Monthly Archives: September 2014

The future of Jelly Babies

Another frivolous ‘future of’, recycled from 10 years ago.

I’ve always loved Jelly Babies, (Jelly Bears would work as well if you prefer those) and remember that Dr Who used to eat them a lot too. Perhaps we all have a mean streak, but I’m sure most if us sometimes bite off their heads before eating the rest. But that might all change. I must stress at this point that I have never even spoken to anyone from Bassetts, who make the best ones, and I have absolutely no idea what plans they might have, and they might even strongly disapprove of my suggestions, but they certainly could do this if they wanted, as could anyone else who makes Jelly Babies or Jelly Bears or whatever.

There will soon be various forms of edible electronics. Some electronic devices can already be swallowed, including a miniature video camera that can take pictures all the way as it proceeds through your digestive tract (I don’t know whether they bother retrieving them though). Some plastics can be used as electronic components. We also have loads of radio frequency identity (RFID) tags around now. Some tags work in groups, recording whether they have been separated from each other at some point, for example. With nanotech, we will be able to make tags using little more than a few well-designed molecules, and few materials are so poisonous that a few molecules can do you much harm so they should be sweet-compliant. So extrapolating a little, it seems reasonable to expect that we might be able to eat things that have specially made RFID tags in them.  It would make a lot of sense. They could be used on fruit so that someone buying an apple could ingest the RFID tag on it without concern. And as well as work on RFID tags, many other electronic devices can be made very small, and out of fairly safe materials too.

So I propose that Jelly Baby manufacturers add three organic RFID tags to each jelly baby, (legs, head and body), some processing, and a simple communications device When someone bites the head off a jelly baby, the jelly baby would ‘know’, because the tags would now be separated. The other electronics in the jelly baby could then come into play, setting up a wireless connection to the nearest streaming device and screaming through the loudspeakers. It could also link to the rest of the jelly babies left in the packet, sending out a radio distress call. The other jelly babies, and any other friends they can solicit help from via the internet, could then use their combined artificial intelligence to organise a retaliatory strike on the person’s home computer. They might be able to trash the hard drive, upload viruses, or post a stroppy complaint on social media about the person’s cruelty.

This would make eating jelly babies even more fun than today. People used to spend fortunes going on safari to shoot lions. I presume it was exciting at least in part because there was always a risk that you might not kill the lion and it might eat you instead. With our environmentally responsible attitudes, it is no longer socially acceptable to hunt lions, but jelly babies could be the future replacement. As long as you eat them in the right order, with the appropriate respect and ceremony and so on, you would just enjoy eating a nice sweet. If you get it wrong, your life is trashed for the next day or two. That would level the playing field a bit.

Jelly Baby anyone?

The future of I

Me, myself, I, identity, ego, self, lots of words for more or less the same thing. The way we think of ourselves evolves just like everything else. Perhaps we are still cavemen with better clothes and toys. You may be a man, a dad, a manager, a lover, a friend, an artist and a golfer and those are all just descendants of caveman, dad, tribal leader, lover, friend, cave drawer and stone thrower. When you play Halo as Master Chief, that is not very different from acting or putting a tiger skin on for a religious ritual. There have always been many aspects of identity and people have always occupied many roles simultaneously. Technology changes but it still pushes the same buttons that we evolved hundred thousands of years ago.

Will we develop new buttons to push? Will we create any genuinely new facets of ‘I’? I wrote a fair bit about aspects of self when I addressed the related topic of gender, since self perception includes perceptions of how others perceive us and attempts to project chosen identity to survive passing through such filters:

Self is certainly complex. Using ‘I’ simplifies the problem. When you say ‘I’, you are communicating with someone, (possibly yourself). The ‘I’ refers to a tailored context-dependent blend made up of a subset of what you genuinely consider to be you and what you want to project, which may be largely fictional. So in a chat room where people often have never physically met, very often, one fictional entity is talking to another fictional entity, with each side only very loosely coupled to reality. I think that is different from caveman days.

Since chat rooms started, virtual identities have come a long way. As well as acting out manufactured characters such as the heroes in computer games, people fabricate their own characters for a broad range of kinds of ‘shared spaces’, design personalities and act them out. They may run that personality instance in parallel with many others, possibly dozens at once. Putting on an act is certainly not new, and friends easily detect acts in normal interactions when they have known a real person a long time, but online interactions can mean that the fictional version is presented it as the only manifestation of self that the group sees. With no other means to know that person by face to face contact, that group has to take them at face value and interact with them as such, though they know that may not represent reality.

These designed personalities may be designed to give away as little as possible of the real person wielding them, and may exist for a range of reasons, but in such a case the person inevitably presents a shallow image. Probing below the surface must inevitably lead to leakage of the real self. New personality content must be continually created and remembered if the fictional entity is to maintain a disconnect from the real person. Holding the in-depth memory necessary to recall full personality aspects and history for numerous personalities and executing them is beyond most people. That means that most characters in shared spaces take on at least some characteristics of their owners.

But back to the point. These fabrications should be considered as part of that person. They are an ‘I’ just as much as any other ‘I’. Only their context is different. Those parts may only be presented to subsets of the role population, but by running them, the person’s brain can’t avoid internalizing the experience of doing so. They may be partly separated but they are fully open to the consciousness of that person. I think that as augmented and virtual reality take off over the next few years, we will see their importance grow enormously. As virtual worlds start to feel more real, so their anchoring and effects in the person’s mind must get stronger.

More than a decade ago, AI software agents started inhabiting chat rooms too, and in some cases these ‘bots’ become a sufficient nuisance that they get banned. The front that they present is shallow but can give an illusion of reality. In some degree, they are an extension of the person or people that wrote their code. In fact, some are deliberately designed to represent a person when they are not present. The experiences that they have can’t be properly internalized by their creators, so they are a very limited extension to self. But how long will that be true? Eventually, with direct brain links and transhuman brain extensions into cyberspace, the combined experiences of I-bots may be fully available to consciousness just the same as first hand experiences.

Then it will get interesting. Some of those bots might be part of multiple people. People’s consciousnesses will start to overlap. People might collect them, or subscribe to them. Much as you might subscribe to my blog, maybe one day, part of one person’s mind, manifested as a bot or directly ‘published’, will become part of your mind. Some people will become absorbed into the experience and adopt so many that their own original personality becomes diluted to the point of disappearance. They will become just an interference pattern of numerous minds. Some will be so infectious that they will spread widely. For many, it will be impossible to die, and for many others, their minds will be spread globally. The hive minds of Dr Who, then later the Borg on Star Trek are conceptual prototypes but as with any sci-fi, they are limited by the imagination of the time they were conceived. By the time they become feasible, we will have moved on and the playground will be far richer than we can imagine yet.

So, ‘I’ has a future just as everything else. We may have just started to add extra facets a couple of decades ago, but the future will see our concept of self evolve far more quickly.


I got asked by a reader whether I worry about this stuff. Here is my reply:

It isn’t the technology that worries me so much that humanity doesn’t really have any fixed anchor to keep human nature in place. Genetics fixed our biological nature and our values and morality were largely anchored by the main religions. We in the West have thrown our religion in the bin and are already seeing a 30 year cycle in moral judgments which puts our value sets on something of a random walk, with no destination, the current direction governed solely by media and interpretation and political reaction to of the happenings of the day. Political correctness enforces subscription to that value set even more strictly than any bishop ever forced religious compliance. Anyone that thinks religion has gone away just because people don’t believe in God any more is blind.

Then as genetics technology truly kicks in, we will be able to modify some aspects of our nature. Who knows whether some future busybody will decree that a particular trait must be filtered out because it doesn’t fit his or her particular value set? Throwing AI into the mix as a new intelligence alongside will introduce another degree of freedom. So already several forces acting on us in pretty randomized directions that can combine to drag us quickly anywhere. Then the stuff above that allows us to share and swap personality? Sure I worry about it. We are like young kids being handed a big chemistry set for Christmas without the instructions, not knowing that adding the blue stuff to the yellow stuff and setting it alight will go bang.

I am certainly no technotopian. I see the enormous potential that the tech can bring and it could be wonderful and I can’t help but be excited by it. But to get that you need to make the right decisions, and when I look at the sorts of leaders we elect and the sorts of decisions that are made, I can’t find the confidence that we will make the right ones.

On the good side, engineers and scientists are usually smart and can see most of the issues and prevent most of the big errors by using comon industry standards, so there is a parallel self-regulatory system in place that politicians rarely have any interest in. On the other side, those smart guys unfortunately will usually follow the same value sets as the rest of the population. So we’re quite likely to avoid major accidents and blowing ourselves up or being taken over by AIs. But we’re unlikely to avoid the random walk values problem and that will be our downfall.

So it could be worse, but it could be a whole lot better too.


The future of high quality TV

I occasionally do talks on future TV and I generally ignore current companies and their recent developments because people can read about them anywhere. If it is already out there, it isn’t the future. Companies make announcements of technologies they expect to bring in soon, which is the future, but they don’t tend to announce things until they’re almost ready for market so tracking those is no use for long term futurology.

Thanks to Pauline Rigby on Twitter, I saw the following article about Dolby’s new High Dynamic Range TV:

High dynamic range allows light levels to be reproduced across a high dynamic range. I love tech, terminology is so damned intuitive. So hopefully we will see the darkest blacks and the brightest lights.

It looks a good idea! But it won’t be their last development. We hear that the best way to predict the future is to invent it, so here’s my idea: textured pixels.

As they say, there is more to vision than just resolution. There is more to vision than just light too, even though our eyes can only make images from incoming photons and human eyes can’t even differentiate their polarisation. Eyes are not just photon detectors, they also do some image pre-processing, and the brain does a great deal more processing, using all sorts of clues from the image context.

Today’s TV displays mostly use red, blue and green LCD pixels back-lit by LEDs, fluorescent tubes or other lighting. Some newer ones use LEDs as the actual pixels, demonstrating just how stupid it was to call LCD TVs with LED back-lighting LED TVs. Each pixel that results is a small light source that can vary in brightness. Even with the new HDR that will still be the case.

Having got HDR, I suggest that textured pixels should be the next innovation. Texture is a hugely important context for vision. Micromechanical devices are becoming commonplace, and some proteins are moving into nano-motor technology territory. It would be possible to change the direction of a small plate that makes up the area of the pixel. At smaller scales, ridges could be created on the pixel, or peaks and troughs. Even reversible chemical changes could be made. Technology can go right down to nanoscale, far below the ability of the eye to perceive it, so matching the eye’s capabilities to discern texture should be feasible in the near future. If a region of the display has a physically different texture than other areas, that is an extra level of reality that they eye can perceive. It could appear glossy or matt, rough or smooth, warm or cold. Linking pixels together across an area, it could far better convey movement than jerky video frames. Sure you can emulate texture to some degree using just light, but it loses the natural subtlety.

So HDR good, Textured HDR better.



The future of gardens

It’s been weeks since my last blog. I started a few but they need some more thought so as a catch-up, here is a nice frivolous topic, recycled from 1998.

Surely gardens are a place to get back to nature, to escape from technology? Well, when journalists ask to see really advanced technology, I take them to the garden. Humans still have a long way to go to catch up with what nature does all the time. A dragonfly catching smaller flies is just a hint of future warfare, and every flower is an exercise in high precision marketing, let alone engineering. But we will catch up, and even the stages between now and then will be fun.

Advanced garden technology today starts and ends with robotic lawn trimmers. I guess you could add the special materials used in garden tools, advanced battery tech, security monitoring, plant medications and nutrition. OK, there are already lots of advanced technologies in gardens, they just aren’t very glamorous. The fact is that our gardens already use a wide range of genetically enhanced plants and flowers, state of the art fertilizers and soil conditioners, fancy lawnmowers and automatic sprinkler systems. So what can we expect next?

Fiber optic plants already  add a touch of somewhat tacky enchantment to a garden and can be a good substitute for more conventional lighting. Home security uses video cameras and webcams and some rather fun documentaries have resulted from videoing pets and wild animals during the night. There will soon be many other appliances in the future garden, including the various armies of robots and micro-bots  doing a range of jobs from cutting the grass every time a blade gets more than 3 cm long, weeding, watering, pollination or carrying individual grains of fertilizer to the plants that need it. Others will fight with bugs or tidy up debris, or remove dying flowers to keep the garden looking pristine. They could even assist in propagation, burying seeds in just the right places and tending them while they become established. The garden pond may have robot ducks or fish just for fun.

Various sensors may be inserted into the ground around the garden, or smart dust just sprinkled randomly. These would warn when the ground is getting too dry and perhaps co-ordinate automatic sprinklers. They could also monitor the chemical composition, advising the gardener where to add which type of fertilizer or conditioner. In fact, when the price and size falls sufficiently, electronic sensors might well be mixed in with fertilizer and other garden care products.

With all this robot assistance, the human may design the garden and then just let the robots get on with the construction and maintenance. Or maybe just download a garden plan if they’re really lazy, or get the AI to download one.

Another obvious potential impact comes in the shape of genetic engineering. While designing the genome for custom plants is not quite as simple as assembling Lego blocks, we will nevertheless be able to pick and choose from a wide variety of characteristics available from anywhere in the plant and animal kingdom. We are promised blue roses that smell of designer perfumes, grass that only needs cut once a year and ground cover plants that actually grow faster than weeds. By messing about with genes we can thus change the appearance and characteristics of plants enormously, and while getting a company logo to appear on a flower petal might be beyond us, the garden could certainly look much more kaleidoscopic than today’s. We are already in the era where genetics has become a hobbyist activity, but so far the limits are pretty simple gene transfers to add fun things like fluorescence or light emission. Legislation will hopefully prevent people using such clubs to learn how to make viruses or bacteria for terrorist use.

In the long term we are not limited by the Lego bricks provided by nature. Nanotechnology will eventually allow us to produce inorganic ‘plants’ . You might buy a seed and drop it in the required place and it would grow into a predetermined structure just like an organic seed, taking the materials from the soil or air, or perhaps from some additives. However, there is almost no theoretical limit to the type of ‘plant’ that could be produced this way. Flowers with logos are possible, but so are video displays built into the flowers, so are garden gnomes that wander around or that actually fish in the pond. A wide range of static and dynamic ornamentation could add fun to every garden. Nanotechnology has so many possibilities, there are almost no ultimate limits to what can be done apart from the fundamental physics of materials. Power supplies for these devices could use solar, wind or thermal power.

On the patio, there is more scope for video displays in the paving and walls, to add color or atmosphere, and also to provide a recharging base for the robots without their own independent power supplies. Flat speakers could also be built into the walls, providing birdsong or other natural sounds that are otherwise declining in our gardens. Appropriately placed large display panels could simulate being on a beach while sunbathing in Nottingham (for non-Brits, Nottingham is a city not renowned for its sunshine, and very far from a beach).

All in all, the garden could become a place of relaxation, getting back to what we like best in nature, without all the boring bits looking after it in our few spare hours. Even before we retire, we will be able to enjoy the garden, instead of just weeding and cutting the grass.

1998 is a long time ago and I have lots of new ideas for the garden now, but time demands I leave them for a later blog.