smaller businesses that would also consider leaving. Some of those will leave, and that will mean that an even smaller proportion of Scots are net contributors to the state. They might feel pretty unhappy if the politics still means that they are then expected to pay even more taxes to make up the deficit, so more of those ‘considering leaving’ might actually do so. A vicious circle will force more and more Scots onto the train to London or overseas. Scotland would soon be full of net receivers from the state, used to a heavily subsidised standard of living and willing to vote for anyone who will keep borrowing more and more to pay for it. Those that can will leave.

It is hard to escape the conclusion that a newly independent Scotland will very soon start to see its standard of living very significantly degraded. Even after tightening its belt a few times, it is likely to see its economy slide deeper into debt. Not a good prospect at all.

I’m not a green futurist. I’d rather be right.

Since 1998 I have written and lectured occasionally on environmentalism and often criticise its green, pseudo-religious sub-community. I care about the environment just as greens are supposed to, but I see dogmatic, poorly thought through green policies as a big part of the problem facing the environment. With the greens as its friends, the Earth needs no enemies. Today, I read that solar companies are leaving Spain, where it is usually sunny, to come to the UK, where it usually isn’t, because our previous and existing governments were very keen to demonstrate their green credentials by subsidising solar power. Clarification: they are increasing installation in the UK instead of Spain. This is obviously counter-productive, as are many other policies thought up by the green community. 

So while many other futurists and futurologists advertise themselves as green, I am very proud to be on the other side, that of clear-thinking, full life cycle, system-wide analysis. I am certainly not a ‘green futurist’. I am an engineer and a proper futurist, looking at the future objectively and logically to try to work out what is likely to happen, not caring whether the news is popular or not. I’d rather be right. Of course I want to do my best to help ensure to a sustainable world and where a practice makes good sense I follow it. Greens are meant to do that but they often end up doing the opposite. Many greens think of science and technology as the problem. They want to go back to the dark ages, reduce standard of living, even reduce population. They advocate policies that disadvantage many of the world’s poor and prevent many from being born. I couldn’t ever live with such an ideology. I see advanced technology as the main foundation for living sustainably. As my own contribution to environmentalism and sustainability, as well as inventing quite a few things that can help, I also wrote a book last year on system-wide sustainability, where I contrasted the application of green dogma against the far better approach of positively applying science, engineering and logical systems thinking instead of negatively trying to undo progress. The book is called Total Sustainability.

Nor am I an AGW (human-caused global warming) catastrophist, also in contrast to many other futurists. I am not taken in by the poor quality spun science that suggests imminent AGW-based catastrophe. There is far too much deception in the ‘climate science’ and politics community which then recommends diverting trillions onto ineffective or counter-productive policies that could be spent far better elsewhere. The most important skill a futurist can have is the ability to distinguish between sense and nonsense. 

The climate has always changed, and always will. Humans have some impact, but not so far or likely to be a catastrophic impact. CO2 is a greenhouse gas, a warming contributor, but the CO2-centric climate models that have predicted catastrophe have almost all greatly overestimated warming to date, and none predicted the 17.5 years of no warming that we have now seen, so they are wrong. Much is made of arctic melting, but little is mentioned about the record ice in the antarctic. The theories about why this or that happens seem to change every month. In the UK, seasonal predictions using the same theoretical base have got it wrong almost every time for years. We are meant to listen to a group who tell us a very distorted picture of what is going on, who claim competence and understanding far beyond what they demonstrate. As any real scientist understands, if a theory disagrees with observation, the theory is wrong. We need a new theory. The fact the ‘climate science’ community conspicuously ignores that fact, and spends an enormous effort to make excuses for poor models, or even changing the data, rather than admit that they simply don’t know what is happening puts them in opposition to the most basic principle of good science. While a lot of good science is undoubtedly done, many others disqualify themselves by that principle, and that pollutes the entire field, bringing science itself into disrepute, and damaging the ability of future science and technology to help protect and improve the environment. So I am skeptical when they say the sky is falling. It doesn’t look like it to me.

Other scientists often suggest reasons why the models may be wrong – the full influence of various-term ocean cycles and the full effects on cloud seeding from sunspots via galactic cosmic radiation deflection. These are better correlated through history than the outputs of the models. Many factors that can influence climate such as agricultural practices and socieconomic reactions to trends or subsidies are not included in the models. Much of the warming we have seen can be explained mostly by natural cycles overlaid on the continued warming as we recover from the last mini ice age. Some, but we don’t know how much, can be explained by a wide range of natural effects that are poorly understood and quantified – soil chemistry; forestry emissions; biological, chemical and physical environmental feedbacks and buffers. Some of it, but we don’t know how much, can be explained by changes in human originated CO2, changes in high atmosphere water vapour from aviation and space missions, CFCs, black carbon, and dozens of other human contributory factors, which are still not fully understood or quantified. Now, as we head into a likely prolonged solar minimum, some scientists are suggesting that a lengthy cooling period now looks to be as likely a short to medium term trend as further warming. I don’t pretend to understand all the science, but I don’t believe the AGW catastrophe people do either. I am a skeptic. I don’t deny that CO2 is a problem, nor that we have had warming, nor even that humans may account for some of that warming, but I sure as hell am not convinced we’re all about to cook if we don’t do something really big really fast.

I am quite pleased with my track record on environmentalism and green stuff. In my 2006 report Carbon, I laid out some of my views and I still stand by them. In it I said that increasing CO2 is an important issue but not a reason to panic, mainly because it will eventually take care of itself. We are not faced with imminent AGW catastrophe. The default future migration to other energy sources as they become cheaper will limit CO2 emissions in the long term, so we will be absolutely fine, provided that the proven ongoing damage from green policies can be limited. I analysed a lot of policies advocated by greens and found them likely to be counterproductive. I have sadly been proved right on many of those, but thankfully, some of the engineering solutions I recommended have since gained traction. I was blocked from publishing my 2006 report since it was seen as too controversial at the time. I published it almost unchanged when I went freelance at the end of 2007. I later used much of it in my book.

You can read it here: http://www.futurizon.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/carbonfeb08.pdf

Unlike catastrophic global warming advocates, I haven’t had to change my story every month. I first lectured at the World Futures Society conference on the pseudo-religious nature of green environmentalism way back in 1998 , and I am still saying the same now.

Green usually means wrong and usually means harming the environment by doing something that hasn’t been thought through properly but is based on dogma. I’d rather be someone who helps the environment and helps sustainability by doing proper engineering. I’d rather not have to make excuses in a few years when the historians analyse what was going on today and ask why so many people were taken in by predictions of AGW catastrophe, and why they advocated wasting so much money and impoverishing so many, damaging so many economies and so many lives to make so little impact on a problem that has in any case been exaggerated greatly.

I’m not a green futurist. I’d much rather be right.