Monthly Archives: July 2016

Carbethium, a better-than-scifi material

How to build one of these for real:


Halo light bridge, from

Or indeed one of these:



I recently tweeted that I had an idea how to make the glowy bridges and shields we’ve seen routinely in sci-fi games from Half Life to Destiny, the bridges that seem to appear in a second or two from nothing across a divide, yet are strong enough to drive tanks over, and able to vanish as quickly and completely when they are switched off. I woke today realizing that with a bit of work, that it could be the basis of a general purpose material to make the tanks too, and buildings and construction platforms, bridges, roads and driverless pod systems, personal shields and city defense domes, force fields, drones, planes and gliders, space elevator bases, clothes, sports tracks, robotics, and of course assorted weapons and weapon systems. The material would only appear as needed and could be fully programmable. It could even be used to render buildings from VR to real life in seconds, enabling at least some holodeck functionality. All of this is feasible by 2050.

Since it would be as ethereal as those Halo structures, I first wanted to call the material ethereum, but that name was already taken (for a 2014 block-chain programming platform, which I note could be used to build the smart ANTS network management system that Chris Winter and I developed in BT in 1993), and this new material would be a programmable construction platform so the names would conflict, and etherium is too close. Ethium might work, but it would be based on graphene and carbon nanotubes, and I am quite into carbon so I chose carbethium.

Ages ago I blogged about plasma as a 21st Century building material. I’m still not certain this is feasible, but it may be, and it doesn’t matter for the purposes of this blog anyway.

Around then I also blogged how to make free-floating battle drones and more recently how to make a Star Wars light-saber.

Carbethium would use some of the same principles but would add the enormous strength and high conductivity of graphene to provide the physical properties to make a proper construction material. The programmable matter bits and the instant build would use a combination of 3D interlocking plates, linear induction,  and magnetic wells. A plane such as a light bridge or a light shield would extend from a node in caterpillar track form with plates added as needed until the structure is complete. By reversing the build process, it could withdraw into the node. Bridges that only exist when they are needed would be good fun and we could have them by 2050 as well as the light shields and the light swords, and light tanks.

The last bit worries me. The ethics of carbethium are the typical mixture of enormous potential good and huge potential for abuse to bring death and destruction that we’re learning to expect of the future.

If we can make free-floating battle drones, tanks, robots, planes and rail-gun plasma weapons all appear within seconds, if we can build military bases and erect shield domes around them within seconds, then warfare moves into a new realm. Those countries that develop this stuff first will have a huge advantage, with the ability to send autonomous robotic armies to defeat enemies with little or no risk to their own people. If developed by a James Bond super-villain on a hidden island, it would even be the sort of thing that would enable a serious bid to take over the world.

But in the words of Professor Emmett Brown, “well, I figured, what the hell?”. 2050 values are not 2016 values. Our value set is already on a random walk, disconnected from any anchor, its future direction indicated by a combination of current momentum and a chaos engine linking to random utterances of arbitrary celebrities on social media. 2050 morality on many issues will be the inverse of today’s, just as today’s is on many issues the inverse of the 1970s’. Whatever you do or however politically correct you might think you are today, you will be an outcast before you get old:

We’re already fucked, carbethium just adds some style.

Graphene combines huge tensile strength with enormous electrical conductivity. A plate can be added to the edge of an existing plate and interlocked, I imagine in a hexagonal or triangular mesh. Plates can be designed in many diverse ways to interlock, so that rotating one engages with the next, and reversing the rotation unlocks them. Plates can be pushed to the forward edge by magnetic wells, using linear induction motors, using the graphene itself as the conductor to generate the magnetic field and the design of the structure of the graphene threads enabling the linear induction fields. That would likely require that the structure forms first out of graphene threads, then the gaps between filled by mesh, and plates added to that to make the structure finally solid. This would happen in thickness as well as width, to make a 3D structure, though a graphene bridge would only need to be dozens of atoms thick.

So a bridge made of graphene could start with a single thread, which could be shot across a gap at hundreds of meters per second. I explained how to make a Spiderman-style silk thrower to do just that in a previous blog:

The mesh and 3D build would all follow from that. In theory that could all happen in seconds, the supply of plates and the available power being the primary limiting factors.

Similarly, a shield or indeed any kind of plate could be made by extending carbon mesh out from the edge or center and infilling. We see that kind of technique used often in sci-fi to generate armor, from lost in Space to Iron Man.

The key components in carbetheum are 3D interlocking plate design and magnetic field design for the linear induction motors. Interlocking via rotation is fairly easy in 2D, any spiral will work, and the 3rd dimension is open to any building block manufacturer. 3D interlocking structures are very diverse and often innovative, and some would be more suited to particular applications than others. As for linear induction motors, a circuit is needed to produce the travelling magnetic well, but that circuit is made of the actual construction material. The front edge link between two wires creates a forward-facing magnetic field to propel the next plates and convey enough intertia to them to enable kinetic interlocks.

So it is feasible, and only needs some engineering. The main barrier is price and material quality. Graphene is still expensive to make, as are carbon nanotubes, so we won’t see bridges made of them just yet. The material quality so far is fine for small scale devices, but not yet for major civil engineering.

However, the field is developing extremely quickly because big companies and investors can clearly see the megabucks at the end of the rainbow. We will have almost certainly have large quantity production of high quality graphene for civil engineering by 2050.

This field will be fun. Anyone who plays computer games is already familiar with the idea. Light bridges and shields, or light swords would appear much as in games, but the material would likely  be graphene and nanotubes (or maybe the newfangled molybdenum equivalents). They would glow during construction with the plasma generated by the intense electric and magnetic fields, and the glow would be needed afterward to make these ultra-thin physical barriers clearly visible,but they might become highly transparent otherwise.

Assembling structures as they are needed and disassembling them just as easily will be very resource-friendly, though it is unlikely that carbon will be in short supply. We can just use some oil or coal to get more if needed, or process some CO2. The walls of a building could be grown from the ground up at hundreds of meters per second in theory, with floors growing almost as fast, though there should be little need to do so in practice, apart from pushing space vehicles up so high that they need little fuel to enter orbit. Nevertheless, growing a  building and then even growing the internal structures and even furniture is feasible, all using glowy carbetheum. Electronic soft fabrics, cushions and hard surfaces and support structures are all possible by combining carbon nanotubes and graphene and using the reconfigurable matter properties carbethium convents. So are visual interfaces, electronic windows, electronic wallpaper, electronic carpet, computers, storage, heating, lighting, energy storage and even solar power panels. So is all the comms and IoT and all the smart embdedded control systems you could ever want. So you’d use a computer with VR interface to design whatever kind of building and interior furniture decor you want, and then when you hit the big red button, it would appear in front of your eyes from the carbethium blocks you had delivered. You could also build robots using the same self-assembly approach.

If these structures can assemble fast enough, and I think they could, then a new form of kinetic architecture would appear. This would use the momentum of the construction material to drive the front edges of the surfaces, kinetic assembly allowing otherwise impossible and elaborate arches to be made.

A city transport infrastructure could be built entirely out of carbethium. The linear induction mats could grow along a road, connecting quickly to make a whole city grid. Circuit design allows the infrastructure to steer driverless pods wherever they need to go, and they could also be assembled as required using carbethium. No parking or storage is needed, as the pod would just melt away onto the surface when it isn’t needed.

I could go to town on military and terrorist applications, but more interesting is the use of the defense domes. When I was a kid, I imagined having a house with a defense dome over it. Lots of sci-fi has them now too. Domes have a strong appeal, even though they could also be used as prisons of course. A supply of carbetheum on the city edges could be used to grow a strong dome in minutes or even seconds, and there is no practical limit to how strong it could be. Even if lasers were used to penetrate it, the holes could fill in in real time, replacing material as fast as it is evaporated away.

Anyway, lots of fun. Today’s civil engineering projects like HS2 look more and more primitive by the day, as we finally start to see the true potential of genuinely 21st century construction materials. 2050 is not too early to expect widespread use of carbetheum. It won’t be called that – whoever commercializes it first will name it, or Google or MIT will claim to have just invented it in a decade or so, so my own name for it will be lost to personal history. But remember, you saw it here first.

Negativity has to end soon

There is much negativity about the future at the moment but post-Brexit, I am optimistic about our future. It looks better than it did before the referendum. Negativity spoils the short term but not the long term. Even if the next PM is rubbish – and once again it is a choice between bad and useless – they will be replaced by a better one in due course. Short term quite bad, long term very good.

The UK voted to leave the EU because most people thought we would be better leaving it, including me. Many commentators seek to project their own prejudices onto those who voted the other way, but all we know is that 52% voted to leave the EU; we don’t know why each one made that decision. Counting the votes told how many wanted to stay or leave the EU and only that; it can’t be mined to derive details of the mindset leading to that vote. It is not actually reasonable to infer that someone is a racist selfish moron from a leave vote. They might be, but you can’t derive that from the vote itself; you’d need other data. I’m not interested in debating all the various opinion polls about possible reasons, but it seem to me that there is little in common between typical poll stats for reasons given and the straw men put up by some remainers to demonise leavers. Demonisation just increases division.

Leavers voted leave for diverse baskets of reasons and attitudes, but the reasonable hope of probably most of them was that Britain could survive and prosper outside the EU, though economic reasons were usually secondary to escaping an undemocratic EU that was going the wrong way. Unfortunately we don’t currently have the competent and well-intentioned politicians and economic leaders we need to achieve the full potential so that needs fixed. We have some, but many seem to think it is more important to sulk in the corner, stomp their feet, do all they can to harm the economy, stir up division and encourage hatred, resentment and general bad feeling instead of putting their effort into making the most of a situation they didn’t want. They’d seemingly rather live in misery so they could say ‘I told you so’, but for some it might be that they actually don’t know how to do their jobs outside of the EU. They need to learn fast or be replaced.

That was to be expected, but it is a passing phase. Eventually, they’ll stop sulking and start doing the job they’re paid to do, or they’ll be replaced by others who can and will. Then the future freedom, prosperity and opportunity will come, slowly but surely, and it will become clear that the right decision was made and people will wonder what all the fuss was about. The UK will prosper, and the EU will either steer away from an embryonic Unites States of Europe towards a proper Common Market or evaporate via the domino effect, regardless of Tusk’s silly remark today that ‘there will be no sequel to Brexit’, which I suspect will go down as one of the worst predictions in political history.

Already, countries around the world are starting to discuss trade agreements with us. There is already enthusiasm for a new trading block of free and independent countries to deal with the EU. Currency and stocks and shares were always expected to take a short term hit during a period of uncertainty, and higher interest rates for out national debt was always expected to increase. Those are short term costs of a bigger long term benefit. Politicians, economists and bankers should work to accelerate the recovery and provide momentum to take us into improved prosperity. Nothing can be gained by moaning about how awful it is, exaggerating gloom or talking the economy down.

The media never accepts responsibility for anything, but they too play a part in the talking down and general negativity we’re seeing now. They don’t simply report things, they add huge negative spin and bias to make their own political points, to try to prevent Brexit or to reduce the changes and consequent benefits it could provide. They have also played a large role in the election of the new PM, strongly favouring one candidate (May) while undermining all the others. When the dust settles, it will be an excellent time to review the terms of existence of both the BBC and Channel 4 and especially to restore the impartiality the BBC once was famed for. Using the BBC or Channel 4 News as data sources at the moment is the intellectual equivalent of trying to survive by drinking swamp water full of decomposing sheep. Political bias in paid-for news channels is to be expected, but bias in organisations paid for equally by everyone is not acceptable, and if they can’t or won’t police themselves, then external policing should be imposed.

Some negativity was always expected after the referendum, whichever way it went. It must be just a short term hit, not become a way of life. We must not let it become the norm. Sulking benefits nobody.






Politics needs change, not unity

The UK is suffering division, so our politicians and media are calling for unity. It is old wisdom that you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. The old-style parties no longer represent the people. Some Conservative ministers could just as easily belong to Labour. There was very little to distinguish Cameron from Blair, and Theresa May is another Blairite. What’s the point of a Conservative Party that’s half full of MPs that could as easily have stood under a Labour banner?

With disintegrations, resignations and rebellions all round, this is a better time than ever to reform the parties. We need a clear spread of easily distinguishable and well-focused alternatives to choose from. The old main parties adopted indistinguishable values to capture the same chunk of the electorate, only differing in competence, so voters who didn’t share those values felt disenfranchised and responded by moving to the fringes. In a referendum where people had to choose between quite different value sets, all of the existing parties except UKIP and the vast majority of politicians occupied the same space, and collectively only actually represented 48% of the population. The important views of half the electorate were shared by only a quarter of politicians, while the other half had three quarters, or three times as much representation. Now that the referendum has been won, UKIP has no lingering purpose so could also be thrown into the mix to redesign new parties.

Having half of the population represented by three times as many MPs as the other half is bad democracy, but instead of trying to take a lead by fixing it, it looks likely that the Conservatives will try to preserve the unfairness by selecting Theresa May, rambling on about the need to restore unity. Unity of the half that are represented, while still keeping the other disenfranchised? That’s how revolutions and civil wars start, probably, though history isn’t my strong point.

We have the Greens and Corbyn offering a clear-cut far left. A few sacked UKIP candidates and some ex-BNP people could field a tiny far right too. Labour, LibDems and Conservatives are all badly in need of reinvention, while UKIP has done its job so can also be thrown in the mix. They should all discuss things with one another until they finally discover what their real differences are, and form new parties. Usefully, they could also agree that they actually all share some values in common. Everyone wants fairness, nobody wants racism, everyone wants to end poverty, nobody wants an unhealthy environment or pollution, everyone wants good health care and to look after the ill, the weak, the disadvantaged, everyone wants to educate kids and to make a strong economy. If they disagree on how to accomplish these common goals, then they should work out clear differences that can be offered to the electorate. If differences on such issues are minor, then they could agree to use cross party committees to manage those things and focus elections on their bigger differences.

If that was all accomplished, politicians would stand for clear values and clear approaches. They would no longer have to pretend that they want exactly the same things and avoiding every answering a question.

Our parties served the country well in the 20th century. It has become absolutely clear that they are not suited to the 21st. We do not need unity and a return to normal, because that normal only worked for a fraction of the population. We don’t need any more Blairs, any more fudges, any more pretense. We do need a total remix, a redesign, a re-crystallization along new axes, with very different parties that different people can vote for.

On Independence Day, remember that the most important independence is independence of thought

Division is the most obvious observation of the West right now. The causes of it are probably many but one of the biggest must be the reinforcement of views that people experience due to today’s media and especially social media. People tend to read news from sources that agree with them, and while immersed in a crowd of others sharing the same views, any biases they had quickly seem to be the norm. In the absence of face to face counterbalances, extreme views may be shared, normalized, and drift towards extremes is enabled. Demonisation of those with opposing views often follows. This is one of the two main themes of my new book Society Tomorrow, the other being the trend towards 1984, which is somewhat related since censorship follows from division..

It is healthy to make sure you are exposed to views across the field. When you regularly see the same news with very different spins, and notice which news doesn’t even appear in some channels, it makes you less vulnerable to bias. If you end up disagreeing with some people, that is fine; better to be right than popular. Other independent thinkers won’t dump you just because you disagree with them. Only clones will, and you should ask whether they matter that much.

Bias is an error source, it is not healthy. You can’t make good models of the world if you can’t filter bias, you can’t make good predictions. Independent thought is healthy, even when it is critical or skeptical. It is right to challenge what you are told, not to rejoice that it agrees with what you already believed. Learning to filter bias from the channels you expose yourself to means your conclusions, your thoughts, and your insights are your own. Your mind is your own, not just another clone.

Theoretical freedom means nothing if your mind has been captured and enslaved.

Celebrate Independence Day by breaking free from your daily read, or making sure you start reading other sources too. Watch news channels that you find supremely irritating sometimes. Follow people you profoundly disagree with. Stay civil, but more importantly, stay independent. Liberate your consciousness, set your mind free.


Cellular blockchain, cellular bitcoin

Bitcoin has been around a while and the blockchain foundations on which it is built are extending organically into other areas.

Blockchain is a strongly encrypted distributed database, a ledger that records every transaction. That’s all fine, it works OK, and it doesn’t need fixed.

However, for some applications or new cryptocurrencies, there may be some benefit in making a cellular blockchain to limit database size, protect against network outage, and harden defenses against any local decryption. These may become important as cyber-terrorism increases and as quantum computing develops. They would also be more suited to micro-transactions and micro-currencies.

If you’ve made it this far, you almost certainly don’t need any further explanation.