Daily Archives: October 31, 2014

The future of X-People

There is an abundance of choice for X in my ‘future of’ series, but most options are sealed off. I can’t do naughty stuff because I don’t want my blog to get blocked so that’s one huge category gone. X-rays are boring, even though x-ray glasses using augmented reality… nope, that’s back to the naughty category again. I won’t stoop to cover X-Factor so that only leaves X-Men, as in the films, which I admit to enjoying however silly they are.

My first observation is how strange X-Men sounds. Half of them are female. So I will use X-People. I hate political correctness, but I hate illogical nomenclature even more.

My second one is that some readers may not be familiar with the X-Men so I guess I’d better introduce the idea. Basically they are a large set of mutants or transhumans with very varied superhuman or supernatural capabilities, most of which defy physics, chemistry or biology or all of them. Essentially low-grade superheroes whose main purpose is to show off special effects. OK, fun-time!

There are several obvious options for achieving X-People capabilities:

Genetic modification, including using synthetic biology or other biotech. This would allow people to be stronger, faster, fitter, prettier, more intelligent or able to eat unlimited chocolate without getting fat. The last one will be the most popular upgrade. However, now that we have started converging biotech with IT, it won’t be very long before it will be possible to add telepathy to the list. Thought recognition and nerve stimulation are two sides of the same technology. Starting with thought control of appliances or interfaces, the world’s networked knowledge would soon be available to you just by thinking about something. You could easily send messages using thought control and someone else could hear them synthesized into an earpiece, but later it could be direct thought stimulation. Eventually, you’d have totally shared consciousness. None of that defies biology or physics, and it will happen mid-century. Storing your own thoughts and effectively extending your mind into the cloud would allow people to make their minds part of the network resources. Telepathy will be an everyday ability for many people but only with others who are suitably equipped. It won’t become easy to read other people’s minds without them having suitable technology equipped too. It will be interesting to see whether only a few people go that route or most people. Either way, 2050 X-People can easily have telepathy, control objects around them just by thinking, share minds with others and maybe even control other people, hopefully consensually.

Nanotechnology, using nanobots etc to achieve possibly major alterations to your form, or to affect others or objects. Nanotechnology is another word for magic as far as many sci-fi writers go. Being able to rearrange things on an individual atom basis is certainly fuel for fun stories, but it doesn’t allow you to do things like changing objects into gold or people into stone statues. There are plenty of shape-shifters in sci-fi but in reality, chemical bonds absorb or release energy when they are changed and that limits how much change can be made in a few seconds without superheating an object. You’d also need a LOT of nanobots to change a whole person in a few seconds. Major changes in a body would need interim states to work too, since dying during the process probably isn’t desirable. If you aren’t worried about time constraints and can afford to make changes at a more gentle speed, and all you’re doing is changing your face, skin colour, changing age or gender or adding a couple of cosmetic wings, then it might be feasible one day. Maybe you could even change your skin to a plastic coating one day, since plastics can use atomic ingredients from skin, or you could add a cream to provide what’s missing. Also, passing some nanobots to someone else via a touch might become feasible, so maybe you could cause them to change involuntarily just by touching them, again subject to scope and time limits. So nanotech can go some way to achieving some X-People capabilities related to shape changing.

Moving objects using telekinesis is rather less likely. Thought controlling a machine to move a rock is easy, moving an unmodified rock or a dumb piece of metal just by concentrating on it is beyond any technology yet on the horizon. I can’t think of any mechanism by which it could be done. Nor can I think of ways of causing things to just burst into flames without using some sort of laser or heat ray. I can’t see either how megawatt lasers can be comfortably implanted in ordinary eyes. These deficiencies might be just my lack of imagination but I suspect they are actually not feasible. Quite a few of the X-Men have these sorts of powers but they might have to stay in sci-fi.

Virtual reality, where you possess the power in a virtual world, which may be shared with others. Well, many computer games give players supernatural powers, or take on various forms, and it’s obvious that many will do so in VR too. If you can imagine it, then someone can get the graphics chips to make it happen in front of your eyes. There are no hard physics or biology barriers in VR. You can do what you like. Shared gaming or socializing environments can be very attractive and it is not uncommon for people to spend almost every waking hour in them. Role playing lets people do things or be things they can’t in the real world. They may want to be a superhero, or they might just want to feel younger or look different or try being another gender. When they look in a mirror in the VR world, they would see the person they want to be, and that could make it very compelling compared to harsh reality. I suspect that some people will spend most of their free time in VR, living a parallel fantasy life that is as important to them as their ‘real’ one. In their fantasy world, they can be anyone and have any powers they like. When they share the world with other people or AI characters, then rules start to appear because different people have different tastes and desires. That means that there will be various shared virtual worlds with different cultures, freedoms and restrictions.

Augmented reality, where you possess the power in a virtual world but in ways that it interacts with the physical world is a variation on VR, where it blends more with reality. You might have a magic wand that changes people into frogs. The wand could be just a stick, but the victim could be a real person, and the change would happen only in the augmented reality. The scope of the change could be one-sided – they might not even know that you now see them as a frog, or it could again be part of a large shared culture where other people in the community now see and treat them as a frog. The scope of such cultures is very large and arbitrary cultural rules could apply. They could include a lot of everyday life – shopping, banking, socializing, entertainment, sports… That means effects could be wide-ranging with varying degrees of reality overlap or permanence. Depending on how much of their lives people live within those cultures, virtual effects could have quite real consequences. I do think that augmented reality will eventually have much more profound long-term effects on our lives than the web.

Controlled dreaming, where you can do pretty much anything you want and be in full control of the direction your dream takes. This is effectively computer-enhanced lucid dreaming with literally all the things you could ever dream of. But other people can dream of extra things that you may never have dreamt of and it allows you to explore those areas too.  In shared or connected dreams, your dreams could interact with those of others or multiple people could share the same dream. There is a huge overlap here with virtual reality, but in dreams, things don’t get the same level of filtration and reality is heavily distorted, so I suspect that controlled dreams will offer even more potential than VR. You can dream about being in VR, but you can’t make a dream in VR.

X-People will be very abundant in the future. We might all be X-People most of the time, routinely doing things that are pure sci-fi today. Some will be real, some will be virtual, some will be in dreams, but mostly, thanks to high quality immersion and the social power of shared culture, we probably won’t really care which is which.

 

 

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The future of water

 

When I started in futurology, one of the common beliefs was that future wars would be fought mainly over water supply. There are certainly some areas of the world where water-based wars could occur, but the main conflicts today are nothing to do with water at all.

Desalination used to be very expensive but new technology will reduce costs to not much more than standard fresh water sources. The discovery of graphene is a particularly important breakthrough because it allows water to go through easily but holds back impurities, even salt. Since graphene offers so many other benefits, research is proceeding enthusiastically to learn how to manufacture it in large quantities. Hot off the press today, http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/nl502399y shows that it is easily strong enough for high pressure reverse osmosis desalination. That will allow not just faster and cheaper desalination, but also cheaper and safer recycling, taking load off the system, allowing less water to go further and making it easier to get that water in the first place. Together, desalination and recycling will reduce load and improve supply sufficiently to remove the stress and potential conflicts – desalination and water purification plants will be a lot cheaper than wars. There will certainly be squabbles and political pressures applied sometimes, but I don’t see full-scale water wars as a significant threat. Technology has effectively solved this problem.

In humanitarian disasters, lack of availability of clean water is often a major problem, and many people die from diseases picked up by drinking very polluted water. http://nvireuk.wordpress.com/2012/02/14/graphene-drinking-straw/ was my own water purification idea a few years ago. (nvireuk doesn’t exist any more but the article is still visible). It isn’t designed to be an everyday replacement for a proper supply, but should work well in emergency situations.Graphene drinking straw

The absorbent material provides a smooth surface onto which to apply the graphene coating. The graphene coating filters out everything except the clean drinking water. The sponge then provides a reservoir from which to suck safe drinking water. When we get to the point that graphene can be produced cheaply and easily, this could save many lives in developing countries, in disaster zones, and even be useful to save carried weight for hikers, sailors and the military.

In the UK, we have lots of green types trying to make everyone use less water. Wasting is never a good idea, but really, we have no shortage of water here and the pressure to reduce usage is misdirected, there are plenty of real problems that need solved. We get abundant rainfall in the UK, and the only issue is cost of capture and storage against water-saving measures. It is a simple commercial trade-off, not a shortage of fresh water, most of which is allowed to go out to sea unused. There is no evidence that water companies make less profit as we save water, though they need less reservoir capacity and have lower treatment costs than otherwise, and in any case, leaks in their own system account for up to a third of the use of drinking water. The evidence is that they simply increase charges to maintain profits.

Water use for food production is likely to increase, but production will still tend to concentrate where resources are more readily available, such as prime agricultural land. Some hydroponics and vertical farms in cities will provide a small proportion of food. Meanwhile, whether there are fundamental shortages or not, better engineering will still mean lower requirements for resources than before right across industry. Where local shortages do exist, industry can simply recycle more. It is therefore hard to see any cause for concern for future water supply. There will always be local problems arising, but they can generally be solved.

In summary, there is too much panic about water in the future. We will face a lot of big problems, but water isn’t one of them.